Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Strozzi- Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta
This fall I am teaching a course on Prophetic Literature to our graduate students and we usually start with the classical introductory themes of this second section of the TaNaK. I find it very useful to begin with the discussion on the nature of Israelite Prophecy because we will keep referring to these basic definitions every time we begin the study of a prophetic book. When we talk about prophecy often times what comes to our minds is the ability one person has to foretell future events. Therefore the common definition of prophecy becomes “forecasting the future”. To me this definition seems somehow simplistic, since the phenomenon of prophecy does not rely only in predicting the future. We should not understand the prophets of the OT in this sense to avoid misleading for two reasons. First, seen into the future, predicting what will happen is only one small aspect of what the mission of Israel’s prophets was about. Second, they also addressed the present and made references to the past.

The word prophet comes from the Greek prophetes, from the verb propheteuo which means ‘to interpret’ or to ‘speak for another’. So the prophet is called the interpreter or the spokesperson, in this case of Yahweh. In my opinion, a much better definition of prophecy would be then: the mediation and the interpretation of the divine mind and will.  The prophet becomes Yahweh’s interpreter, his representative, his spokesperson before the chosen people of Israel as well as for their enemies. The prophet would communicate in different forms and in diverse situations what is God’s thought and determination.

In his or her duty of  delivering God’s mind and will the prophet becomes a public religious figure as his message is directed to the whole community. Even if he his addressing only the king, as an example, the prophecy will have repercussions or consequences for the whole community.

There are different ways in which the prophet communicates the divine message. Here we include the oracle, dreams and visions in which the prophets receive God’s message as well as ecstatic or mystical experiences. Sometimes the prophet is presented exercising certain divinatory practices like casting lots or reading animals’ entrails, depending on the occasion and the particular Ancient Near Eastern culture.
St. Thomas Aquinas

It is very important to make the distinction that prophecy is always a charism, a gift. St. Thomas Aquinas explains the charismatic character of prophecy stating that prophecy is a transient motion, a touch by the Holy Spirit rather than a habit (Quodl. 12, q.17, a. 26). So the gift of prophecy comes and goes as a difference from, to present a proper example, both the Israelite priesthood and kingship, which remained throughout the whole life.

The phenomenon of prophecy was not uncommon among the different cultures of the Ancient Near East. Some analogies exist with other regions like Mesopotamia and Egypt which provide us with testimonies of prophetic literature somewhat similar to that of Israel.[1] More about that later...

[1] Here are some sources I use in my classroom with my students that also served to put together this post: Petersen, David L. The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. Print; Chisholm, Robert B. Handbook on the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009.Print; Leclerc, Thomas L. Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings and Scrolls. New York: Paulist Press, 2007. Print; Brown, Raymond E, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Print.

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  1. John. ...what about A.J. Heschel's book, The Prophets? A life changing book I'm reading now.

  2. Hi Tom! Actually, this is Fr. Juan Miguel's post! We have added yet another writer to the blog. I personally enjoy Heschel's work - I have my own copy of The Prophets, but I do not know what the current stance of the academy is to it or where it stands amongst scholars working on the prophets.

    1. Hi John: ok I will figure out the new setup with these writers. Nice. I don't think the academy is a big fan of Heschel. They view him as a preacher, not a scholar.

    2. Thanks, Tom. I also like the work of Heschel. This book is considered a classic on the Prophets. I think that many in the academia will agree with me that this impressive work is appreciated. However, where many contemporary scholars look more for the historical, literary, anthropological and canonical among other aspects of the prophetic literature, here Heschel emphasizes sociological and psychological aspects of prophecy and the prophetic books. Moreover, this book was published in the early 60's and since then the emphases in the study of the prophets have developed as well.