The uniqueness of Israelite prophets in the Ancient Near East

Peter Leithart, summarizing the arguments of John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, compares the role of prophets in Old Testament Israel and the oracles of other Ancient Near Eastern societies.  Israelite prophets often pronounced judgment on the kingdom for violating God’s covenant, while in other societies oracles tended to focus on communicating divine support for kings.  Disapproving oracles usually criticized (in Walton’s words) “cultic neglect,” leaving the required ceremonies that appeased the gods unfulfilled.  It’s interesting that at least some of the Israelite prophets (and I don’t know them as well as I should) criticized Israel for maintaining the rituals but violating God’s other commandments (for example, in Isaiah 1 and Amos 4).

But while prophecies often denounce sin, they also point to the restoration and redemption in God’s plan for the world.  As Leithart notes (mostly quoting Walton),

Finally, though both Israelite and ANE prophets offer hope, in Israel the hope is “generally not intended to indicate divine support for the king.  The hope offered is for after the judgment. . . . The contrast is clear: The ‘support’ category in the ancient Near East focused hope primarily on near-term victory and protection, legitimizing the current regime; Israelite aftermath oracles generally focused on the long term because the near future held judgment and defeat for the current regime, which is consequently stigmatized.  Ancient Near Eastern prophecies functioned in a context of immediacy and urgency and had no longer-term value.  In contrast, the hope that is offered in Israelite prophecy is presented as part of a divine plan that is eschatological and covenant based.”

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One comment

  1. Yes! Jesus kept up that prophetic pattern, too, in lambasting the Jewish leadership for their hypocrisy and rituals devoid of or even opposed to God’s intent, while embracing and appealing to the Jewish commoners and outcasts to directly come to God.

    And in that decentralizing prophetic vein of judges over kings, when people claim stereotypical theocracy as Judaic or Christian, I often reference 1 Samuel 8:10-20 where God argues against a King but Israel demands one anyway (which also speaks to free will):

    10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

    19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

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