The Hebrew prophets can be divided into four groups:
• the prophets of the eighth century "prophetic reformation" (Amos, Hosea, Micah and First Isaiah);
• the pre-exilic prophets (Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Jeremiah);
• the prophets of the sixth century exile (Ezekiel, Obadiah, Second Isaiah);
• the post-exilic prophets (Joel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Third Isaiah).
The book of Daniel has traditionally been classed by Christians (though not Jews) as a book of prophecy, but it is perhaps better considered separately from the other prophetic books. Something similar can be said about the book of Jonah.
The prophets typically told their fellow Israelites that their sinfulness was offensive to God, and threatened severe punishments if they failed to repent. The Israelites’ most reprehensible crimes were worship of other gods and unfaithfulness to Yahweh, though some emphasis is also put on social injustice. On the other hand, there were elements of optimism and hope in their message as they looked forward to a utopian era which God would bring about at the close of human history. Some prophets (Nahum, Obadiah) were more narrowly nationalistic: they concentrated on condemning Israel’s neighbours and stressed more strongly the glorious future that awaited the people of Yahweh.
The reforming prophets
The reforming prophets were men of the eighth century. Their two principal concerns were, on the one hand, the failure of the Israelites to worship Yahweh with full and undivided devotion, and, on the other hand, the prevalence of economic injustice in contemporary society. They also make frequent reference to the stories of the Egyptian captivity and the exodus, criticise ritual worship and the official cult, and look forward to Yahweh bringing about a utopian era of peace and justice. Of the later prophets, Jeremiah is most similar to the reformers - at times, uncannily so.
Amos was a shepherd and orchard-keeper who came from Tekoa in Judah, a village lying a few miles to the south of Jerusalem. He was an outsider to the religious establishment, and he seems not to have emerged from any of the established or ‘official’ guilds of prophets - indeed, he denies at 7.14 that he is a prophet. On the other hand, the fact that his prophecies were written down and preserved strongly suggests that he managed to persuade at least some members of the religious establishment to take him seriously.
According to the opening lines of his book, Amos’ calling came during the reigns of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah - i.e. somewhere in the period 790-750 BC. These lines were probably added to Amos’ text long after he was dead, but the dating is plausible and backed up by other evidence. His failure to mention the fall of Israel in 722, for example, makes it almost certain that he died before then. In fact, he does not even seem to perceive Assyria as a threat, and the addresses to the six nations around Israel at 1.2-2.3, which presume that those nations were all still independent, fit better with the earlier than with the later part of the eighth century.
Amos is best known as a prophet of social justice. He hated the greed and exploitation which he encountered in contemporary Israelite society, as well as the hypocrisy of wealthy Israelites who mistreated their fellow countrymen and yet engaged in lavish ritual worship at the major shrines. He declared that a refusal on the part of the ruling classes to change their ways would call down God’s judgement upon them in the form of a foreign invasion.
Yahweh appears in Amos’ oracles as an angry, vengeful deity: he hated sinfulness, and an unrepentant Israel could expect the severest punishment from him. Amos' depictions of Yahweh’s awful destructive power are striking. The violence of his language is exceptional in this respect as compared with the writings of the other reforming prophets.
A recurring theme in Amos’ work is the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt by Yahweh. He also makes reference to contemporary worship of other deities, and along with economic exploitation he condemns other ‘social’ sins such as war crimes and fratricide.
Various parts of Amos’ text have been claimed to be later interpolations. The passages most often doubted are the following: 1.2, 9-12, 2.4-5, 10. 3.7, 14, 4.13, 5.8-9, 13-15, 26-27, 6.2, 8.6, 8.8, 8.11-13, 9.5-6, 8-15. On the other hand, these passages are not necessarily to be labelled as later additions. For example, the utopian vision with which the book closes has been claimed to be anachronistic, expressing ideas which were not yet current in the eighth century, but similar passages appear in the works of the other early prophets (though some of them, too, may well be interpolations - no-one ever said that Old Testament criticism was easy…).
Little is known of the life and career of Hosea (Hoshea son of Beeri).
Hosea’s prophecies are dated at 1.1 to the times of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel (790-750 BC). This dating notice certainly post-dates Hosea’s time, but it is probably only slightly inaccurate. He must have predated the fall of Israel in 722 BC, since he makes no mention of it, but the shadow of Assyria falls over his prophecies, and the terminology that he uses may indicate that some Israelite territory had already fallen into Assyrian hands. All in all, the evidence points to the general period 750-720, and there is some reason to believe that the relative independence of Israel points to the 740s or early 730s.
Hosea was enraged by the behaviour of the Israelites, whom he saw as reneging on the covenant which Yahweh had made with them and giving their allegiance to other gods. Chastisement, he warned, must be at hand, and Hosea’s warnings about the anger of Yahweh are scarcely less fearsome than those of Amos. The deity’s anger, however, was tempered by a continuing concern for his people which would mitigate their punishment and ultimately bring about a utopia.
Like Amos, Hosea refers several times to the story of the exodus and attacks contemporary ritual worship.
Micah came from the small village of Moresheth-Gath in Judah; like Amos, he consciously distanced himself from ‘official’ prophetic circles. The opening lines of his text date his prophecies to the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah (c.750-690). There is no reason to question the general accuracy of this dating, which may be corroborated by Jer. 26.18. Like Amos and Hosea, Micah shows no awareness of the fall of Israel, and he may therefore plausibly be dated to the period 750-720 - though there is good reason to believe that many of the prophecies contained in his book are much later compositions. This may account for his many sudden changes of gear and direction.
Micah echoes both Amos and Hosea in his denunciations of polytheistic worship and social injustice. Again, like his prophetic predecessors, he refers to the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and speaks against the official cult. He differs from his predecessors principally in his much more optimistic portrayal of Israel’s god: while the violent, frightening aspect of Yahweh is by no means absent from his prophecies, Micah is much readier to give voice to his confidence that the deity will bring about a happy and prosperous future for his people.
Isaiah (Yeshayah son of Amoz) was an important political figure in the kingdom of Judah who served as an advisor to King Ahab.
Because of his political activities, Isaiah is somewhat easier to date than the other eighth-century prophets: three particular historical episodes in which he played a role can be dated respectively to 734-732, 713-711 and 705-701.
Isaiah echoes the other reforming prophets in a number of ways, notably in his attacks on polytheism and social injustice and his critical attitude towards ritual observances. As a matter of interest, he mentions the Egyptian captivity and the exodus somewhat less often than the others. Isaiah’s denunciations are as severe as those of his contemporaries, and his depiction of Yahweh is comparably fearsome. On the other hand, his prophecies of the future era of utopian peace and happiness which the righteous remnant would enjoy are memorable.
Chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah are generally acknowledged to be the work of later prophets, often referred to as Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah.
The pre-exilic prophets
Zeph. 1.1 dates Zephaniah to the reign of King Josiah (640-609) and intimates that he was of royal blood. There is no reason to query either of these claims. The prophet’s failure to refer to Josiah’s important religious reform programme, which began in 621, may indicate that his ministry is to be dated to the earlier part of the king’s reign.
The book of Zephaniah is a pessimistic text, predicting suffering and death for the unrighteous and violent vengeance for the foreign nations which have harassed Israel. The prophet does, however, foretell that a faithful remnant of Israelites will survive and prosper in the future, along with a remnant from the foreign nations.
Zephaniah’s condemnation of Israel’s wrongdoings is less explicit and detailed than those found in some of the earlier prophetic texts, but his predecessors’ denunciations of polytheism, irreligion, luxury and corruption find clear echoes in his own polemic.
Some of Zephaniah’s text as we have it consists of later interpolations; 3.14-20 has been the object of particular suspicion. Some would excise all the references to the future utopia.
Nahum of Elkosh (which is otherwise unknown) wrote a triumphant poem shortly after the final defeat of Israel’s old enemy, the Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC. Like his predecessors, Nahum speaks eloquently of the wrath and power of Yahweh - but this time they are directed against a foreign enemy rather than against the sinful Israelites. Nahum has words of comfort and reassurance for his own people. His book is quite different from most of the other prophetic texts in the Old Testament.
Habakkuk’s references to Babylonian operations in Palestine date his text to 609-598. The shadow of the Babylonians falls heavily over his work; and, though he condemns the sinfulness of his own people in clear terms and asserts that Yahweh is using the Babylonians to punish them, most of his work is dedicated to explaining that Yahweh will eventually see to it that the Babylonians receive their just deserts. The necessity of complete faith in Yahweh is the most important message of the book - see, for example, its closing verses. Interestingly, towards the end, it contains a very old poem about Yahweh written in archaic Hebrew.
I am classing Jeremiah as a pre-exilic prophet because his ministry began (according to 1.1) in 627. In fact, he lived on and continued prophesying into the time of the exile.
Of all the prophetic books, that of Jeremiah is perhaps the most difficult to read, since it is both long and relentlessly grim. The prophet pulls no punches either in condemning the worship of gods other than Yahweh or in describing to his compatriots the severity of the punishment which Yahweh has in store for them. On the other hand, he does sometimes prophesy in a more optimistic mode, speaking of the utopian future which lies in store for the true and faithful people of Yahweh.
Jeremiah strongly resembles the reforming prophets both in his fiery rhetoric and in his theological agenda. Interestingly, like them, he makes a point of referring from time to time to Yahweh’s delivery of the Israelites from Egypt. He also occasionally refers to contemporary corruption, violence and social injustice.
The prophets of the exile
Obadiah wrote his oracle quite early in the exile. Its subject is the nation of Edom, which had historically had a difficult relationship with Israel (in spite of the fact that the Israelites may well originally have lived in Edom and were perhaps even descended from the Edomites). Obadiah promises that Edom will suffer grievously at the hand of Yahweh for raiding the territory of Judah at the time of the Israelites’ conquest by the Babylonians. His short text concludes with a prediction of a happy future for the Israelites.
The post-exilic prophets
Haggai’s message, which dates from 520, is short and simple: Israel is being punished for not rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, which had been destroyed at the time of the exile. The Israelites were to see to it that the Temple was rebuilt. The book closes with a quasi-messianic postlude.