This week’s readings are here.
Although we’ve not paid close attention, one of the themes of our readings in this Season of Epiphany in year B is the nature of prophecy (both as an institution and as an event). We heard the very different stories of the calls of Samuel and Jonah on the Second and Third Sundays. The young boy Samuel needed help from Eli to discern that God was calling him. Jonah had no doubt that he was called by God, but he ran away from the call and resisted the message that God had given him to deliver. We also heard from Second Isaiah (on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany), and Elisha’s healing of Naaman yesterday.
Among the stories of particular prophets about whom we heard, were also reflections on the nature of the prophetic office. A couple of weeks ago, the Hebrew Bible reading was Deuteronomy 18:15-20:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’
This is the heart of Hebrew prophecy: one who speaks the Word of God to the people. The model is Moses, who was a mediator between Yahweh and the Israelites, who both delivered the law and interpreted it. Earlier in the chapter, it’s made clear what prophecy is not: soothsaying, augury, divination. These are efforts to predict and control the future. But there’s more. There is also a clear distinction between true and false prophecy: “Whoever speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word I have not commanded them to speak–that prophet shall die.”
This raises the obvious question: How is one to know whether the word a prophet speaks comes from God? The following verses (Deut 18:21-22) ask and answer that question. If whatever is spoken doesn’t come to pass or prove true, then it comes from a false prophet. In other words, wait and see.
In this week’s reading from 2 Kings, we have the wonderful story of Elijah’s departure from earth and the passing of the mantle of prophecy from Elijah to Elisha. Often our focus is on the single prophet, the great hero who, like Elijah and Elisha, performed miracles, and stood alone against the monarchy and the prophets of Ba’al. There are also those solo prophets, Amos, Isaiah, and the like who were opposed by the monarchy and establishment and could rely only on the support of God.
This text shows a more complex institution, the “company of prophets” who seem connected in some way with the solo practitioners and are aware that Elijah is about to pass from the earth. They are curious and involved in the story, even when it’s clear that Elijah sometimes sees them as a nuisance. By the way, Elijah’s itinerary exactly imitates the itinerary of Joshua and the Israelites when they entered the promised land.
All of these readings encourage us to explore the nature of call and the nature of the prophetic message, the relationship of prophetic and other forms of authority. We tend to think of prophets as those who can predict the future, but in the Hebrew tradition, they were primarily interpreters of the law, the Torah, and sought to hold the monarchy and its people to divine standards, to create and maintain just relationships and just communities.
On the other hand, progressive Christians often emphasize the prophetic role of the religious leader or the community without examining the nature of the leader’s or community’s authority. There’s a seductive temptation to perceive oneself as a prophet and to interpret opposition to oneself or one’s message in terms of the opposition of an Israelite king or faithless people to God’s message. Call, authority, and divine message can only be discerned in community, and as Deuteronomy 18 suggests, one ought to approach one’s calling, and one’s message with a certain degree of humility, and uncertainty. I sometimes wonder whether there remains any utility whatever in seeing the church’s role (or that of its leaders) in terms of prophecy.