7. Priesthood instead of Prophecy after Exile

"The collapse of religious self-confidence that attended the Babylonian Exile struck a fatal blow at Israelite prophecy.  Now that the feeling of God’s nearness had been undermined, the spirit of prophecy died quickly.  It was the priesthood, not prophecy that could provide a sure basis  for the religious and broader cultural life of the people."  How would you evaluate this statement? 

Summary: The above statement (i.e. "...It was the priesthood, not prophecy that could provide a sure basis  for the religious and broader cultural life of the people") is only half true. It is true that the priesthood took over and became the center of Israelite society. But, prophecy continued! Additionally, post-exilic prophecy was incorporated into the priesthood. Thus, although the priesthood took over as the central aspect of Israelite society, it had within it prophecy as a key element. An prophets that spoke, did so within the cultic setting.

I. Introduction: Exile and Its Effects on Prophecy

In 586 BCE, Babylon destroyed Judah and deported its people.  The exiles of 586 joined King Jehoiachin, Ezekiel, and others who were departed earlier in 597 BCE under Nebuchadnezzar II.  As might be expected, the experience of exile dealt a heavy blow to Judahite (and earlier Israelite) self-confidence and incited critical self-reflection concerning its identity, at once religious and political.  It is true, then, that the Babylonian exile was attended by a challenge to religious self-confidence and that its collapse was a blow to Israelite prophecy.  However, it cannot be said that prophecy died.  It would be more correct to say that prophecy was transformed in three ways:

1) Anonymous  and Borrowed prophecy emerged (e.g., Malachi and 2nd & 3rd Isaiah).

2) Prophecy gave birth to/became apocalypticism.   

3) Prophecy was intergrated into the priesthood.  

*Through this double transformation, prophecy remained a defining character of Israelite religion both at the center (priesthood) and at the periphery (apocalypticism).

II. Due to Exile Prophecy DOES Suffer a Setback and the Priesthood DOES Gain Ground

The single greatest challenge for prophecy brought on by the exile was against prophetic authority.  Many of the prophecies proclaimed by the central prophets that Jerusalem would not fall, perhaps citing the “miracle” of 701 BCE when Assyria failed to take Jerusalem during the time of Hezekiah (i.e., Hananiah in Jer 28), were proven false and undermined the people’s trust in prophetic authority.  There were, of course, prophets like Jeremiah whose prophecies were proven true.  The damage was done, however, and anxiety about how to distinguish between true and false prophecy, if prophecy was true, escalated.  

Additionally, the priesthood was able to organize themselves into a unified group and thus gain power. The prophets, however, acted individually and did not form themselves into unified groups that would espouse authority. Thus, while the prophets decreased in authority, the priests gained authority.

III. Nevertheless, Prophecy Does Not Die. It is Transformed.

Yet, prophecy did not die but changed in response to the changing religious climate.

It should be noted that prophetic works continued to be produced, though perhaps of a different character from those of the preexilic period.   Prophecy did not die, not quickly, at least.  Obadiah, Zechariah, 2nd & 3rd Isaiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Joel, Malachi are all exilic/post-exilic prophetic works.

The prophetic production in light of exile was different in character from preexilic prophecy in three key ways. (Anxiety about prophetic authority led to different stragegies for winning/claiming authority.)

  1a) Anonymous prophecies became more prevalent.  The emphasis was placed more on the prophetic content (whether it proved true à la Deut 18) than on the prophetic personality.  Anonymous prophecies by nature cannot be oral but literary.  Malachi is a good example.  And Obadiah also may be the work of an anonymous prophet. (Wilson 291f)

  1b) Late prophecy borrowed authority from well-known earlier prophets by attaching itself to earlier books.  The corpus ascribed to Isaiah likely grew in this manner, with the addition of 2nd and 3rd Isaiah.  2nd Zechariah displays a similar pattern.

  2) The prophecy developed toward apocalypticism.

Fulfilled prophecies (both of woe and prosperity), in some eyes, gave continued legitimacy to prophecy. However, unfulfilled prophecies, especially those of prosperity, remained a challenge to the religious imagination. It is this tension between faith and doubt that gave rise to apocalyptism.  Unfulfilled promises were projected to the end times or into “the world to come.”

Apocalyptic trends are visible in Isaiah Apocalypse (24-27), 2nd & 3rd Isaiah (40-66), Joel (3), Daniel, 2nd Zechariah (9-14), Ezekiel (38-39), etc.

The development of apocalypticism also indicates that the period of “inspired proclamation” has passed and the time of “inspired interpretation of past prophecy” had come (Blenkinsopp 227).  Old unfulfilled prophecy continued to be seen as authoritative.  But its fulfillment, not having occurred, were projected to the future through reinterpretation.  Also, the shift from direct inspiration to the inspired interpretation of earlier prophecy leads, eventually, to the point where the prophetic books, having achieved canonical fixity, generate their own distinct commentaries (Blenkinsopp 3).

The rise of apocalypticism is the effect of a fragmenting society (Wilson 292, 306-308; Blenkinsopp 226-233). And some have equated apocalypticism with sect formation (Blenkinsopp 213). Anthropological data supports this view.  It is usally groups in the periphery (sects) that develop toward apocalypticism. “...individual prophets appeared less frequently, except in the reconstructed temple, where Levitical priests carried on prophetic activities.  Gradually prophecy seems to have disappeared and to have been replaced by apocalyptic” (Wilson 295).

  3) Prophecy in the post-exilict period merged with the priesthood.  “One of the most important aspects of the transformation of Israelite prophecy after the loss of national independence was its reabsorption into the cult” (Blenkinsopp 223). Thus, post-exilic prophets were “cultic prophets” who were officially employed by the temple while pre-exilic prophets were independent figures on the margins of society denouncing it from outside.

The Chronicler strengthens the connection between prophet and priest and paints a picture in which the priest acts as the prophet (see Blenkinsopp 222-26; Wilson 292-94). “According to the Chronicler, prophetic involvement in Israel’s central social structure began at the very beginning of the monarchy” with Nathan and Gad (Wilson 293). “The connection between prophets and Levites seems to have been an important one for the Chronicler.  As we have already noted, the entire Levitical functioning was established under prophetic authority [2 Chr 29.25 where Nathan and Gad organize the Levites], and Levites functioning within the central social structure became prophets when they were possessed by Yahweh’s spirit.  In addition, the Chronicler’s description of the activities of the Levites speaks of them as prophesying to the accompaniment of musical instruments (1 Chro 25.1)” (Wilson 293). “The Chronicler considered prophecy to be a legitimate part of the cult so long as prophetic activity occurred among the Levitical priests as they were fulfilling their assigned functions” (Wilson 294).

The (re)absorption of prophecy into the priesthood has left a mark on the form and content of late prophecy.  “The predominance of liturgical forms and cultic concerns in Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, Isaiah 56-66, and Malachi” support this view (Blenkinsopp 223).

*Joel (leaving the eschatological expasion aside) look like “a penitential liturgy” (Blenkinsopp 224).

*Zechariah 1-8. Zechariah is also overtly identified as a prophet in 1:1, and priestly language permeates the book. Note the vision of the high priest, Joshua, in 3:1ff., and the vision of the lampstand (“menorah”) in 4:1ff

*Isaiah 56-66

*Ezekiel: Chap 2–he’s clearly a prophet. But, in 1:3, he’s also a priest.  He is a Zadokite, i.e., part of the official Jerusalem establishment. Priestly imagery, language, and concerns are widespread in his book.


IV. Final Comment on Absorption of Prophecy into Priesthood.

The absorption of prophecy into the priesthood was symptomatic of the rise of the priest’s importance, and with it the importance of the law.  As much as prophetic hope in a future restoration defined Jewish identity, it was the law (and its correct interpretation and application) that set the people of God apart.  But this did not spell the death of prophecy.  Rather, prophets became tradents of the law (so Moses).  In this light, the ending of Malachi, and the corpus of prophetic writing, is important: “Remember the Torah of Moses, my servant, which I commanded him at Horeb concerning all Israel, the statutes and commandments” (Mal 4.22).  The prophets had become proponents of the law and the office of the priest.

Sources: R. R. Wilson. Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. (1980), esp. pp. 287-295, 306-308; J. Blenkinsopp. A History of Prophecy in Ancient Israel. (1996), esp. pp.148-60-93, 212-

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