Many years ago, a dear friend invited me to attend a lecture in which the speaker would explain how the prophecies of the ancient Hebrew Prophets were finally being realized in our time. Would I like to attend the lecture? The books of the prophets continue to be important religious literature -- read every Shabbat in synagogues around the world -- but not in the way that this woman presumed. The Hebrew prophets, from Elijah through Malachi spoke within a specific historical context, directly to their communities, the events of their time, and out of their understanding of God. They were not predicting the far flung future, events that would occur hundreds or even thousands of years later. Often, the principles they promulgated and the values they taught inform our own lives, especially if we see ourselves enmeshed in the same moral failings which entrapped our ancestors, but this is not the same as saying that God delivered prophecies 2700 years ago that are really directed to our own day. The prophets are revered today for the insights they provided into God’s ways, the model of devotion to God’s word they themselves were, and the beautiful poetry of their books which inspires us to enter into their world of ideas and therein encounter God in our lives, as well.

A prophet’s job is twofold. First and foremost, the prophet is God’s mouthpiece, receiving God’s message and transmitting it to the Jewish people. This should not be taken to suggest that the prophet’s input and interpretation are not part of his prophecy; quite to the contrary, the prophets are partners of God in conveying to Israel the word of their God who sought their obedience. The prophets view the world from God’s perspective but also comprehend the human perspective; hence they are able to speak to the human condition through a vision of the divine.
Of the 55 prophets identified in Hebrew Scripture, the earliest predate Mt. Sinai. Abraham was considered a prophet, and the Talmud tells us that Sarah’s prophetic ability exceeded even his. Moses is considered the greatest prophet of all time, never to be surpassed. Even a non-Jew, Balaam son of Pe’or, is mentioned in Torah (Numbers 22), though his is often spoken of with derision as a prophet-for-hire. Most prophets worked in the Land of Israel, but Jonah was sent abroad on a mission to the non-Jewish people of Nineveh. Each prophet has a specific mission, which explains why Daniel is not considered a prophet despite his ability to foretell the future through visions.

In the early days, God spoke directly to the patriarchs and Moses. During the period of the monarchy, God communicated through prophets, whose job it was to convey God’s word to the people. In addition, the prophet was expected to defend the people before God in the hope that God would be merciful. Most prophets arise during a period of trial or crisis. In Elijah’s day, the country was overrun by prophets of Ba’al, brought in by Jezebel, the pagan queen of King Ahab. In Isaiah’s day, the Assyrian Empire to the north threatened the Northern Kingdom of Israel with extinction. Two centuries later, the Babylonian Empire threatened the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In each case, prophets arose who adjured the people to remain loyal to Adonai, the God of Israel, and to remain faithful to God’s covenant.

It was not the job of the prophet to look deeply into the future and predict events, but rather to look deeply into the present situation and provide the people with God’s perspective. Hence, prophets were models of holiness and communication with God, loyalty to the covenant, and reliance on God. The prophets of Israel were iconoclasts, challenging long held beliefs, practices, and institutions that did not accord with God’s covenant, or which distorted Jewish values in a manner that perverted their essence and intention. The prophets roundly condemned cruelty, corruption, violence, and deceit. This is their continuing power: They hold a mirror to our faces and force us to confront in us -- as individuals and as a society -- that which is less than worthy and which needs correction. Their predictive abilities were mixed: As Rabbi Joshua Heschel put it so succinctly, “In terms of statistics the prophets’ statements are grossly inaccurate. Yet their concern is not with facts, but with the meaning of facts. The significance of human deeds, the true image of man’s existence, cannot be expressed by statistics” [The Prophets, p.14.].

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear?
Or cry to You, Violence! and you will not save?
Why do You make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth, for the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.
[Habakkuk 1:2-4]

To what purpose does frankincense come to Me from Sheba,
Or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices please to Me.
[Jeremiah 6:20]

There is no truth, no love, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing and lying, killing and stealing, and committing adultery break all bonds, and blood touches blood.
[Hosea 4:1-2]

Few prophets relished their jobs. Jonah did his best to escape it, learning that there is no escaping the call of God. Jeremiah was tormented and threatened. Being a prophet was more affliction than honor. Who would choose a job that brings in its wake ridicule, threat, and supreme loneliness? Only one who could not avoid the call.

They hate the one who reproves in the gate; they abhor the one who speaks the truth. [Amos 5:10]

Cursed be the day on which I was born!... Why did I come forth out of the womb to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame? [Jeremiah 20:14, 18]

Failings of social justice and religious righteousness are common themes among the prophets. The daily struggle to keep God’s covenant -- following the moral dictates of Torah and observing the commandments with a pure heart -- is not easy in any age. To the prophets, these failings were grievous sins that triggered God’s response in the form of massive punishments. The Assyrian and Babylonian assaults (Assyrian in the eighth century BCE; Babylonia in the sixth century BCE) were seen as orchestrated by God to punish Israel for a variety of failings. A colleague once told me of a nun he met who specializes in interfaith relations. At a public forum in which both the rabbi and the nun participated together, someone rose to castigate Jews and used as his prooftext a passage from one of the prophets. The nun responded with a rebuke: The Hebrew prophets, she explained, spoke to Jews about Jewish issues. Jews can be proud that their religious tradition is one which includes copious amounts of self-criticism for such self-criticism attests to a highly-developed moral conscience and leads to an advanced system of ethics. She concluded by saying that since the criticism of the Hebrew prophets is Jews criticizing Jews, no Christian has a right to batter Jews with their own texts; rather Christians ought to engage in the same soul-searching and self-criticism. The failings which exercised the prophets included corruption in the Temple cultic system, failure to take care of the most vulnerable members of society (often represented by the proverbial “widow and orphan”), and perversions of justice in the courts.

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin? Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, the Presence of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, God will say, “Here I am.” If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon; the Lord will guide you always; God will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body’s strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins, and lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called “Repairer of the breach, Restorer of streets to dwell in.” [Isaiah 58: 5-12]

While the great prophets of Israel addressed at length Israel’s failings and need for renewed adherence to the covenant, they also provided their people comfort and consolation, assuring them that tragedies such as the Assyrian and Babylonian devastations did not mark the end of Israel’s covenant with God nor the end of the Jewish people. Even in exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) assured his people that God had not forsaken them, and was only punished them, and that eventually they would be restored to their Land because the covenant of God is as eternal as the covenant of Noah.

And now, thus says Adonai your Creator, O Jacob, the One who fashioned you, O Israel: Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through water, I am with you; through rivers, they will not wash you away; when you walk through fire, you will not be singed, and no flame will burn you. For I am Adonai your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior; I gave Egypt as your ransom, and Cush and Seba in your place. Because you were precious in My eyes you were honored and I loved you; I put people in your place and regimes in place of your soul. Fear not, for I am with you. From the East I will bring your offspring and from the West I will gather you. I will say to the North, “Give them over!” and to the South, “Do not withhold! Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called My Name and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have fashioned, even perfected; to liberate the people who are blind though they have eyes, and deaf though they have ears. [Isaiah 43:1-8]

In the synagogue, the prophets are read each Shabbat and holiday morning. The Haftarah portion read on these occasions is a portion from one of the books of the prophets whose theme or imagery connects with the Torah portion read that day. While the Torah is read sequentially and completely, week by week, the prophets are not read in this manner in the synagogue. The sum total of the Haftarah readings amount to but a fraction of Nevi’im (Prophets, the second section of Hebrew Scripture). The prophets are frequently accessed through midrash, as well, where they quoted extensively. And, of course, they are read on their own for the literary beauty and religious value.

A Brief Historical Outline of the Prophets of Israel following Moses and the Exodus from Egypt:

Early Prophets 870 BCE Elijah and Elisha
Prior to fall of the Northern Kingdom 750 BCE Amos, Hosea, Isaiah
Fall of the Northern Kingdom 722 BCE Joel, Obadiah, Nachum, Zephania
  612 BCE Habakkuk
Babylonian Destruction and Exile 586 BCE Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah

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