Oh, So You’re A Prophet?

Russian icon of the prophet Hosea
Hosea” by 18 century icon painter .

One of the sections of the bible that used to get me all confused and riled up in my reading of the bible, especially the Old Testament, was the prophets. From the books of Kings with Elijah and Elisha, to the Major and Minor prophets, it had been very difficult for me to understand what exactly qualified these enigmatic, weird people as prophets. But with a better understanding of the history of the people of ancient Israel, I think I get them now, though they still mess up my brain in more than a few places. And with that understanding comes a certain feeling of sadness at watching people getting confused by the recent wind of “prophets” and “the prophetic yyyy” (where yyyy is any fashionable term like “encounter”, “movement” etc) that is blowing across the Ghanaian and Nigerian Christian landscapes. But let’s plow on, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I wrote a little bit about this here, but will add some additional points to that in this post.

The Three Themes

Many people are referred to as prophets in the bible. Some of these include Moses, Samuel, Eli, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth etc. I believe that there are certain key themes by which one may understand their activity and why they did what they did, before one can translate to what we should expect of prophets today. These themes are “creational monotheism, election and eschatology” of which I wrote a series based on NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” here.

You see, the people of Israel believed in Yahweh as the one and only real god and creator of the heavens and the earth (creational monotheism). They believed Yahweh had chosen the nation of ancient Israel as his “called out” people with a task to be a blessing to the rest of the world (election). As part of his covenant with them, he’d given them the Torah by which they must live so that they will sustain their status of being elect before God, and also fulfill his task of them being a blessing to the world. Also they believed that Yahweh had intentions of fixing the problems with this world, and he himself coming to dwell with amongst men in his own time (eschatology). These 3 themes can be shown to be the pillars that underlie much of the activity in the OT and NT as well.

Using these themes to evaluate the prophets of ancient Israel and those documented in the NT, we get 2 clear pictures of what prophets and prophecy was about.

  1. Ensuring that the people of ancient Israel remained faithful to Yahweh as their only god, and listening to him only.

  2. Keeping the terms of the covenant as given to them in the Torah, so that they will show their faithfulness to Yahweh and will keep Yahweh’s favor on ancient Israel.

Before the Exile

Because ancient Israel as a nation had a covenant relationship with Yahweh (a point which we’ll come to later), and the nation always had leaders amongst them (either as judges or later on as kings like David, Solomon etc), it was obviously expected that ensuring that the leaders of the nation did the right thing will lead to the nation as a whole doing the right thing. This is not rocket science, and a principle of human societies well proven over the course of history. One perceives therefore a close relationship between the earlier prophets like Eli, Samuel and Nathaniel and kings like David, Solomon etc. The point of the prophets relationship with these leaders was not as people that David could consult as to know how many slices of bread to eat in the morning, but as people who had insight from God as to the nation’s direction, as well as the leader’s choices which has an effect on the whole nation.

However, over time the relationship between these prophets and their leaders became fraught with tension, as evidenced by Ahab and Elijah/Elisha. Because as prophets they were supposed to be people who were zealously guarding the nation from going against Yahweh’s and his covenant relationship with the people, Ahab’s flirtations with Baal via his wife Jezebel would definitely not sit well with them. In addition, the more these leader’s desires departed away from faithfulness to Yahweh and the Torah, the more the nation drifted to idolatory, injustice and oppression, as worshipping these other gods always led to. Being men of insight and power from Yahweh, he did of course use them to perform some miracles to show that Yahweh was still Lord over the world, but as we will see, that is not what qualifies them as prophets.

Close To And After the Exiles

Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah continue the tradition of speaking Yahweh’s mind to the people. By this time however it would seem that the leaders surrounded themselves with only those who would tell them what they wanted to hear, so these kinds of prophets became hated and hounded. This went on till Northern Israel (Ephraim) was captured by Assyria and southern Israel (Judah) was captured by Babylon (note that Torah had spoken specifically of exile as the punishment for departing from Yahweh). Even whiles in exile, some of these prophets continued to prophecy of how Yahweh will save them from this exile if they looked back to him in faithfulness. When one looks at the career of all these prophets you will realize that

  1. they spoke vehemently against idolatory, and the danger of relying on other nations for their security instead of on Yahweh (which was further evidence of lack of faith in Yahweh and rather reposing faith in the god of the other nations). Their warnings sounded a lot like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”, spoken by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. They spoke of injustice, of the treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. They sympathised with the downtrodden, and criticised those who had the power to change things but rather defended the wicked and horded to themselves. This was again a betrayal of their election and purpose as encapsulated in the Torah. Their warnings again sounded a lot like “love your neighbour as yourself” to this same Jesus of Nazareth.

One will note that few of all of these prophets were active in performing miraculous signs. The real basis of their qualification was whether they spoke the mind of God concerning his nation Israel, especially whether they called the nation to focus on Yahweh and repent of their idolatory and wickedness towards one another or not.

In the Gospels

In the Gospels, 2 people are named as prophets – John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these had 2 things in common – they criticized the people for their lack of faith in Yahweh, especially their constant appeal to violence to remove their “enemies”, the Romans; and secondly, they identified with the downtrodden, hopeless and desperate.

John the Baptist spoke of a coming wrath if they didn’t repent and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Jn 3:7-8). And when asked specifically what to do, he advises them to pursue justice and compassion, saying “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”(v11). He encourages the tax collectors not to be corrupt, and the soldiers as well(v 12-13). John shows the 2 classic concerns – faithfulness to Yahweh and observing the Torah, including its call for justice and compassion.

Jesus is also called a prophet by many in the gospels, and for good reason. He definitely was more than just a prophet, but for the people to have considered him to be one, he must have shown traits that the people of ancient Israel already knew was common place for true prophets. In this regard, Jesus didn’t disappoint, for he showed that faithfulness to him was now equal to faithfulness to Yahweh. Also not only did he lay an emphasis on justice and compassion, he acted it out fully, identifying with the poor and oppressed, the outcast and the downtrodden, and encouraging a redefinition of who was our neighbour and how his disciples should care for one another.

As can be seen from this whole survey so far then, prophets were people who were zealous for faithfulness to Yahweh and conformity to his law. They didn’t mind how people mistreated them or hated them for speaking the truth of Yahweh’s mind about the people’s non-conformity. They did this knowing that Yahweh indeed had a special relationship with them ancient Israel, and they needed to continue to be faithful to their side of the covenant for him to be faithful to his.

Bringing these lessons to our Christian world, the following observations can be drawn.

  1. Yahweh’s people are now defined as all who are faithful to Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile aka the church. Prophecy must therefore expend itself mostly about keeping the church in faithfulness to the Messiah, by doing the one thing he asks – taking up it’s cross and following him.

  2. The same concerns of justice, peace and compassion that characterized Yahweh’s Torah continue to persist with an even more hammered stress under Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels. Prophecy must remind the elect people of God (the church) about how faithfulness to the Messiah means being busy about his task for the church as expounded in the Gospels, same as true prophets did from Moses to John the Baptist.

That is why when Paul writes about prophecy in his epistle to the Corinthians, he encourages them to desire it more than tongues speaking (1 Cor 14:1), because it was a gift meant to direct and guide the whole church as God’s elect people. As with all other gifts, this was also a gift “given for the common good”(1 Cor 12:8). This gift then could serve to guide the church to navigate the difficulties that it will face in attempting to follow the Messiah, and to keep the focus on his tasks set out for the church. This gift was beneficial to Paul when Agabus told him of what suffering he was to face, but taking on the attitude of his master, he still went ahead to face that suffering anyways.

And So …

In the midst of all this then, I find it sad to watch the “prophetic” landscape and fever that has gripped sections of Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Some prophets claim to be giving football predictions, predicting natural disasters, plane crashes, presidential illnesses and deaths, prosperity and success, marriage partners and the like. Not only have they missed the plot, they are not even acting in the play. Some are posing themselves as advisers to national presidents and governments (appealing in a flawed manner to OT prophets, not realizing that Yahweh has no covenant with the nation Ghana or Nigeria, but to his church). Others are busy gathering people to them so they can tell them what they want to hear, rubbing the bottle to reveal a genie god ready to fulfill all their desires. Our prophets are loved and celebrated as “men of God”, when they should be hated for speaking the truth and condemning the corruption, injustice and division that exists in our churches, before even talking about what exists in our societies.

With these kind of prophets, the only people who will find compassion are the rich, the only people who will have peace are those who are already soaked in violence, the only people who will receive justice are those who have the money and power to buy it. And that, my friends, is what false prophecy led to then, and will lead to now.

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Understanding The NT from the OT – Pt 1 – What the Jews Believed

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

Christianity has existed and thrived for the past 2000 year since Jesus death in many shapes and forms. And in that period it has striven to achieve God’s purposes for humanity with very little understanding of the people to whom God first gave the commission to be his people (some of which has been intentional, but also because we simply didn’t have the tools for such understanding in the past). But since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, further scholarly study of these scrolls has shed great light on the elder brother of Christianity i.e. the form(s) of Judaism that existed during Jesus’ lifetime, and is helping us understand Jesus even better. So I want to begin a series of posts that will shed much more light on how this knowledge is being brought from the scholarly field to strengthen the church and its obedience to Jesus Christ. We will focus on 3 thematic beliefs of Judaism: creational monotheism, election and eschatology and will draw parallels between these beliefs and how they should be the bedrock of Christianity.

Creational Monotheism

One of the core beliefs of Judaism which modern Christians now take for granted, but which was a very serious issue in Jesus time was the belief in only one God – YHWH. This was in opposition to other nations that surrounded them, who believed in other gods (like Baal) and some who belived in more than one god. For example the Greeks and Romans had a god of war (Ares/Mars), a god of travel and trade(Hermes/Mercury), a god of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) and one who was the king of all gods (Zeus/Jupiter). This is where monotheism comes in – a belief in one supreme being only, summed up in Deutoronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one” encapsulated in the most important Jewish prayer – the Shema.

Not only was YHWH the only god, he was the god who both created the world and was still in charge of it and ordering it’s activities (here comes his “creational” nature). This is why the Psalms are so full of praises not only of how God created the world, but the fact that he was still actively involved in it, nourishing and tending it, and giving every creature food in its season (eg Ps 104). This was in opposition to other nations who believed their gods to be busy doing their own thing and not caring about the people or their suffering (e.g. the Greeks believed the gods lived in Olympus and cared little for the people, so they better fend for themselves. Interestingly this is very similar to how western culture now see God today – a vacant landlord at best).

And because YHWH created everything, Judaism believed he cannot be represented by an image, because he created the wood, stone or clay that one may use to create a symbol of him. Therefore the Jews never believed in creating any idols which could be worshiped. In contrast, other nations who had different gods for different issues/concepts of the world, created images to model who and what kind of god they were (e.g Ares/Mars with his shield, helmet etc. representing war).

Thirdly, because YHWH created the world, he cared about every little bit of it, and even when evil seemed to be thriving for a while (whether through human activity or spiritual activity), YHWH will bring justice to this world and restore it to order. The Psalms speak in many places of God’s justice for this reason (Ps 72).

Note that to the rest of their neighbours, these believes were diametrically opposite what they believed, and caused some offense. But wait till we talk of the greater offense next.

Election

Judaism believed that YHWH was not just the only god, but more importantly, Israel’s god. Yes, he was the god of the whole world (because he created the whole world of course), but YHWH had chosen them for a special purpose, through their father Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15 and 17 YHWH had made many promises to their father Abraham about his special relationship with him and his descendants, that through Abraham the world may be blessed. This notion of election of Israel as God’s special people was further strengthened and solidified in the minds of Jews by God’s might works in saving them from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, protecting a whole nation as they moved in the desert and went past or through other nations (which could and did attempt to destroy them) for 40 years, and bring them to Canaan – the exact land promised to their father Abraham. The Christian traditions who speak of “promises of God” may need to pay much more attention to what they actually mean, not what we’ve turned it into – name it and claim it statements.

This belief in their election out of all nations not only runs through the Old Testament, but is the background to a lot of what Jesus and the Apostles says in the New Testament. Modern Christianity doesn’t appreciate how ingrained such a belief can be in a nation and people, when they and their forefathers experienced and passed on all these stories to them. But we can begin to see the impact of this belief by simply comparing the impact of 400 years of slavery on both Africans in the diaspora, and native Africa, vis-a-vis poverty, deprivation and injustice. This sense of identity and election was further re-invigorated by the continuous observance of their festivals, most glorious of which was the Passover and the rites that each individual family was supposed to perform in celebration of it

YHWH sealed his relationship with them by making a covenant with them – not as individual people, but as a nation. He gave them the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that they may observe their part of the covenant even as he remains faithful to his.

It is worth noting at this point that this covenant above is predicated by the fact that YHWH had a special relationship with their forefathers, not because the nation Israel itself was any more special. In fact, I dare use the word “grace” to describe YHWH’s election of Israel – because he loved them and their ancestors. This is well stated here.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Other relevant passages are Deut 10:15;14:2 and Isaiah 41:8-9.

Therefore the giving of the Torah (what Christians refer to as “the Law”) by YHWH was a means of ensuring two things 1) that the nation Israel stayed faithful in the relationship with him 2) that the rest of the world may see and be drawn the the God of Israel. This is further captured here

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

Deut 5:1-3 “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them … it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us …”

This brings into serious question the traditional negative light in which Protestant Christianity has spoken of Torah and Judaism in general. To most Jewish scholars, Protestant Christians have always accusing them of the wrong thing, because the Torah also stated clearly that their election was by favour (I prefer to use that rather than grace) i.e. by virtue of YHWH’s love for their fathers, and not by their own doing. To them, they way we Christians claim our salvation by the love and mercy of YHWH and not by our “works”, but insist that every Christian must follow and obey Jesus, is the same way they also view their relationship to YHWH and to Torah.

A last note is to be made here. It will be observed throughout books like Deuteronomy that YHWH’s election of Israel was a corporate choosing. His covenant was with Israel, yet it was important that every Tom, Dick and Harry observe the Torah not just for personal benefit sake, but because doing so meant that God’s promises for his nation Israel through their ancestors, will indeed come to pass. Moses further explains need for individual obedience so the corporate goal will be achieved in Deut 29:19-21.

Again, another challenge is thrown to modern Christianity, which places the individual’s “salvation” and personal desires above the corporate intent that God has had for his faithful Israel – Jesus and his church – an intent which as Paul says in the Ephesian epistle was “before the foundation of the world”. In fact I draw a direct parallel here from Deut 4:6-7 about how Israel’s observance of Torah will lead to the other nations seeing the wisdom of God, and Paul’s statements in Eph 3:10 about how the many fold wisdom of God will be made known through the church.

Election therefore meant that Israel were YHWH’s special people, and the rest of the world was not. This obviously infuriated every nation around them, and Israel didn’t stop reminding them everyday, as again explicit in the Psalms and throughout the OT. Even when things were not going too well for them, their election was one thing that they never forgot.

Eschatology

Eschatology is a big word that Jews used to refer to things that will happen at the end of this age (not at the end of the world as is commonly translated).

Moses had set before them the blessings and the curses that will attend them if they observe or break the covenant with God in Deut. 28. I know Christians love quoting the blessings part, but if we are going to be a people who take God’s word seriously, we need to pay attention to the curses as well. Because one will observe that the most disastrous of the curses was exile – their enemies will defeat them and carry them away. And as if Moses knew that they were going to fail in the task of being obedient to YHWH through the Torah, in Deut. 30 he assures them that “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and all your soul … then the Lord will restore your fortunes … and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deut. 30:2-3).

He even goes further to say that “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descandants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live”(Deut. 30:6). Do we see where Paul got this from? “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly .. and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29)

Further on God gave further prophecies about how he intended for his own appointed king to be the carrier of his vision of Israel being a blessing to the world and the world coming under the authority of Israel. These he expounded to David through the prophet Samuel (2 Sam 7), and became known as the expectation of the coming of “the kingdom of YHWH”.

Thirdly there was there were some questions of human nature and the world they lived in that didn’t make sense. If YHWH was the one who created a good world, why does he allow evil to exist (i.e. both human sin and natural disasters)? Why does the wicked sometimes flourish, and the righteous perish? Why do seemingly innocent people die from earthquakes, typhoons etc?

The answers they came up with were that because YHWH is a righteous God, he will not abandon his creation to be overtaken by evil, and will one day return to restore this world into the good nature he intended. This hope of God remaking this world to correct what evil has brought into it is what is typically captured by the term “new creation” by both Judaism/early Christianity. These kinds of hopes are littered throughout the Psalms and prophets.

Later on, when the exile did happen, the prophets began to not only prophecy the return of Israel back from exile as stated by Moses, they also prophecied that this return will be accompanied by the announcement of the “kingdom of YHWH” and his work in bringing judgement to the world, so he can cleanse the world and bring in his new creation. Isaiah expounds it better, by saying that God will make a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17;66:22).

It is based on this that Revelations says not only will he make the new heaven and new earth, but God will bring his dwelling place (heaven) and mix it with our dwelling place (earth) into one (Rev 21;1-4).

Conclusion

These 3 themes: creational monotheism, election and eschatology are the main themes that drive everything else in the Bible, both Old Testment and New. As a result, they led to the creation, adoption and attachment to certain symbols, and we will look at those symbols in Part 2.