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Introduction to the Prophets and Prophetic Literature
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright © 2011, 2013
The prophets are persons. The prophets are books. The prophetic traditions connect these, and stretch before and from these.

The prophets of the ancient Hebrews serve God by bringing his word to his people. They are, above all, authoritative preachers (see Rendtorff 2005, 657ff). The preachers speak God’s word of doom against his people. Their word of impending judgment emerges from God’s covenant with his people as embodied in the Torah of Moses. At the same time, they offer a confident message of God’s faithfulness to his word, a sure basis of strength and hope.

Prophets played a role in much of ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant. Ancient prophets spoke for the gods, criticized immorality, interpreted signs, denounced enemies, and predicted future events. Prophets often served as part of the king’s court. In Assyria the prophetic writings were compiled by scribes arranging oracles in favor of the king, with oracles from different prophets on the same tablet (see van der Toorn, 184). The prophets of Israel and Judah functioned in many of the same ways, yet the unity of their books are based on the prophets themselves.

Beginning in the Pentateuch, the first uses of “prophet” (navi’) accent their twofold function. Prophets function as intercessor, praying for healing and mercy for those under the judgment of God (see Gen 20:7, and note Abraham’s role as intercessor in Gen 18). This private role of the prophets eventually comes to the foreground in the confession of Jeremiah (see Jer 11-20) and the book of Habakkuk (cf. Amos 7). The public role of the prophet, and the primary feature of the writing prophets, is to speak for God, in accord with the second use of "prophet" (see Exod 7:1).

The book of Deuteronomy explains two ways that God’s people need to weigh and evaluate the words of the prophets. First, Moses looks to a day when many religious practices entice and many divine messenger claimants speak messages to the people of God. In that context the people are called to remain loyal to their God. Moses tells the people that Yahweh said, “I will raise up a prophet for them from their midst like you [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth and he will tell to them all that I command. And it will be, the one who does not listen to my words that he speaks in my name, I myself will require from the person” (Deut 18:18‑19). Moses goes on to distinguish the true from the false prophet. God’s prophets speak in accord with reality and false prophets speak things which do not take place (see 18:9‑20; also see Nicholson 2010). The real issue in the scriptures is that God reveals his will by the prophets (see Childs 1985, 133-44). Second, the prophet’s message need to be tested against God’s revealed will. The prophet who calls listeners to turn from what God has instructed is to be rejected (see Deut 13:1-5).

While prophets do speak of future things, they primarily focus on present challenge, even in the announcement of what is coming. The Deuteronomistic storymakers offer a good profile of their function.

“Yahweh warned Israel and Judah by the hand of all the prophets and every seer, saying, 'Turn from your evil ways and keep my commands, my statutes, according to all the instruction (torah) that I have commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by the hand of my servants the prophets. But they did not listen and they stiffened their necks like the necks of their ancestors, who were not faithful to Yahweh their God'” (2 Kgs 17:13‑14).[1]

The prophets are frequently characterized as God’s servants preaching doom upon the rebellious people (see 1 Kgs 14:15‑16; 2 Kgs 17:23; 24:2; Amos 2:11‑12; 3:7; Ezek 38:17). The judgment seems inevitable. Yet, the people see the contingency of the message in the prophetic tradition (see Jer 26:17‑19; Mic 3:12). The “false prophets,” by contrast offer well-being (shalom) and hope in the face of crises, often claiming to speak for the God of Israel and Judah (Jer 5:30‑31; 6:9‑15; 14:11‑16; 23:9‑32; 27‑29; Ezek 13; Lam 2:14). Whereas the false prophets are sometimes indicted for immoral lifestyles (e.g., Jer 23), the basis of true prophets of God is entirely unrelated to the ethical standing of the prophet “but measured completely by the effect of the word of God” (Childs 1985, 143). Notable examples are Balaam and the prophetic story in First Kings 13. 

The prophets speak God’s word, the word he gives them. Sometimes he moves them through immediate means like visions or by a variety of ecstatic existential experiences. At other times the prophets draw upon the word of God according to the traditions of Moses. Though mechanisms for the mediation of the message are not explained the divine source is routinely accented, with “Thus says Yahweh,” and the like (on the divine inspiration of the prophets see Smith).

Yet, at the same time, the prophets speak with their own voices (see von Rad, 70-79; Childs 1985, 126-27). They often speak in poetic discourse, and sometimes in prose sermons (on prophetic poetry see Geller). The large body of poetic oracles create both a natural transcendence and an ambiguity of reference by which the messages can be and are recycled, repurposed, and reappropriated.


The prophetic tradition is shaped by Israel’s other emerging authoritative traditions even while it is itself among the most powerful of the shaping forces (see Childs 1996, 375-76). The dialectic between prophet as person and as book can be accessed by an historical approach (see von Rad). The pre-exilic prophets are broadly situated against the Assyrian crisis of the later eighth century bce including the fall of Samaria (esp. Hos, Amos, Isa, Mic) and the Babylonian crisis leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 bce (esp. Jer, Zeph, Hab, Ezek). The point is not to date or position or restrict the prophetic references to particular historical settings—this is necessary but of itself inadequate (see Childs 1978, esp. 53). Reading the emerging prophetic traditions across the historical axis provides a valuable means of connecting the prophets’ message and the interpretive function of their growing authority. “The hermeneutical point to emphasize is that for Isaiah history is understood in the light of prophecy, not prophecy in light of history” (Childs 1996, 373).

The prophets bear witness to God’s justice in punishing his people by the great Mesopotamian empires. The early prophetic traditions transcend their historical moment and offer God’s word by analogy to later generations. In sum, the prophets need to be heard in their historical situation even while they are part of a dynamic interrelated growing scriptural traditions which reveals God’s will across the generations.

The prophetic books did not drop out of the sky in finished form. Most of them bear the marks of editing, redacting, and updating (see Nicholson 1970, 2; Nicholson 2010, 162‑63). Just as the prophets do not offer descriptive reflection of the manner of God’s word coming to them, so too they do not reflect on the process of compiling the oracles, sermons, and other materials into collections or books (see Childs 1985, 123-25). The rare exception is Jeremiah 36 which narrates putting into writing successive drafts of an early collection of his oracles. The narrative acknowledges the collaboration and expansion of Jeremiah’s message by his scribe Baruch. “Then, Jeremiah took another scroll and he gave it to the scribe, Baruch son of Neriah, and he write upon it according to the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned n the fire, and may similar words were added to them” (Jer 36:3). I do not imagine the growth of each of the prophetic collections is the same.[2] Yet, I think the narrative in Jeremiah 36 aptly describes the collaborative path from the oracles themselves to written collections including expansions.

Reading the prophets in historical context is of itself insufficient to make sense of their witness to the gospel. The New Testament writers accept the unity of the prophetic message of the hope of salvation (see, e.g., Acts 3:24; 1 Pet 1:10; Childs 1985, 128-32). Christian interpretation has maintained a commitment to interpret the prophets according to both the historical context of their own day and according to their witness to the gospel of Messiah. Christian interpretation of the prophets requires an ongoing struggle to hear their message within its historical framework and within the context of the gospel (see Childs 2004).


When did classic prophecy cease? The traditional view is that after the exile “there is no longer any prophet” (Ps 74:9), “her [Jerusalem’s] prophets do not find a vision from Yahweh” (Lam 2:9), and “prophets ceased” long before the days of the Maccabees (1 Macc 9:27). In this view, prophets function within the kingdom.[3] The temporary postexilic revival of Haggai’s and Zechariah’s prophecies coincide with the glimmers of hope for a reestablishment of the Davidic monarchy with Zerubbabel and Joshua. Even Zechariah referred to the “former prophets” (Zech 1:4; 7:7, 12) and Malachi is referred to as “messenger” rather than prophet (see Mal 2:7; 3:1; cf. Hag 1:13) (see Schniedewind 1997, 207).

This is not to say that prophecy ceased, but that the normative role of biblical prophets is relegated to the First Commonwealth. Is the end of prophecy thesis an “ideological construct” to protect power of a new class of religious leaders?[4] William Schniedewind analyses the non-synoptic prophetic speeches in Chronicles according to the prophetic figure, audience, and function of prophetic narratives, and demonstrates convincingly that the Chronicler made a distinction between “prophets” and other “inspired messengers.” The Chronicler refers to prophets as “prophet” (nvi’), “seer” (chzh), “seer” (r’h), and “man of God.” The Chronicler often uses the standard prophetic “thus says Yahweh” with the prophets but uses “the spirit of God was upon him” and the like for the inspired messengers. The prophets in Chronicles address kings every time except once (Oded addressed the northern army in 2 Chron 28:9), but inspired messengers address others except once (Pharaoh Neco addresses Josiah in 35:21). Schniedewind identifies the function of the prophets to interpret and often warn, and the inspired messengers to exhort and sometimes warn.[5] The function of the prophets in Chronicles is “to answer the historical questions that result from his doctrine of ‘retribution theology’” (Schniedewind 197, 220).


The prophets as Christian scripture speak authoritatively to every generation. Whereas the Judaic structure of authoritative teaching is, above all, Torah, for Christianity it is scripture.[6] Rabbinic tradition dealt with the problem of authority for laws in the prophets which did not appear in the Torah by reference to the Oral Torah, by which the prophets derived their authority from Moses (see m. Aboth, 1:1).[7] Jesus and the New Testament writers regard Torah and Prophets with the same authority. This is not to say the New Testament has a flat view of the Hebrew scriptures—not at all. The New Testament teachings show many subtle distinctions even while maintaining the full authority of the prophets.

A partial ancient analogue to the biblical prophet is the “book of Balaam” discovered in 1967 in the valley of Succoth near the Jabbok river. The book was made into a public display document when it was written in plaster on at the entrance of a temple, dating to c. ninth century bce. The book makes reference to El and a divine council as well as the underworld (possibly using the word sheol). The heading of the book has some similarities with the headings of the biblical prophetic books. “The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer [ĥzh] was he” (see Levine; also van der Toorn, 175-76).

The biblical prophetic books “derive their unity from the person of the prophet” (van der Toorn, 184). The common editorial pattern of the prophetic books is oracles of judgment followed by the hope of salvation. This common pattern of judgment and salvation includes the great prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and many of the smaller books (Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah) (see Childs 1985, 238; Childs 1978, 52; Rendtorff 1985, 119ff).

The canonical shaping of the prophets includes the headings or superscriptions of each book. An analogy can be made with the headings of many psalms. “The titles represent an early reflection of how the Psalms as a collection of sacred literature were understood. The titles established a secondary setting which became normative for the canonical tradition. In this sense the titles form an important link in the history of exegesis” (Childs 1971, 137). Likewise several of the scriptural wisdom writings sport headings which associate the writings with certain teachers (see Prov 1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; 31:1; Song 1:1; Eccles 1:1‑2; cf. 7:27; 12:8‑14). The “fundamental intention” of the prophetic headings is to identity these collections of oracles—more like books than anthologies—as the word of God (see Tucker, 68).

While there is some variety to the headings of the various prophetic collections many elements are shared. For example, each heading is a phrase, not a sentence, usually complemented by a series of clauses. The titles associate the collections with author-preachers. The heading of the book of Amos provides a good model of the superscriptions: title of the collection, description of the preacher, description of the collection, relative date (see Tucker, esp. 60‑61). It is worth looking at all of them together (the following are headings of the books, each book also contains other headings along the way).

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz which he gazed upon [ĥzh] concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah kings of Judah (1:1)
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah from the priests who were at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom was the word of Yahweh, in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah in the thirteenth year of his reign. And it was in the days of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month (1:1‑3) (notes on heading)
And it was in the thirtieth year, in the fifth day of the fourth month, now I was in the midst of the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens opened and I saw [r’h] visions of God. On the fifth day of the month, it was the fifth year of the exile of king Jehoiachin, the word of Yahweh certainly was to Ezekiel, son of Buzi, the priest, in the land of Chaldeans by the river Chebar, and the hand of Yahweh was upon him there (1:1‑3) (notes on heading)
The word of Yahweh that was to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel (1:1)
The word of Yahweh that was to Joel, son of Pethuel (1:1)
The words of Amos, who was amongst the sheep-breeders of Tekoa, which he gazed upon concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake (1:1)
The vision of Obadiah (1a)
And the word of Yahweh was to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying (1:1)
The word of Yahweh that was to Micah of Moresheth, in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he gazed upon concerning Samaria and Jerusalem (1:1)
An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh (1:1)
The oracle that Habakkuk, the prophet gazed upon (1:1)
The word of Yahweh that was to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah (1:1)
In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of Yahweh was in the hand of Haggai the prophet, to Zerubbal son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest, saying (1:1; also see 1:15; 2:1, 10, 20)
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Yahweh was to Zechariah, son of Berechiah son of Iddo, the prophet, saying (1:1; also see 1:7; 7:1)
An oracle, the word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of Malachi (1:1; also see Zech 9:1; 12:1)
Click here for a broad chronological layout of the writing prophets.

For further introduction to the prophets see Rendtorff 1985, 112-124; Rendtorff 2005, 157-162, 650-662; Chalmers, chap 3; McConville, xi-xxx.
 Also see my “retired” introductory materials, and see a bibliography.


Aaron Chalmers, Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel: Priest, Prophet, Sage, and People (InterVarsity Press, 2012), chap 3. Brevard S. Childs, “The Canonical Shape of Prophetic Literature,” Interpretation 32 (1978): 46-55. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Fortress Press, 1985), 122-144; idem., “Prophecy and Fulfillment: A Study of Contemporary Hermeneutics,” Interpretation 70 (1958): 259-71; idem., “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971): 137-50; idem., “Retrospective Reading of the Old Testament Prophets,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenshaft 108 (1996): 362-77; idem., The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2004). Stephen Geller, “Were the Prophets Poets?” Prooftexts 3 (1983): 211-221. Baruch A. Levine, “Deir ‘alla [The Book of Balaam, son of Beor”],” in William W. Hallo, ed. The Context of Scripture, vol. 2, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Brill, 2003), 140-145. Gordon McConville, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets (InterVarsity, 2002), xi-xxx. Ernest Nicholson, “Deuteronomy 18.9‑22, the Prophets, and Scripture,” in Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. John Day; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 151-171; idem., Preaching to the Exiles: A Study in the Prose Tradition in the Book of Jeremiah. New York: Schocken Book, 1970. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; Westminster John Knox, 1965, 2001). Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament (trans. David E. Orton; Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005); idem., The Old Testament: An Introduction (trans. John Bowden; Fortress, 1985). William M. Schniedewind, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Books of Chronicles,” in The Chronicler as Historian (ed. M. Patrick Graham, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Steven L. McKenzie; JSOTSup 238; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 204-24; idem., “Prophets, Prophecy, and Inspiration: A Study of Prophecy in the Book of Chronicles,” Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1992. John Smith, Select Discourses (London: J. Flesher, 1660), 167-283. Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). G. M. Tucker, “Prophetic Superscriptions and the Growth of a Canon,” in Canon and Authority: Essay in Old Testament Religion and Theology (ed. G. W. Coats and B. O. Long; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 56-70.

[1] Translation mine unless stated otherwise.

[2] For discussion of the nuances of author, scribes, editor, redactor, and the like, see James W. Watts, “Text and Redaction in Jeremiah’s Oracles Against the Nations,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (1992): 437‑38; Emanuel Tov, “The Literary History of the Book of Jeremiah in the Light of Its Textual History,” 214, n. 17, in Jeffery H. Tigay, ed., Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Eugene, Oreg: Wipf & Stock, 1985).

[3] “It is fair to say that the institution of prophecy appeared simultaneously with kingship in Israel and fell with kingship” (Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973], 223). For a discussion of “the end of prophecy” in ancient Judaic perspective, along with their awareness of “continuing prophecy,” see Frederick E. Greenspahn, “Why Prophecy Ceased,” JBL 108 (1989): 37-49.

[4] See Joseph Blenkisopp, Treasures Old & New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 198-99.

[5] Schniedewind catalogues as “prophets”: Shemaiah (2 Chron 12:5, 7), Hanani (16:7-9), Jehu (19:2-3), Eliezer (20:37), Elijah (21:12-15), a man of God (25:7-9), a prophet (25:15-16), Oded (28:9-11); and as “inspired messengers”: Amasai (1 Chron 12:18), Azariah (2 Chron 15:1-7), Jahaziel (20:14-17), Zechariah (24:20), Pharaoh Neco (35:21). My entire paragraph is mainly summarizing Schniedewind “Prophets and Prophecy in the Books of Chronicles,” 204-24; see esp. summary charts, 216, 218, and 220. Also see Schniedewind, “Prophets, Prophecy, and Inspiration,” 87-146.

[6] I am using the terms scripture and canon synonymously with reference to their relative degree of authority to the believing community of God’s people, contra A. C. Sundberg, Jr., “The Bible and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,” Interpretation 29 (1975): 352-371. I acknowledge Sundberg’s argument with reference to the relative authority of the emerging traditions and the full authority of the closed canonical text. I think, however, the terms scripture, Bible, and canon, each connote the same authority.

[7] See Avi Sion, A Formal Analysis of Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic Logic (Geneva, 1995), 9, n. 7.

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