Prophecy in Israel and the Ancient Near East

Fear not, Esarhaddon! I, the god Bel, am speaking to you. I watch over your inner heart as would your mother who brought you forth. Sixty great gods are standing together with me and protect you. The god Sin is at your Right, the god Shamash at your left. The sixty great gods are standing around you, ranged for battle. Do not trust in human beings! Lift your eyes to me, look at me!

– Oracle Concerning Esarhaddon, in The Ancient Near East, II. 168-69.

Is prophetism in ancient Israel simply one form of ancient Near Eastern prophecy among many? Is it distinct from other forms of ANE prophecy? If so, how? In his newly published Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Gary V. Smith notes some similarities, but also some key differences between biblical and ANE prophecy. He also explains the frustration the true prophets of God felt when people disregarded their messages for the messages of the false prophets:

In both biblical and Neo-Assyrian prophecies, God/the gods spoke words of comfort, support, sovereignty, protection, and reconciliation. [Note: Smith does spend some time talking about the Mari prophetic texts as well.] Both stressed the importance of trusting God/the gods and not trusting people, and both prophecies called for people to praise God/the gods. Both also predicted what would happen in the future. With all these similarities, we can begin to understand why people were sometimes deceived when these prophets spoke such encouraging messages.

Three of the fundamental differences between biblical and the Neo-Assyrian prophecies were:

1. The Assyrian prophets depended on information and direction from several gods (Bel/Marduk, Sin, Nabu, Ashur, Ishtar, Shamash) as opposed to one all-powerful God in Hebrew prophecy.

2. The Assyria [sic] prophets produced positive and supportive oracles, while the biblical prophecies included far more critical prophecies than supportive prophecies. In this respect the Neo-Assyrian prophecies were similar to the Hebrew false prophets who spoke only words of peace, prosperity, and divine protection.

3. The Assyrian prophecies were quite brief, so there was nothing similar to the length of the biblical prophecies of Zephaniah (three chapters), Hosea (fourteen chapters), or Isaiah (sixty-six chapters).

The false claims and teachings of different prophets brought conflict into the life of the Hebrew prophets who spoke God’s message. For example, the 400 Baal prophets who served King Aham told Ahab and Jehoshapaht to go to war against Aram/Syria and promised victory (1 Kings 22:1-6, 10-12). In contrast, Micaiah son of Imlah, a true prophet of Yahweh, said that Israel would lose the war and Ahab would be killed (1 Kings 22:8-9, 17). This was exactly what happened (2 King[s] 22:34-40). Apparently some prophets were just interested in the money they would make for their prophecies (Jer. 6:13; Mic. 3:5-6; Zeph. 3:4), so they deceived people by telling them what they wanted to hear. Another problem was that many priests and prophets did not teach the people about God’s instructions in the Torah (Jer. 2:8; Hos. 4:5-6) and sometimes the religious leaders incited the crowds to kill a true prophet (Jer. 26:8011). These circumstances illustrate why it was very difficult for the average uninformed Israelite to know whom to believe, for many false prophets claimed to be inspired by the God of Israel (Jer. 23:25-30; 29:1-3).

This background to the prophetic situation should help the reader sympathize with the frustration that  many prophets experiences when people rejected their prophecies.

Interpreting the Prophetical Books, Pg. 97

While we certainly learn some things from ANE prophetical texts, we are reminded that the true God gave messengers commissioned to speak his words and instructed his people in how to discern those who were true and false among them (Deut 13:1-5; 18:15-22). Though there are “certain resemblances” between biblical and extra-biblical prophecy, there are also significant differences. (For further reading, see E.J. Young, “Appendix: Extra-Biblical ‘Prophecy’ in the Ancient World,” in My Servants the Prophets,  pgs. 193-205; J. Stokl, “Ancient Near Eastern prophecy,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, pgs. 16-24.) Though I enjoy reading ANE material, I’ve found it less helpful than often suggested for interpreting OT texts. I’ve posted about this before with regard to narrative (see here). So to with the prophetical books, I haven’t found ANE comparative studies to be as helpful or illuminating as inner-biblical and biblical-theological studies.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA