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Prologue to the Prophets

1 Introduction

2 Former Prophets

3 Latter Prophets

4 The Prophets as a Whole

Study Guide


Apocalyptic prophecy, Book of the Twelve, Deuteronomic theme, Deuteronomistic History (DH), Form criticism, Former Prophets, Hexateuch, Latter Prophets, Monarchy, Navi', Nevi'im, Oracles, Primary History, Prophecy, Prophesy, Prophets, Tetrateuch, Theocracy

Lord Acton

Lord Acton (1834-1902) English Historian

Western liberal democracies evolved systems designed to balance fundamental powers so that no one force would become absolute. Britain developed a parliament that offset the royal house. The U.S. government has three branches—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial—that serve to keep each other in check. After all, those in power are inclined to monopolize power. Lord Acton’s famous dictum “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” often applied to ancient Israel’s kings, with only the biblical prophets attempting to hold them accountable.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on the 1879 painting by Franz von Lenbach (London: National Portrait Gallery).


Prophecy arose in Israel at the same time as kingship, and it went away when Israel ceased to be an independent state. This is no coincidence. We will see that the prophets interacted extensively with Israel’s kings. Although the prophets may have been quite pious and spiritual, they were not monks or ascetics. They were fully engaged

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in the state politics of their day. The phenomenon of biblical prophecy cannot be understood apart from the power politics of Israel. Sometimes prophets supported the king and his policies; more often they criticized the royal administration. The prophets of Yhwh were a type of checks-and-balances system. Because they received their commission directly from God, they were not beholden to the king, and they were authorized and even protected by Yhwh when they brought a contrary or critical voice to the table.

1.1 Prophet Collections

The Prophets collection contains the story of a big conflict and a major clash of cultures. Israel was founded by Yhwh’s act of delivering his people from slavery and by constituting them as his covenant subjects. At its core Israel was a theocracy—that is, a divinely ruled entity. For a while, during its early national existence, Israel existed as a loose federation of tribes without a king. However, internal and external political pressures led to the emergence of a monarchy in Israel—that is rule by one person, a human monarch. This automatically placed the king in tension with the Moses–Sinai tradition on which the country was founded. The clash of these two models, theocracy and monarchy, created a dynamic and often violent tension within Israel. The monarchy at times appropriated the Mosaic theocratic tradition for its own ends, and at other times, it created its own traditions using Canaanite components. Prophets often represented the Mosaic tradition over the power of the monarchy, though some prophets did align themselves with the royal program. Politics, kings, and prophets make for a lively and interesting mix.

The account of the monarchy and the documents of prophecy are grouped together in one major collection called the Prophets (Nevi’im, the n of Tanak), and it follows the Torah in serial order. The basic division of the Hebrew Bible into two parts, Torah and Prophets, goes back as early as the Hellenistic Period, as attested by the Prologue to Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha. The phrase “the law and the prophets” is common in the New Testament as a way to refer to the Hebrew Bible. New Testament references include Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17 and 7:12) and Paul in his letter to the Romans 3:21. In one place, Luke has Jesus refer to “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms,” which perhaps reflects the three-part division of Torah, Prophets, and Writings of the Tanak. In the Hebrew Bible, the section called the Prophets includes the narrative historical books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, as well as the books more traditionally associated with the prophetic office—namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve, a collection of shorter prophetic books.

The Prophets collection was further subdivided into two parts (Table 1). The narrative historical books came to be called the Former Prophets, and the books associated with prophetic figures were called the Latter Prophets. The distinction between Former and Latter does not refer to the chronology of the books but simply their placement in the Bible, as indicated below.

TABLE 1 Former and Latter Prophets

Former Prophets Latter Prophets
Joshua Isaiah
Judges Jeremiah
1 and 2 Samuel Ezekiel
1 and 2 Kings The Twelve*

*Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Christian canon differs in notable ways from the Hebrew canon. In the Christian organization of the canon, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are all classified as historical books. Note that Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not included in the Former Prophets. The Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets are called the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum,

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Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is not one of the prophetic books but is classed with the Writings. That is where we will treat it and under the heading of apocalyptic literature rather than classical prophecy. Also, the Major and Minor Prophets are the last books of the Old Testament, as opposed to the Hebrew Bible, which places the Writings at the end. The Christian canon uses the prophetic books to point ahead and anticipate the Gospel, thus creating a climate of expectation with the promise-fulfillment scheme that this ordering implies.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Hebrew and Christian Canons.”

The titles Former Prophets and Latter Prophets may be misleading because they foster the perception that the Latter Prophets are later than the historical books. In fact, the Latter Prophets, for the most part, fit within the history of the books of Kings (see Figure 1). Part of the challenge of comprehending the prophets collection is integrating the Latter Prophets within the historical framework of the Former Prophets and remembering that the canonical order of the Latter Prophets does not strictly match their historical order.

Time Line

FIGURE 1 Time Line: The Prophets and Israel’s History

1.2 Reading Guide

Rather than being the mavericks of morality and spirituality that earlier biblical scholars made them out to be, recent theological research has demonstrated that the classical prophets largely affirmed Israel’s historical traditions. In fact, it could be argued that the biblical prophets were conservatives, urging God’s people to stay true to

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their roots. Prophets often made use of earlier covenantal principles, and some actually quote earlier sources as the basis for their own statements. All in all, there is a considerable network of interdependence linking prophet to prophet, and prophet to tradition. As you read prophetic literature, connect the message of the prophets to the tradition complexes of biblical literature such as the royal tradition and the Moses–Sinai tradition.

The biblical traditions are connected to regional political and ideological differences, so also ask yourself when you read the text, when did this prophet live and work? What were the political and economic conditions at the time when he spoke? Where did he prophesy? For example, it makes a big difference whether a prophet was from Judah or Israel and whether he comes from a major city or from the countryside. Also ask, what prophetic speech type (genre) did the prophet use to make his preaching effective? Why did he use this genre?

Keep in mind that each of the prophetic books in both the Former and Latter collections has a composition history. In most cases, the book was written many years after the setting of the events referenced in the book. This reality entails the likelihood that the composition setting of the book impacts how the past was remembered. History is always told for reasons beyond that of simply constructing a record of past events. Much scholarly investigation of the prophets attempts to clarify what those reasons may have been. On many fronts then, biblical prophetic literature presents challenges to the modern reader and requires research.


The events narrated in the books Joshua through Kings tell the story of Israel’s statehood. At the beginning, the people are a migrant wilderness group. As told in the book bearing his name, Joshua moves them into Canaan. Judges recounts the difficulty of settling the land and defending it against various enemies. The books of Samuel relate the rise of kingship in Israel, and the books of Kings relate the history of the monarchy, including Israel’s division into two kingdoms and the destruction of each by foreign powers. The Torah and Former Prophets are called the Primary History, a comprehensive creation-to-exile account of Israel’s story. There is another account of the story, called the Chronicler’s History, which we will cover in RTOT Part 3, “The Writings.”

We will track two main issues through the Former Prophets. One is the theological perspective of the writers and compilers of this account. By recognizing the outlook governing its composition, we can better understand the intent of the story. The theological perspective of the Former Prophets was largely shaped by the Deuteronomist, which we examined in RTOT Chapter 5.

The other issue, not unrelated to the first, is the relationship between this theological literature and the history of events. The Former Prophets may be termed history, but the writers were not creating documentary history. They were believers in Yhwh, it was their conviction that Yhwh was active in Israel’s history, and that is how they told the story. They believed that cause and effect accounted for historical outcomes, but their analysis included divine causality in addition to human power politics and economic factors.

It is significant that the Jewish community included the books Joshua through Kings in the section titled “The Prophets.” The intent of these narrative records

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was not just to chronicle historical events but also to bear witness to the work of Yhwh in the realm of human affairs. In this sense, they are prophetic. Among other things, prophets were spiritually insightful individuals who could discern God’s presence and work in human affairs, and the writing of history from a transcendent perspective was thus considered a prophetic activity.

2.1 Deuteronomistic History

Scholars sometimes refer to the Former Prophets as the Deuteronomistic History (DH) because the books in this collection were shaped by the theological perspective of the Deuteronomist. Deuteronomy is the narrative bridge between the Torah and the Prophets. It does double duty in the sense that it concludes the Torah and also sets the stage for the Prophets (see Figure 2). As the conclusion of the Torah, it wraps up the early history of Israel and does so by sounding a note of anticipation. Moses had brought the Israelites to the edge of the Promised Land, but he himself died there. The great promises of land and statehood still awaited fulfillment. The people were not yet in their promised homeland. Concluding the Torah with the book of Deuteronomy creates a climate of expectancy, and the promises were fulfilled, at least almost so, in the book of Joshua.

Torah-Prophets Collections

FIGURE 2 Torah–Prophets Collections

The Primary History can be subdivided in a variety of ways. Each implies a different relationship between promise and fulfillment, as well as differently reconstructed composition histories.

Some authorities believe that Joshua, the story of capturing Canaan, should be attached to the Pentateuch because it brings the promise of land to fulfillment. This would make the Hexateuch, a six-book unit, the major structural unit. Friedman (1998) finds evidence for a literary source that spans the Torah and the Former Prophets, which he calls “the hidden book.” Essentially, it consists of the Yahwist source of the Torah combined with selected texts from Joshua through 1 Kings. Others believe that Deuteronomy was once attached to the Former Prophets. This would have made Genesis through Numbers a more natural collection too, called the Tetrateuch, a four-book unit. We have seen that the classical literary sources J, E, and P constitute these books, whereas the book of Deuteronomy stands apart for a number of reasons (see RTOT Chapter 5). Of course, neither a Tetrateuch nor a Hexateuch emerged within the canonical tradition; instead, the Pentateuch collection, a five-book unit, won the day.

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The standard theory of the Deuteronomistic History says that the writer responsible for compiling this history added Deuteronomy 1:1–4:40 and Chapters 29–34 to an earlier form of Deuteronomy after it came to be used as the preface to the entire Deuteronomistic History. According to this view, the Deuteronomistic History was completed shortly after the latest event mentioned in the book of Kings. That event was the release of Judah’s king Jehoiachin from Babylonian incarceration in 561 BCE.

Much study has focused on the perspective and theme of the Deuteronomistic History. Noth (1943) was the first scholar to develop the theory of a Deuteronomistic History. He argues that the DH was composed to explain why the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The story, he claims, focuses on the idolatry of Israel’s kings and people and explains why Yhwh allowed judgment to come upon them. Written to the Judean refugees of the Babylonian exile, the DH justified God and at least provided the assurance to the exiles that what happened happened for a reason.

Von Rad (1962) found a more positive motivation behind the DH. In addition to the theme of judgment, which is most definitely present in the DH, von Rad suggests that grace was also there. Hope for the future was based on the covenant that Yhwh had made with the house of David. That hope was still alive in the person of Jehoiachin. Von Rad argues that the release of Jehoiachin from prison, the note on which the book ends, was intended to inspire the exiles.

Wolff (1982) suggests that there is more to the purpose of the DH than justifying God’s judgment or providing hope based on the Davidic covenant. He argues that the DH is essentially a call to repentance. It urges the exiles to turn from their disregard of God and change their fundamental disposition. Only in this way would God restore his people to the covenant.

It is unrealistic to try to reduce such a complex work as the DH to one or two overarching themes. What these scholars have done is demonstrate the presence of certain significant themes that interweave the books of the DH. As you read the DH, be alert to the themes of God’s judgment on apostasy, God’s commitment to the house of David, and God’s call to repentance.

The presence of what seem to be multiple themes probably reflects a complex history of composition. The writers of the DH drew from many different sources and blocks of tradition. Within the individual books of the DH there are references to source books such as the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. And the individual books vary in tone, further evidencing development. A comparison of Joshua and Judges, for example, demonstrates how different in character and outlook they are while both still have Deuteronomic characteristics.

Cross (1973) gives one account of the complex editing of the DH. He theorizes that there were two editions of the DH. The first edition was shaped by a Deuteronomistic editor (Dtr1) during the reign of Josiah (640–609 BCE). Its governing themes were the effects of the sin of Jeroboam, who authorized Baal worship in the northern kingdom, and Yhwh’s commitment to the house of David in the southern kingdom. It was written to be the inspiration for the reform program of Josiah.

The second edition was completed during the exile (around 550 BCE). It consisted of a modest rewriting of the first edition by a second Deuteronomistic editor (Dtr2). It reflects a more sober assessment of the future; it updated the earlier

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edition by adding the events that followed the reign of Josiah. This more complete telling of the history of Israel and Judah becomes the occasion to enjoin the exiles to live faithfully.

The precise setting, intent, and composition history of the Deuteronomistic History is still under discussion, but its broad philosophy of history is not. The DH tells us that Israel prospered as a nation when the people, and especially its leadership, adhered to the terms of the covenant that Yhwh had made with the people at Mount Sinai. If the nation was faithful, they experienced prosperity. If the nation ran into difficulty, it was because they had neglected the service of its God. The consequences of history are laid out explicitly in the blessings and curses of the Torah, most clearly in Deuteronomy 27–28. A consistent pattern was seen to work out in history. If the people sinned, God sent punishment. If the people then repented, God sent deliverance. If the people got in trouble, God was always there to help but only if they reaffirmed their covenant commitment. Israel at times experienced God’s favor and at other times his wrath. But they were never disowned.

This historical cycle is called the Deuteronomic theme and can be summarized by the four arcs of the cycle: sin, punishment, repentance, and deliverance (see Figure 3). This outlook made wonderful sense of the ups and downs of Israel’s historical experience. Moreover, it provided a measure of control over the future. How the nation would fare was up to the people and their faithfulness. Although the DH maintains this consistent overall perspective, each of the four books has its own literary unity, historical focus, compositional style, and theological nuance. These will be unpacked as we examine each of the books in turn.

Deuteronomic theme

2.2 Historiography

The documents of the Hebrew Bible that deal with the rise of Israel and the events of the monarchy are not first of all journalistic in nature. Both the Deuteronomistic History and the Chronicler’s History (CH) drew upon historical sources such as court chronicles and lists. But the DH and CH themselves are ideological literature; that is, they bring a certain perspective to bear on the telling. These works may thus tell us a great deal about the spirit of their times and the perspective of the writers in addition to the events of national history. There is a strong tendency in modern studies to view the DH as theological literature as much as historical chronicle. Because the account of Israel’s history is so strongly shaped by the lesson that the writers wanted to teach, students of the text are eager to find independent corroboration to aid in reconstructing what really happened.

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Archaeology was of limited utility when we studied the Torah. External historical documentation and archaeological data were circumstantial at best. As we saw, the likes of Noah, Abraham, and Moses have no independent verification, and even the sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt has nothing to specifically confirm it outside the Bible. This situation changes with the prophetic literature. There is more to work with, and the substantial amount of external evidence available to us in the form of archaeological data and inscriptional documentation has prompted both an appreciation of the biblical text and a reevaluation of the biblical data. This in turn has given rise to new approaches to the history and religion of biblical Israel.

The DH tracks Israel’s history from the end of the wilderness wandering (1200s BCE) to the end of the kingdom of Judah (587 BCE), but no external references exist until relatively late in the event stream. The first solid evidence appears during the time of Omri, an Israelite king of the 800s. This does not mean that the biblical story is necessarily inaccurate or that its players did not exist. Reasonable historians are quick to point out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Still, it is fair to say that the climate in modern biblical studies lends itself to historical skepticism given the arguably ideological nature of the texts and the ambiguous witness of external evidence.

The academic study of the ancient Middle East for the most part has divorced itself from the goal that it had in earlier times, that of reinforcing the accuracy of the biblical text. Today, Palestinian archaeology and textual studies are pursued largely as disciplines independent of a biblical or religious agenda. However, they retain a utility for those in biblical studies because they serve to build a context for Israel’s story. Conditions in Palestine from the time of Israel’s entry into the land until the end of the biblical period have been brightly illuminated by the social sciences though a great deal of work remains to be done. Archaeology has clarified the patterns of settlement, the movements of peoples, population densities, and material culture in all its variations. Social anthropology has defined the nature of tribal societies, patterns of nomadism and urbanization, economic and political processes, and the formation and organization of nation-states. Historical and textual analysis of official and popular documents clarify political, economic, and social conditions. These disciplines will continue to indirectly illuminate the biblical story from the outside.

The question of how accurately the biblical text represents historical events, and even if it represents them at all, has become a hot issue in biblical studies. One scholar has even called it “the crisis of history in the study of Jewish origins” (see Shanks, 2000). Three labels have attached themselves to the main positions though these are broad characterizations. Biblical maximilists would take a position that the biblical text accurately represents history and that at least some of the texts were written contemporaneously with the events. The classic hard form of this is represented, for example, by Bright’s History of Israel (1959), and it is also associated with the names W. F. Albright and G. E. Wright (we might call it the “right” school of Israelite history). Biblical minimalists, associated with scholars such as T. L. Thompson and N. P. Lemche, take a revisionist approach and argue that there was no “early Israel” at all, and no Israelite state before the ninth century BCE. With a radically late dating, they claim that the text as we have it was written in the Hellenistic period. Centrists such as I. Finkelstein

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and W. Dever take a mediating position, holding that there was perhaps some entity called Israel, but it was nothing like the homogenous ethnic community portrayed in the biblical text.

2.3 Israelite Religion

Israelite religion developed specifically within the context of Canaanite culture and was strongly influenced by Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The high deities of Canaanite religion were El, Baal, and Asherah. El was the chief deity who had receded into the background by the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. Baal was the god responsible for agricultural productivity, and Asherah, his female counterpart, also had fertility influence. The most detailed descriptive material comes from ancient Ugarit and dates to the late Bronze Age, fairly close geographically and temporally to early Israel (see Smith and Parker, 1997; Schneidewind and Hunt, 2007).

Canaanite religion is portrayed as the antithesis of Israelite faith. The Hebrew Bible is unanimously opposed to the polytheistic fertility practices of Canaan and favors the exclusive worship of Yhwh. This, at least, is the official position strongly argued in prophetic literature. There are hints both in external evidence and within the Hebrew Bible itself that popular religion was actually a fluid blending of elements from Yahwism and Baalism.

Yet even official Yahwism, as expressed in prophetic literature and in the Psalms, appropriated elements of Canaanite religion. Yhwh is described using the same phrases that were applied to Baal. Yhwh was argued to be the one responsible for the rains and fruitfulness, not Baal. And the motif of divine conflict between Baal and the sea is expressed in a variety of subtle ways in biblical literature (demythologized when God creates the firmament in Genesis 1; historicized as Yhwh versus hostile nations in Isaiah 51:9–11; and eschatologized as the Son of Man versus the beasts of the sea in Daniel 7).

A Hebrew inscription from Khirbet el-Kom (700s BCE Judah) reads “Blessed be Uryahu by Yhwh and by his asherah” and ones from Kuntillet Ajrud (early 700s BCE Israel) say “I bless you by Yhwh of Samaria and by his asherah” and “I bless you by Yhwh of Teiman and by his asherah” (see Dever, 2005). Evidently, family and popular religion blended Israelite and Canaanite religion to a degree that appalled and provoked the biblical prophets. The disciplined study of Israelite religion from a sociological and cultural perspective contributes to a fuller picture of the conditions in which Israel’s prophets found themselves as advocates of Yahwism.


The subdivision called the Latter Prophets deals with certain individuals in Israel who had a recognized social and spiritual role within Israel and who articulated a divine perspective on the events of their day. The Latter Prophets consists of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve. The Book of the Twelve consists of twelve shorter works, Hosea through Malachi, which some call the Minor Prophets. The historical period of the Latter Prophets begins with the divided Israelite monarchy and continues into the postexilic era. Even though these books follow the Former Prophets’ account of Israelite history, most of the material must be fitted chronologically within that history.

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3.1 The Nature of Prophecy

But what is biblical prophecy? Our present cultural context might mislead us more than help us answer this question. For example, notice what meaning is listed first in this dictionary entry:

prophecy (prof’i sÍ), n. pl. -cies. 1. The foretelling or prediction of what is to come. 2. That which is declared by a prophet, esp. divinely inspired prediction, instruction, or exhortation. 3. A divinely inspired utterance or revelation: oracular prophecies. 4. The action, function, or faculty of a prophet. (Random House Dictionary of the English Language)

This dictionary definition encapsulates the modern notion of prophecy, but it does not accurately convey the nature of biblical prophecy. The immediate association that we tend to make with the words prophecy and prophet in the modern world is predicting the future. Although we do not have as many people who go by the name of prophet as in the era of Israelite history, we do have plenty of people, some more reputable than others, who traffic in the future: economists, meteorologists, marketing consultants, futures traders, and astrologers, to name a few. Only a small number of prediction peddlers, so-called psychics, baldly attempt to foresee specific events—the Cassandras and Nostradamuses of old and the spiritualists and television preachers of today.

The answer to the question “What is prophecy?” must be sought in the literature and culture of ancient Israel. Predicting the future was not the primary component of the prophetic task in the Israelite world. The basic function of biblical prophecy was to analyze political policies and social conditions in light of Yhwh’s demands of justice, loyalty, and faith in him. The prophet was most concerned that these moral and religious principles govern the corporate and personal lives of God’s people. The closest analogies in our modern world to the biblical prophets of old might be leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, who each had a keen sense of the divine requirements for social justice, freedom, and human dignity.

Biblical prophets occasionally made predictions about the future course of events, but they never did it to demonstrate how insightful or divinely inspired they were. Their predictions were basically extrapolations from the present state of affairs into the future, based on their knowledge of what God demanded. If the people would not change their errant ways, then the future would hold nothing but trouble for them. If they repented, then the grim scenario would be averted. Only in apocalyptic literature does future prediction take on a life of its own. Although this literature has roots in classical prophecy, it eventually evolved into a distinct literary type.

The prophetic books are not autobiographies though some books contain narratives of what happened to prophets, sometimes even in the first person. For the most part, they are collections of what prophets said. Most books were not finally written or edited by the named prophet. Many times, “schools” or prophetic interest groups that traced their outlook to a particular prophetic leader continued on after the death of the prophet and found their inspiration in the prophet. Many times, these schools or groups were responsible for taking the message of the prophet and reapplying it to later circumstances. Frequently, this will be reflected in the text itself.

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Every one of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible shows signs of having been compiled and edited over a period of time. Although this oversimplifies the process a bit, we can say that the core of each book goes back to the oracles and pronouncements of the named prophet. These oracles were then written down and organized into books. Some books reworked the original prophetic core more extensively than others. But each book is the result of a composing and editing process that sometimes took centuries to complete. The final shape of prophetic books bears witness to how the words of the Hebrew prophets were heard by later communities and how original prophetic pronouncements gave direction to later people.

We can reconstruct a viable historical context for almost every prophet. We know when he lived, where he lived, and to whom he prophesied (see Figure 4). The same cannot be said of the editorial history of the prophetic books. These books were not necessarily finalized during the prophets’ lifetimes, so it is important to distinguish the human prophets from the prophetic books attached to their names

We do not mean to scare anyone, but to be honest, reading biblical prophecy is difficult. The difficulty stems from many features of these books, including the largely poetic form in which they were written and the need to know the historical settings of prophetic statements, most of which are not clearly identified in the Bible itself. The reward comes when we appreciate prophecy’s wonderfully imaginative style of expression and the quality of its moral discernment.

3.2 Forms of Prophetic Speech

A prophet was called a navi’ in the Hebrew Bible. The linguistic derivation of the term suggests that it could be related to the Semitic verb to call. A prophet is then either “one who calls out” or “one who is called.” The first possibility, the active meaning, is analogous to the meaning of its Greek translation equivalent prophetes, “to speak before,” from which our English term prophet was derived. The second possibility, the passive meaning, may be related to the initiation call to prophetic service. In this sense, a prophet is one called by God to deliver a message. The following evidence suggests that both the active and the passive have validity.

A branch of biblical scholarship called form criticism examines the language of the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to discover the original real-life type of situation for a way of speaking. The application of form criticism to prophetic literature has been especially productive. Form critics have studied the phrase, “Thus says Yhwh,” which is widely used in many prophetic books. It prefaces a vast number of prophetic oracles, or divine statements communicated by the prophet. It is so frequent that it has been used to characterize the essential nature of the prophet’s sense of identity and even of the prophetic office generally speaking. In an important study, Westermann (1967) demonstrated that the background of this phrase is the procedure of sending messages long distance in the ancient world. Typically, when a king wished to communicate with a distant client, he would employ a messenger to commit the message to memory. After traveling to his destination, the messenger would recite the message as if he were the king himself speaking in the first person (“I”), prefacing his recitation with the phrase, “Thus says the king.”

That Israel’s prophets used the formula “Thus says Yhwh” suggests that they considered themselves divine messengers, having received the message directly from their Great King. This reconstruction of the prophet’s sense of mission is supported by various prophets’ descriptions of their calling to the prophetic task. Isaiah,

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Prophets and Kings

Figure 4 Prophets and Kings

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Jeremiah, and Ezekiel each describe their experience of being in the presence of God where each felt that he was commissioned. Each received a message firsthand from Yhwh. Each was then sent to the people of God to deliver that message.

The prophets typically exhibited a strong sense of vocation in connection with their calling. The prophet is one who has been called (passive) and commissioned in the divine council. Then he was sent to call out (active) the message of the divine king. Often the prophets were reluctant to follow their calling because they knew how difficult the task will be, but they inevitably accepted the challenge in faith.

The literature of the prophets contains a variety of types of speaking, including third-person narratives about the prophets; autobiographical sketches by the prophets themselves; poetically framed statements of salvation, laments, trust songs, praise songs, covenant lawsuits; and more. As we come across distinctive genres, we will explain them. Form criticism has been especially effective in investigating the forms of prophetic speech and reconstructing early social settings out of which those ways of speaking make the most sense. The works of Westermann (1967, 1991) are pioneering and especially valuable in this regard. Also, the series published by Eerdmans entitled The Forms of the Old Testament Literature has volumes covering the prophetic books.

3.3 Social Location of Prophecy

Prophets did not operate in a social vacuum but were shaped by their sociohistorical situation. Each spoke out of his particular background, whether urban or agricultural, priestly or lay, wealthy or of moderate means. Each tended to be shaped by his region’s theological and political traditions, whether northern or southern, Israelite or Judean. Readers of biblical prophecy must keep all of these factors and issues in mind to understand prophetic literature properly.

Much of the activity of the prophets pertained to politics, both domestic and international. Biblical and extrabiblical documents have enabled scholarship to reconstruct the national and international settings that equip us to make sense out of the prophetic books. Anthropological analysis of prophecy has added insight by placing the prophets within the social and class matrices of ancient Israel (see Wilson, 1980, and Blenkinsopp, 1983).

Various forms of prophetic activity are attested in the ancient Middle East, some of them analogous to features of biblical prophecy. The royal archives of Mari are an especially rich source (see ANET, 623–632). These texts from northwestern Mesopotamia of the eighteenth century BCE make reference to ecstatic oracles induced by trances, divination, omen reading, and divine messenger speeches. Even closer to Israel geographically is the inscription of Zakir of Hamath, ninth century BCE, who prayed to Baal Shamen and was answered through seers (see ANET, 655–656), the same term that applied to Israel’s prophets in 1 Samuel 9:9.


The Former Prophets are distinct from the Latter Prophets in many obvious ways. They are different subcollections, and each individual book within each subcollection has its own composition history. Yet there are notable points of commonality. The history of the monarchy as told in the DH has a unity of theological expression and purpose that can also be identified in certain of the Latter Prophets. Although

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the character of the so-called Deuteronomic school is still being worked out by scholars, the tell-tale signs of its editorial work can be found in much of the prophetic literature. Its theological perspective became a major filter for the telling of history and for the shape of theology. Jeremiah especially is imbued with a Deuteronomic outlook and may have been edited by someone from the school of Deuteronomy.

Other prophets fall in more closely with the other Pentateuchal traditions. The Yahwist source aligns with the house of David and Zion traditions. The Elohist tradition has affinities with the Elijah and Elisha prophetic stories and the book of Hosea. The Priestly source is very close to the vision of a renewed worship center in Ezekiel. It can be productive to think of Israel’s narrative traditions of the Torah in relation to the Prophets, rather than as opposed.

Many of the themes of the Latter Prophets are controlling themes in the theological telling of Israel’s history in the Former Prophets, and many of these themes have roots in the Pentateuchal traditions.

1. God in history. The prophets believed implicitly that God controlled history, that he had chosen Israel as his people, formed an enduring relationship with them, and intended them to be his holy people forever. Because of this, everything that happened to Israel in history was a reflex of their relationship to God. If the people were faithful to Yhwh, they enjoyed freedom and prosperity. If they were unfaithful, God brought disaster on them to stir them to repentance. The Former Prophets demonstrate these biblical principles in the history of the monarchy. The Latter Prophets contain calls to repentance for averting or overcoming disaster. After disaster occurred, the prophets brought words of hope, knowing that God would never allow his people to disappear.

2. Covenant traditions. The message of the prophets was rooted in Israel’s covenant traditions. The covenants of Moses and David were especially influential. These traditions defined Israel’s relationship to God. On the basis of the requirements laid out in these traditions, the prophets called the people back to faith. Prophets sometimes recalled Israel’s covenantal roots to reaffirm the truth of God and to ground God’s faithfulness. At other times, they recalled those traditions to demonstrate how God was going to do something new and even more wonderful than what he had done in the past. In any case, the prophets carry on their ministry against the background of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Reading prophetic literature in terms of its intertextual relationships with the Torah, where the record of those covenant traditions are found, can be very exciting.

3. Faith and worship. The prophets tried to shape the faith of the people so that they would think and act rightly. Sometimes prophets were in conflict with institutional religion, yet they never categorically condemned religious ritual practices or formal worship. They opposed cult only when it promoted religious self-satisfaction, complacency, and social injustice. In fact, some prophets were also priests, and all true prophets were informed by the best principles of Israel’s priestly tradition, including the reality of sin, and the need for sacrifice, purification, and holiness.

4. Prophetic calling. Many prophets conveyed their understanding of the nature of prophetic calling and the task of prophecy in call narratives: Isaiah 6, 40; Jeremiah 1; Ezekiel 1–3; Amos 7. These narratives convey the personal conviction that motivated Israel’s true prophets. They believed that God revealed his word to them and that God

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spoke through them. This gave them their moral authority and sense of independence from the institutions that sought to co-opt or coerce them. Furthermore, they believed that the word of God was not just divine information but had the power to drive and determine history. It also had the power to change personal lives and the lives of nations.

5. The future. Prophecy as a practice is almost intuitively associated with the future. Although this view is distorted because prophecy is not essentially prediction, there is still a significant component of prophetic literature that is future oriented. Arguably the DH’s prophetic interpretation of Israel’s history was an explanation of national failure told in order to prevent a repeat of the same in the future. In its final edition, the DH sought to inspire hope of a return to the Promised Land. Often when individual prophets addressed the future in their oracles, they presented a preview of what Israel might expect from the hand of God if they refused to reform. Still the goal was repentance, and the future was malleable according to how the people responded. Prophecy became obsessively concerned with the future as it moved toward its late literary expression called apocalyptic prophecy. This form schematized history into bad and good eras, became mechanistic and deterministic, and saw the future as discontinuous with the present world of experience (see RTOT Chapter 16).



1. Prophets. What are the two basic divisions of prophetic literature, and which books are in each?

2. Deuteronomistic History. Why are the Former Prophets called the Deuteronomistic History in modern scholarship?

3. Nature of prophecy. What is the basic nature of biblical prophecy, and why do some people prefer to view prophecy as preaching, or forthtelling, rather than as predicting, or foretelling?

4. Covenant. What are some of the central themes of prophetic literature that connect it to Pentateuchal themes?


1. Prophetic genre. What difference does it make if we approach the Former Prophets primarily as literature or as history? What are the arguments for viewing it as literature? What are the problems in viewing it primarily as historiography?

2. Torah and Prophets. How are the traditions of the Torah reflected in the Prophets? What general thematic connections between Torah and Prophets can be identified?


Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text, by Antony F. Campbell and Mark. A. O’Brien (2000), contains the entire text of the DH in a convenient format. The Religion of Ancient Israel, by Patrick D. Miller (2000), is an introduction to Israel’s religious beliefs and practices. The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel, by Mark S. Smith (2003), investigates the emergence of Israel’s god-concept.

The debate over the history of Israel and the degree to which the biblical text accurately reflects it continues to engage archaeologists, historians, and text analysts. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel, by William. G. Dever (2001), is an analysis of the revisionist school and an examination of the biblical historicity question by a leading American archaeologist.

Students of the Bible, archaeology, and history will be interested in the Biblical Archaeology Review, which appears every two months, and Near Eastern Archaeology, which appears four times a year. Both are journals of the ancient biblical world containing articles written by leading specialists in the field.

Interpreting biblical prophecy, especially of the apocalyptic variety, opens up a hornet’s nest of interpretive claims and counterclaims. It also operates with a bewildering array of jargon, such as rapture, Armageddon, dispensationalism, and millennialism. How can we sort out what is credible and what is not, what is fringe and what is mainstream? It is not easy, but the following books provide good places to expand your understanding of the prophets: Prophetic Literature: An Introduction, by David L. Petersen (2002); Prophetic Literature, by Marvin A. Sweeney (2006); and The Apocalyptic Literature, by Stephen L. Cook (2003).