Advent is the perfect time to dig deeply into the wisdom of Old-Testament prophets.
By Sr. Karen Berry
The prophets in the Old Testament are uniquely different from each other in personality and style, but much the same in their commitment to give God’s message to people. Each was called to the task, with some being more hesitant than others to embrace the challenges the job would present. Every one of them stood between God and the people, representing each “side” to the other “side” as they pleaded with people to return to their covenant relationship with God and pleaded with God to spare the people from punishment.
They were not seers who could “see” the future as if through a crystal ball. They were men who could read the signs of their times and had the wisdom and courage to point out where God’s chosen people were headed if they didn’t change their ways. While sounding like prophets of doom, they also spoke words of hope because, above all, they wanted people to believe God was committed to loving and saving them.
The prophets can be characterized as non-writing or writing. The non-writing prophets are those whose stories are told in books that do not bear their names as titles. They include Samuel, who bridged the historical periods of judges and kings by anointing Saul as the first king of Israel; Nathan, advisor to King David; and Elijah and his disciple Elisha, who preached and worked miracles in the northern kingdom of Israel. Their stories are in the books of First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings. The writing prophets are found in the collection of “the prophetic books” located in the Bible after the Wisdom literature and beginning with Isaiah.
The writing prophets can be further categorized as major or minor prophets; this simply refers to the length of their books. Look for the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (major) and compare their sizes to Obadiah, Habakkuk and Malachi, for example. Another way to classify prophets, after the kingdom of Israel was divided by civil rebellion, is by the kingdom to which the prophet was called to preach: Northern kingdom prophets spoke to Israel, and southern kingdom prophets spoke to Judah. Amos was the only prophet who lived in one kingdom (Judah), but was sent to preach to the other one.
The book of Jonah is unique because it contains a humorous story about a fictitious prophet who tried to run away because God wanted him to preach to enemies of Israel so they would repent and be saved. Jonah didn’t want them saved! When students read this story, tell them to look for clues that it is a work of fiction (swallowed by a fish, getting instant repentance from his audience, pouting because God would save the Ninevites, and so on). But point out that the story was written to teach the Jews that God’s mercy extended to other nations.
In ancient Israel there were false prophets as well as those called by God — much like today. False prophets claim to speak for God, but they say what people want to hear. Prophet “guilds” provided the rulers and religious authorities in Israel with advisors who would affirm their actions and ease their consciences. True prophets pricked consciences, risked danger to themselves, said unpopular things, and often entered into their roles reluctantly. They didn’t choose to be prophets but were called to this role by God. Some of them have shared in their writings just how dramatic such a call could be.
Locate the vocation stories of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and notice what happens with the mouth of each of these spokesmen for God as their visions define their vocations.
Isaiah’s call is described in chapter 6. He envisions God on a throne surrounded by heavenly creatures proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy,” using the words we use today at Mass before the consecration of the bread and wine. Struck by this vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah, though wanting to be God’s spokesman to his people, feels unworthy. To erase that concern, a seraphim takes a burning ember from the sacrificial fire at the temple’s altar and touches Isaiah’s mouth to cleanse it. Now he is ready. Throughout his life of prophesying, Isaiah would often use “The Holy One of Israel” as his title for God, showing how profoundly he was influenced by his vision.
Jeremiah’s call is described in chapter 1. He hears God telling him that even before his birth he was designated to be a prophet. Jeremiah objects that he is too young and doesn’t know how to speak. Then he envisions God touching his mouth and reassuring him that God will place the words there.
Ezekiel’s call story, in the first three chapters of his book, gives an even more graphic picture of God’s words coming from a prophet’s mouth. After a dramatic vision of living creatures and flying wheels, Ezekiel heard God’s call to speak to the Israelites. The words he had to say were written on a scroll that he was told to eat! He found it “sweet as honey,” and the word of God became so much a part of him that he would share it often. Ezekiel went into exile in Babylon with the remnants of the destroyed kingdom of Judah, and there he kept alive the people’s hope that God had not abandoned them.
The classic “call pattern” found in the Bible was described to me in graduate school as an easy-to-remember formula: meeting, greeting, job, sob, lift. The person being called has an encounter with God or a messenger from God. The spiritual being greets the person and describes what God wants him or her to do. That person responds with doubt or fear or reluctance or excuses (the sob story). Then the messenger gives reassurances, convincing the one called to say yes. These elements of the pattern are clearly seen in Jeremiah 1:4-10. Identify the formula there, and notice the five elements in other call stories in the Bible: Moses (Exodus 3:1-4:17); Gideon (Judges 6:11-24); and Mary (Luke 1:26-38).
Each prophet brought his own style to the way he shared God’s warnings and admonitions with people. Amos, a prophet of social justice, used a particularly clever strategy. While prophets like Isaiah spent a lifetime doing this work, Amos was given just one mission. He was a shepherd in the kingdom of Judah who was called to leave his work and travel north to Bethel in the kingdom of Israel to deliver a stern warning. No one wants to hear bad news, so Amos prepared his audience by shouting out in the town square all kinds of condemnations and future punishments for neighboring enemies of Israel. He had the crowd cheering and listening for the next victim of God’s wrath as the tension increased. After the sixth nation was called out, people were straining to hear who the seventh would be because seven was the symbolic number of fullness and completion. This would be the most condemning judgment of all, and Amos turned it on Bethel. Naturally he was chased out of town, and he returned to his flock.
Hosea, a minor prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, discovered through his own poignant story a way to share his prophetic message with God’s people. Hosea’s wife was unfaithful to him, but he still loved her. Through his pain he came to understand how God could still love an unfaithful people. He used the comparison of adultery and idolatry to challenge the Israelites when they worshipped the Canaanite god Baal in fertility rites. He called them to return to fidelity, reminded them of their original covenant with God in the desert, and promised that God was still faithful.
Jeremiah was the master of pantomime. He acted out his message in ways people would clearly understand by watching him. Refer students to Jeremiah 18:1-6 and 19:1-12, where the prophet uses pottery to drive home his message, and to Jeremiah 28, where he wears an oxen’s yoke to signify how Jerusalem must submit to Babylon or be destroyed. That was an unpopular pacifist position for which Jeremiah suffered persecution.
Whatever style of delivery they used and however they experienced their call, the Old Testament prophets shared a common mission of calling out infidelity to the covenant and injustices in society. They were not popular with either religious or secular authorities. They risked their lives to deliver their messages. Jesus shared these characteristics of prophets when he responded to the call to be the Messiah, to bring good news to the poor, to challenge authority, and to risk his life to deliver a message of God’s love.
Sr. Karen Berry is a Joliet Franciscan, a former teacher of high-school religion, and director of family programs of religious education. She is currently a teacher of adult religion classes in several parishes in Tucson, Arizona.
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