What is Prophecy? A Jewish Perspective

Throughout the Bible God speaks to individuals and groups. God also gave to some individuals, called prophets, the role of conveying His message to other people.

Since so many books of the Bible contain prophecies, let’s try to understand the Jewish concept of prophecy.

Definition of Prophecy

I’m sure that people think that most prophecies involve telling or predicting the future.

Let’s start by looking up the meaning of the English words prophet and prophecy.

1. one who utters divinely inspired revelations: as (a) often capitalized the writer of one of the prophetic books of the Bible (b) capitalized one regarded by a group of followers as the final authoritative revealer of God’s will.

1. an inspired utterance of a prophet
2. the function or vocation of a prophet; specifically: the inspired declaration of the divine will and purpose
3. a prediction of something to come.

These are the relevant definitions in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

These definitions convey the idea of a message being communicated to other people. That is to say, the prophet receives a prophecy (a message about the Divine will) and then tells it to others.

As we will see, these definitions capture only a small aspect of the Jewish concept of prophesy.

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The Hebrew Word “Navi”

The Hebrew word for prophet is “navi” (nun-bet-yud-aleph). This word is found more than 300 times in the Bible.

The Hebrew word for prophecy is “navuah” (nun-bet-vav-aleph-hey). This word is used only 3 times in the entire Bible: Nehemiah 6:12 (a false prophecy), 2 Chronicles 9:29 and 15:8.

As is common in Hebrew, there is also a verb form, “niba,” with the 3-letter root nun-bet-aleph. This word occurs about 85 times in the Bible.

A note about the verb “niba” / nun-bet-aleph:

In the structure of the Hebrew, “niba” is a “nifal” verb form.

As a general rule, nifal verbs are passive. Passive verbs describe an action that is done to an object or a person.

We’ll come back to this idea in a little bit.

Abraham: The First Prophet

The first time the word prophet is used in the Bible is when Abraham and Sarah stayed in Gerar. The king of Gerar, Abimelech, took Sarah with the intention of adding her to his harem.

God appeared to Abimelech and told him to return Sarah to Abraham.

Genesis Chapter 20

6. God said to him [Abimelech] …
7. Now therefore restore the wife of the man, because he is a prophet [navi], and he shall pray for you, and you shall live; and if you restore her not, know you that you shall surely die, you, and all who are yours.

There are many details in this story. I will focus on just the one idea of what it means that Abraham is a prophet.

Verse 7 seems to say that the reason to return Sarah to Abraham is because Abraham is a prophet. Is God really saying that any thug can take away the wife of a non-prophet?

Here’s how the commentator Radak explains the verse:

Radak on Genesis 20:7

And now … because he is a prophet and he is close to Me and I am close to him to hear his prayer…

Radak explains to us that the status of being a prophet indicates a personal, close relationship between God and that person. In this instance, this status ensures that Abraham’s prayer asking God to spare Abimelech will be heard.

Here is how Radak tells us to understand the verse: Now therefore restore the wife of the man. Because he is a prophet [navi], he shall pray for you, and you shall live …

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch uses this verse to explain more about prophecy.

Hirsch on Genesis 20:7

“Navi” stems from the root nun-bet-aleph, related to nun-bet-ayin, meaning “to flow” or “gush forth.” A navi, then, is a wellspring of living waters for God’s Word and holy spirit, a channel through which God’s spirit speaks to mankind. Hence, the form of the word, too, is passive [emphasis in the original]. …

Thus, the very word by which our language designates a prophet is itself the strongest protest against all who diminish the character of prophecy and distort its meaning. A navi is not a “prophet,” one who foretells, but is essentially God’s channel.

Rav Hirsch is warning us against the mistaken idea that a “prophet” is merely a person who speaks about future events.

Rather, a prophet / navi is a person God can use to communicate with people. The message from God can be about any aspect of life and our relationship with God.

Aaron: Prophet for Moses

Moses did not want God to send him to save the Jewish people from Egypt. One of his complaints was that he did not speak fluently. Here is how God responded to this complaint:

Exodus Chapter 7

1. And the Lord said to Moses, See, I have made you a god to Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.

In other words, God will give a message to Moses. Moses will give the message to Aaron. Then Aaron will speak to Pharaoh.

Rav Hirsch comments on this verse in a manner similar to his comment on Genesis 20:7.

Hirsch on Exodus 7:1

“As a prophet is to Me, so shall Aharon be to you.” This characterization is of great significance for Jewish prophecy as a true reality… The true prophet stands face to face with God, as Aharon stands before Moshe [emphasis in original].

Accordingly, “navi” is a passive concept, “hinavei” related to nun-bet-ayin, meaning “to flow” or “gush forth.” The prophet is used by God as a “wellspring” through which, He, God, reveals His Word. The prophet is not the author but only the transmitter of the Word he speaks.

I mentioned above that the Hebrew verb “niba” is a nifal, passive form. Rav Hirsch says this fact is not merely some cute grammatical accident. In fact, the word is passive because the prophet is “passive.”

God uses the prophet to communicate His message. The message is from God, not from the prophet.

The Purpose of Prophecy

Prophecy is one of the tools God has used in the past to communicate with people.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought

8:43 The main message of all the prophets was that we keep the commandments as presented in the Torah. God’s last words to His prophets were, “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb (Sinai) for all Israel, decrees and laws” (Malachi 3:22). …

8:52 The most usual reason that God sends a prophet is to admonish the people to keep the Torah. A prophet may also reveal God’s will regarding questions not involving Torah law, such as waging a war or building a city.

It is true that many of the prophets recorded in the Bible spoke about future events. Rabbi Kaplan points out that speaking about the future is a minor aspect of Jewish prophecy.

We could even suggest that many of the prophecies about the future were presented to warn the Jewish people what would happen if they continued to break God’s law.

Further Reading

This article is part of a series of articles on Jewish prophecy. Here are links to the other articles:

The articles are all independent and may be read in any order.

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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