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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Who was the Prophetess Huldah?

Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to do the right thing. He was aware that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, its ten tribes scattered to the four winds. Judah was smaller and weaker. The king believed its best hope for survival lay in its covenant with God.

So he ordered that his officials would audit the funds at the Temple, and then use them to put everything there into perfect order. It had fallen into serious disarray over the 300 years since his ancestor Solomon built it. Hilkiah, the High Priest, was in charge of the work.

Hilkiah found a scroll stashed away in the Temple. He read the scroll, and realized immediately that it might be important. He gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, who took to King Josiah and read it to him.

Josiah was horrified by what he heard in the scroll. He stood, and tore his clothing, and ordered Shaphan to take the scroll immediately to the prophetess Huldah to see if she thought it was genuine. If it was indeed the scroll of the law, the kingdom was in worse trouble than he had known. They were doing everything wrong. Shaphan and Hilkiah took it to her, and this is what she said:

This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’  Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.  Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.”

So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22: 15-20)

Scholars today believe that that scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah used it for a blueprint for his reforms, and the Kingdom of Judah survived for the rest of his reign. Unfortunately his heirs were not good kings. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried the best and the brightest of the people off to exile.
The Temples are long gone, but the Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, is with us to this day. When we read it, let’s remember Huldah: prophet, scholar, and advisor to a king.