5. ANE Prophecy

The study of ancient Israelite prophecy in the course of the last, twentieth, century has been enlarged by the discovery of prophetic, or prophet-like, phenomena from elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but what, in fact, has this new material contributed to the understanding of the Israelite situation? Have we learned anything that we did not know before, other than the obvious fact that there may be prophets in other ancient Near Eastern cultures? Respond to these questions by focusing on two topics within this broader field of inquiry.

Summary: A comparison of Biblical prophecy and ANE prophecy reveals four things. First, it shows that prophecy existed all over the ANE. Second, it shows that Israelite prophecy to ANE prophecy in that they both had ecstatic prophets. Third, it shows that Israelite prophecy was unique in that it had classical prophets that focused on transforming the king and society by preaching ethical monotheism. Fourth, it shows that the tradition 2-part division of Israelite prophecy into "pre-classical" and "classical" prophets is not the best model to describe Israelite prophecy. After a discussion of these four issues, what follows is a summary of prophecy in the ANE.

I. What have we learned from ANE extra-biblical prophecy? 

1) That the the Fertile Crescent was home to a wide distribution of prophets. We now know that prophecy was not restricted only to ancient Israel but was rather a common cultural legacy which cannot be traced back to any particular society or place of origin (Nissinen). Thus, a comparison of ANE prophecy and biblical prophecy has given us a greater context into which Biblical prophecy can be placed. The Bible speaks of extra-Biblical prophecy in surrounding regions (Num 22-24). The discovered texts which refer to ANE prophecy provide the actual data of this extra-biblical prophecy. 

Prophecy existed from as early as the 3rd millennium to as late as the late 1st millennium. Currently, we know that prophecy existed in Mari (18th cent BCE), Canaan (11th cent. BCE; Report of Wenamon from Egypt), Nineveh (7th cent BCE), Amman (9th cent BCE), Zakkur (8th cent. BCE), and Deir Alla (8th cent BCE).

2) That Biblical prophecy was similar to ANE prophecy in that both had ecstatic prophets who had bizarre behavior. ANE prophets reached an "ecstatic" state, often by means of drugs or alcohol. In Mari (18th cent), the Muẖẖum (the "ecstatic") was characterized by behavior such as self-wounding actions and eating quivering meat! In Mari, a very similar functionary was the Āpilum/Āpiltum (from apālum, "to answer"). Seems to have functioned/behaved similar to the Muẖẖūm. In Neo-Assryian sources (1st mill BCE), the Raggimu/Raggintu (from ragāmu, "to shout, to proclaim") replaced the Maẖẖû. 

The Bible speaks of Saul going into a frenzy (1Sam 10:9-13; 19:18-24). Isaiah had ecstatic visions (chap 6). Ezekiel had ecstatic visions (chaps 1, 8-11). Prophets of Baal cut themselves (1Kgs. 18:28-9). Biblical prophets had bizarre behavior. Jeremiah buries loincloth (chap 13); Isaiah walked around naked (Isa 20:1-3); Ezekiel cuts his hair off, divides it into three piles, and does different symbolic acts with each pile of hair (Ezek 5:1-4).

3) That "classical prophecy" of the Bible is only attested in ancient Israel. While the ANE has many references to prophets, the majority seem to be ecstatic prophets who are traditionally compared to "pre-classical prophets" of the Bible. The Bible, however, also has "classical prophets" who were characterized by speaking to the court and to the people about ethical monotheism and social change. In turn, these oracles were dutifully collected, edited, interpreted, and re-interpreted by Israelite prophets and scribes (Nissinen 2003:5). 

Such a phenomenon is not attested in the ANE. The ANE did have ecstatic prophets (e.g. Muẖẖûm; in Mari, 18th cent BCE) and even court prophets who prophesied good tidings to the king (Nabû; in Mari, 18th cent BCE). But there is no attestation of prophets who preached social change to the people and the king. It may have existed in the ANE in oral form, but there are no written attestations of it.

4) That the traditional 2-part division of Biblical prophets into "pre-classical" and "classical" prophets is not entirely accurate. For full discussion, see essay #4, "Pre-classical vs. Classical Prophets." In short, the traditional perspective holds that "pre-classical" prophets were ecstatics that evolved into "classical" prophets who were ethical teachers of monotheism. In fact, ANE prophecy reports of ecstatic prophets as early as the 3rd millennium BCE (Muẖẖûm in Old Akkadian) and as late as the 1st millennium BCE. Therefore, the division is a bit arbitrary that supposedly occurred only among biblical prophets. Also, while the Bible speaks of court prophets  among biblical pre-classical prophets (Nathan, Gad) as well as among classical prophets (Hananiah–Jer 28; also "erring prophets"–Isa 28:7), similar court prophets also existed in the ANE much earlier than in the Bible (Nabû; in Mari; 18th BCE). Again, this shows that the 2-part division is non-existent in extra-biblical prophecy. 

II. A Summary of Prophecy in the ANE

Already in 1670, Spinoza (in his Theological- Political Treatise, ed. J. Israel, trans. M. Silverthorne and J. Israel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 49-50) speculated that other nations had prophets—this could, of course, be inferred from the biblical materials (Num 22-24, Balaam the prophet) and classical texts (e.g., Greek texts).

In M. Nissinen’s convenient collection of ancient Near Eastern “prophetic” texts, we see evidence of prophetic activity across many different cultures and languages in the ANE; below is a brief summary of where some of these texts come from and what they indicate about the practice of prophecy outside Israel in the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian world. All background information below is from Nissinen, 6-8, and the quotations etc. from actual texts are from Nissinen as well.

A.) Mari (18th BCE; during reign of Zimri-Lim)

*Prophetic activity at Mari was conducted by individuals under several names/terms:

The āpilum (fem. āpiltum), from the root āpalu, “to answer,” was one who conveyed divine messages; some have suggested that the āpilum gave premeditated, provoked messages, thus distinguishing the āpilum from the muḫḫûm (fem. muḫḫûtum) who gave spontaneous, ecstatic messages. But the dividing line is not that clear (Nissinen, 6). The messages of these two groups of religious professionals were taken to the king via an intermediary, often the royal ladies of Mari. The muḫḫûm was characterized by bizarre behavior such as eating quivering meat; see #2 above. The barûm, “diviner,” seems to have operated in direct proximity to the king.

Three other groups of prophet-like functionaries are mentioned at Mari: qammatum, which may refer to individuals with a certain hairstyle (though the etymology is unclear); nabû, which may be related to the Heb. nābî’ (see above), who were similar to Israel's court prophets (Nathan, Gad); and the assinnu, a “man-woman,” sometimes translated as “cult homosexual.”

{Here is a typical type of prophecy, from Addu-duri to Zimri-Lim (Nissinen, 26): Speak to my lord: Thus Addu-duri, your servant: In the temple of Hishamitum, a prophet called Isi-ahu arose and said: “Since your departure, your food is being eaten and your cup drunk. Your adversaries keep spreading evil and improper rumors about you. But I trample them underfoot...[...]”}

{And another one, from Ahum to Zimri-Lim (Nissinen, 33): Speak to my lord: Thus Ahum, priest of Annunitum, your servant: Hubatum, the prophetess, delivered the following oracle: “A wind will rise against the land! I will test its wings and its two...[...]—let Zimri-Lim and the Sim’alite do the harvesting! Zimri-Lim, do not let the hand in its entirety slip from your hand!” Again she spoke: “O Yaminites, why do you cause worry? I will put you to the proof!” This is what this prophetess said. I have now sent the hair and a fringe of the garment of this woman to my lord.}

B.) Canaanite Prophecy in Byblos (1080-70 BCE; recorded in an Egyptian text)

*Description of a Canaanite Ecstatic in the Report of Wenamon (the surviving copy dates to the reign of Ramses XI, c. 1080-1070 BCE):

The account of the Canaanite ecstatic in the Tale of Wenamon comes embedded in a larger narrative about Wenamon, who is a Egyptian envoy sent to obtain timber from Phoenicia; after being robbed and stranded, Wenamon arrives at Byblos, where he is verbally abused and told to leave; his mission is successful only after his god possesses the medium at the court of Byblos.

The word for the medium in Egyptian is normal Egyptian word for “youth, young person,” which is further qualified with the adjective “great/big.” In Egypt, child mediums were often employed, though the term may be related to the Aramaic ‘ddn, “seer” (see the Zakkur inscription).

{The relevant excerpt is as follows (Ritner, 220): The prince of Byblos sent to me, saying, “Get out of my harbor!”...Now when he offered to his gods, the god (Amon) seized a great seer from among his great seers, and he caused him to be in an ecstatic state, and he said to him:

“Bring up the god! Bring the messenger who bears him! It is Amon who has sent him. He is the one who has caused that he come...”}

C.) Nineveh (7th cent BCE)

*The Neo-Assyrian Prophecies from Nineveh (most are addressed to Esarhaddon, 681-669 BCE, or Assurbanipal, 668-627 BCE):

Neo-Assyrian sources typically call their prophets by the term raggimu (fem. raggintu), and the verb ragāmu, “to shout, proclaim” is used of prophesying.

Nissinen (7) states that “in Neo-Assyrian society, prophets seem to have enjoyed a somewhat higher status than their colleagues at Mari, especially in the time of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, who not only deposited a selection of their oracles in the royal archives but also were the only Assyrian kings to recognize the significance of prophetic messages in their inscriptions.” Presumably most oracles in Assyrian were not treated this way, however.

All of the extant Neo-Assyrian oracles are focused on the king, his rule, and his relations with the divine world.

{Here is an example of a prophecy delivered to Esarhaddon (Nissinen, 102-3): 

Esarhaddon, king of the lands, fear not! What is the wind that has attacked

you, whose wings I have not broken? Like ripe apples your enemies will continually roll before your feet.

I am the great Lady, I am Ishtar of Arbela who throws your enemies before your feet. Have I spoken to you any words that you could not rely upon?

I am Ishtar of Arbela, I will flay your enemies and deliver them up to you. I am Ishtar of Arbela, I go before you and behind you.

Fear not! You have got cramps, but I, in the midst of wailing, will get up and sit down.

By the mouth of Issar-la-tashiyat, a man of Arbela.}

{And another example, this one delivered to Assurbanipal (Nissinen, 129); note that the

“mace” here probably is a symbol for war, whereas the snake represents the Elamites: Words concerning the Elamites: Thus says the god: “I have gone, I have come!” Five, six times he said this. Then he said:

“I have come from the mace. The snake in it I have hauled out and cut in pieces.” And: “I have crushed the mace.” And: “I will crush Elam! Its army shall be leveled to the ground.” And: “This is how I will finish off Elam.”}

D.) West Semitic Prophecies (6th-9th cent BCE) 

*The Amman Citadel inscription (9th cen. BCE) is fragmentary, but “it is evident from the extant portion that the inscription contains an oracle delivered in the name of Milcom, the patron deity of the Ammonites, presumably to the king who erected the commemorative monument of which the inscription is a part” (Seow 201-18)

*The Aramaic Zakkur inscription (8th cen. BCE) celebrates Zakkur’s victory over a coalition of Aramean and Anatolian rulers; apparently, Zakkur had prayed to Baalshamayn (“the Lord of Heaven”), and he received a response through the ḥzyn, “seers.”

{The relevant portion comes in lines 12-17 of the front of the inscription (Seow, 204, 206):

Baalshamayn spoke to me through seers and through visionaries, and Baalshamayn said: “Fear not, for I have made you king, and I who will stand with you, and I will deliver you from all these kings who have forced a siege against you!” Then Baalshamayn said to me...[...] all these kings who have forced a siege against you... [...] and this wall which...[...]}

*The Deir ‘Alla plaster text (8th cen. BCE) describes a prophet, Balaam, who has visionary access to the assembly of the gods, who are about to do bad things on the earth. The translation here, from combination 1, is from J.A. Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir ‘Alla, HSM 31 (Chico: Scholars Press, 1980), pp. 29-30:

{1. The account of [Balaam, son of Beo]r, who was a seer of the gods. The gods came to him in the night, and he saw a vision 2. like an oracle of El. Then they said to [Balaa]m, son of Beor: “Thus he will do/make [ ] hereafter (?), which [ ].”

3. And Balaam arose the next day [ ] from [ ] but he was not ab[le to ] and he wept 4. grievously. And his people came up to him [and said to] him, “Balaam, son of Beor, why are you fasting and crying?” And he sa- 5. –id to them: “Sit down! I will tell you what the Shadda[yyin have done.] Now, come, see the works of the gods! The g[o]ds gathered together; 6. the Shaddayin took their places at the assembly. And they said to Sh[ ]: “Sew up, bolt up the heavens in your cloud, ordaining darkness instead of 7. eternal light! And put the dear [ se]al on your bolt, and do not remove it forever! For the swift re- 8. –proaches the griffin-vulture and the voice of vultures sings out. The st[ork ] the young of the NHS-bird (?) and claws up young herons. The swallow tears at 9. the dove and the sparrow [ ] the rod, and instead of the ewes, it is the staff that is led. Hares eat 10. [a wo]lf (?) [ ] drink wine and hyenas give heed to chastisement. The whelps of the f- 11. –[ox ] laughs at the wise. And the poor woman prepares myrrh while the priestess 12. [ ] for the prince, a tattered loincloth. The respected one (now) respects (others) and the one who gave respect is (now) re- 13. –[spected. ] and the deaf hear from afar. 14. [ and the ? of (?)] a fool see visions. The constraint of fertility (lit. “offspring”) 15. [ ] the leopard. The piglet chases the you- 16. –[ng of ] (?) . . . . ”}

*The Lachish ostraca (6th cen.) record a correspondence between two military officers at Lachish; ostraca #3 (reverse) records the following reference (Seow, 214-5):

" take Hodaviah the son of Ahijah and his men from here. As for the letter of Tobiah the servant of the king, which came to Shallum the son of Jaddua from the prophet, saying, “Beware!”—your servant has sent it to my lord."

Bibliography: J. Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel, rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996); J.H. Hayes, An Introduction to Old Testament Study (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979), esp. pp. 249-83; V.H. Matthews, Social World of the

Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson, 2001); M. Nissinen, with Contributions by C.L. Seow and R.K. Ritner, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, SBLWAW 12 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)


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