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Jewish Holy Scriptures: The Prophets (Nevi’im)

Nevi’im (Prophets) presents Israel's history as a nation on its land. The Israelites conquer and settle; they are beset by local enemies and eventually by imperial powers. Political and prophetic leaders vie for hearts; the supporters of God's covenant do battle against the paganism of neighboring groups and among the Israelites themselves. A kingdom, a capital, and a Temple are built and eventually destroyed. At the end of Nevi’im, prophets who experienced the exile teach a renewed monotheism to a chastened Israel.

Historically, Nevi'im begins with the conquest of Eretz Yisrael under the leadership of Joshua, Moses' successor (c. 1200 BCE) and concludes with the prophecies of Malachi to those rebuilding the Temple after their return from Babylonia (c. 515 BCE). Jewish convention divides the books into Nevi’im Rishonim, "Former Prophets,"and Nevi’im Aharonim, "Latter Prophets." Nevi’im Rishonimconsists of prose works built around a historical narrative--Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Nevi’im Aharonim encompasses the "literary prophets," such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Two voices are heard in Nevi’im Rishonim. One is a nationalist voice, trumpeting heroic leaders such as Joshua and David and the empire briefly consolidated under Solomon. More dominant is a covenantal voice, which explains the fortunes of leaders and the nation on the basis of their fidelity to God.

Scholars refer to Nevi’im Rishonimas the "Deuteronomic History"--history from the perspective of the thinkers behind the book of Deuteronomy. All together, the Nevi’im Rishonim describe the transition from a loose tribal confederation to a monarchy under Saul and David, the division into two kingdoms after Solomon, the conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE, and the end of the southern kingdom of Judah at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE

Within the narrative of Nevi’im Rishonim we encounter the first individual prophets, known to scholars as "preclassical" prophets. Samuel was known as a "seer"; Elijah and Elisha foretold drought and famine and called forth miracles from God. What links these prophets with the classical prophets of the Nevi’im Aharonim is their role vis-a-vis the political leaders of Israel. Nathan confronted David over his affair with Bathsheba; Elijah stood against Ahab when the king confiscated Naboth's vineyard.

Nevi’im Aharonim contains the prophecies and teachings of individual prophets, mostly recorded in verse. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are the longest. They are followed by the books known collectively in Jewish tradition as the Trei Asar, "the 12"--shorter books of other prophets such as Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Jonah.

Amos and Hosea were prophets in the northern kingdom of Israel. Both prophets warned the nation that its turn away from God's covenant would lead to destruction by the Assyrians. Isaiah and Micah carried a similar message in Judah. Jeremiah delivered his prophecies of doom as the Babylonians approached and captured Jerusalem.

From exile in Babylonia, Ezekiel envisioned the restoration of Israel to its land. The last half of the book of Isaiah contains words of comfort and promise from one or two anonymous prophets speaking in exile. The last prophets spoke in Judea to those who had returned to rebuild the Temple.

The prophets before the exile spoke against idolatry and injustice. They saw God's people trusting in the Canaanite god Baal, in alliances with foreign powers, and in the power of Temple sacrifices to manipulate God's protection. They targeted the corruption of kings and elites who were recreating Egyptian oppression in the Promised land. They critiqued not only the monarchies but the Temple cult as well, with the message that without justice and fair treatment in society, God would find sacrificial devotion to be hypocrisy.

Yet the prophetic role in the Nevi’im Aharonimwas not simply to critique leaders and society. The prophets intercede with God on behalf of the people and argue their case. They imagine the eventual revival of Israel in a messianic future of peace and justice--though to some later prophets, an unsparing divine judgment would come first.

With exile and the destruction of the "House of the Lord" came a theological crisis: Had Israel's God been defeated? Had God abandoned the nation? Out of catastrophe, the last of the prophets worked out a new monotheism: Israel's God was the creator of the cosmos, not merely the protector of a small nation. God's order was built on justice and faithfulness--and if Israel lived up to these demands, she would be safe in God's favor. For centuries afterward, the Jewish people would see God's judgment in its national fortunes.

Sources: Reprinted with permission from