Prophets and Prophecy—Numbers 12:6

For a long time, many Bible scholars mistakenly assumed that the prophetic calling was exclusively or primarily restricted to the people of Israel. However, in several passages, the Bible itself recognizes the existence of prophets and seers who were not Israelites (e.g., Num. 22–24; 1 Kings 18). The very fact that God forbade the Hebrews from certain kinds of divination practices suggests the popularity of pagan “prophetic” activities. Pharaoh, for example, summoned his wise men and sorcerers to confront Moses and Aaron (Exod. 7:9-12).

Prophetic functions, both in Israel and among other people of the ancient Near East, involved much more than merely “foretelling the future.” It included such practices as revealing the will of the gods, healing illnesses, performing miracles, reprimanding a monarch, deciphering dreams, and counseling people. But in the case of non-Hebrew prophets, it was common to consult the spirits of the dead, bringing information from the world beyond, and to use chants and magic, which God had strictly forbidden His people from doing (Lev. 20:6; Deut. 18:10-12).

Some scholars, such as Jonathan Stökl, argue that the ancient Near East had two main categories of prophets: the professionals (called āpilum in the texts of Mari) and the officials (referred to as assinnu), who were ordinary people who at one point presented a prophetic message as “laypeople.”

While the Bible is unclear, it does leave room for the same categories of prophets to have also existed in Israel. One example is the case of Jeremiah, God’s prophet, who found himself confronted by the king’s official prophets who generally said whatever was most politically expedient.

In the various biblical and non-biblical texts, we find male and female prophets, seers, dream interpreters, counselors, emissaries, etc. The Old Testament, however, saw God’s spokespeople as having two main aspects of their role or work, as indicated by the terms used for them. “Seer” (chozen or ro’eh) appears more frequently during early Hebrew history (1 Sam. 9:9). “Prophet” (nabbi’, “one called [by God]” or “one who has a vocation [from God]”) became more common later and designated the individual as God’s spokesperson. Thus, “seer” emphasized that the prophet discerned God’s will while “prophet” stressed the communication of it to God’s people. Both aspects go together. The divine message might be immediately evident, or the prophet might have to search out its significance and meaning (1 Pet. 1:10, 11), perhaps most dramatically seen in the case of Daniel (Dan. 8:27; 12:8, 9). But the source of both the message and the understanding was always from God Himself.


Troxel, Prophetic Literature: From Oracles to Books.

Stökl, Prophecy in the Ancient Near East: A Philological and Sociological Comparison.

Van der Toorn, From the Oral to the Written: the Case of Old Babylonian Prophecy, in Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern.