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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Prophecy in Early Israel

The title “prophet” refers to a role in Israel's society that was by no means uniform. Persons who were recognized as prophets performed in quite different ways. Indeed, the title “prophet” (Hebrew nabi') itself was not consistent; persons we think of as prophets were called “seer” (Hebrew roeh), “visionary” (Hebrew hozeh), and “man of God,” as well as “prophet.” It is possible that in early Israel the different titles designated different roles, but according to 1 Sam. 9.9 “what is nowadays called a prophet used to be called a seer.”

As one reads the story of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings it becomes apparent in what different ways one could be a prophet in Israel. Some prophets were resident at holy places (1 Kgs. 13.11; 14.1–2 ). Others lived in ordinary surroundings in their homes or villages (2 Kgs. 22.14 ). Others were resident at the royal court (2 Sam. 24; 1 Kgs. 22 ). Some belonged to groups who lived a communal existence (1 Sam. 10; 2 Kgs. 2 ). Others were individual in playing their role (1 Kgs. 11.29–33 ). An Israelite might take the initiative to seek out a prophet to inquire about God's way with him or her in times of crisis; apparently prophets were frequently consulted about serious illness (1 Kgs. 14; 2 Kgs. 1 ). But prophets also received and brought revelations from God for persons who had not consulted them (1 Kgs. 12.22–24 ). Some prophets practiced prophecy in the form of group ecstasy induced by music and group excitement (1 Sam. 10.5; 2 Kgs. 3.15–16 ). Others spoke in formally-composed oracles containing clear and concise messages from God to people about their situation in the light of the deity's purpose (1 Kgs. 21.17–24 ).

The biblical story reflects all this variety without sorting out well-defined social roles for different types of prophets. To do so was not the purpose of the story of which prophets were a part. What seems to have held all this variety together under the category prophet is that all so named were recognized in Israel's society as intermediaries, persons who had the gift of being the medium of communication between the divine and human spheres. The story makes it clear at points that not all who were recognized as prophets in Israel's society played a positive role in the story (1 Kgs. 13 and 22 ). The focus is rather on a particular succession of prophets who at crucial stages in Israel's history played a significant role in guiding and maintaining the relation between Israel and its God.

Samuel is the introductory figure in two ways: He is the first prophet to play a prominent role in Israel's story, and his career provides a typical model of the prophetic role of those who followed him. (1) He became a prophet through the experience of a vision in which the Lord spoke to him. (2) In the vision he was given a message and a commission to deliver it. (3) The message took the form of “the word of the LORD.” (4) The message was a rebuke and announcement of punishment for officials who perverted the relation between God and people, in this case the priestly clan who presided at the chief holy place. (5) His identity as one who had the gift of prophecy was claimed by the oracles or words which he spoke, and his authority by the fact that his oracles proved reliable. (For all the above, see 1 Sam. 3 .)

Samuel as prophet dealt with two institutions that were of the highest importance in Israel's life: kingship and warfare. His relation to those institutions set the course for prophets who followed him. With respect to kingship, Samuel was the agent of the Lord in the inauguration of kingship in Israel and in the designation of Israel's first two kings, Saul and David (1 Sam. 9–10; 1 Sam. 16 ). He was the intermediary between God and king, concerned about the king's loyalty and obedience to the Lord as the real sovereign over Israel. At the appropriate times he brought word of the Lord's disapproval and rejection to the king (1 Sam. 15 ).

Samuel's role in relation to warfare was significant. In times of dire military crisis, Samuel was intercessor for the nation, seeking a word of salvation from God through his appeal (1 Sam. 7 ). He gave the king direct advice in military decisions (1 Sam. 15 ).

The prophets who are featured in the books of Samuel and Kings stand in the tradition of Samuel. The prophets Gad and Nathan belonged to David's retinue and guided his decisions and condemned his failures (1 Sam. 22.5; 2 Sam. 12 ). Nathan was the channel of the Lord's promise to establish David's house as the permanent dynasty in Israel (2 Sam. 7 ). Ahijah the Shilonite gave divine authorization to Jeroboam to lead the ten northern tribes in secession from the Davidic rule because of the failures of Solomon and Rehoboam (1 Kgs. 11.29–39 ). In the remaining history of the separate northern kingdom, prophets were active in designating kings, influencing military policy, and fomenting rebellion. Elijah the Tishbite fought an epochal battle against the introduction of the worship of the Canaanite deity Baal into Israel (1 Kgs. 18 ). Elisha was deeply involved in the wars of Israel with its neighbors (2 Kgs. 3 ).

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