A communication from a deity on some particular matter. The documentation from the ancient Mediterranean world, both biblical and extrabiblical, preserves many citations of, or allusions to, such oracles. Frequently, oracles are conveyed in the setting of a sanctuary, for example, the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, or the high place of Gibeon where Solomon received a divine message in a dream (1 Kings 3.4–15). In communicating its oracles, the deity may make use of either mechanical devices—for example, the lots known as Urim (1 Sam. 28.6; cf. Acts 1.26)—or of a human intermediary, the “prophet.” Oracles may come in response to a human “inquiry” (Jer. 21.2) or at the divine initiative. In either case, however, it is recognized that God remains free either to give or withhold the oracle (2 Sam. 14.37; 28.6; Ezek. 20.3).
In content, biblical oracles range from one‐word responses to yes‐or‐no questions (2 Sam. 2.1) to the extended discourses mediated by prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Like extrabiblical oracles, the latter are characterized by an elevated, poetic style, evidencing a certain ambiguity and indeterminacy.
In terms of purpose, the oracles of the prophetic books can be classified generally as either “judgment speeches” or “oracles of salvation.” The former have as their intention the announcement of the evil fate awaiting the addressee. They typically consist of an accusation that serves to motivate the following statement of the punishment that God will bring on the guilty individual, group, or nation (see, e.g., 2 Kings 2.3–4; Amos 4.1–3; 8.4–14; Mic. 3.7–12). This type predominates in the material of the preexilic prophets. The oracle of salvation, which comes to the fore during the exile (with Second Isaiah) and afterward, announces God's coming positive interventions for those addressed. These may concern both the improvement of their external circumstances (return to the land, restoration of the Davidic line, etc.) as well as their internal purification or revitalization (see, e.g., Isa. 43.1–7; Jer. 31.31–34; Ezek. 16.59–63; 37.1–14; Hag. 2.20–23). Oracles of salvation are sometimes conditional on a prior human initiative of repentance (Mal. 3.6–12), but more often are grounded solely on God's impenetrable mercy.
Christopher T. Begg