Prophets in Perspective by B. Davie Napier
B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville, 1962, 1963. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: Prophet and Prophets
What is to be said of the prophet as he appears as person, even professional person, in the life and times of ancient Israel? What are his significant connections, associations, relationships, within the institutional complexes of Israelite society? What are for us the most instructive, if debated, areas in the prophets’ relationships?
The Hebrew terms hozeh and ro’eh are both properly translated "seer." Both terms appear in contexts suggesting some parallel in function with the prophet. Outside Chronicles which is relatively late and where, in any case, no significant occurrence of the terms appears, the term hozeh appears six times and ro’eh seven. It is hozeh in II Sam. 24:11 (of uncertain date, but not conventionally assigned to the "A" or early source in Samuel) where "the prophet Gad" is "David’s seer." In II Kings 17:13 prophet and seer are together to warn Israel and Judah. In Isa. 29:10 the characteristic Hebrew poetic parallelism of members puts prophet and seer again in the same essential function:
For the Lord has poured out upon you
In the same way, Mic. 3:7 couples seers and diviners (from a root qsm)
The seers shall be disgraced
The fifth occurrence of hozeh is in Amos 7:12, in the narrative of Amos’ encounter with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. Here, too, the effect is a near-equating of seer and prophet:
"And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there. . . .’"The verb "prophesy" is the common denominative form (probably from nabi’) Clearly, it is the appropriate function of the seer to act the part of the prophet. Whatever else is involved in Amos’ response in vs. 14, he means to repudiate Amaziah’s implicit charge of professionalism, the strong insinuation that Amos has mouthed merely the "party line" of the seers and prophets.
In all these occurrences of hozeh, with the single exception of Mic. 3:7, seer and prophet are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable.
The second term for seer, ro’eh appears in Isa. 30:10 in parallelism with the first, hozeh. Here is a literal translation of the verse, in which the two terms are equated.
"For they are a rebellious people . . ." (vs. 9) :
If there ever existed any real distinction between the two terms for seer, it is nowhere apparent in the Old Testament.
If, now, we recall again the statement of I Sam. 9:9 that "he who is now called a prophet [nabi’] was formerly called a seer [ro’eh]" we must conclude that prophet and seer were understood as exercising in common the function of seeing - i.e., apprehending that which is not in the normal course accessible -- and speaking forth, proclaiming, that which is thus seen and apprehended. The R.S.V. properly renders Isa. 30:10 not in literal translation but in sympathetic and accurate interpretation:
For they are a rebellious people . . .
The seer-prophet apprehends not necessarily that which is smooth, but emphatically that which is right. His function, prophetism, is never reception alone, but reception-articulation: To see is to prophesy!
The designation of Samuel as seer in the old narrative of I Sam. 91 and the parenthetical statement of 9:9 -- inserted later into the account -- that the seer becomes in time the prophet make it clear that the office of seer existed among Israelites before that of prophet. The biblical evidence we have just surveyed points to a period of coexistence of seer and prophet and a popular tendency to equate the two offices. Israelite prophetism, which began to emerge as an institution in the tenth century, is indebted to the office of seer, but also, as we are about to see, to the very different phenomenon of ancient Canaanite prophetism, long current in the land when Israel entered and settled there.
Mature Israelite prophetism was an appropriation, then, transacted on the ground of Canaan over a period of several centuries. Its unique character, however, was shaped neither by seer nor by Canaanite prophet, but by the nature of Yahwism and the Yahweh faith. This is to affirm that, while the institution of Israelite prophetism developed relatively slowly and attained maturity relatively late, the essence of the prophetic was present from the Mosaic era, inherent in the faith of ancient Israel from her formation as a people out of Egyptian slavery.
Old Testament prophetism in its development from the tenth to the sixth centuries represents a striking refinement and transformation of both the office of seer and the institution of Canaanite prophetism.
The Contagious Prophet
Classical Israelite prophetism is related to and influenced by the seer. It is also indebted to a kind of prophetic role and person at home in Canaan long before Israel and from early times identified by the term nabi’, prophet. This prophetism in its Canaanite expression first appears in the Old Testament in the old narrative of I Sam. 9:1-10:16. In the hope of locating his father’s lost asses, Saul and his servant have consulted the seer, Samuel, who has not only reassured them on the score of the animals but has also anointed Saul "to be prince over his people Israel" (10:1) As sign and token of the validity of Samuel’s act Saul is informed in advance of what is to take place, and it happens precisely as Samuel has said it would:
When they came to Gibeah, behold, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them. And when all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, "What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?" . . . Therefore it became a proverb, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (10:10-12.)
I Sam. 19:18-24 repeats the proverb in a more dramatic setting, with marked emphasis upon the highly contagious nature of the seizure and an elaboration of its manifestation. Saul, in pursuit of the now outlawed David, who has taken refuge with Samuel, sends a company of men to capture David. "And when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied." (19:20.) Two subsequent companies are dispatched, and both remain, seized by the same contagion. Now Saul comes: "And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he too stripped off his clothes, And he too prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night. Hence it is said, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’" (19:23-24.)
The relationship between the narrative of I Sam. 10 and that of chapter 19 is uncertain. Source critics have commonly seen the second as a duplicate account, a later and therefore allegedly unauthentic explanation of the proverb. For our purpose here, this question is irrelevant. Both passages may be taken, regardless of relationship and date, as valid commentary on the phenomenon of Canaanite prophetism.
This prophetism is patently a totally different office from that of the seer. Not now, certainly not yet, could one equate seer and prophet. If, as an actual item of pragmatic history, Samuel functioned both as seer (I Sam. 9) and ecstatic prophet (I Sam. 19) , the roles remained separate -- they were in no sense interdependent. Seer and prophet are as yet of very different stuff. The seer appears as an office long familiar and thoroughly at home among Israelites, quite conceivably dating from pre-Canaan times, but this earliest reference to contagious prophecy conveys the atmosphere of the alien. Israel is not at home with it, and an unmistakable Israelite, this son of Kish, graces it strangely indeed: "Is Saul also among the prophets?" This institution has not yet been appropriated by Israelites, or, if in process of appropriation, it has not yet been domiciled and certainly not yet integrated into the pattern of familiar Israelite existence.
What, here, is the content of the noun "prophet" and the verb "prophesy"? Observe first that the phenomenon of prophecy is induced: Samuel says to Saul, "You will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying" (I Sam. 10:5) The ecstatic emotional state is at least in part produced and maintained by the use of music. Observe further that a total transformation in personality occurs: "You shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man" (vs. 6) Again, this state of prophesying is created and sustained as a group phenomenon. It can, further, be spread by contagion; it can be "caught." It is popularly interpreted as seizure by the deity, in which regard the prevailing, but not exclusive (10:6 reads "Spirit of Yahweh") , divine name employed is the weak and colorless ‘elohim. This is in any case a different kind of seizure from the charisma, the more or less permanent "endowment" of a chosen person by the Spirit of Yahweh (e.g., I Sam. 16:13 if.) , a phenomenon which belongs centrally to Israel and Yahwism.
The brilliant description of the frantic performance of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in I Kings 18 gives further definition to the phenomenon of contagious, ecstatic prophecy. The contest between the prophets of Baal and the prophet of Yahweh (Elijah) is under way, and Baal’s prophets have induced the seizure and are sustaining it in an effort to evoke a tangible response from their deity. Crying "O Baal, answer us!" they perform a kind of limping dance, and as Elijah taunts them, their wild performance reaches its emotionally uncontrolled peak when they "cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out upon them" (I Kings 18:28) Noon, Baal’s best and strongest hour, passes, but the prophets of Baal -- note the language of the text -- ’ ‘continue to prophesy" (vs. 29) The R.S.N. is forced to interpret: "they raved on." "The verb [from the same root as nab i’, "prophet"] can only be paraphrased in Christian language, which confines ‘prophecy’ to the higher levels of revelation." 3 But precisely so we are eloquently informed on the content of this original, alien, Canaanite phenomenon of prophet and prophetism. This is the prophet. This is his prophecy. This is to prophesy!
Now, if this is a far remove from the content of "seer" and "seeing," it is at least an equally far remove from the prophet and the prophetism exemplified even in Ezekiel, to say nothing of Isaiah! Whatever may be the ultimate judgment with respect to the factor of "ecstasy" in the great prophets of Israel, it cannot legitimately be argued that their prophetism is in continuum with and perpetuates this phenomenon of Canaanite prophecy. Where is any significant biblical evidence that classical Israelite prophetism was predominantly manifested in a temporary and artificially induced state; that it was productive of a totally transformed personality; that it was a group-created-and-sustained state of emotion and, as such, a highly contagious condition induced by violent seizure and involving the absolute suspension of rationality?
It has, of course, occasionally been so argued.4 The interpretation of Old Testament prophetism as an essentially ecstatic phenomenon differing not at all in this respect from the ecstatic prophecy characteristic of the ancient Near and Middle East continues to be advocated, especially by those who are persuaded of prevailing ancient Eastern institutional uniformity.5
It would be out of place here to discuss the scope and variation in interpretation of the relationship between the great prophets and the phenomenon of contagious prophecy. I can see no evidence justifying the claim that the two are essentially identical. If the term "ecstasy" is applied at all to the giant figures in the succession from Amos to Second Isaiah, I would want to insist on Lindblom’s distinction between ecstasy of the absorption type (involving loss of rational control) and that of the concentration type, and a very clear further distinction between the circumspective religion of the prophets and the more common ancient Eastern type of introspective, mystical piety. Unio mystica, that state in which the mystic is absorbed into union with the deity, is quite alien to Israel. The ecstatic element in classical prophetism, insofar as it exists at all, is largely confined to tile prophets’ profound concentration, which may result in the suspension of normal consciousness and the total, if brief, interruption of normal sense perception.6
The Role of Form Criticism
Form-critical studies in the prophets have thrown considerable light on the question of the ecstatic factor in prophetism. The analysis of a characteristic prophetic form of utterance (German: Gattung) defines both the subject of "ecstatic" concentration and at the same time the nature and significance of the unmistakably non-ecstatic; that is, the role of the prophet’s normally functioning senses. Form criticism points out a characteristic prophetic utterance in two intimately related parts. The first is the speech of invective (German: Scheltrede), often extended and eloquent, commonly passionate and bitter, and always portraying, although in different ways, the mind of the prophet, the man the prophet. The second part, immediately following, is the word of judgment (German: Drohwort (vs. 16), "Threat" is not quite adequate; perhaps "contingent judgment") This is brief, pointed, powerful, devastating, sometimes terrifyingly impersonal, and characteristically devoid of personal-human animus. These repeatedly conjoined parts, the prophet’s free invective as extended prelude to the fearfully compact pronouncement of divine judgment, constitute a basic pattern of prophetic speech.
As an illustration consider Isaiah’s familiar prophetic outburst that begins, "Ho, Assyria, rod of my wrath!" in 10:5 ff. The invective is here remarkably extended and continues with eloquent vigor through vs. 15. All this is the prophet’s own utterance, and it would be absurd to contend that this (vss. 5-15) is the product of a supranormal psychological experience, the articulation of ecstatic reception. Here one witnesses a deftly balanced interplay of intellect and emotion, and these not merely controlled, but highly disciplined, responsive, obedient. The range in verbal mode testifies both to the vast breadth of prophetic sensitivities and the high order of prophetic intelligence. Here one is confronted by responses at once brilliant and intuitive from a succession of perspectives: Yahweh, Initiating Covenanter with David-Zion-Judah (vss. 5-6) ; an astute political observer who does not question the Lordship of Yahweh in history (vs. 7) ; a personified Assyria, with artful dramatic identification (vss. 8-11) ; the same faith-political position of vs. 7 enunciated again, now in castigation of pride (vs. 12; this is a central theme of Isaiah) ; Assyria again, characterized in her own words and prophetically condemned in highly deft verbal form:
My hand has found like a nest
So to a conclusion in the full power of the prophet’s own devastating sarcasm:
Shall the ax vaunt itself over him who hews with it,
By what possible definition of ecstasy can the skillfully combined elements of articulation in this speech be explained?
This is not to say that ecstasy in the sense of supranormal concentration plays no role. All this, in now conventional form-critical analysis, is a part of, a prelude to, and called forth by, the word of judgment, the Drohwort (vs. 16) , which may very well have come to the prophet in ecstasy, in ecstatic concentration. The prophet’s own extended speech of invective (vss. 5-15) represents his considered application, timing. and interpretation of the Word of Yahweh (the Drohwort, vs. 16) which he hears, sees, or, involving all the senses directed totally inward, perceives. Psychologically, of course, this is the most important part of the prophetic utterance.
In the relationship between these two primary and inseparable parts of prophetic preaching the controversy over the role and nature of ecstasy is resolved. The prophet receives the actual dabar, the real Word of Yahweh, in ecstatic concentration. This is a primary form of the biblical phenomenon of revelation. The Word thus received is not always precisely intelligible, however, in a process of recall which requires its appropriation in the rational mode. The prophet, in consequence, feels himself called upon by means of the speech of invective to interpret and direct, to point and apply the word of judgment, the revealed Word of Yahweh. This he does, in most glaring contrast with the ecstatic state of the Word’s reception, in a process of deliberation. The compact and, certainly on occasion, enigmatic divine Word is mulled over, reflected upon, wrestled with. This process, which involves the full range of the prophet’s best rational powers, becomes his prophetic work, his ministerial task, his professional exercise. It is his prophetic obligation to determine how, in what context, when and to whom, and in what way most effectively this word of judgment is to be delivered. To this end he composes the speech of invective and places it immediately before the received word, characteristically marking the transition with some such particle as "therefore" (laken):
Therefore, the Lord, Yahweh of hosts
The conventional literary-critical judgment that the following verses (17-19) were not part of the original unit is doubtless correct, but the standard critical conclusions on vs. 16 -- fragmentary, a corrupt text, distorted in transmission, et cetera -- result from the failure to recognize the difference in form and the functional relationship between Scheltrede and Drohwort, the deliberated and composed invective called forth by the received Word, the divine threat or judgment.
This smaller unit (vs. 16) toward which the whole passage is pointed 7 is the reproduction -- insofar as such is capable of reproduction -- of the word received in prophetic concentration/ecstasy. It differs radically in verbal temperament from the speech of invective. What is perceived (is it heard or seen, or must we say simply that it is sensed?) is a wasting sickness among warriors and a burning fire beneath a prideful magnificence. Whose warriors? Whose pride? Why is this so? How, when, and to what purpose shall it be proclaimed? If the wasting and the burning, the sickness and the fire, are undefined certainties out of ecstasy, it is the prophet’s hard task by sweat and tears to define the symbols of vision/audition and to determine and declare their meaning. This is not to exclude inspiration and revelation from the task, but this part of the prophetic function, the speech of invective, certainly does not have its origin in any kind of ecstasy.
The prophet no doubt underwent what not only we but also his own generation would see as outside the limits of normal experience. Perhaps in none of the great prophets was there a total absence of the supranormal psychological manifestation; but both form and content of Israelite prophetism stand in restraint of persistent tendencies to overstress the ecstatic element in the prophet.
The Institutional Prophet
There is no doubt that associations of prophets existed in ancient Israel. Groups or guilds of prophets are attested over the whole range of the history of the kingdoms from the time of Saul in the eleventh century B.C. until the fall of Jerusalem in the early sixth century B.C. Nor is there any question that these associated professional prophets were related to the cultus and/or the court and regularly discharged certain cultic professional duties. Functionaries known as prophets were cultically institutionalized precisely as were the priests and other sanctuary personnel. It appears certain that such prophets were attached to the temple in Jerusalem and that some time before the work of the Chronicler (Ezra-Nehemiah, I and II Chronicles in the fourth or third century B.C.) the temple prophets became temple singers and merged with the other Levitical orders.8
The function of prophetism as institutionalized at sanctuary or court is not in question. The real question has to do with the extent of this association and the possibility that we actually have traces in the canonical Old Testament of the work of such institutional prophets. The real question has further to do with the possibility that the great prophets of the Old Testament lived out their careers in such associations and were in fact themselves such associated cult functionaries. This aspect of the question of the relationship of the great prophets to cult prophetism remains complex and thoroughly vexed. We must reject extreme positions which seek to clarify all possible uncertainties in Old Testament prophetism by analogy with associations of cultic personnel in ancient Mesopotamia, the broader West Semitic areas, and in Arabia. This basic assumption of a uniform religious phenomenology over the ancient East leads ultimately to the conclusion that the great prophets, without exception, are to be interpreted essentially and dominantly in terms of the common category of cult personnel. Not only Jeremiah and Ezekiel -- whose possible official relationship to the temple has long been recognized in the fact that both were priests before they were prophets -- but also Amos and Isaiah, are in this extreme position alleged to show complete identity with earlier cult prophets.9
It is in order now to look again at Amos 7:14 and to repeat in the present discussion a comment already made with reference to contagious prophecy: "Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.’" In denying that he is -- or ‘was" -- a prophet, it is possible that Amos means to reject any insinuation that he is himself an ecstatic prophet or a professional cult prophet, and at the same time, to dissociate himself from and repudiate the cult prophetism at the Bethel sanctuary, over which Amaziah presided.
The cultic-institutional interpretation of the great prophets has been greatly in vogue in the past few decades. The attempt to fit biblical prophetism into this category has been stimulated not only by studies of cult festivals all over the ancient Near East, but also by the alleged reconstruction of Israel’s celebration of the New Year and the Enthronement Day of the sacral king -- that is, the king in the role of Yahweh. This is claimed to have been achieved by the application of the principle of environmental analogy and by form-critical analysis of certain Old Testament texts, especially in the Psalms. Even the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 6) has been analyzed in such a way as to make of the prophet a cult functionary whose call experience can be understood only in the terms and images of the annual festival of the enthronement of the sacral king centering in the Jerusalem temple. In this view a basic cultic mode of thought, common to the ancient Middle Eastern culture, is seen. Isaiah becomes one with the cult prophet, his words reflecting living cultic conditions, the core of which is the institution of sacral kingship.10
The mass of alleged evidence in support of such identity is at first glance, impressive, but its structure, upon examination, appears at points to be insubstantial. Simpler interpretations of Isaiah’s call are more natural.11 Further reservations appear when we look closely at another item of support for the thesis that the great prophets were merely cult prophets.
It has been proposed from the statement in Jer. 29:26 that the associations of kohanim (priests) and nebi’im (prophets) were organized under a common leader entitled kohen, and the conclusion is drawn that the classical nabi’ too was a cult functionary. It is also assumed that Jeremiah must be identified simply as one of the associated cult prophets.12
The passage in question immediately follows an extended letter from Jeremiah (29:1-23) to persons exiled from Jerusalem in 597 B.C., a decade before the fall of the city. Jer. 29:26 ff. purports to be the words of one Shemaiah, prominent among the exiles in Babylonia, addressed chiefly to Zephaniah, the senior priest in charge of the temple priests in Jerusalem:
Yahweh has made you priest . . . to have charge in the house of Yahweh over every madman who prophesies, to put him in stocks and collar. Now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who is prophesying to you? For he has sent to us in Babylon saying, "Your exile will be long; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens arid eat their produce." Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the hearing of Jeremiah the prophet. Then the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah. . . . (29:26-30.)
This has been seriously submitted as weighty evidence that Jeremiah was one of the prophesying attendants on the cultus. But the passage does not even necessarily confirm the cultic institution of prophetism, to say nothing of Jeremiah’s integral relationship thereto! On the contrary, this passage appears to be designed as a repudiation of identity between Jeremiah and any prophesying madmen, whether occasional ecstatic orators in the temple area or attached personnel. The powerful import of the passage, executed in devastating rebuke and at the expense of Shemaiah, is precisely to stress the polarity between "prophesying" prophets and the prophet, between madness and "the Word of Yahweh."
We must reject, then, the view equating and identifying Yahwistic prophetism, as exemplied in the classical prophets with that widespread prophetism of the cultic association. A line of crucial distinction between the two appears in a study of late eighteenth-century B.C. texts from Man on the Upper Euphrates, in which prophetlike persons appear a thousand years before the canonical Old Testament prophets. Here, even if we assume some historical connection between the messenger of God in the Man texts and the prophet of the Old Testament, we are struck by the radical difference in the character and content of the divine message which the prophet receives. At Man the divine word deals with cult and political matters of very limited importance. But biblical prophetism proclaims that the great contemporary events in the world are part of a process willed and in outcome determined by God. In sharpest contrast to the prophetic phenomenon at Man, the great prophets always speak in the name of Yahweh whose will all powers of history serve and whose Word impinges decisively upon all existence.13
The profound contrast between the great prophet and the cult prophet is in the content of prophetism. I do not mean to preclude the possibility of affiliation of some of the great prophets with cultic associations of prophets, much less the existence of such associations. If there were such affiliation, however, it would be wrong to assess and evaluate any of the "name" Yahweh prophets of the Old Testament in terms of simple identity with the conventional cult prophet.
1I Sam. 9 is almost unanimously assigned by source critics to the "A" or early source in Samuel.
2The Hebrew term for God was YHWH, probably pronounced Yahweh, although this is difficult to know since the language was originally written without vowels.(Ed. footnote missing in the text.)
3James A. Montgomery, "The Books of Kings," International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1952) , p. 303.
4G. Holscher first brought this argument to prominence in Die Prof eten (Leipzig, 1914)
5See A. Haldar, Associations of Cult Prophets Among the Ancient Semites (Uppsala, 1945)
6See further J. Lindblom, "Grundfragen der alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft," Festschrift Alfred Bertholet (Tubingen, 1950) , pp. 325 if. Here Lindblom quotes with strong approval Harold Knight, The Hebrew Prophetic Consciousness (London: Lutterworth Press, 1948) , p. 96: "Here we have a state of the highest integration, for the attention is wholly focused upon a single object which gradually fills the consciousness until the connexion between the subject and the outside world is broken."
7See the Interpreter’s Bible, 5, 240.
8Aubrey R. Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 1944) , p. 60. See also Sigmund Mowinekel, Psaimenstudien, III: Die Kultprophetie und prophetische Psalmen (Kristiania, 1923) Cf. Haldar, op. cit.; but see also H. H. Rowley "Ritual and the Hebrew Prophets," Journal of Semitic Studies (1956) , pp. 338 ff.
9So Haldar, op. cit., especially pp. 111-21.
10So I. Engnell, The Call of Isaiah (Uppsala, 1949) , pp. 43 ff. Cf. the excellent, and more moderate, study by Aubrey R. Johnson. Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 1956)
11"See 0. Eissfeldt, "The Prophetic Literature," The Old Testament and Modern Study, edited by H. H. Rowley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951) , pp. 125ff.
12Haldar, op. cit., p. 111.
13"This is according to the thought and sometimes even the language of M. Noth, "History and the Word of God in the Old Testament," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 32, No. 2 (March, 1950) , pp. 200 ff.