What is a Prophet?

Image: A portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls (via Wikimedia)

Jews and Christians understand the word “prophet” differently.

This can cause misunderstanding. We’ll be going along talking and thinking we’re communicating, and then it will turn out that we use the same English word for two completely different meanings. It’s as if I were walking along talking to a UK citizen about something “in my boot.” I am referring to something in my shoe. The British listener believes I’m referring to the cabinet at the back of my car! We are both right, but we aren’t communicating.

Jews understand prophets to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The prophets spoke to our entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

The prophets were limited to a particular time in our history. Jewish prophets occupied an historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders. Not long after we returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon, though, the time of the Prophets was over. Our last prophet was Malachi, who is believed to have lived during the time of Ezra.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless. They call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill the commandments.

For Christians, the same figures have a different role. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fortellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. Christians speak of events in the New Testament “fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Not all Christians are Dispensationalists. The Dispensationalists have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their messages and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

The two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor, etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful from a Jewish point of view. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently.  Knowing about those differences can improve our communication and foster mutual respect – and that is a worthwhile goal.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

4 thoughts on “What is a Prophet?”

  1. Great post. The Hebrew bible’s record on prophecy is very confusing. For a talk on this week’s Torah portion, I just researched all occurrences of prophet (“nevi”) using a concordance. There’s simply no agreement in the T’nach as a whole about prophecy, except for two issues: a prophet who guides you away from the one God is not a prophet, and Moses can never be replicated. Here’s a quick categorization of the areas of disagreement:
    • Who has authority to become a prophet (designated elders, trained acolytes, priests, random people, men, women)
    • How prophets work together (bands, small teams, solo)
    • How loyal prophets are (very disciplined, can be bought, have whims)
    • Targets of prophecy (kings, priests, the general populace, the nation, enemies)
    • How prophecy is expressed (ranting, speaking in tongues, singing, poetry, prose)
    • Content of prophecy (admonition, telling the future, advising on strategy, finding lost things, giving law, speaking out for justice, encouraging, comforting, intercession to avoid disaster)
    • Whether prophets can enact magic (no, yes)
    • Boundary between visions, dreams, and prophecy (Venn diagram – visions/dreams are prophecy, prophecy can happen without visions)
    • When prophecy is necessary (always, at time of crisis only)
    • Who is a false prophet (idol worshipper, false comforter, fear mongerer)

    1. Thank you! I think the confusion about the role of prophets played a big role in our decision as a people to close the “age of prophecy” after the disaster with Babylon. It’s simply too difficult to sort out who’s speaking with genuine authority.

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