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date: 19 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

“Prophets” in the ancient world were individuals said to possess an intimate association with God or the gods, and conducted the business of transmitting messages between the divine and earthly realms. They spoke on behalf of God or the gods, and on occasion solicited requests from the deity or brought to the deity requests of others.

The discovery of texts from the ancient Near East in the 19th and early 20th centuries has given us a fuller picture of prophets and prophetic activity in the ancient world, adding considerably to reports of prophets serving other gods in the Bible and corroborating details about prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two collections are important: (1) letters from the 18th-century Mari written during the reigns of Yasmaḫ-Addu (c. 1792–1775) and Zimri-Lim (c. 1774–1760); and (2) the 7th-century annals of Assyrian kings Esarhaddon (680–669) and Assurbanipal (668–627).

Prophecies at Mari are favorable for the most part, and censures of the king, when they occur, are not harsh. Many simply remind the king of some neglect or give him some warning. One tells the king to practice righteousness and justice for anyone who has been wronged. None censures the people of Mari as biblical prophecies do the people of Israel. Assyrian oracles are largely oracles of peace and wellbeing, typically giving assurance to the king about matters of succession and success in defeating enemies. If prophets admonish the king, it is a mild rebuke about the king ignoring a prior oracle or not having provided food at the temple.

According to the Bible, Israel’s prophetic movement began with Samuel, and it arose at the time when people asked for a king. Prophets appear all throughout the monarchy and into the postexilic period, when Jewish tradition believed prophecy had ceased. Yet, prophets reappear in the New Testament and early church: Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others. Paul allows prophets to speak in the churches, ranking them second only to apostles.

Hebrew prophets give messages much like those of other ancient Near Eastern prophets, but what makes them different is that they announce considerably more judgment—sometimes very harsh judgment—on Israel’s monarchs, leading citizens, and the nation itself. Israel’s religion had its distinctives. Yahweh was bound to the nation by a covenant containing law that had to be obeyed. Prophets in Israel were therefore much preoccupied with indicting and judging kings, priests, other prophets, and an entire people for covenant disobedience. Also, in Israel the lawgiver was Yahweh, not the king. In Mari, as elsewhere in the ancient Near East, the king was lawgiver. Deuteronomy contains tests for true and false prophets, to which prophets themselves add other disingenuine marks regarding their contemporaneous prophetic colleagues.

Hebrew prophets from the time of Amos onward speak in poetry and are skilled in rhetoric, using an array of tropes and knowing how to argue. Their discourse also contains an abundance of humor and drama. Speaking is supplemented with symbolic action, and in some cases the prophets themselves became the symbol.

Keywords: prophets, prophets in the ancient Near East, prophets at Mari, prophets in Assyria, Hebrew prophets, marks of the Hebrew prophet, true and false prophets, prophetic symbolism, prophetic discourse

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