The Understanding of Prophethood in Judaism

The institution of prophethood is seen in religions regardless of time or place, and in different cultures. This institution’s function is to effect communication between God and people. In the Jewish tradition as well, the institution of prophethood is amongst the basic institutions. This work addresses not the prophetic tradition in Judaism, but its conceptualization of prophethood in the abstract.

Different views have been exhibited throughout the history of Jewish religious thought regarding the institution of prophethood, and in religious literature it is expressed through the concept of ensuring communication between God and people.

Introduction: Judaism is a religion with a holy book that was revealed by Allah. The duty of bringing holy texts of divine origin to the people has been entrusted to prophets. In Judaism, the institution of prophethood is amongst the basic essentials of faith, and represents articles 6-7 in the 13 articles of faith systematized by famous Jewish thinker, Musa Ibn Maymun (Maimonides, A.D. 1135-1204): “I believe with full faith that the words of the prophets are truth. I believe with full faith that our teacher Moses’ prophethood is definitely truth. He is the greatest of all the prophets, all those who came before and after him.

Different views have been exhibited[1] throughout the history of Jewish religious thought regarding the institution of prophethood, and in religious literature it is expressed through the concept of ensuring communication between God and people.[2]A definition of prophet is not given in the Tanakh[3], and although false prophets are spoken of, due to the vocabulary used, an ambiguous and unclear portrait is painted of the institution of prophethood.[4] The time at which this institution, conceptualized as communication between God and people, emerged in Judaism is unknown.[5] Part of this is probably due to the understanding of prophethood in the period before Moses not being very different in form from that of other regional peoples.[6]It should be noted that in Judaism, the prophetic tradition diversifies within itself because it underwent a process of evolution over a long period of time, during which this tribe made contact with various cultural values.

In the Judaic understanding, the institution of prophethood is a concept with two wings. The first wing is of an abstract character, comprising communication with the transcendent, God, that is a personal experience. This communication, which we may call revelation, is an entity attainable by everybody; it overflows from God through the Active Intellect and pours into the person ready to receive it, filling them. But this is not enough; another wing is necessary to become a prophet. This wing is of a practical character, and is being assigned the task of announcing to the people the information attained through communication with the transcendent – informing others of the content of the personal experience. Thus, it is mentioned in sacred texts that although many people may be in communication with God, they are not seen as prophets because they have not been assigned the duty of announcing what they have learned.

This communication, which we may call revelation, is an entity attainable by everybody; it overflows from God through the Active Intellect and pours into the person ready to receive it, filling them.

Relevant terms: Beginning with “navi/נביא”, the terms “hozeh/חוזה”, “roeh/רואה” and “ishha-Elohim/האלהיםאיש” have been used in Jewish sacred texts to mean prophet.[7]The word “navi” is derived from the verb “nabu”, which means “to call” in Akkadian, and is used for the first time in the Tanakh in reference to Prophet Abraham, thusly: “For he is a prophet[8]. Alongside its usage in its literal meaning of “messenger”,[9]we find this word used in the Torah to mean, “the one who speaks for God, God’s messenger”.[10]Prophet Moses is also mentioned by this quality, which indicates that he occupied an exclusive spot.[11]Hozeh” and “roeh” both mean “seer” and express that, differently from other people, prophets can see and know things that will occur in the future. The examples of Prophet Moses, a “navi”, also being described as “ishha-Elohim[12]; the prophet Gad’s being described as “navi” and “hozeh[13], parallel usage of the words “hozeh” and “navi[14]; and parallel usage of the words “hozeh” and “roeh[15]show that these terms are used in the transitive, and this gains definiteness with the phrase For he that is now called a ‘navi’ was beforetime called a ‘hozeh’”[16]. When we look at it semantically, we see that these terms are not synonymous concepts that changed within the course of history, but indicate different meanings within the course of the progression from a primitive understanding to an established institution. The meanings of the terms “navi” and “ish ha-Elohim” of “messenger” and “man of God”, respectively, are separated from the rest. Thus examples of usage of the words “roeh” and “hozeh” together with the word “navi[17]indicate that there is a difference in meaning between the words. As for the difference between the words “hozeh” and “roeh”, which both mean ‘seer’; it is that the first is conceptually more limited with regard to the arrival of revelation and indicates dreaming, while the second is more wide-ranging, indicating vision, and the privilege of divine vision.Additionally, examples of “hozeh” used as if it were describing an occupation, as “the king’s seer, David’s seer”[18]must not be missed.[19]

It should be noted that in the Jewish understanding, innocence is not required of prophets – what is essential is that the divine word is announced in its entirety.

Prophetic attributes: It was indicated above that the institution of prophethood has a two-winged structure. According to Judaism, the characteristics sought in a prophet are, accordingly, separated into two. The first of these – in alignment with the wing on communication with God -- comprises the qualities necessary to undergo that personal experience during the period before becoming a prophet, in order to become a prophet/be chosen. The second aligns with the wing on assignment of duty, and is tied to the duty assumed after becoming a prophet. Ibn Maymun says that prophethood is possible for everyone, even that according to the laws of nature everyone should be a prophet.[20]But as not everyone has developed the individual skill required to shoulder this responsibility, not everyone can be a prophet; similarly, it is not certain that all those who have developed this will be prophets. For prophethood is not a science or an occupation that a person can gain through their own efforts – it is a rank given only by God. In order to be worthy of candidacy for this rank, an individual must be at the point of perfection in terms of their moral and conveyance capacities. For this reason, the individual must be healthy and at a high level in terms of knowledge and ascetic/spiritual upbringing. God does not choose one who has not attained this level to be a prophet. In addition, according to tradition wisdom, power, strength and wealth are also of importance when it comes to a person being chosen as a prophet. But there is no guarantee that everyone who possesses all of these attributes will be a prophet; God selects to be prophet the one amongst them who is at the highest level.[21]The attribute associated with duty is that of announcing [the revelation]. Being a prophet does not stop at revelation; they are God’s messenger, in the position of intermediary, and they convey the messages they receive from Him to people. What is essential is that the prophet does not himself add anything to this message. When this possibility is present, for example when the prophet is worried, saddened, angry or in similar states, revelation does not come to them.[22]The state necessary for the entrance of the angel of revelation is one in which the prophet is very cheerful and happy. In this case, the prophet’s human identity vanishes, and the divine spirit fills its place.[23]

It is interesting that the Torah uses not a different concept, but the word “navi” when referring to false prophets[24] -- but presents criteria to distinguish the true prophet.[25] These criteria are that the truth of the announcement of the person claiming to be a prophet, and their predictions later on turn out not to be true, or do not occur. The Torah describes this as the prophet directing toward other gods and inviting worship of them and their speaking in the name of other gods and the non-realization of their predictions.[26] Talmud scholars accepted these criteria and conducted detailed explanations of them.[27] There is no requirement that a prophet be a political leader; the prophets from Prophet Moses to Samuel were both prophets and political leaders. Those who followed were just prophets.[28] It should be noted that in the Jewish understanding, innocence is not required of prophets – what is essential is that the divine word is announced in its entirety. Even though it is fundamental that, as all people, they do not commit sins like fornication, theft and lying,[29]prophets are under no protection from God in terms of committing sin. Upon this, it is possible to say that outside of the attribute of virtue, the prophetic attributes in the Islamic understanding of truthfulness, entrustment with a duty, understanding and proclamation are also valid in the Jewish understanding.

It is seen that this institution – conceptualized as the station of conveying transcendental messages of God to people and ensuring intermediary communication – reached a set level of systematization with Prophet Moses’ receipt of the Torah.

The nature of prophethood: As is also indicated above, it can be seen that the understanding of prophethood in Judaism went through a process of evolution from primitiveness to a systematic institution. This is related to the perception of the rank of prophethood in the relevant tribe’s culture. It is seen that this institution – conceptualized as the station of conveying transcendental messages of God to people and ensuring intermediary communication – reached a set level of systematization with Prophet Moses’ receipt of the Torah. Ibn Maymun ties this to previous prophets not being required to present a canon of laws to the people despite their being in contact with God, and their being the last ring in the chain of revelation: “But none of them had said to any community, ‘Allah sent me to you that I may give you this information and … has prohibited these and commanded these’.[30]Accordingly, in Judaism the rank of prophet does not stop at receiving messages from God; the proclamation of these messages is also essential. This is messengership in the fullest sense of the word, being in communication with God on the one hand and on the other, being charged with a task as a result of this communication.This assignment of duty is prophethood itself. Thus in the Jewish understanding there have been those whom, though they are not counted as prophets, have received messages from God because the eyes of their hearts are open. But they are not seen as prophets because they are not charged with announcing to the people the message that they have received. Based on this, it can be said that prophethood entails the state of having full control over the temptation of all types of earthly desires, controlling one’s lower self and developing one’s understanding and mind power, purifying one’s intellect such that one reaches the highest point of existence, attaining full openness of consciousness and understanding at its peak. This is what is important in a person being chosen as a prophet; the one who cannot accomplish this cannot enter into communication with the Active Intellect and assimilate into the divine sphere, and it is this communication that represents the revelation. In this view, we see that divine communication in the Jewish understanding is not restricted to a set race or tribe, and that there are even non-Jews who have risen to this position. The Torah uses the verb “mahazeh/sees” for Bal’am, which derives from the same root as the verb “hozeh”.[31] In the letter he writes to the Kings of Edom, Moav, Ammon, Sur and Sayda, the prophet Jeremiah uses “nevieyhem”, which means “your prophets.”[32] Outside of this, the Talmud speaks of the prophets of non-Jewish tribes. They are Beor, his son Bal’am, Job and his three friends Eliphaz of Yemen, Bilda of Shuah, Sofar of Nama and Elihu, the son of Barahel of Bûzlu.[33] Though rabbis describe these prophets as “sinful,” and the messages they received as incomplete and imperfect, they accept them as revelation from God.[34] Outside this, there are also women prophets in the Judaic tradition. There are seven of them, named: Sarah (Prophet Abraham’s wife), Miryam (the sister of Prophets Moses and Aaron), Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther.[35]

The Prophet Moses assumes his place at the highest rank amidst the prophets.[36]This is because, as his communication with God is at the highest level, he has no need of an intermediary. Due to the difference between them, Ibn Maymun emphasizes when discussing prophethood that his words are in connection with the other prophets.[37]The Torah reads: And He [THE LORD] said: 'Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I THE LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.But My servant Moses is not so. He is trusted in all My house. With him do I speak not in riddles, but manifestly, face-to-face.[38]And it is also the Torah itself that says this kind of communication was not destined for anybody else: And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, with whom THE LORD spoke face-to-face.”[39]

[1]As they lay outside the topic, we have not highlighted the views of Jewish thinkers. Those interested may refer to the following comprehensive resource: Kreisel, Howard, Prophecy: the history of an idea in medieval Jewish philosophy, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001, x + 669.

[2]Deuteronomy 5:5.

[3]The collection of Jewish sacred texts that gather the written revelation is known in Islamic literature as in the Christian literature, as the Old Testament. The Hebrew scriptures are referred to as “TaNaKH”, a word derived from the Hebrew first letters of its sections: Torah, Neviim/Prophets and Ketuvim/Writings.

[4]For more on this subject, see Robert Carroll, “Prophecy and Society”, The world of ancient Israel, [ed. Ronald Ernest Clements], Cambridge University Press, 1989, 203-225, 209-211; Clements, Ronald, Prophecy and tradition, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975, 52-53.

[5]Zimmerli, The law and the prophets: a study of the meaning of the Old Testament, 61. This ambiguity can be eradicated through the explanation that even if there were prophets that lived before Prophet Moses, the Torah’s revelation was the arrival at a peak for prophethood. This subject will be addressed in the work “Yahudilikte Peygamberlik Geleneği” [The Prophetic Tradition in Judaism], which is currently being prepared.

[6]For more on this subject, see Pedersen, Johannes, Israel- its life and culture, II, Atlanta: Scholar Press, 1991, 111 and on; Eichrodt, Walther, Theology of the Old Testament I, [tr. J.A. Baker], Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961, 296-298; For a comparison of the concepts of prophethood amongst the Jewish tribe and the peoples of the old Near East, see Blenkinsopp, Joseph, A history of prophecy in Israel, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996, 41-48; Gordon, Robert P., The place is too small for us: the Israelite prophets in recent scholarship, Eisenbrauns, 1995, 29-73. (These sources also present rich literature on the topic.)

[7]Shalom M. Paul, “Prophets and Prophecy”, Encyclopaedia Judaica, XIII, 1150-1175, 1154. For phrases used to describe prophets in Jewish sacred texts, see: Ömer Faruk Harman, “Yahudilikte peygamberlik ve peygamberler”, İslam Tetkikleri Dergisi [“Prophethood and prophets in Judaism, Journal of Islamic Studies], IX, 127-161, 129-135.

[8]Genesis 20:7.

[9]Exodus 7:1.


[11]Numbers 12:6-8.

[12]Deuteronomy 33:1.

[13]I. Samuel 22:5, II. Samuel 24:11 and I. Chronicles 21:9.

[14]Isaiah 29:10.

[15]Isaiah 30:10.

[16]I. Samuel 9:9.

[17]II. Chronicles 29:25; Isaiah 29:10.

[18]II. Samuel 24:11; I. Chronicles 21:9; II. Chronicles 29:25, 35:15.

[19]For detailed information on terms used, see: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT), [ed. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Joseph Fabry], Bratsiotis, “’Ish”, TDOT, I, 222-235, 232-235; Jepsen, “Chazah”, TDOT, IV, 280-290, 281-282, 286-290; Müller, “Nabi”, TDOT, IX, 129-150; Fuhs, “Ra’a”, TDOT, XIII, 208-242, 212-213, 237-239.

[20]The passage in the Torah from Prophet Moses’ tongue “Would that all THE LORD’S people were prophets, that THE LORD would put His spirit upon them' is significant in this regard. (Numbers 11:29) Thus in the Jewish tradition, the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard by all of the sons of Israel without Prophet Moses’ intermediacy. (Makkoth 14a)

[21]Maimonides, Moses, The guide for the perplexed, [M. Friedlander], 2nd ed. New York: Dover, 1956, 219-221; Al-Qurtubi, Musa b. Maymun, Dalalatu’l-hâirîn, [Hüseyin Atay], Cairo: Mektebetü's-Sekâfeti'd-Diniyye, 389-391.

[22]Maimonides, The guide, 227; Ibn Maymun, Dalâlat, 404. (For example, during the period where Joseph was lost, Jacob was unable to receive revelation because his imagination was preoccupied with sorrow over him.)

[23]Pedersen, Israel: its life and culture, II, 108.

[24]Deuteronomy 13:2, 4, 6; 18:20, 22. For detailed information and resources, see Harman, “Yahudilikte peygamberlik” [Prophethood in Judaism], 145-149.

[25]An analysis of these criteria reveals how important tradition is in Judaism. Thus when God first made revelations to Prophet Moses, he made clear that he was the God of their fathers, told his tribe that he was sent by the God of their fathers, and told Pharaoh that he had met with the God of the Semites. (Exodus 3:6, 13, 15-16, 18). As for later prophets, adherence to the law of Moses is amongst the criteria.

[26]Deuteronomy 13:1-6; 18:20-22. In the period after Prophet Moses, sacred texts speak of these criteria in a detailed manner. For sources, see Harman, 145-147.

[27]Sanhedrin 89a-90a.

[28]Kaufmann, Yehezkel, History of the religion of Israel IV: from the Babyilonian captivity to the end of prophecy, New York: Ktav, 1977, 450.

[29]Jeremiah 23:14, 21; Ezekiel 22:25.

[30]Maimonides, The guide, 231; Ibn Maymun, Dalâlat, 412.

[31]Numbers 24:4.

[32]Jeremiah 27:9. The next passage states that they had lied.

[33]Baba Bathra, 15b.

[34]Genesis Rabbah, LII:5; Leviticus Rabbah I:13, [ed. Friedman, H. – Simon, Maurice], London: Soncino Press, 1939.

[35]Megillah 14a.

[36]Prophet Moses’ superiority is established in the Torah. Rabbis describe Prophet Moses along with the messenger Joshua as the “greatest of the prophets”.Deutoronomy Rabbah, [ed. Friedman, H. – Simon, Maurice], II:4

[37]Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 223-224; Ibn Maymun, Dalâlat [The Guide for the Perplexed], 398.

[38]Numbers 12:6-8.

[39]Deuteronomy 34:10.



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