July 14, 2019
Today marks a transition point in our journey with the prophets. Over the last few weeks we’ve been hearing from the prophets Elijah and Elisha, two people often termed “pre-classical prophets.” Today we begin our journey with those termed the “classical prophets” with the prophet Amos. This distinction, and the fact that we get to hear from Amos for two Sundays in a row, got me thinking, perhaps it’s time to step back and talk a bit more broadly about the people we call prophets.
So instead of focusing on Amos this week, we’re going to explore the broader realm of prophets. Now don’t worry, we won’t forget about Amos we’ll return to him next Sunday, but I thought it was important at this point in our series to get a bit more shape around this sometimes confusing and often misunderstood realm of biblical prophecy.
Let’s begin with this idea of the “pre-classical” versus the “classical” prophets that I mentioned earlier. This terminology is generally used within academic circles and generally divides the prophets into two categories—those whose words were recorded in books and were generally serving from around the 8th to the 6th century B.C. (think Isaiah and Jeremiah) from those who served in earlier time periods and who didn’t get a book of their own (think Samuel or Nathan). This, of course, is largely an academic division, and one that in general isn’t really important as we listen to the messages of the prophets. However, it can help us to realize something I think we’re often unaware of—there are far more prophets than just those fortune enough to get a book named after them!
According to the Jewish tradition there were hundreds of thousands of prophets, up to one million, two hundred thousand, during the biblical period.
We met two of these prophets during the last two Sundays—Elijah and Elisha. And we encounter prophets in the Hebrew Bible dating all the way back to Genesis. Abraham is a prophet as is his wife Sarah. Moses, his brother Aaron and his sister, Miriam are all prophets.
Which bring us to another fact I think we’re often unaware of—not all prophets are men! There are many female prophets whose work is recorded in the Bible, including an incredible woman from the book of Judges named Deborah. Deborah is a charismatic military leader, a poet, and a prophet—if you’re interested in learning more about her story it’s found in the book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5, and I assure you, it’s an exciting read!
Deborah, Sarah, and Miriam are far from the only female prophets. Queen Esther, who helped save her people from annihilation is a prophet, and within Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, also carries the title of prophet.
Now you may be wondering at this point why some of these people are classified as “prophets.” After all, I don’t remember Mary, the mother of Jesus ever delivering a message like we heard today from Amos.
This question often comes from a misunderstanding about what a prophet does and how they function in the world. This misunderstanding grows from several places, one of which is related to the very name we use to describe these holy people—prophet.
The term prophet is actually a Greek word, translated it means something along the lines of “forth teller” or “teller in advance.” While not the intent in Greek, unfortunately this idea of “forth teller” has left us with the impression that prophets are in fact “fortune tellers” or “predictors of the future.” This, of course, creates a significant problem in our understanding of prophets and prophecy. Because, “predictor of the future” is actually a pretty terrible description of the role of a prophet in the world.
A better word to describe the work of a prophet comes from their Hebrew name, nevi’im. Nevi’im are spokespersons, they are God’s voice on earth. They are empowered by God to deliver a message to humanity. These messages, particularly those recorded in the prophetic books, like Amos, can feel strange and somewhat cryptic to our modern ears—however that doesn’t make them oracles of the future. The prophetic words of these women and men aren’t necessarily complex puzzles left for future generations to unlock. That would negate the entire purpose of a prophet as “God’s spokesperson.” Instead, their messages are clear and clarion calls to action to their original audience.
What makes engaging with the prophets often difficult is that we aren’t their original audience! I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time working with plump lines like the one described today in Amos. Analogies and visual imagery like these can leave me a bit bumfuzzled. And things get even more complicated when we begin to encounter people whose prophetic work can best be described as “performance art,” like Jeremiah who smashes jars in front of an audience.
In order to engage with these prophets, we first have to take the time to understand their world and how their sometimes strange or disturbing acts would have been understood in their own time.
When we take the time to hear the message of the prophets in this way, we discover something surprising. The same themes we talk about week in and week out here at St. Mark’s, themes of justice, mercy, and love, form the core of the prophet’s message.
Prophets call us back into relationship with God and with others. They remind us that God cares deeply for all of creation, and so should we. And they remind us that we are not to remain silent in the face of injustice. We are to stand up and proclaim the love of God for the immigrant, the poor, the refugee, and those whose voices have been historically silenced.
The message of the prophets is not bound in time, it is not meant solely for those living in ancient Israel four thousand years ago, or even those held captive in Babylon three thousand years ago. The clarion call of the prophets to action for the sake of those most in need echoes into today. We are all prophets, “spokespersons of God.” We are all empowered to deliver God’s message of love and justice to a world sorely in need of both. So arise, go forth, and proclaim the love of God to the world.