A Taste of The "Former Prophets": Elijah and Micaiah

Who Shall I Say is Calling?

From "Whodunit?" to "Who's on First?", knock-knock jokes to serious questions, we are always asking, "Who's there?" It's a universal question. In the past, it was a question that human beings put to those rare individuals, shamans, oracles, soothsayers, who were, they believed or hoped, in touch with another world, listening to the words of gods or spirits. Who's there? Who shall I say is calling?

It's a question that we can frame in a multitude of ways -- "who's calling?" can become "who's calling us?" or "who's calling you?" We can address one another or we can address our gods or God. And the openness that we ask with has a lot to do with the kind of answer that we get. Let me give an example from the later stories of the prophets.

The Book of Jonah is unique among the later prophetic books in telling a story about a prophet rather than recording a prophet's sayings and warnings. We all know the story of Jonah and the "whale" -- a monstrous sea creature that swallows him up and deposits him on dry land after three days -- but tend to forget why he was at sea in the first place. Jonah was running away from a Voice that called him. It was calling him to do something he didn't want to do, for whatever reason -- the Voice told him to go to the great (but hostile and pagan) city of Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. He did not want to go so he hopped the first boat in the opposite direction, thus leading to the incident with the "whale". When the Voice came again, Jonah acknowledged who was calling and went to Nineveh and proclaimed the Lord's message. He walked through the city of Nineveh for three days -- the time it took to cross it -- calling out a warning. Instead of asking who this crazy fellow shouting in the streets was , the people of Nineveh asked themselves, who shall we say is calling? Perceiving that the answer was, "God", they repent, fast (always a sign of repentance in Scripture), and pray. And thus are delivered. And Jonah doesn't like it! He is angry with God for responding favourably to the repentant Ninevites! Jonah still isn't asking the right question: he's not listening to that calling.

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible spur us to ask these questions and to listen carefully for answers. Their history is a story of transformation -- how a universal human institution, that of the oracle or shaman, became the vehicle for a new mode of relationship between human beings and God. That history comes to us in two sections, imaginatively referred to as the former prophets (what we call the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and the latter prophets (the so-called "writing prophets", what we call the major and minor prophets). It is with the earlier prophets, those whose story forms part of the interpretation of and meditation on the history of Israel from their arrival in the Promised Land to the Exile to Babylon, that I want to spend our time here.

The transformation that leads to the uniquely Hebrew institution of prophecy is tied in to another transformation, that of governance. In the period of the Exodus, when the people crossed the wilderness to escape from the Egyptians that had enslaved them, political organisation was very simple. Moses was in charge, with the help of a small body of subordinate leaders, and the source of their authority was equally simple: God. In other words, in the flight from Egypt to the Promised Land, the people lived under a theocracy: God was their leader through Moses as God's representative. If we look at the early historical books, it appears that this primitive system endured after the crossing of the Jordan River and the settlement in Canaan -- Moses of course was no more, having died before the actual entrance into the Promised Land, but Joshua his successor ruled in the same way, as did the successive judges until the time of Samuel.

Samuel was the last of these judges and an important transitional figure, because he presided over a change that was to have massive implications for Israel. In Egypt and in the Wilderness, Israel was largely isolated from other peoples either by their slavery or by their geographical situation, but here in Canaan, there were many nearby nations, all with their own customs and gods. But one thing they all had in common was being ruled by kings -- monarchy was the norm. And although their kings claimed some sort of relationship with their gods and the support of their gods in war, these neighbouring kings were not theocracies. In Canaan, Israel grew to want to be like these other nations, with kings like they had.

The immediate spur came from Samuel's sons, whom he appointed to be judges and who were terrible at it. An earlier failure by the family of Eli, who preceded Samuel as a judge and a priest, had led to Samuel's ascendancy in both roles, but now the people wanted not a different judge but a different mode of leadership. The problem, of course, is that they already have a king, and that king is God -- by asking for a king just like the one their neighbours have, they reject their true king and their unique relationship with God.

Well, despite rejection, God does not completely abandon Israel to the ill effects of their desire for a king, though God is content for Samuel to give them what they asked for. The Israelite institution of anointed kingship is born from this choice. So is the institution of prophecy. In the crisis of relationship that is born from Israel's desire to be like the other nations, participating in human institutions of rule, God transforms the institution of prophecy to keep open the direct channel of communication between God's self and God's people that had formerly existed through men such as Moses and Samuel. The prophet will no longer be one who both speaks and hears in some sort of ecstatic trance or frenzy, but the one who knowingly and willingly receives and passes on the word of the Lord. We see the two sorts of prophets side by side for a time (as in our last reading below), but it is the prophet speaking the Lord's word who prevails.

As we shall see, a special relationship existed between the king and the prophet in these new Israelite structures -- the prophet's peculiar responsibility is to speak God's word to the king and his subordinates at times of national crisis and to call the whole people into right relationship with one another and with YHWH their God. The institution of prophecy did not long survive the Exile and Return to the Land, because the conditions of restoration were such that an independent Israel with a sovereign ruler could no longer exist. Without a king or the promise of a king, the unique institution of Old Testament prophecy was no more.

In the following three passages, we will explore some of the dimensions of the prophet's responsibilities and relationships through two stories of Elijah and one of Micaiah, both prophets in the 9th century BCE reign of Ahab, king of the Northern kingdom of Israel and husband to Jezebel, the infamous princess of Tyre and worshipper of the god Baal.

Continue to the next section.