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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 4: Prophets to Kings: The Tenth and Ninth Centuries

Six particularly important prophetic figures appear in the the Tenth and Ninth centuries. To all of them the term "prophet" is applied -- Samuel, whose career begins, of course, in the eleventh century; Nathan, and Ahijah in the tenth century; Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha in the ninth.

Their Role in Prophetism

The institution of prophetism as a group phenomenon had its origins in Israel immediately before and during the creation of the monarchy. The first specifically Israelite application of the term nab i’, prophet, was no doubt to members of such groups (I Sam. 10). If I Sam. 19:18-24 is authentic in suggesting Samuel’s integral relationship to such a group, Samuel may have been known as a prophet in his own time. This is uncertain, however. With rare exception, he is represented as a singular figure, functioning in the fashion of a judge, priest, or seer. When a narrator tells us in I Sam. 9:9 that although Samuel was known as a seer then, we should now (in the narrator’s somewhat later time) call him a prophet, we assume that Samuel was never primarily identified with the early Israelite institution of group prophecy and was not commonly, if at all, so termed by his contemporaries. This interpretation runs counter to the oftentimes prevailing view of Samuel, that he is what he is predominantly as a result of his membership in the associated prophetism of the day. There can be no doubt, of course, that Samuel was in accord with the radical political implications of these early prophets’ fierce loyalty to Yahweh, that he was allied with them in setting up the monarchy, and that there was mutual influence between Samuel and the emerging prophetic institution. But the whole Samuel cannot thus be explained and/or dismissed.

David brought the institution of prophetism into the court, on how large a scale we do not know. If his prophet Nathan consistently appears in a singular role, Nathan’s official status and title, "prophet," is derived from a prophetism thus institutionalized, and perhaps in the court initially institutionalized only in the person of Nathan. The regularity and varying contexts of the designation "Nathan the prophet" suggests an official title, as does the repeated coupling of the phrase with other officially titled persons in I Kings 1.

Ahijah, who is called a prophet in I Kings 11:29; 14:2, 18, was commonly known as Ahijah the Shilonite (I Kings 11:29; 12:15; II Chr. 9:29; 10:15; cf. also I Kings 14:4). We do not question the appropriateness of the term as applied to him, but, on the example of Samuel and Nathan, we suspect that if he was called a prophet by his contemporaries it was, again, because of regularized status as a professional, in this case presumably membership in an association of prophets at or near Shiloh.

In the comparable case of Elijah the evidence is strongly against his having been in his own day commonly termed a prophet, and we suspect the same of Ahijah. Neither prophet, we think, was identified with any form of professional prophetic organization, and neither was consequently so termed. In the Elijah texts (I Kings 17-19; 21; II Kings 1-2) the name Elijah occurs alone except in I Kings 17:1; 21:17; and 21:28 (the last is certainly secondary) and II Kings 1:3, 8 (which is also from later narrators than the original basic story of I Kings 17-19; 21).1 In all these it is "Elijah the Tishbite" as in the preceding century it was "Ahijah the Shilonite." "Elijah the prophet" occurs only in I Kings 18:36, and most commentators believe "the prophet" is probably a later gloss. In I Kings 18:22: "Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of Yahweh; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men.’ " In I Kings 19:14 (also vs. 10, but by error from vs. 14) Elijah bitterly protests that: "the people of Israel have . . . . slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away." The narrator gives Elijah professional status when he appears in the narrative (I Kings 18:22) in opposition to the group-functioning prophets of Baal and by a process of sympathetic identification, when the banded Yahweh prophets are being persecuted by the aggressive proponents of Baal (I Kings 19:14)2

The epoch which Elijah shared with Ahab and Jezebel, the second quarter of the ninth century, had its prophets, so designated, in profusion, adherents both of Baal and Yahweh (I Kings 18; 20; 22) , and in professional group association both with sanctuary and court. The term "prophet," we think, referred to these in its common and primary connotation and was, therefore, only later applied to Elijah in an age when the definition of the word had been broadened to include the singular, classical prophet.

In the case of two other ninth century prophets, Micaiah (I Kings 22) and Elisha (II Kings 2-9; 13) , there is no reason to doubt that they were so designated by their contemporaries. Both appear -- if in exceptional roles -- in association with group prophetism; Micaiah with Ahab’s official court prophets and Elisha with the cult-related "Sons of the prophets" at Bethel (II Kings 2:3) , Jericho (II Kings 2:5) , and Gilgal (II Kings 4:38; cf. 6:1) - These "sons of the prophets" (first appearing in Elijah’s day in I Kings 20:35) are in direct descent from the "bands of prophets" encountered more than a century earlier in the Saul narratives (I Sam. 10:5, 10) and are no doubt closely related to varied forms of the practice of group prophetism occurring without interruption between.

Samuel was Samuel or the Seer; Ahijah was probably simply Ahijah or the Shilonite, and Elijah was Elijah or the Tishbite. Prophets in truth they were, as seen from the later vantage point of the matured form of classical prophetism. But they were hardly commonly identified as "prophets" in their own day. Nathan, Micaiah, and Elisha on the other hand -- certainly also prophets in the later sense -- were contemporaneously known as prophets, since to be a prophet was to exist in professional association and relationship.

It is only so that the categorical protest of Amos can be understood. Amos in the middle of the eighth century reflects the common definition of "prophet" as denoting professional association, down to this time deemed necessarily neither bad nor good. Group prophetism has thus far been both of Yahweh and Baal; and as of Yahweh, neutral as associated with Saul, "good" as associated with Obadiah (I Kings 18:13; cf. 19:14) and Elisha, and on the whole, "bad" as contrasted with one of their own number Micaiah, in relationship to Ahab’s court (I Kings 22). "Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel. . . .’ Then Amos answered Amaziah ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.’ " (Amos 7:14.) More precisely, the last line reads, "I am not a prophet, and I am not a son of a prophet" It is of course possible to translate "was" rather than "am." Grammatically it may even be equally possible, as some have insisted.3 Contextually, however, it does not appear to be at all natural, despite efforts to make it appear so. Amos denies, not necessarily in heat, and certainly not in necessary repudiation of the institution of prophetism, that he represents what Amaziah has just imputed to him. He has had no contact with the professional, associated prophets: "Yahweh took me from following the flock, and a Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’" (Amos 7:15). His action here at Bethel is inspired out of this personal confrontation with Yahweh, not in any group stimulation. Not that institutional prophetism may not and does not have this valid, authentic function, nor that Amos is unwilling to be cast in a prophetic role (Amos 3:3-8 indicates the contrary!) -- but simply that the group phenomenon happens not to be his origin, as charged by Amaziah.

One suspects that a change in the content of the term "prophet" occurs, in fact, with Amos and that men of prophetic temperament and function but without professional affiliation who preceded Amos came to be called "prophet" only after him. With Amos, and no doubt in retrospective regard of earlier prophets similarly confronted by the "Word of Yahweh," the term and office of prophet was expanded to include him who without benefit of group stimulation heard the Word of Yahweh and who, knowing that the Lord Yahweh had spoken, could but prophesy:

The lion has roared: who will not fear?
The Lord Yahweh has spoken: who can but prophesy? (Amos3:8)

Their Relationship to King and Word

These remarkable prophetic figures from the tenth and ninth centuries inform us of the emergent form of classical prophetism. Although they differ radically from one another and appear in widely varied contexts, in two regards these early prophets testify to a prophetic continuum from premonarchic times (and even from the age of Moses) to the decay and collapse of monarchy in Israel and on into the days of Jewish reconstruction. These prophets from Samuel to Elisha are fully prophetic first in their address to history, their passionate conviction that Yahweh’s existence impinges with radical effect upon the political institution. Samuel, Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha -- all, without exception -- are intimately concerned with the life of the state, are crucially involved in the most decisive crises of the nation’s history, and come into abrupt, psychologically violent contact with the king -- that symbol in Israel embracing the absolute totality of the being of a people.4

This is the first regard. The second consistently prophetic quality appearing in this pre-Amos succession of prophets and setting them decisively apart from the prevailing institutionalized forms of prophetism is their relationship and responsibility to the debar Yahweh, the Word of Yahweh, their response to it, and their proclamation of it. In all these (it is weakest, to be sure, in Elisha) the address to history takes its content from the Word and the divine impingement upon history is made articulate and interpreted by that same Word. The Word may not yet be consciously defined as the entity, the effective, effecting, efficacious singularity which it is lyrically proclaimed to be in the sixth century:

For as the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
And return not thither
but water the earth,
Making it bring forth and sprout
Giving seed to the sower
and bread to the eater,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
But it shall accomplish
that which I purpose,
And prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
(Isa. 55:10 ff.)

At the same time, however, one must insist that this later definition of the Word is possible only as the result of an extended period during which the Word was essentially, if increasingly, so understood.

The first use of the phrase debar Yahweh, the Word of Yahweh, as an effecting instrumental entity appears in Gen. 15:1, 4, where, in all probability, the E material is first employed.5 This same concept of the debar Yahweh is more sharply expressed in the Balaam oracle of Num. 23:19 ff. (in present form also from the E material) :

God is not man, that he should lie,
Or a son of man, that he should repent.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? (23:19.)

The sense of the divine word as accomplishing its own content is further emphasized in the next verse, when Balaam declares:

Behold I received a command to bless:
He has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. (23:20.) 6

There is reason to think that both these passages reflect Israelite prophetism no later than the ninth century,7 and it is not impossible that the Balaam oracle rests upon a much earlier original form. In any case, there can be no question of the central function of the Word in the succession of prophets beginning with Samuel and Nathan.

Samuel appears in the narratives which bridge the epoch of the judges and the time of the established monarchy. The present literary structure in Samuel appears to be the result of combining multiple and, at points, radically differing strata of tradition.8 Despite striking ambiguities in the portrayal of Samuel, however, the stories about him present in two crucial regards a unified impression: He played the most instrumental single role in the ascendancy and demise of Saul as first king in Israel, and he, more than any other man, is responsible for the inauguration of David and the Davidic dynasty. When later tradition interprets Moses as a performing prophet, as a prophet whose primary medium is not utterance, but action, we wonder if this may not reflect typo-logical characterization at least in part; the tendency, that is, to see in Moses and Samuel a common "type," playing similarly vigorous, creative historical roles. In any case, even when allowances are made for heightening and expansion inherent in the nature of the tradition, even admitting that a purely "photographic" image is ultimately irrecoverable, Samuel and Moses are in a unique class as performers on behalf of Yahweh. Their extreme output of work and energy is awesome. One is instrumental in the creation of a people, a nation; the other in the establishment of a political state.

As in the case of Moses, Samuel’s revolutionary historical performance is recorded for its "isness," because of the living effects of Samuel’s existence in the continuing present. No doubt earlier and later strata of tradition are now combined in the single account. No doubt one of tradition’s opinions assessed the monarchy as in divine intent beneficent, another as negative divine judgment already taking effect. It is unmistakable that this conflict in interpretation has been imposed upon the present portrayal of Samuel. Nor is there any doubt that the image of a prophetic form emergent in the century or two following Samuel has inevitably been retrojected upon Samuel in the course of a continuingly fluid process of transmission (this is especially conspicuous in I Sam. 1-3; 7) Nevertheless, while the image is in no sense photographic, while any actual and precise "vital statistics" may be irredeemable, a portrait remains. The artist, tradition, has quite properly been involved in the creation of an image, exercising an appropriate interpretive function, but tradition has produced the portrait working originally from a life model, from a living presence.

It would be wrong, then, to say that tradition reads back into the person of Samuel a relationship to the "Word of Yahweh" which appears only much later in the history of prophetism. In the case of Samuel, tradition employs a more refined and deeply connotative language to describe the phenomenon -- a language which is a product of later and more sensitively developed prophetism. But there is no reason to doubt that the essential relationship of prophet and Word existed in Samuel. Samuel was Samuel because of the Word.

Nor is there any reason to doubt that the interpretive artistry of tradition has at certain areas in the portrait coincided with what would be the photograph, as, for example, when Samuel says to Saul: "Tell the servant to pass on before us, and when he has passed on stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the Word of God [debar ‘elohim, not Yahweh]." (I Sam. 9:27.) Further, tradition’s interpretation is sound, and the portrait is essentially true when it ascribes to Samuel that which in essence if not in form, in content if not in exact vocabulary, could have come directly to the prophet only through the medium of the Word:

Has Yahweh as great delight in burnt offerings. . .
As in obeying the voice of Yahweh?
Behold to obey is better than sacrific
And to hearken than the fat of rams. (I Sam. 15:22.)

These words are thrown at Israel’s first king, Saul, who becomes King Saul at the instigation of the same Word through the same prophet. The prophet continues, prophet to king, defining another decisive turning point of history:

Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh
He has also rejected you from being king! (I Sam. 15:23.)

We may have doubts of the precise vocabulary. We may question the use of this stylized phrase "the Word of Yahweh" with this specific, implicit content before, at the earliest, the time of Elijah. But we do not doubt the functioning of the Word in the life and time of Samuel and his essential awareness of its entity and nature. In Samuel the effective juxtaposition of the life of Yahweh upon the course of history begins to come to human consciousness, begins to achieve articulation, in the form of the Word of Yahweh to the prophet.

Nathan appears in Samuel and Kings only in three scenes, but each time in immediate relationship to King David. In II Sam. 7 he responds to the king’s expressed desire to build an appropriate "house" for the ark of God.9 In II Sam. 12 he confronts David with the king’s heinous performance in the Bathsheba affair and pronounces Yahweh’s judgement on king and kingdom. Finally, Nathan appears in that crowded scene of David’s last recorded official day, I Kings 1, to play a decisive role in Solomon’s accession.

In the present form of the narrative the Word of Yahweh is prominently featured in the first two scenes, where it bears, as in the case of the Samuel stories, the sense of a definition only later fully crystallized. The Word is equally crucial in the third scene by its very absence. In the first scene the word countermands the first affirmative response of Nathan to David (II Sam. 7:4 ff.) In the second it is entirely at the Inspiration and direction of the Word that the prophet devastatingly confronts and convicts the king, and it is the content of the Word which he then pronounces in judgment ("Thus says Yahweh!" [II Sam. 12:7, 11]) Where the Word is so indispensably cast in the first two scenes, it can be no accident of the text that there is not even a suggestion of Nathan’s acting as the instrument of the Word in the third scene. As in the opening of the first scene (II Sam. 7:1-3) , the recorders of the drama visualize Nathan acting on his own. In I Kings 1-2 (a continuation of that incomparable narrative of II Sam. 9-20) the failure to affirm Solomon’s accession by the Word must constitute at least an editorial indictment of Solomon and tile conspiracy which made him king. The intentional silence with reference to the Word testifies further to the sharpening sense of the entity of the Word in the tenth century.10

Still in the tenth century, it is king and Word brought into radically effective concord through the prophetic function of Ahijah the Shilonite (I Kings 11:29 ff.; 12:15) Another particularly decisive and consequential event in Israel’s history, the secession of the northern tribes and the establishment of two political states in the place of one, is instigated by the word through the prophet Ahijah to the king-to-be Jeroboam I.

About a century later another king-to-be, this time Jehu, is confronted by the Word (II Kings 9:6) Elisha and his young man, the prophet" act upon and pronounce what is represented as the Word with, again, radically effective results. In view of Jehus subsequent reprehensible behavior and classical prophetism’s ultimate repudiation of any true relationship between Jehu and the Word (Hosea 1:4) , we should judge either that this word was not the Word; or that Jehu viciously appropriated the divine Word in Elisha to his own brutal ambitions. The first alternative is perhaps editorially entertained. Elisha is, like Nathan in II Sam. 7:1-3, represented as acting on his own in dispatching one of the prophets to Jehu (II Kings 9:1)

The imposition of Word upon king is sharply attested again in that brilliant scene immediately preceding the death of Ahab in the middle of the ninth century (I Kings 22) The Word through Micaiah works its radical historical effects, and another prophet is instrumental in the efficacious juxtaposition of divine life and will upon human events.

King and Word are brought into most moving conflict in the collision of Ahab and Elijah earlier in tile second quarter of the ninth century. The Word to David through Nathan involved the dual indictment for adultery and murder; to Ahab through Elijah it indicts for murder and theft -- "Have you killed and also taken possession!" (I Kings 21:19.) In Elijah, however, the Word becomes more consciously an instrumental entity, and for the first time (in the narratives of I Kings 17-19; 21) we suspect a Contemporaneous apprehension by a prophet of the Word that is substantially the Word of classical prophetism.

Note first the relative frequency and consistency of the term "the Word" (of Yahweh) in the Elijah narratives: I Kings 17:2, 5, 8, 16, 24; 18:1 (31, 36 secondary?). 19:9 21:17 (28 secondary?)11 Note also that, as in the usage of later classical prophetism, the Word here conveys the sense of a formula, a known formula, the content, nature, and potency of which are widely familiar now. Note further that the Word is associated not only with the king but with the people as well. It creates (I Kings 17) and terminates (I Kings 18) the drought, a judgment upon people as well as king. It is surely instrumental in the prophet’s indictment of the Carmel assembly (I Kings 18:20 ff.), "How long will you go limping with two different opinions?" (Cf. Elijah’s lament in 19:14 that the people of Israel have forsaken Yahweh.) It is, of course, the Word which sends the prophet back from Horeb (I Kings 19:15 ff.) , not in the role of palace prophet to the king and queen, but to minister again to the nation, in the good company of multitudes still faithful to Yahweh.12

In the manner of the Word to Samuel (I Sam. 15) and to Nathan (II Sam. 12) , the instrumental Word is applied through Elijah in judgment of the king (I Kings 21:17 ff) Elijah belongs to the company of preclassical prophets from Samuel to Elisha. At the same time, however, and more than any other in the company, he anticipates in two regards that succession of prophets beginning with Amos to which he is in a peculiar way the forerunner. Elijah alone of all prophets properly belongs to both groups. In Elijah the Word has attained substantially full prophetic definition and form. Through him the Word finds its mature prophetic expression and application, not merely, or even principally, to the king, but to the nation, the whole people of the covenant. Yahweh’s Word impinges now decisively upon the history of Israel with such force as implicitly to involve all history or upon the royal house with such intensity as to judge all men. Jesus condenses the Old Testament prophetic ethic (quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus) when he declares that "all the law and the prophets" depend upon love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:35-40; cf. Mark 12: 28-31) In reality, however, he reaches ultimately back to Elijah, in whom for the first time in biblical record these two propositions find impassioned expression in a single life.

The divine life confronts, is involved in, and decisively qualifies the life of history. To repudiate it ("the people of Israel have forsaken thee") , to delimit it or run in the face of it ("Have you killed and also taken possession?") , to attempt to compromise with it ("How long will you go limping with two different opinions?") is not mere folly, but unqualified disaster resulting at best in the loss of meaning and fulfilment and at worst in the imposition of chaos and death. In the passionate intensity of Elijah all men and all history are implicitly embraced. It remains the task and function of classical prophetism to make concrete and specific the decisive involvement of Yahweh in historical existence.


1 This, and related problems of I Kings 17-19; 21; II Kings 1-2, are discussed in detail in my unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Historical Problem of Elijah, in the Yale University Library.

2 The statement in the commission to Elijah that "Elisha . you shall anoint to be prophet in your place" (I Kings 19:16) is itself, together with its context, saturated with problems. In my judgment (and that of some other commentators) the Commission (I Kings 19: 15b-17 [but retaining vss. 15a and 18]) was no part of the original Elijah texts.

3 Rowley, The Servant of the Lord, p. 114, n. 2.

4 See Johnson, Sacral Kingship in AncientIsrael, pp. 2 ff., and all footnotes thereto appended. As Johnson puts it, "the nation as a psychical whole [has] its focus in the royal house and, at any given time, in the reigning monarch." See also J. Pedersen, Israel (London and Copenhagen, 1940) , III-V, 81 ff.

5 Von Rad, Genesis, pp. 176 ff. (German: pp. 152 ff.)

6 That is, unless one prefers the Septuagint reading in 23:20b, which has Balaam, not Yahweh, as subject:

Behold, I received a command to bless

I will bless and I will not reverse it.

See The Interpreter’s Bible, 2, 257.

7 A. Weiser, The Old Testament: Ifs Formation and Development, translated by Dorothea M. Barton (Einleifung in das Alte Testament [Göttingen, 1949]) (New York: Association Press, 1961) , pp. 124 if. (German: pp. 97 if.) , would date these texts after Elijah (that is, ca. 850) hut sometime before Jeroboam II, who came to the throne in 787 or 786.

8 The Interpreter’s Bible, 2, 855 if.

9 Cf. I Chr. 17. This is the only one of the three scenes which is reproduced by the Chronicler. See also the Chronicler’s reference to "the book of Nathan" in I Chr. 29:29 and II Chr. 9:29.

10 II Sam. 9-20 plus I Kings 1-2 can hardly be later than the tenth century. See any standard Introduction to the Old Testament. Weiser, The Old Testament: it s Formation and Development, pp. 65 ff. (German: p. 56) , dates this remarkable work in the tenth, and includes the nucleus of II Sam. 7. as integral to it.

11 "The notice of the coming of the Word in 19:9 is premature, copied from 19:13 where, however, we should certainly read not "there came a voice to him, and said" but, as in 19:9, "the Word of Yahweh came to him and said . . ." "Voice" in 19:13 comes into the present text under the influence of the same word at the end of vs. 12, where, however, it means "sound" rather than "voice." See the commentaries.

12 Against the view of some who see in the 7,000 faithful who remain in Israel (I Kings 19:18) an early insinuation of the "remnant" idea.

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