Types of Prophets in the Bible

It is a basic tenet of Judaism that God wants people to understand the purpose of creation. One of the ways that God has chosen to communicate His will is by revealing it to different types of prophets.

Types or Levels?

In this article I will use the phrases “types of prophets” and “levels of prophecy.” I intend these phrases to be equivalent. In other words, different types of prophets may experience different levels of prophecy.

Rabbi Yosef Albo in his book Sefer HaIkkarim writes:

Sefer HaIkkarim 3:8

The main purpose of God in inspiring the prophets was that through them man may attain to his perfection by doing those things which are acceptable to God and not in order to give mankind a knowledge of the future, as is the case with the diviners.

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Types of Prophets in the Bible

According to Jewish tradition (Gemara Megillah 14a), 48 prophets had messages that are important for all time.

Right away, we see that we can divide Jewish prophets into 2 groups:

  1. Prophets with a message for the ages
  2. Prophets with a message for their time

As that gemara makes clear, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews (both men and women) who were prophets.

Very few prophets were given messages that were needed for future generations to hear. However, that does not diminish the importance of those other unknown prophets or the significance of their messages.

Moses Compared to Other Prophets

There is another way we can divide the prophets mentioned in the Bible into two groups. Group 1 is Moses. All other prophets are in Group 2.

In the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. Here is part of how God responded to them:

Numbers Chapter 12

6. And He said, Hear now My words; If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision [Hebrew: marah], and will speak to him in a dream.
7. Not so with My servant Moses, for he is the trusted one in all My house.
8. With him I speak mouth to mouth, in a vision [Hebrew: mareh], and not in riddles; and he beholds the image of God. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?

Moses had direct communication with God. That is indicated by the phrase “mouth to moth.”

God also showed Moses clear visions. All prophets may be shown a vision. The vision seen by most prophets is described as a “marah” which means an unclear or reflected image, similar to a mirror.

The visions shown to Moses are in the form of “mareh” which means clear, a vision seen clearly without any interruption (see Hirsch on verse 6).

Here is how Rashi explains “mareh”:

Rashi Numbers Chapter 12

8. and in a vision [mareh] and not in riddles When it says “mareh” this refers to the clearness of the Divine communication, i.e. that I express My communication to him in the clearest form in which it can be put and do not obscure it in riddles…

Also, all other prophets are only shown images when they are in a dream-like state. They cannot receive a prophetic vision when fully awake.

4 Categories of Prophets

As I wrote in a previous article, there is some discussion about exactly who are included in the list of the 48 prophets.

For the purpose of this article, let’s accept the list written in Seder Olam Chapter 20. At the end of his list of the 48 prophets, Seder Olam tells us:

Seder Olam, Chapter 20

You find with them [the 48 prophets] 10 that are called “Man of God.” … Samuel and Chanani are called “The Seer.” Ezekiel and Daniel are called “Son of Man.”

Seder Olam lists the following 10 prophets who are called Man of God:

  • Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1)
  • Elkanah (1 Samuel 2:27, see Rashi)
  • Samuel (1 Samuel 9:6)
  • David (Nehemiah 12:24)
  • Shemaiah (1 Kings 12:22)
  • Iddo (1 Kings 13:1, see Rashi)
  • Elijah the Tishbite (1 Kings 17:18)
  • Elisha (2 Kings 4:9)
  • Micaiahu (also at times called Micah) (1 Kings 20:13,22,28, see Radak)
  • Amoz the father of Isaiah (2 Chronicles 25:7, see Radak)

For each prophet I’ve included a verse where he is called “Man of God.”

Two are called “haroeh” or “The Seer”:

  • Samuel (1 Samuel 9:18,19)
  • Chanani (2 Chronicles 16:7)

Two are called Son of Man:

  • Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1 and many other verses)
  • Daniel (Daniel 8:17)

It seems to me that these different titles indicate different levels of prophecy. If this is correct, then there are (at least) 4 different types / levels of prophets: Man of God, Seer, Son of Man, Prophet.

I’m sure you noticed that Samuel is listed both as Man of God and Seer. Of course, this could mean that there is no difference and the titles are interchangeable.

However, it is not the way of the Bible to use different words for no purpose.

More likely, the text is telling us that Samuel at different times in his career experienced different levels of prophecy.

Moses – Man of God

Moses is the first prophet who is called Man of God. This is in Deuteronomy 33:1 near the end of his life as he prepared to bless the Jewish people.

Let’s look at how some commentators explain of this concept.

  • Rav Saadia Gaon: Moses was God’s messenger
  • Ibn Ezra: the blessing was said via prophecy
  • Ramban: the blessing will be fulfilled
  • Rav Hirsch: Moses had a relationship with God as His servant and messenger
  • Malbim: Moses was constantly attached to God Who is the source of blessing

Based on these comments, we can say that the title “Man of God” when applied to a prophet implies an especially close relationship with God.

Levels of Prophecy

We see different skill levels in most aspects of life.

For example, kids playing baseball after school and players for a major league team are playing the same game. But there are obvious and significant differences in their skill levels.

It seems intuitive to me that there should be different levels of prophecy. Rabbi Kaplan describes it this way:

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought

6:62 Just as there are many levels of intelligence, there are many degrees of prophecy. God grants a degree of revelation to each prophet according to his spiritual gifts and the needs of the time. It is thus written, “[God] makes a measure for the spirit” (Job 28:25).

Let’s look at a couple of explanations about these different levels of prophecy.

Levels of Prophecy According to Rambam

Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) 2:45, identifies three levels of prophecy.

1. Divine Assistance

This is the lowest level. It is also called “the spirit of the Lord” or Divine guidance.

Rambam explains that this not prophecy, but a step toward prophecy. This Divine Assistance can cause and encourage a person to perform significant deeds.

According to Rabbi Kaplan, this is a gift that any worthy person can be granted but the person may not be aware that he is experiencing Divine Assistance.

2. Divine Inspiration

Rambam’s second level is called in Hebrew “ruach hakodesh.” This is still below the level of actual prophecy.

A person who experiences this level will be consciously aware of what is being experienced.

According to Ramchal in Derech HaShem (The Way of God) 3.3.2, ruach hakodesh allows a person to understand ideas:

  • based on human logic with greater clarity;
  • that are beyond human logic such as future events and hidden secrets.

There are many levels of ruach hakodesh.

3. Prophecy

Rambam’s third level is “nevuah” or actual prophecy. There are different levels of prophecy.

Rambam divides prophecy into 2 major categories: prophetic dreams and prophetic visions.

In a prophetic dream a prophet may:

  • see an allegory
  • hear something but does not see the speaker
  • be spoken to by a man
  • be spoken to by an angel
  • have it seem that God speaks directly to him

In a prophetic vision a prophet may:

  • see allegorical figures
  • hear words
  • see a man speak to him
  • see an angel speak to him

Rambam does suggest another way to understand the levels of prophecy, but I won’t delve into it here.

Levels of Prophecy According to Midrash

There’s a short midrash that indicates there are 10 levels of prophecy:

Genesis Rabbah 44:6 (Soncino translation)

[Prophecy] is expressed by ten designations:

  • prophecy, (nevuah)
  • vision, (chazon)
  • preaching, (hatafah)
  • speech, (dibur)
  • saying, (amira)
  • command, (tzivui)
  • burden, (massa)
  • parable, (mashal)
  • metaphor, (melitzah)
  • and enigma (chidah).

Yefeh To’ar (a commentary on midrash) writes: “Ten expressions are called prophecy. Because there are 12 levels of prophecy but in the first two levels [a person] will not be called a prophet. And there are only ten left. But it is difficult to assign each one of the expressions of prophecy to each one of those levels.”

According to Yefeh To’ar, there are 12 levels of “prophecy.” However, a person who reaches the lowest two is not yet fully a prophet. So the sages in Genesis Rabbah are telling us the names of the 10 levels of actual prophecy.

However, Yefeh To’ar continues, it is not clear which word in the midrash applies to which level of prophecy.

It’s possible that this midrash differs from how Rambam understands the different levels of prophecy. Or, we could understand that the Rambam is telling us the major categories and the midrash is revealing the levels in more detail.

Transformation

Becoming a prophet transforms a person, no matter what level of prophecy is granted. This is what Samuel told Saul after he anointed him to be king:

1 Samuel Chapter 10

5. After that you [Saul] shall come to the hill of God, where the garrisons of the Philistines are; and it shall come to pass, when you have come there to the city, that you shall meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a lute, and a tambourine, and a pipe, and a lyre, before them; and they shall prophesy;
6. And the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you shall prophesy with them, and you shall be turned into another man.

Saul was granted a gift of God’s spirit (Hebrew: ruach Hashem). This gift elevated him to one of the spiritual levels of being a prophet. God gave to Saul the spiritual tools he would need to be the leader of the Jewish people.

Summary of the Types of Prophets

In this article I’ve discussed several different ways to categorize the different types of prophets. Here’s a summary in a few short sentences.

1. There are 2 types of prophets:
a. The 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses that had messages for all time.
b. The hundreds of thousands of other prophets with messages for their time only.

2. There are 2 types of prophets:
a. Moses
b. All other prophets

3. According to Seder Olam the 48 prophets can be divided into 4 groups: Man of God, Seer, Son of Man, and Prophet. It is possible that all prophets fit into one of these 4 groups.

4. According to Rambam there were 3 major levels of prophecy: Divine assistance, Divine inspiration, and Prophecy.

5. According to the midrash as explained by Yefeh To’ar, there are 12 levels of prophecy, but the first two aren’t actual prophecy. Thus there are 10 levels of actual prophecy.

Further Reading

This article is part of a series on the subject of prophecy. A good place to start is with the article What is Prophecy – A Jewish Perspective.

At the end of that article you will find links to all of the other articles.

A Note
The translation of Sefer HaIkkarim is from the Jewish Publication Society of America published in 1929.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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