The Theology of False Prophecy in the Old Testament

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               Sometimes from our perspective today, having a completed canon of scripture and looking back, it may strike us as strange that there were false prophets in Israel or that it was a point of concern on how to discern them. Looking back on the prophets, they seem to be larger than life, imposing figures endowed with extraordinary powers of prediction and miracle working. We do not as readily understand why their contemporaries did not pay attention, or wonder why they ever disobeyed or disbelieved for a counterfeit. However, the blindness of people then surprises us, but our own is often just as great, and although the obstacles to belief today may be different, it is the same quality in us that makes them obstacles. It appears that God’s revelation does not carry conviction apart from moral qualities in the mind as there will always be some ground on which the evidence may be evaded.[1]

               This article will explore some of the ANE context of prophecy and the etymology of certain word groups surrounding it, looking at the roles they described. Next, the traditions of prophetism and some of the distinguishing marks of a prophet will be considered. The marks of a true and false prophet will then be explored, looking at where the locus of authenticity lays. Various means and criteria of legitimation for a prophet’s message will be observed along with the difficulties they present. Lastly, the debate within scholarship on this topic will be briefly considered before moving to final conclusions.

Prophecy in the Ancient Near Eastern Context

               Prophecy was not something unique to Israel and there were several forms in the Ancient Near East (ANE) which affected the context of OT prophecy. These could take the form of soul possession—where the god took over the psyche of the medium—or ‘soul migration,’—a sort of outer body experience.[2] Novitiates in divination spent many years learning their trade; including many forms of divination from memorizing incantations, to how to interpret the flights of birds, hepatoscopy, exispicy, the lay of arrows or stones cast out of a container, astrology, lecanomancy, libanomancy and the significance of dreams and signs (see footnotes for definitions of these terms).[3] At Mari in the middle Euphrates valley, twenty-eight letters from the third millennium to 1762 BCE were found mentioning a prophet called ‘apilu’ of the gods Adad or Dagon. Egypt also had many prophet/priests and the oldest reference to prophets in Canaan is from about 1100 BCE.

               Such texts show that the context in which Israel emerged was one where diverse persons claimed to know the divine will of the gods, but Israel’s prophets differed in that they proclaimed monotheism and a morality that was issued from the very nature of God.[4] The ancient religions of surrounding nations were bent on influencing the will of the gods and their prophets may call frantically upon them, fasting or even cutting themselves (1 Kgs 18:28) to try to manipulate them and evoke divine pity. Sacrifices were understood as a means to please the gods. By contrast, the OT prophets, with the exceptions of Elijah and perhaps Elisha, are rarely involved in sacrificial worship.[5] The concern of OT prophets was rather to proclaim the will of God rather than manipulate it.

Word Groups Related to Prophecy

               There are certain word groups associated with prophetism in the OT. Balaam was a diviner (Heb. קָסַם [qasam], Josh. 13:22), and though he functioned as a prophet in the end by speaking the words God put in his mouth (Num. 22:35, 38; 23:5, 16, 26), this was a supernatural change from his usual methods which were probably similar to the diviners the Philistines used in 1 Samuel 6:2f. Israel’s false prophets were sometimes classified as “diviners” (Jer. 27:9; 29:8; Ezk. 13:6-9, 23; Mic. 3:6f; Zec. 10:2) who prophesied lies in God’s name (Jer. 29:8f) and gave messages the inquirer wanted to hear (Jer. 28:9; Ezk. 13:9f) using magical methods. Other related word groups include “astrologers” (אָשַׁף [ashaph], Dan. 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11), “soothsayers” (עָנַן [anan], Isa. 2:6; Mic. 5:12), and sorcerers (כָּשַׁף [kashaph], Ex. 7:11; 22:18; Deut. 18:10; Dan. 2:2; Isa. 47:9, 12; 2 Chr. 33:6; Mic. 5:12; Mal. 3:5).[6]

Main Word Groups

               However, there are three main words used by the OT to designate Israel’s prophets. The Hebrew רֹאֶה “ro’eh” derives from a verb meaning “to see” and is generally translated “seer” or “diviner.” It describes one who could discover hidden things.[7] The other term, חֹזֶה [hozeh] similarly derives from a word meaning “to see” and is usually used in connection to things a prophet saw, including visions, audible messages or in reference to an entire revelation received (cf. Ezek. 13:16, 23; Num. 24:4; Amos 7:1-9).[8] Peter Southwell comments:

“A general conclusion from all this would be that a seer was by and large someone to whom people would go. He would be available at certain times and places for exercising his divine gifts in God’s name. He was not, other than in exceptional circumstances, someone who on his own initiative went to the people with messages from God. He was more like a resident chaplain than a roving evangelist, and was called out only rarely for specific functions.”[9]

               There is no distinguishable difference between the words hozeh and ro’eh, both translated “seer” in the OT. In 1 Samuel 9:9, it states that נָבִיא—nabi’ (prophet)—was formerly called ro’eh—so it seems that the two were understood as exercising a common function of seeing and apprehending what was not accessible to others, and speaking forth what was seen.[10] It may also be suggested that the term “man of God” was common in the period between the “seers” and the era of the preaching prophets, before the change of nomenclature referred to in 1 Samuel 9:9 had fully taken place.[11] The prophetic movement began with Samuel who was the last of the judges who wore both the hats of judge and seer.[12]

The Meaning of Nabi’

               Determining the original meaning of the root for the main term used in the OT (nabi’) is a bit difficult.[13] The word is used more than three hundred times in the OT pertaining to a wide variety of characters.[14] There are some who recognize its root meaning as “bubble, boil or seethe,”—indicating ecstatic frenzy.[15] However, it is a good guess that the lost Hebrew root may be related to an Acadian and Arabic cognate word meaning “to call” or “announce.”[16] Etymology alone cannot resolve this though, partially because of the differences of interpretation on either side, but also because there is much more we can learn from a study of the prophets in the OT that illuminates the semantic range of nabi’.[17] For example, when Moses refused to speak to Pharaoh, God appointed Aaron to be Moses’ nabi’ (Ex. 6:28-7:2). Moses is also called a nabi’ because God spoke through him. So, a nabi’, when used of a prophet of God, is a messenger who speaks the words that God puts in their mouth (Deut. 18:18-22). They often used the common introductory phrase, “Thus says the Lord” (Jgs. 6:8; 1 Kgs. 11:29-31; 20:13; 2 Kgs. 20:1; 2 Chr. 12:5; 21:12; 34:23; 2 Sam. 24:11f.) for their message. God is said to have spoken his word to most of the prophets, but some had dreams and visions (cf. Num. 12:6; Deut. 13:1-5 [MT 2-6]; Ezek. 1; Jer. 23:25: Dan. 7:1f.) and some used drama to make their message understood.[18]

Two Traditions

               There were two major prophetic traditions; the Ephraimite and Judean Traditions. The Ephraimite theological tradition considered Mosaic prophets more accurate that others (cf. Num. 12:6-8).[19] The prophets related to the Ephraimite tradition used stereotypical speech patterns, using a distinctive vocabulary and exhibited certain standard patterns of behaviour which were modelled on the Mosaic prophet. The Ephraimite prophets were earlier in the history—such as Abraham, Moses and Samuel—and had cultic functions that weren’t clearly distinguished from their prophetic functions. However, after the rise of the monarchy, they began to function on the periphery of society and came to a close at the fall of Jerusalem. After the exile, a different form of prophecy emerged than what had existed in the pre-exilic period.[20]

Marks of a Prophet

               Prophets were like foreign ambassadors, or to use insurance terminology, people with ‘power of agency,’—prophets are simply messengers.  “The power they exert always stands behind them; it is never their own. So it is with the prophet. By his word people become ill or are healed, live or die; whole nations rise or fall. Yet behind each momentous word stands Yahweh. The prophet is simply the messenger, nothing more.”[21] Lundbom notes that, “In Israel, the real prophet was typically called to critique kings and governmental policy, which led, as one might expect, to frequent tensions between the prophet and the royal house.”[22] According to Lundbom, some of the marks in the OT that a person was a true prophet of Yahweh were that they had received a divine call, spoke the divine word, were possessed with divine vision, were able to perform mighty works, were filled with the divine spirit and was someone who prayed. However, not every prophet possessed the whole range of marks or prophetic gifts, but these were generally what was seen to distinguish and define them.[23] Deuteronomy gives two major criteria for judging if a prophet is legitimate. The first is if the prophet speaks in the name of YHWH (Deut 18:20). In their context, there were many other gods of other nations, but for Israel, only YHWH mattered. So only the prophet who spoke in the name of YHWH was to be heeded. Secondly is whether their predictions come true.[24]

False Prophets in the OT

               A.B. Davidson defines a false prophet as a “Spokesman, herald, or messenger falsely speaking for, or on behalf of, someone else. The false prophet was often motivated not by loyalty to God, but by a desire for popularity.”[25] The message of the false prophet was usually spurred by self-interest and given to please the people. It was not necessarily his intention to speak falsely, yet when spoken with wrong motivation, his message was often in error. This sometimes means that even a true prophet could become false and occasionally a false prophet could be used of God for the right purpose.[26] 1 Kings 22:19-23 is a most perplexing text in this regard, as it seems to portray YHWH as leading prophets astray. Ahab’s prophets give a favorable word to the kings about going to war, however Micaiah instead predicts the downfall of Ahab. God is seen to hold a council about how to defeat Ahab, and there a spirit volunteers to be a ‘lying spirit’ in the mouth of all of Ahab’s prophets (v. 22).[27] So this brings up some questions about where the locus of authenticity lies.

Locus of Authenticity for the Prophet

               Lundbom notes that the locus of authenticity was not in the prophet’s being, instead, he was true by virtue of an authentic act, and each word or deed had to be judged true or false based on its divine inspiration or lack thereof. So, it is perhaps no accident that the term ‘false prophet’ does not occur in the Hebrew Bible—only in the LXX. Instead, it is said that the prophet speaks ‘falsely’ but never that a prophet is fundamentally defined as a false prophet. It was focused more on the act of false prophesy than the person.[28] Furthermore, in the OT context, the prophetic message is attached to a context at a particular time and place. Although the same message can be authentic at more than one occasion, situation or audience—each proclamation must be judged as true or false in a specific context—they don’t automatically translate into immutable truths which are applicable to every situation at any time. The authentic message of the past can become inauthentic at a later time, like for example, what happened with Isaiah’s dynamic message about the inviolability of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 19:32-24. It was true then for that context, but by the time of Jeremiah, it had now expired because Yahweh had something else to say—that the temple would be destroyed (Jer. 7:1-15).[29] However, even with this consideration, there are still individuals in the OT who seem to be regarded as ‘false prophets.’

Classes of ‘False Prophets’

               Davidson identifies two basic classes of ‘false prophets’—namely, those who were not prophets of YHWH, but rather prophets of Baal or other pagan gods, and secondly, those who were prophets of YHWH and though their objective religious opinions may have agreed, gave erroneous words.[30] Three of the factors he identifies which influence the corruption of true prophecy are: a.) prophetic ecstasy—which confused the clearness of revelation—b.) the nature of prophetic inspiration as a subjective illumination and c.) the tendency for prophecy to become a profession with the lure of monetary gain.[31] However, the process of legitimizing or exposing a false prophet or prophecy was not as simple as one maybe would expect.

Prophetic Legitimation

               In terms of legitimation, visions or miracles sometimes were given as a divine support of the prophet’s message (for example Isaiah 7:14).[32] The miraculous confirmations of Moses over Korah (Num. 16) and Elijah over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) illustrate this point.[33] However, this was not always the case. The miracle does not necessarily automatically authenticate the prophet. In Deuteronomy 13, it says the false prophet may work a miracle, but here it serves to test if the people’s heart truly loves YHWH. “The true prophet is the one who speaks for Yahweh and leads people in Yahweh’s way. One should note, however, that the test is put negatively. Its stated aim is not to authenticate the true prophet, but to discredit the false one. Israel’s problem was with inauthentic prophets.”[34] The passage withdraws attention from external signs and concentrates it on the true test which was the first article of Israel’s faith—that YHWH alone was God of Israel. Add to this the fact that from Amos downwards, miracles play little role in the history of prophecy.[35] Lundbom notes that “Only three Hebrew prophets—four if we include Aaron (cf. Exod. 7:1)—were so gifted” to perform mighty works.[36] It would seem that miracle working, though a part of OT prophetism, does not play as big a role in its legitimation as some might speculate.

Tests of Prophecy

               Elwell and Beitzel note that God often tests his people with adversity in order to establish their hearts (Deut. 8:2-3), and their privilege of hearing the Word of God through the prophets was not exempt to testing (Deut. 13:3-4) in order to see if they truly loved His truth. So, the major test of prophecy was doctrinal—the false prophet tries to draw away the people from the One True God—and so, even if his message was supported by signs and wonders, it was to be refused because it contradicted the revelation of the Lord at the exodus (Deut. 13:5, 10). The next test was more practical, and required patience. God’s word always comes to pass (Deut. 18:21-22)—should there be any doubt about whether a prophetic word was true, the people were to wait for a confirmatory turn of events.

               The last test was moral—false prophets will be found out as men of unholy life (Jer. 23:11, 13, 14) who do not rebuke the people morally but rather encourage men in their sins (Jer. 23:16-17, 21-22).[37] The Bible describes false prophets as adulterous (Jer. 23:14), treacherous (Zeph. 3:4), working for money (Mic. 3:11), drunkards (Isa. 28:7), wicked (Jer. 23:11), liars (Jer. 14:14, 23:14) and associated with divination and witchcraft (Jer. 14:14; Ezek. 22:28; Acts 13:6).[38] So clearly the moral integrity of a true prophet was important. An evil mind and immoral behaviour could not be integrated with a sound message, since the true prophet was raised up to restore people to Yahweh, making them faithful to the covenant and to obey His commands. This is why Israel’s prophets criticize other prophets most harshly, since if they fail in these things themselves, they are part of the problem, not the solution.[39]

Criteria of Fulfillment

               Deuteronomy 18:20-22 lays out the criterion of fulfilment of YHWH’s word and assumes Deuteronomy 13:1-5 as the test of authenticity. The words “you need not be afraid of him” imply that the test pertains to prophecies of judgment—however Jeremiah expands this to include prophecies of peace as well in Jeremiah 28:9.[40] However, the question of how long one should wait for a prophecy to be fulfilled inevitably comes to mind. Ezekiel tried to answer this worry in Ezekiel 12:21-28. However, there are some prophecies like Isaiah 7:14, which were given messianic interpretation of fulfilment hundreds of years later.

               It seems that most often, prophesies of peace and salvation were allowed to go unfulfilled for some time and prophesies of a hopeful nature were retained in scripture despite them not being immediately fulfilled. Furthermore, the NT church realized that some prophesies in scripture were being fulfilled in their time after a long period of waiting.[41] For prophecies of judgment though, it seems like they may also not be fulfilled if repentance happens. We see examples of this in Jonah’s prophecy of judgment on Ninevah and Micah’s judgment on Jerusalem. However, both of these withholdings of judgment may be considered only temporary, since both Ninevah and Jerusalem eventually were destroyed in judgment at a later time. “According to this view, Yahweh’s word, once spoken, will sooner or later come to pass. If there is a cancellation, for example, because of repentance, it may be only temporary.”[42]

               However, the criterion of fulfillment provides little help in the meantime as the people wait. We see an example of this in the confrontation between Hananiah and Jeremiah in Jeremiah 28. At first, Jeremiah is unsure of the truth of Hananiah’s favorable prophecy and reacts positively (28:6). However, later when he receives a specific vision from the Lord contradicting Hananiah’s prophecy, then he accuses Hananiah of prophesying falsely (28:15). So in this case, it seems that to detect a false prophet before awaiting fulfillment of the prophecy requires another, true prophet.[43] However, this was not always a readily available solution to say the least.

Two Ways to Solve the Problem of Recognizing False Prophecy

               The Rabbis and Sectarians solved this problem of recognizing false prophets in two different ways. For the Rabbis, they treated prophets as sages, and the criterion for determining if a prophet’s words were true was whether if they concurred with halakhah—which is the totality of laws and ordinances which regulate religious observances, daily life and conduct of the Jewish people.[44] In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:5), Hananiah is identified as one of the two types of false prophet, and it is further explained in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 11:7; b. Sanhedrin 90a) that he didn’t invent his prophecy but rather extrapolated it incorrectly. Several Rabbis put forward various theories including that he was a plagiarist misunderstanding Jeremiah’s true prophecy, or that the sign given to a prophet from Deuteronomy 13 is not necessarily in the present but could relate to past deeds, so the prophet uses his past credibility to deliver a present false message. Therefore, for the Rabbis, to know if the prophet’s message is true or not lies in the content of the prophecy tested against the law.[45]

               The sectarian method of the Qumranites was quite different from the Rabbis, as seen in 4Q375 (apocrMoses). There when faced with the dilemma of discerning a false prophecy, it is prescribed that the two parties are to go before the priest who performs the sacrifice in order to enter the Holy of Holies, where the hidden things will be revealed to him. This ritual seems to interpret Deuteronomy 17:10 as taking ‘that place’ to mean the heart of the sanctuary. So, the Qumranites take the opposite track to the Rabbis—a false prophet is determined through divine revelation. For the Rabbis the false prophet was determined in court, and for the Qumranites, it was the Temple—it was divine decision rather than human. It must be noted though, the different time frames these groups existed in. The Rabbis were from a time that believed prophecy had already ceased for many years and the Qumranites were anticipating the resumption of prophecy in their present.[46]

The Prophetic Call

               Another important factor of the prophet’s legitimacy is the prophetic call. No two calls are alike and similarly, the responses to the call also vary, with some who accept it willingly and others who give resistance which YHWH overcomes.[47] “Even reluctant prophets knew that in the end they must obey the divine call. Moses knew it, and so did Jeremiah. Jonah, the most reluctant prophet of all, obeyed in the end, and went to speak Yahweh’s word to the people of Nineveh.”[48] It also seemed to be a very private affair which was only made public later or upon being driven to legitimate their ministry. All the prophets seem to think of themselves as sent by YHWH, and so their message originates in God and not themselves.

               Jeremiah’s credentials as a prophet of YHWH is presented in his call narrative in the book.[49] He at first objects to the call, but in the end is depicted as having no say in the matter as God is responsible for both the speaker and the message.[50] “The denial both of personal desire and of responsibility for the message affirms that the prophet had no personal benefit from the message. The motive is purely the service of Yahweh, rather than any personal gain.”[51] In fact, the initiative for the call is so much so from YHWH that it is not Jeremiah’s search for a message, but rather it comes before even his own birth—all responsibility falls on YHWH.[52] To add to this, Jeremiah is instructed to remain celibate his whole life and could not attend weddings or funerals as a sign that there will be no happiness in Israel. The false prophets’ messages were to their benefit, however, when the message given is at great cost to the prophet himself, his motives are less questionable. This type of personal sacrifice which serves to help legitimate a prophet is not uncommon (Isa. 8:1-4; Jer. 33; Ezek. 4-5; Hos. 1-3).[53]

Ecstatic Experience—dem prophets be cray cray!

               Another element which has to be mentioned is that of the question of ecstatic experience by prophets in the OT and ANE. “Excitation was, however, no essential element in true prophecy. It was not mentioned in connection either with Moses or Samuel… so common a phenomenon as ecstasy could be no test of true prophecy.”[54] This mark is actually down played in the OT, probably due to the widespread phenomenon of ecstatic prophecy in surrounding pagan cultures. Prophets showing hyper spirituality were often discredited.[55] Peter Southwell comments,

“The use of the term ecstasy is common in literature about the prophets, but is misleading. Nowadays it carries connotations of exquisite pleasure, and in origin it conveyed the sense that the subject was, quite literally, beside himself, out of his mind, or had taken leave of his senses. Neither of these ideas is explicitly conveyed by the biblical texts, and it is best to avoid too precise psychological terms at a distance of so many centuries, and with so little evidence to go on.”[56]

               Some scholars argue that only false prophets described in the prophetic literature in Israel were ecstatics.[57] However, this view overlooks that there is no good biblical evidence that all the ‘false prophets’ were ecstatics and underestimates the real problems in discerning prophets in Israel. Others such as Gunkel suggested that the true prophet’s oracles were produced after their ecstatic experience had ended, and thus the product of a rational mind. However, this is based on little evidence, and there is evidence which seems to point to the contrary. Jeremiah in particular, in Jeremiah 4:19 exclaims in anguish, in 29:26 his speech is said to be described as that of a madman, and in 23:9 he describes himself shaking like a drunk man because of Yahweh’s words.[58] A third approach admits that the prophets may have had infrequent ecstatic experiences, however, the content of their prophecy must be distinguished from the ecstatic means by which those words were received.[59]

A Brief Overview of Scholarship on False Prophecy

               With this in consideration, let us finally look at some of the views of scholarship on the topic. Some modern scholars have suggested that the criteria for determining a false prophet changed between different time periods in the Bible. Gerhard von Rad proposed that the false nature of the message is what distinguished a prophet as true or false, recognizing that the message was not the only qualifier identified in the Bible (Von Rad, “Die falschen Propheten,” 109–120; Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2:209–210). Sigmund Mowinckel proposed that true pre-exilic prophets were marked by dependence on the word of Yahweh (Mowinckel, “The ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Word,’” 199–227). Buber and van der Woude suggest that correct interpretation of events is what defines a true or false prophet, and that false prophets relied upon conceptions of covenant and Zion theology to proclaim ultimate victory for Jerusalem (Buber, “Falsche Propheten,” 277–83; see also Sanders, “Hermeneutics of True and False Prophecy,” 24–41; and Overholt, “Jeremiah 27–29,” 241–49; van der Woude, “Micah in Dispute,” 244–60). H.J. Kraus concluded that a true prophet had access to the divine council and false prophets relied on alternative forms of divination (Kraus, Prophetie in der Krisis, 105–15; Kraus, Prophetie und Politik, 41).

               However, all of these definitions fell short in one way or another of being comprehensive to the diversity seen in biblical descriptions of false prophets. Therefore, scholarship moved towards using clearly defined objective boundaries instead. Some of these were that prophets identified true and false prophecy by guidance of an inner spirit (Quell, Wahre und falsche Propheten, 105–15), or that only true prophetic utterance from God could correctly identify false utterances (Childs, Old Testament Theology, 136), or that the line between true and false prophecy was variable which mean that prophets could slip from one to the other (Jacob, “Quelques remarques sur les faux prophetes,” 479–86), and Brueggemann’s proposal that prophecy was only able to be judged true or false retrospectively (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 631; Birch et al., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 271–72).[60]

Concluding Thoughts

               In conclusion, the discerning of true and false prophecy was a legitimate concern in the OT, although the focus was primarily on the legitimacy of the message itself. However, the character of the prophet themselves was not unimportant, as the word of a godly prophet of good standing would naturally carry more weight than one of ill repute. False prophecy was a very serious matter, as seen in Deuteronomy 18, death is declared for false prophets. However, no prescription of execution is detailed, but rather it seemed that the penalty was to be overseen by YHWH himself. It is written that Yahweh himself will ‘require it of him’ (v. 19). We are immediately reminded of the fate of the prophet Hananiah, whose imminent death is announced in an oracle by Jeremiah (Jer. 28:16) and who, we are told, ‘died the same year in the seventh month.’”[61]

               There were several marks of legitimation such as confirming miracles, fulfilment, true doctrine, the prophet’s call narrative and ecstatic experience which would be considered, but none of them could singularly give the answer. Instead, a more comprehensive look at the prophet and his message needed to be taken into account, looking also at whether the prophet encouraged the people to repentance, relationship and the worship of the One True God. We can see links to this understanding of prophets and prophecy carried over into the NT times, where others were to weigh what was said (1 Cor. 14:29). Also, there are doctrinal admonitions to test everything and hold fast to what is true (1 Thess. 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1-6). It is assumed that there will continue to be struggle for God’s people with discerning false prophets (Matt. 7:15, 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 2 Pet. 2:1-22) and it is to be taken no less seriously than it was in the OT.

               So this issue of discerning false prophets is still relevant to us today with so many speaking “in the Name of the Lord.” This is no light claim, and often some modern prophecy advocates have taken the idea of ‘fallible’ prophecy far too nonchalantly. Lastly, we must consider also—how does this affect the belief in the sufficiency of scripture? We live in a time of a completed canon. So, if the Bible is sufficient, and God has given us “everything we need pertaining to life and godliness,” (2 Pet. 1:3) why do we need contemporary prophecy? Is it even right to call the modern phenomenon prophecy or is it something totally different? And how authoritative are these prophetic utterances? How does God speak to His people today? We must always go back to scripture as our grounding in doctrine, practice and theology. However, this issue of modern prophecy would be one that would need to be addressed perhaps in a subsequent article.


[1] Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 287-289.
[2] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets, 1-2.
[3] Orlinksy, Oriens Antiquus, 164. Interpretation of the formation of livers (hepatoscopy), entrails (extispicy), smoke or liquid emanating from a container (lecanomancy and libanomancy).
[4] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets, 2-4. See also Davies, The Old Testament World, 167. For more in depth discussion of ANE context of prophecy, see Day, Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel, 3-56.
[5] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 29-30.
[6] Smith, Prophet, 988.
[7] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets, 4-5. For example, Samuel in 1 Samuel 9-10, is described as a ro’eh and he sees that Saul is coming and that the lost donkeys had already returned home. The means of divination included interpretation of dreams (Jer. 23:25-32, Dan. 2, 4, Joel 2:28), casting lots (Jonah 1:7), inspecting livers (Ezek. 21:21 – a common practice in the ancient Middle East), necromancy (1 Sm. 28:8-25 – though condemned in the OT) and reading the stars (Ezek. 32:7, Joel 2:10).
[8] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets, 5. It is used in reference to the entire revelation the prophet received in the openings of Isaiah, Amos, Micah and Habakkuk.
[9] Southwell, Prophecy, 24.
[10] Napier, Prophets in Perspective, 17-19. Also see Southwell, Prophecy, 21-36 for a more in depth discussion of prophets in ancient Israel. The Septuagint translation seems to presuppose a slightly different text which conveys that the term “seer” was simply a common popular name for a prophet in the past. See also Napier, Prophets in Perspective, 15. Furthermore, Redditt suggests that perhaps ro’eh may have come to take on a negative connotation, so nabi’ became preferred. However, even nabi’ can be applied to a false prophet (1 Kgs 22:22). For more, see also Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, 98-128.
[11] Southwell, Prophecy, 24. “The phrase is used especially of Elijah and Elisha at precisely that stage, and Elijah is a classic example of a seer who began to exercise the ministry of a prophet.”
[12] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 10.
[13] Napier, Prophets in Perspective, 15-16. See also Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 86-87.
[14] Napier, Prophets in Perspective, 14-15. The term is used of Aaron (Ex. 7:1), to Elijah (1 Kg. 17-19, 21), to true and false prophets (1 Kg 22), primitive prophets (1 Sam. 10) to more sophisticated (Isaiah), highly visionary (Ezek. 1-2) and concretely ethical (Amos, Nathan, etc.).
[15] Southwell, Peter. Prophecy. London. Hodder and Stoughton: 1982., 21.
[16] According to Smith, Prophet, 987; various other theories have been proposed including connecting it with naba’ (bubble forth), a passive participle of a word meaning ‘enter’—describing one who was entered by a spirit, an Arabic root meaning ‘announce,’ an Akkadian root meaning ‘speaking or proclaiming’ or a passive interpretation ‘the one who is called by God.” See also discussion by Johnson. The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel, 24f.
[17] Southwell, Prophecy, 21.
[18] Smith, Prophet, 988. Also, Lester L. Grabbe defines a prophet generally as, “a mediator who claims to receive messages directly from a divinity, by various means, and communicates those messages to recipients.”
[19] Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 163-165, 250. For a fuller discussion of the distinctive features of prophets from the Ephraimite Tradition and Judean Tradition see chapters 4 and 5 in Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel.
[20] Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 251-252.
[21] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 20. Lundbom goes on to say, “[Prophets] have the capacity to perceive things ordinary people cannot perceive. They see that the times are out of joint, that human life before God is far from what it should be, that judgment is forthcoming, and that after judgment they are the first to anticipate Yahweh’s salvation.”
[22] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 10.
[23] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 7-31.
[24] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets, 6. See also Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 297.
[25] Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1780.
[26] Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1780. For example, Moses acted as a false prophet by striking the rock twice at the waters of Meribah (Nm 20:11, 12), while Balaam, a non-Israelite—whom God entrusted with a vision—found himself in the difficult position of having to please Balak, who had hired him, and the God of Israel, who spoke to him (Nm 22, 23).
[27] Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets,8-9. However, even here there is a last twist, since it was Jehoshaphat who was killed in battle and not Ahab. This text warrants further exploration, which for the sake of time will not be explored here.
[28] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 140. See also Davidson, “The False Prophets.” in The Expositor, 1-17.
[29] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 142-143.
[30] Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 296-298.
[31] Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 299-300. See also Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel, 30. For further reading see also Overholt, Thomas W. The Threat of Falsehood: A Study in the Theology of the Book of Jeremiah. Studies in Biblical Theology, n.s., 16. Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1970.
[32] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 145.
[33] Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind, 95.
[34] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 145-146. See also Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 88-89.
[35] Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 293; see also Day, Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel, 392-393.
[36] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 24.
[37] Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1782. See also Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 32.
[38] Werse, “False Prophecy,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, no pages—LOGOS resource.
[39] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 152-153. See also for more discussion of the morality of false prophets Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 305-308.
[40] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 149-150. See also Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict, 53.
[41] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 151.
[42] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophet, 151-152.
[43] Shemesh, Halakha in the Making, 49-50.
[44] Shemesh, Halakha in the Making, 50-51. Halakhah definition from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online:, “Quite distinct from the Law of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), Halakhah purports to preserve and represent oral traditions stemming from the revelation on Mount Sinai or evolved on the basis of it. The legalistic nature of Halakhah also sets it apart from those parts of rabbinic, or Talmudic,literature that include history, fables, and ethical teachings (Haggadah).”
[45] Shemesh, Halakha in the Making, 50-52.
[46] Shemesh, Halakha in the Making, 53-55.
[47] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 16. See also Berquist, Prophetic Legitimation in Jeremiah, 136. Similarly, Jonah didn’t get to prophesy the message he wanted to.
[48] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 18.
[49] There is a close similarity between Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, and some scholars believe that Jeremiah may have even had a close part in the final production of Deuteronomy. See Hyatt, Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, 156-164.
[50] Berquist, Prophetic Legitimation in Jeremiah, 130. The call narrative form as a means of legitimation “may have originated in the setting of ambassadors presenting their credentials before their audience, telling how the ambassador was commissioned to present this particular message.”; See also N. Habel, The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives., ZAW 77 (1965), 322.
[51] Berquist, Prophetic Legitimation in Jeremiah, 131.
[52] Berquist, Prophetic Legitimation in Jeremiah, 131-133.
[53] Berquist, Prophetic Legitimation in Jeremiah, 134.
[54] Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 291-292.
[55] Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 26. “Micah claimed that insensitive people in his audience would rather sit and listen to ‘windy’ preachers, who push ‘liquid spirits’ on people, than to his cry against social injustice (Mic. 2:11). Jeremiah played on the double meaning of ‘spirit,’ saying that some prophets he knows will become what they already are: ‘bags of wind.’” For further reading see also Lindblom, J. Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965.
[56] Southwell, Prophecy, 25.
[57] Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 7. See also H.T. Obbink, “The Forms of Prophetism,” HUCA 14 (1939), 25-28; S. Mowinckel, “‘The Spirit’ and the ‘Word’ in the Pre-exilic Reforming Prophets,” JBL 53 (1934), 199-227.
[58] Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 7-8. See also Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets, 29 who said, “The prophets also came and went, as with the wind, as seen in the discourse between Elijah and Obadiah—who was worried Elijah would disappear and he wouldn’t be able to find him (1 Kgs 18:12). They were mobile messengers of Yahweh, which was different to priests who resided in the sanctuary. You could go see a priest, because you knew where to find him. The prophet was not like that, but might come to see you when you least expected it. “The importance of mobility for the prophet persisted even in to the late first century C.E., when, in the early church, the false prophet was one who stayed with his host more than two days (Didache 11:5).”
[59] Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 8. See also Rowley, “Old Testament Prophecy,” 128-131 and Mowinckel, “Ecstatic Experience,” 279-280. For discussions of ecstasy and cult see Eissfeldt, The Old Testament and Modern Study, 119-126, 134-145 and Clements, One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation, 51-75.
[60] Werse, “False Prophecy,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, no pages. See also Von Rad, Old Testament Theology and Overholt, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 35, 241–249 and Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament.
[61] Day, Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel, 156.



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Clements, Ronald E. One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Crenshaw, James L. Prophetic Conflict: Its Effects upon Israelite Religion. BZAW 124. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1971.

Davidson, A. B. Old Testament Prophecy. ed. J.A. Paterson. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1904.

Davidson, A.B. “The False Prophets.” The Expositor. 5th ser., 2. 1895. Online:

Davies, Philip R. and John Rogerson. The Old Testament World. 2nd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. 2006.

Day, John. Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 531. ed. Claudia V. Camp, et al. New York: T&T Clark International, 2010.

Deere, Jack S. “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Eissfeldt, Otto. “The Prophetic Literature,” in H.H. Rowley, ed., The Old Testament and Modern Study. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

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Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Geisler, Norman L. Miracles and the Modern Mind: A Defense of Biblical Miracles. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992.

Hyatt, J. Philip., Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr. 1942). University of Chicago Press., 156-164. Online:

Johnson, Aubrey R. The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel. Cardiff: University of Whales Press, 1962.

Lundbom, Jack R. The Hebrew Prophets: An Introduction. Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press: 2010.

Merrill, Eugene H. Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Napier, B. D. Prophets in Perspective. New York. Abingdon Press: 1962.

Orlinksy, Harry M. “The Seer in Ancient Israel.” Oriens Antiquus 4. 1965

Overholt, Thomas W. “Jeremiah 27–29: The Question of False Prophecy.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 35, 1967.

Redditt, Paul L. Introduction to the Prophets. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans: 2008.

Shemesh, Aharon. Halakha in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

Smith, G. V., “Prophet” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. ed. G.W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979-1988.

Southwell, Peter. Prophecy. London. Hodder and Stoughton: 1982.

Werse, Nicholas R. “False Prophecy,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

Westermann, Claus. Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967.

Wilson, Robert R. Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions. Translated by D.M.G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.


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