What is God?
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The word ‘prophet’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘advocate’. It sounds like a far cry from the normal connotation of the word. The Prophets were not crystal ball gazers who had a knack for predicting the future. They simply read the situation as it was and were able to see what would develop from it. They had a remarkable ability cut through the baloney and get right to the point. The Hebrew word navi, though a little vague in its root meaning, really expresses the idea of a person who could tell it like it is. That is what a prophet was – a person who could gaze with a vision that went deeper and beyond that of the norms of society. The prophet could somehow see the true understanding of the past, the reality of the present, and the possibilities that lie in the future.
Most of what we read in the section of the Tanakh called the Prophets is not prophecy at all. It is historical narrative. The Prophets are really two distinct sections of the Bible that for some reason were combined into one section. The first section, the Early Prophets, tells the history of the Israelites from their entrance into the Promised Land until the exile of the Judeans from it almost 700 years later (850 years according to Jewish tradition). The Later Prophets are the specific messages of particularly devoted ‘Men of God’ in response to the spiritual state of the Israelites during their time. It isn’t 100% clear exactly who combined the two groups in the Tanakh. Maybe it was the translators of the Septuagint. Maybe there was a tradition that predated this translation. We know that the division of the Tanakh into three sections – Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings) goes back to early rabbinic teachings. It is almost definite that it was around during second temple times, though nobody can point to a definitive origin.
The book of Joshua largely recounts the battles the Israelites fought in the initial conquest of the Land. It ends in a manner that obviously parallels Deuteronomy – his final words of warning to the Israelites to serve Hashem only, his death, and his burial. The final verse tells of the death of Elazar the son of Aaron, who was the High Priest.
Following this is the book of Judges. This is also a historical narrative, concentrating on the continuing battles the various Israelite tribes had with the neighboring peoples. Every few decades there was another war in one place or another. It could have been north, south, or east (the bulk of the western border was the Mediterranean Sea). There is even a civil war towards the end of the book. While the book of Joshua takes place over a few decades, Judges spans about 300 years. Some of the famous names of the Bible come from the Judges, including Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. The one we shall be looking at is Samson, specifically the prophetic announcement of his birth. It is another chance to look at angels and the image they reveal.
Following Judges is the books of Samuel (Shmuel). There are two books of Samuel, though it doesn’t seem all that fair that one Judge (he was the last of the Judges) should get two entire books named after him while about 20 others have to share in a single book. Samuel I and II are long books, with a lot of long narratives including some of the most famous scenes of the Bible. The books begin with the prophetic announcement of Samuel’s birth when his barren mother Hannah (rhymes with Manna and even more closely with Ghana) came to the Mishkan to pray for a son. Her prayer has become somewhat of a prototype for all future Jewish prayer. It will be the subject of the second image from the Prophets.
Samuel was the last Judge and the first of the Prophets, and he was also the precursor to the Israelite kingdoms. Perhaps for this reason the Septuagint calls the two books of Samuel, Kings I and II (and the two books of Kings are called Kings III and IV). Samuel prophesies that a man named Saul (Shaul) was to become the first king and grooms him for this position. Strangely enough, right before anointing Saul as king he warns the Israelites of the dangers of a king and the conflict that would arise between an earthly king and a divine King. Saul’s two and a half year reign is anything but peaceful and prosperous. Despite being highly qualified, his downfall is his jealousy of David, the man who saved his army in a battle with the Philistines. Saul is constantly unable to shake off his almost neurotic envy of David and dies as a failure in battle. The first book of Samuel ends with Saul’s death.
David is the subject of the entire Samuel II. In fact, other than Moshe, he probably has the most material revolving around him in the Bible. A good deal of the second half of Samuel I really has David as the main character and Saul as secondary. Much of the early David story deals with his loyal friendship with Saul’s son Jonathon. When David is crowned king early in Samuel II it ushers in the most glorious era of Israelite and Jewish history. These 40 years were the pinnacle of everything that had been hoped for. David was the ideal king – righteous in deed, just in law, brave in battle, and royal yet humble in demeanor.
Samuel II ends with David’s death at the age of 70. This brings us to the first book of Kings (Kings I). After a brief struggle of succession, David’s son from Batsheva, Solomon, is crowned king. Solomon has a mixed reputation, varying from the ‘wisest of all men’ to the lecherous despot who had ‘over 1,000 wives and concubines’. He is most famous for being the driving force for the building of the first temple in Jerusalem, a longtime goal of David that he was unable to fulfill.
Following this high point of his reign, it is mostly downhill from there. The wealth increased to unimaginable proportions, the borders expanded, Solomon’s influence and reputation grew to legendary levels, but he never became the righteous king that David was. His pagan wives turned him to foreign gods, his wealth seduced him to forget about what was truly valuable in life, and his desire for glory and splendor drove him from Biblical immortality to human failure. It is a sad ending to what could have been an even higher point in Jewish history than his father ever reached.
Following Solomon the Ten Tribes secede, never to be reunited with the southern tribes centered around Judea and Jerusalem. They build their own shrines – pagan idols a little north of Jerusalem and in the northern part of the northern kingdom. This kingdom, which would go by the name of Israel, would have its own royal line that paralleled the royal line of David and Solomon. Throughout Kings I and through much of Kings II these two lines are running side by side. Most of these kings are relatively unknown to anyone other than a real Bible enthusiast. The books drag on in a seemingly interminable succession of these good or evil kings, fighting with one another, battling neighboring kingdoms, or making an occasional alliance.
Towards the end of Kings I, we meet up with one of the most enigmatic and colorful characters of the Bible. This is none other the Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet). Forever hounding the kings (and a queen) of Israel for their evil ways, he is constantly getting himself into hot water over some issue of devotion to Hashem or condemnation of worshiping idols. There is a famine that he seems to mastermind, a battle with hundreds of prophets of the god Baal, and assorted other adventures. One of these involves a trek down to Mt. Sinai to re-experience the direct encounter with Hashem. Elijah’s own experience there is both fascinating and puzzling in that he seems to directly sense God’s presence but doesn’t seem to fully understand it. This will be our third image from the Prophets.
Kings II goes on with some good kings like Hezekiah who saved Jerusalem and the temple from destruction during the invasion of the next Assyrian king, Sennacherib. His spiritual guide is the famous Prophet Isaiah, who will have his own book in the Later Prophets. But whatever good Hezekiah did was erased by his son Menasheh, who went so far as to bring an idol into the temple itself, to say nothing of the massive number of idolatrous shrines he had built elsewhere. He represents the epitome of evil in the books of the Tanakh, and the Judeans never recovered from the spiritual devastation he caused.
His grandson Josiah did succeed in temporarily reversing the downward slide of the Judeans. His stature is second only to that of David as a king worthy of the name. He renovated the temple, restored the religious practices that had been long abandoned, destroyed all the idols, and reinstituted the pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem. But it was all for naught. Within a few decades, the new kingdom of Babylonia was salivating for conquest, and Judea was ripe for the taking. In a series of wars, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, carted off the kings, and then conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The exile of the Judeans followed, ending the long reign of the Israelite kingdoms. They had lasted a little over 400 years, no mean feat for an ancient Middle Eastern nation, but in the end they succumbed to the tide of history.
The Later Prophets are dominated by three towering figures: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. The first was a prophet with an astoundingly long career, spanning the reign of no less than four kings. In fact his reign is so long, and his book so extensive and varied, that academic scholars consider it to be at least two separate books that have been merged to be one. Traditionalists reject this out of hand, of course, despite strong indications in the text that there is indeed a break in structure (beginning with chapter 40). This book certainly is long - 66 chapters of difficult reading. It ends on the high note of everlasting joy, with all the nations of the world acknowledging the glory of Hashem. Isaiah is the messianic Prophet. The Christians get much of their Old Testament material from him. The Jews see him as the epitome of prophecy – understanding the knowledge of God and proclaiming it to all people of the world. He will provide the fourth image from this section.
Ezekiel is the only genuine prophet of exile. Tradition has prophecy limited to the land of Israel but Ezekiel is the exception. His prophecies take place in Bavel along a river, though they frequently concern events in Israel. In particular, the rebuilding of the temple was a major concern of his, taking up large portions of his long book (48 rather difficult chapters). Being as Ezekiel was writing his prophecies outside of Israel during the exile, a good deal of his material concerns the redemption and what happens afterwards. The opening chapter of the book stands alone in the entire Bible. It seems to have little or nothing to do with the rest of the book, including the very next chapter, or with anything else in the Tanakh. This mysterious section will be the subject of the fifth and final image from the Prophets.
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