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William Blake and Allen Ginsberg, Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World


Israel's Prophetic Tradition

"Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" -- Moses, Numbers 11:29

The writings of the Old Testament prophets represent a unique form of literature. It is a literature which knows no distinction between religion and history, a literature whose origins and meanings remain in dispute among scholars, religions, and nations, and a literature which examines the contemporary events of its time and demands action of its people. Finally, it is a literature that claims to be the word of God.

Understanding the Israelite prophetic tradition is a difficult task because it speaks on so many levels. In purely historical terms, the very existence of a coherent tradition is disputed by scholars. Nevertheless, a rough outline of what is known of Hebraic history and prophecy is useful in understanding the significance of what is called the prophetic tradition. Most scholars believe that what is accepted as the tradition - that is, what began with Elisha and Elijah, and came to fruition and maturity with the classical prophets - was a combination of two elements: the nomadic Israelites, and the surrounding peoples whom they came into contact with when they entered Palestine. (Coggins, 13) These elements coalesced around 1000 B.C., though some scholars mark the beginning of the tradition with the covenant at Mount Sinai, around 1250 B.C.

Certainly Moses and even Abraham can be considered prophets since Yahweh spoke to them, yet scholars are hesitant to consider Moses and Abraham true prophets of the tradition because their lives and words are the stuff of Hebraic legend, not verifiable historical fact. Abraham does, however, mark the beginning of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, and Moses marked the establishment of a written covenant and an organized religion. The covenant between Yahweh and Israel differs from the previous interactions between Yahweh and man in that it is the first time Israel as a people is accepted into a reciprocal relationship with their god. In the Hebraic legends of the creation and the flood, for example, Adam and Noah were established with the promise of generation and life, but when Yahweh established Abraham, He established his descendants as His people, requiring of them as much as He provided.

The transition from Creation to Abraham, then, is the story of man's growing and developing sense of faith and reciprocal sense of responsibility toward his creator. (Buber 88-89) In the case of Moses, Yahweh have His people a tangible law which they enshrined in the ark of the covenant. Martin Buber sees the ark of the covenant as central to the nomadic tribe's notion of a "Living God" or a "Leading God." Buber explains that historically the Israelites had been a nomadic people, and so legend describes the ark of the covenant as being quite mobile: it was supported on poles, to be carried about wherever the people went, and it was housed in a tent, not a permanent temple of any kind. This gave rise to the power of the priests in Hebraic religious life because only the priests were allowed to enter into the tent, to make petition to Yahweh for his people.

When the Israelites entered the land of Israel and gave up their nomadic ways, the preeminence of the prophets began. When the ark was stolen, the demise of priestly power was complete. (Buber, 62)

Buber's analysis of biblical events points out a sometimes confusing reality: that history and legend often intersect and complement one another. Once the prophets were established as the religious leaders of Israel, they consisted of two groups, the cultic prophets and the great individual prophets. The cultic prophets were those who functioned as part of the established religious cult, or ritual. This group grew as the cult of Yahweh and its monarchial system became more powerful and centralized. The "band of prophets" which Samuel mentions to Saul is held to be a reference to the institution of cultic prophecy. you come to the city, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. -- Samuel 10:5-6

The cultic prophets could be consulted for a fee, and often there was a great deal of animosity among the prophets, particularly between the individual and cultic prophets. The great individual prophets often spoke out against the cultic prophets' desire for material gain, and for their bogus prophecies.

The great individual prophets became enmeshed, very often, in the workings of the monarchy, serving as confidants and advisors to kings. Because of this political component, the Prophetic Tradition is inexorably tied to the records of political history, and much of the prophetic literature deals directly with contemporary political events.

But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. -- Micah 3:8

This divine intercession into political affairs is not so mundane as it seems. The Davidic succession of kings was considered a divine institution, and so guidance on the part of the prophets was considered the will of Yahweh.

The great individual prophets wrote in a period from around 750 - 500 B.C., known as the Golden Age of Prophecy. There is a body of Hebraic literature written after this period which can be considered prophetic or apocalyptic, but this essay will concern itself only with those prophecies which have entered Old Testament canon.

From a literary standpoint, there are several features of Hebraic prophecy which run through the tradition with great consistency. The prophecies are composed as poetry, with a poetic sense of time, sound, and meter, and were presumably spoken aloud in their day.

One of the most salient constructs one comes across is something called an oracle, a fervent appeal to the people to realize their situation and wrongdoing, and to change what is amiss through a transformation of mind, soul, and behavior. The oracle has three distinctive features: a declaration of the condition deplored by the prophet, a reproach or exhortation to the people who are responsible, and a threat of God's retribution. (Chase, 124)

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins - you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Therefore this says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: "In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, 'Alas! alas!'..." -- Amos 5:12-16

The oracle sets up the prophet as a man on the threshold of change, a man who through divine inspiration must lead the people into the correct course of action. This of course pre-supposes that Yahweh gave man a choice in his own destiny -- an important ingredient in the Hebraic religion.

Another important motif which occurs repeatedly in the Hebraic prophets is the rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions served to get the listener's attention, to startle listeners with absurdity, and perhaps to encourage the audience to question their own hearts. Here Amos speaks with harshness to the people:

The lion has roared: who will not fear? The Lord has spoken; who can but prophesy? -- Amos 3:8

Micah strikes a somewhat calmer rhetorical stance:

Is the spirit of the Lord impatient? Are these his doings? Do not my words do good To him who walks uprightly? -- Micah 2:7

Another common practice was to mock or scorn the people, using bitter sarcasm to strike fear into their hearts.

Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; -- Amos 4:4

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! -- Isaiah 1:10

In addition to these recurring characteristics, the prophets were also fond of word-plays, which do not translate into English but which, like English language puns, give an utterance a double, perhaps more profound meaning. (Chase 131) Such word plays would have been quite obvious to the audiences of ancient Israel, though quite obscure to us today.

The hope for a savior, for a Messiah, became central to some of the later prophecies, as was the notion of apocalypse. Since Israel had turned its face from Yahweh and the covenant, out of destruction would arise a new covenant.

Behold, the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. -- Isaiah 27:6

In days to come Jacob shall take root Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit. -- Isaiah 27:6

Generally speaking, an apocalyptic writing deals with one of several things, or a combination thereof: the expectation of the overthrow of the world in a violent cataclysm, the overthrow of human conditions as they exist, the establishment of a "glorious" kingdom of God, or the attainment of salvation or damnation (Coggins 158)

Apocalyptic prophecies center on a sense of determinism, but of the sort which gives a man a choice over his own individual fate on "judgement day". As Martin Buber points out, the future is not fixed insofar as the present course of action determines the future:

The rebelliousness of the hour, rebelling against the prophetic teaching, directs the heart of the prophet to the future, which will fulfill his teaching. But the connection of the nabi (prophet) with the future is not that of one who predicts. To be a nabi means to set the audience, to whom the words are addressed, before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly. The future is not something already fixed in this present hour, it is dependent upon the real decision, that is to say the decision in which man takes part in this hour. (Buber, 22)

As we have seen, various aspects of Hebraic legend, religion, and culture were affected by the transition from a nomadic to an agrarian people, but Hebraic prophecy drew much of its character from the Hebraic mind. Of course the Hebraic mind cannot be adequately discussed in this short essay, but by centering on its relationship to Israelite prophecy, we can see both in a clearer, though admittedly incomplete light.

W. Robertson Smith, a 19th century theologian, called Israelite prophecy "the unconscious and childlike art of an age in which all lofty thought was still essentially poetical, and reason was not yet divorced from the imagination." (Smith 342) It seems as though the Israelite was predisposed to prophecy, with his thirst for intuitive wisdom and divine guidance. To argue that the prophetic tradition is purely an expression of social and psychological forces, however, is to ignore the deep religious significance of prophecy to the Israelite culture and more importantly, to rule out divinity. Mary Ellen Chase here describes the Israelite prophets and people in terms of their poetical, intuitive knowledge:

"Their minds, like all hebrew minds, were not speculative so much as intuitive, not abstract so much as concrete, not given to reflection so much as insight...the minds of the prophets leapt to knowledge, to affirmations and conclusions which to them were innate and inarguable, to truths which they believe had been revealed to them by a source not open to question. " (Chase, 45)

Unlike the Greeks, who at the same period in history were exploring the nature of man and nature in logical, philosophical systems, the Israelites were the recipients of a more direct, living knowledge, a form of knowledge which was not arrived at through contemplation but through inspiration. William Creighton Graham, a 20th century Old Testament scholar argues that even today Western man's thought processes are essentially Greek in nature, and that whatever the Judeo-Christian legacy is, it is segregated from everyday thought, relegated to the "spiritual" realm of existence.

"They antedated the formal science of thought. They had no equipment of recognized principles of logic. They spent no consideration on the processes of thought. Whoever understands thinking to be the same as formal ratiocination, whoever is so subservient to consider that thought is something apart from emotion and will may easily miss almost completely the significance of the intellectual aspect of the ministry of Israel's prophets." (Graham 43)

This notion of insight and intuition as intelligence or knowledge goes hand in hand with the Hebrew conception of life as religion, of history as religion, "Truth" exists in living and believing and all other knowledge is superfluous.

The interpretation of the prophecies as historical/spiritual events in man's development presupposes that the prophets were attuned to some kind of otherworldly wisdom, but the thinking person cannot help but wonder: why would the Creator, if such an entity exists, bother speaking to a particular tribe of people at one small juncture in history in one corner of the vast universe? Smith tries to tackle this question by implying that all of time and creation is a revelation to man, a somewhat typically religious, anthropocentric view, but not a wholly unsatisfactory attempt to answer so profound a question.

"That the Eternal and infinite God has anything to do either in the way of nature or of grace with the finite world of time is a mystery which we cannot hope to apprehend; but in itself it is not surprising that revelation follows the laws of historical progress than that a law of continuity runs through the succession of physical phenomena." (Smith, 3)

The primary distinction to be made by the individual reader of the Old Testament prophecies is this: are these simply poetic documents of a defunct religious cult, or are these living holy books? The analytical mind can discern consistencies and inconsistencies, and conjecture as to sources and origins, but it cannot recognize holiness. As we shall see, William Blake would maintain that reason and faith are irreconcilable, one being slavery to the satanic Urizen, the other being the glorification of the eternal God.

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