Often, people associate prophecy with predicting the future. The Anslem Study Bible states that the prophet’s primary concern is with contemporary events within social and political contexts. They focus on public morality, social justice, religious idolatry, and proper use of power. They are not confined to only speaking of judgment and damnation, but also of encouragement, mercy, and a hopeful future (Osiek & Hoppe 2013). Biblical prophecy began after the split of the united kingdom of Israel under Davidic rule. Prophecy began in the North due to the factor of the Northern wealth and the prophet’s role of speaking out against the culture of the Israelites. Biblical writings of the prophets have explained that “a prophet may suffer for his beliefs...An almost stereotyped formula incorporated in the historical books and Jeremiah refers to the failure of the prophets and, implicitly, to their sufferings” (Fischel 1947) According to Matthews, “a prophet may not be identified as simply a fortune-teller, social activist, doomsayer, messenger, moralist, or even predictor of Jesus” (19).
It is important to understand some of the historical components to better gain insight into the culture of the biblical prophets. There are many potential factors that contributed to the rise of prophecy and prophetic literature including, Baal worship, economic and social development in the Northern and Southern kingdoms, and political instability (Rennie 2017). The culture of the Hebrew prophets truly encompassed all aspects of life, and the prophets delivered their dire messages to the people instead of simply being assistants to the royal/higher classes. This is shown through Moses and all other prophets throughout the Bible.
The culture of the biblical prophets includes a set of general guidelines, although no two prophets were quite the same. Moses, who was not a prophet, led the life that became the archetype for prophetic culture. Culture can mean many different things, however, when studying an overview of prophecy, the culture of the prophet can really be explained best by Moses’ story. As aforementioned, not all prophets lived a similar culture to Moses, but many did. Following sections of this web page explain specific prophets in depth and their relation to following Moses’ outline. Prophets were described in many ways, however sometimes misunderstood about what they actually did.
There were 6 main components involved in the model prophet’s lifetime:
The most relevant definition of culture in regards to prophetic culture could be defined by Helen Spencer-Oatey, and it reads “Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioral conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behavior and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behavior” (2008). Prophetic culture is fuzzy due to not all prophets following the 6 components exactly the same way. When we read about the life of the prophets, we ourselves are interpreting what is written, as well as the prophets themselves interpreting God’s message. The prophets themselves did not write their own stories. First, their stories were passed down through an oral tradition, and then eventually stories about the prophets were written by others.
The prophet’s message is manifested in the words he uses to move people. The prophets often use some of the most explicit, provocative, and personal images of human sexuality to personify issues of social, political, and religious justice. The prophet looks at macro-level issues in the culture and society that are pertinent to the current time. He then relays this message in a more personal and individual way, using analogies to human relationships. Metaphors have the power to evoke strong feelings of shame and remorse.
In Weems (1995), five human relationships are listed that display a dominant and subordinate characterized relationship. These relationships may be used in metaphors to relate to God and Israel. They display that they are not equals while both having mutual, yet very different obligations and responsibilities. They are as follows:
One way to explain biblical prophecy is by looking at characteristics that constitute a true prophet. Below is a brief summary. (Meier, 2009)
The northern prophets dealt with the people of Israel, primarily those who went into exile with the Assyrians , and came before the southern prophets in terms of Israel's history. These prophets dealt with issues of worship of the Canannite deity Ba’al and other idolatry.
The southern prophets come in phases before, during, and after the Babylonian exile. These prophets dealt with not so much idol worship, but with the people of God losing sight of the way God commanded them to live.
Matthews, Victor H. 2012. The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Matthews’ work was an excellent aid to help explain Hebrew culture in general. This work included information regarding the culture of the Hebrew prophet as well as the six general guidelines for defining the Hebrew prophet.
Meier, S. (2009). Reliable Prophets in Context of Change. In Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy (pp. 179-218). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
In this article, Meier draws together elements of prophecy that are essential in determining false prophets from true prophets. The elements describe the work, life, and position of a prophet.
Osiek, C., & Hoppe, L. J. (2013). Anselm Academic Study Bible: New American Bible revised edition. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic. All references to this edition.
The Anslem Study Bible contains brief explanations of each prophet as well as a general overview of the prophetic books.
Peels, H., & Snyman, S. (2012). In The Lion Has Roared: Theological Themes in Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament. Eugene, OR: Prickwick Publications.
The Lion Has Roared goes into depth on many of the major Old Testament prophets, explaining the specific elements of theology unique to each book. It allows the reader to understand the prophet by learning about their literary technique, motivations, and audience.
Rennie, Bryan. 2017. Understanding the Bible. http://www.westminster.edu/staff/brennie/rel101/rel101.htm.
This site went in depth defining the biblical prophet. Major features of prophetic literature are also included in this site that help the reader better understand the context of the prophets. There is also a timeline included on this site with a summary of the prophets and when they occurred throughout history including the biblical source of where and when the prophet occurs throughout the Bible.
Weems, R. (1995). Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Battered Love comments on the elements of violence and inequality within the prophetic books of the Hebrew bible. Weems focuses on violence against women in sacred texts. While giving context to the reader about the social relationships between men and women, Weems offers a feminist perspective. This is useful for understanding metaphors, relationships, and social issues relevant to the time of each prophet.
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