On Prophecy in the Ancient World


Source: Wikipedia

More often than not, understandings of prophecy arise from hearing about or reading the Hebrew Bible. Books like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah shapes and form these understandings. In this blog post, I will briefly examine one example of prophecy which occurred before all else in the Hebrew Bible. By looking at this text, I hope to demonstrate, through non-biblical material, a function of prophecy in the ancient world. The letter which I will write about was written around the 18th century BCE (c. 1800 BCE) [1].

In this letter, Inibsina is communicating with her brother who she calls Kakkabi (Zimri-Lin) [2]. Within the letter, we first read the following: “Previously, Selebum the Assinu gave a prophecy to me… Now, one female Qammatum of Dagan of Terqa came to me.” Here, Inibsina is telling Kakkabi that she previously received a prophecy. Now, she received another prophecy from a religious priestess. What did this priestess prophecy, then?

“The alliances of the men of Esnunna (a city in the ancient world) are deceptive. And, under the straw, the water will go; and toward the net, of which it can be said I will bind, I will gather it. His city I will destroy, and his stuff, which from ancient times was not defiled, I will defile.”

What is going on here? For the sake of this post, there are two main things which should be addressed: what is the message and who is the speaker?

In this prophecy which was first reported to Inibsina, the message is fairly straightforward: current allies of Kakkabi are deceptive and will not remains faithful to the alliance. As a result, the god Dagan of Terqa will destroy the city of those in the alliance who are deceptive [3]. In other words, the god recognizes the unfaithfulness of some members in the alliance. So, he will destroy them. As for the speaker, it is Dagan of Terqa speaking through the Qammatum priestess.

What does this mean, though, for how we think about religion, politics, and society in the ancient world? As this text demonstrates, the gods are understood to be directly involved in politics and social relation. Consequently, religion is directly involved with politics and social relations. Viewing it the other way, politics is directly involved with religion. Either way we look at this letter, it is evident that the people living in 18th century BCE Mari did not make a large distinction, if any, between politics and religion. They were intrinsically intertwined, if not the same.

Likewise, prophecy was intrinsically intertwined into politics. Although popular modern notions of prophecy tend to distinguish it from politics, this ancient letter demonstrates that it was, during this period, understood as part of the political atmosphere. This notion of prophecy for both religious and political ends is important because it may inform how we understand prophecy within the Hebrew Bible. Though I do not advocate that all prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is politically driven, it is worth keeping this reality in mind as we read through prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible [4].

[1] ARM 10 80. Translation is my own.

[2] Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press, p. 28 n. b. For simplicity, Kakkabi is best understood as a nickname for Zimri-Lin.

[3] My attempt is not a careful and close reading. I simply want to present the gist of the text.

[4] Ancient Israelite prophecy is, in fact, a unique phenomenon.


Charpin, Dominique (Paris), “Mari”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 23 April 2017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e723510&gt;

Nissinen, Martti, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press,

Forthcoming Book Alert: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible

Although it will not be published for quite a while, I am looking forward to a forthcoming publication from de Gruyter: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible by Martti Nissinen. For those who are not aware, Martti Nissinen is well known for his work with Near Eastern literature and prophecy. One of his books was, in fact, one of the first academic books which I ever read. So, he is very much the reason why I do what I do today.


“Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature” by Esther J. Hamori

DivinationEsther J. Hamori. Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, pp. 288, $85.00 (Yale University Press).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

For the most part, scholars are aware that distinctions between “prophecy” and “magic” misrepresent the ancient world. Likewise, they are aware that prophecy is a subset of divination equal in status to the magic subset. As Hamori demonstrates, though, those distinctions have been ingrained into how males and females are understood in regard to divination. Recognizing this issue, Hamori provides analyses of the range of women in various types of divination throughout the Jewish canon and the range of depictions therein. So, while others have recognized the range of depictions, Hamori is the first to provide a comprehensive overview of the range of women of divination represented within the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter I establishes the primary trajectory of her work, namely to “color our view of the vastly complex, rich, and diverse world of ancient Israelite divination” (p. 8) based on a non-structuralist approach to divination and gender. Delving more into her methodology, Chapter II pushes strongly against structuralist tendencies to read the Hebrew Bible through a binary lens (i.e. religion vs. magic, men in public vs. women in private, male vs. females, etc.). Instead, she suggests reading biblical accounts of female diviners closely, in order to provide a nuanced reading the demonstrates the spectrum of views of women divination in biblical literature. Overall, her methodology is fantastic and programmatic to any future biblical studies relating to biblical literature, including extra-biblical literature (i.e. Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, etc.). It would be beneficial, though, if she could have identified the most significant books and articles in which structuralism and theological notions skew, and consequently misrepresent, the text.

Chapter III, exploring Rebekah’s character, approaches the drsh of Rebekah as divination, an act of inquiry, equitable to Isaac’s supplication, and draws parallels to Syrian birth omen divination texts to highlight her role as an omen, all-in-all exemplifying the importance of female divination to the narrative of Genesis. Chapter IV investigates Miriam and accomplishes two tasks: it cogently argues against the Song of the Sea as prophetic poetry by Miriam (1) and illustrates that the conflict between Moses and Miriam/Aaron in fact re-affirms Miriam as having access to divine knowledge, not a binary gender issue (2).

Chapter V highlights Deborah’s epiteth as “mother of Israel” to be reflective of her intermediator divination role and relates he role as a prophet as judge to Moses, not Miriam. Recognizing Christian and Jewish traditions of Hannah as a prophet, Hamori outlines Hannah and her actions in order to show Hannah and her actions are void of divination. Chapter VII pushes against tendencies to characterize the necromancer of En-Dor as an evil, sexual “witch”and instead argues for a more positive view of her as a diviner. Taking into account the divination roles of ‘wise men’ in Israelite literature and association of wise women with divination in the broad Near Eastern context, Chapter VIII argues that the ‘wise women’ of 2 Samuel act in an authoritative role associated with divinatory speech. Chapter IX emphasizes Huldah’s role as a prophet in which she has more divine knowledge than Josiah and, through examination of the Chronicler’s characterization of her and role in affirming the reformation, proves that gender is a non-issue.

Moving into prophetic and wisdom literature, Chapter X interprets the prophetess in Isaiah 8, Le-Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as one who has agency and acts with Isaiah in a prophetic role. Arguing on the basis of women divinators in Ezekiel 13, Chapter XI draws out how Ezekiel’s problem with them is not one of fake or idolatrous prophecy; rather, their prophecy and divination was a threat within Yahwism (like Jeremiah and Hananiah). Hamori, in reading the women of Joel’s vision, highlights what is not, namely everybody does not have the Spirit of God. On reading Noadiah, Hamori presents no conclusions due to the lack of evidence. Chapter XIV highlights the problem of assigning divination activities, such as the teraphim, to any particular gender, concluding that both genders practiced divination equally. Finally, on the other side of the divination spectrum, Chapter XV analyzes the late trope between female divination and sexual promiscuity in order to highlight the a more extreme picture of female divination in the Hebrew Bible.

Simply put, Hamori’s work is exquisite. She cogently highlights the variety of women in divination within the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, she breaks through the popular one-to-one association of women divination as a negative thing. While there is no denying that at moments women in divination are portrayed negatively, that is only one side of the spectrum. Hamori successfully provides descriptive analyses of various texts and vividly colors the range of views of divination. Being integral to how we understand divination in ancient Israel cultural imagination, her work will make a significant impact in how we understood gender roles within the ancient Near East.

One area she did not approach, though, is that of the Pseudepigrapha. While I have no thoughts as to how the Pseudepigrapha may have specifically complimented her analyses, I have no doubts that it would provide better insight into how the textual and socio-religious conditions may have led to and contributed to the relationship female divination = sexual promiscuity. In this vein, it opens an exciting new avenue for the reception of the Hebrew Bible. Although, while future studies may utilize Hamori’s work as a foundation for how they understand a non-structuralist approach to divination, they will likely have to take into consideration other cultural influences from the Hellenistic period.

In short, I highly recommend this work to any person. It is written for the non-specialist, so it is accessible to most people. One of the best qualities of the book is how she carefully avoids the idea of a true prophet vs. false prophet. Likewise, her argument deconstructing the poetry and songs of Miriam and Hannah as “prophetic indicators” will be informative to future analyses of these characters and texts. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Testament of Moses

Introduction to the Text:

Although the Testament of Moses is cut off half-way through the manuscript, it is nonetheless helpful in reconstructing ideologies and worldviews from the Levant in the 1st century C.E., and even earlier if we assume the text had previous written and oral traditions preceding it’s composition. The testament claims to be “the prophecy which was made by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy”; however, while it takes up a similar tone, the testament incorporates material relevant to the Maccabean Period, indicative of the late date of the text.

Based on the previous information, it is evident that we should read the Testament of Moses as its own piece of literary work, self-sustaining and independent. What we will consider today is Moses’ role as a divinator in the Testament of Moses.

Divination, Prophecy, and Moses

Contrary to popular opinion, there is not really any distinction between magic and prophecy in the ancient world. Both are considered divination and imply access to divine knowledge (Hamori, 2015). The following will briefly examine some moments in which divination is relevant. Following the data, I will attempt to draw some sort of conclusion as to the nature of divination in the Testament of Moses.

1:5 notes that the book, that is the Testament of Moses, was actually the one made in the book of Deuteronomy. As noted previously, the account is obviously late. Additionally, the text specifically notes the prophecy occurring “after the Exodus”. By placing the prophecy within a historical period, albeit a mythologized historical period, we see divination as something which needs to be rooted in a particular period. In other words, one does not merely have access to divine knowledge; rather, the access must be within a specific period. In this situation, the period is following the exodus in Amman.

In 1:15, Moses claims he was created “to be the mediator of his covenant”. Although mediator does not necessarily imply divination, it is one possible interpretation. As a mediator and one who interpreted the words of God to Israel, Moses must have some sort of access to divine knowledge, a high sphere of wisdom.

3:12 suggests the Israelites will recognize Moses as their mediator for God’s commandments. They also recognize that he made prophecies known to them. Thus, in this occurrence, it apparent the community recognizes their lack of access to divine knowledge. Moses alone made information known through his prophecies.

11:8 may contain a reference to Moses’ divination. When we consider the ancient Near Eastern influence on the Palestinian region, it adds another dimension to Joshua’s statement that Moses’ sepulcher, or life, “is from the rising to the setting of the sun”. I wonder if there may be here an appropriation of the idea that the sun deity, whether, Ra or Šamaš, travels across the sky and then descends into the underworld. In Moses’ case though, by using this motif, two things become evident. First, Moses is associated with deities, and access to divine knowledge therein. Second, by describing Moses’ life as a sun setting, he is placed far about the rest of humanity, likely due to his access to divine knowledge of God’s will and commandments as the mediator.

In 11:16, Joshua refers to Moses as “the divine prophet for the whole earth”, a bold claim for any human. Yet, because Moses is characterized through a motif associated with the divine, it is not so surprising. Importantly, Joshua is not calling Moses a god, for to be “divine” can be read as a range (angels, demons, etc.) rather than an on/off switch. In this verse, though, we see how the text justifies the results of Moses’ divination, namely that he is “divine” and thereby has access to divine knowledge.

Drawing these observations, we realize an important fact about the characterization of Moses in the 1st century C.E.. In many respects, Moses is elevated to a position of a lower-deity, though not of divine essence. The author of the Testament of Moses successfully writes in a such a manner that permits and justifies Moses’ direct access to the divine by associating him with the divine; yet, the author is also careful to avoid turning Moses into a deity.

One point that would be interesting to explore in the future is how the representation of Moses’ divination in the Testament of Moses compares to the representation of Moses’ divination throughout the Pentateuch.


Duling, D. C.. “Testament of Solomon”. James Charlesworth ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983.

Hamori, Esther J. Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

“A Prophet Like Moses” by Jeffrey Stackert

A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion by Jeffrey Stackert. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, viii + 243 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of A Prophet Like Moses by Jeffrey Stackert.

An emerging and ground-breaking biblical scholar, Jeffrey Stackert’s first book, Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007), resulted in bestowment upon him of the 2010 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Currently teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, his second publication will significantly further his already established authority in biblical studies.

Chapter One discusses Wellhausen’s impact the relationship between law and prophecy in the Torah, especially critiquing his coincidental correspondence between law and prophecy (15) and choice not to distinguish J and E. Additionally, rooting his analysis of the Torah in various concrete, historical settings, Stackert emphasizes that “the Torah sources engage in historical discourse for precisely… their conceptualizations of prophecy’s attenuation and demise” (31). Chapter Two turns to the literary characterization of Moses’ prophetic character, initially presenting four reason why he is not denoted a prophet. Following,  he demonstrates that Moses’ greater literary context, the ancient Near East, indicate his legitimate status as a prophet. He then narrows his focus to briefly analyze a variety of textual traditions, especially J, E, and D, to demonstrate that the Torah does portray Moses as a prophet.

Chapter Three, through tracing E’s narrative trajectory, analyzes five major passages: “Exod 3*-4*, 19-20*, and 33:6b-11; Num 11*-12*; and Deut 34:10-12” (71). In short, Stackert concludes “that E’s Moses stands as a singular prophet” (125), acting with in an extreme anti-prophetic sense and promoting law over prophecy. Chapter Four examines D’s unique appropriation and approbation of E, its literary fund. After analyzing Deut 1:9-18, 5:1-31, 13:2-6, and 18:9-22, he concludes that D expects some sort of prophetic action with its historical context. In response, D authorizes prophecy under the auspice that the prophet is derivative of Mosaic authority. D’s extension of prophetic authority “is one in which law and prophecy exist in a hierarchical relationship rather than being mutually exclusive options” (166), as E presents. Because there is far less direct reference or allusion to prophecy, Stackert discusses both P and J in Chapter Five. P, he concludes, is unique in that it simply views Moses as sole prophet of Israelite religion because of “the divine law mediated by Moses” (174). With P, H advocates for a priestly mediatory figure. And as Stackert succinctly notes P’s claims, “There once was a prophet who instituted a religious system in which there is no place for prophecy” (172), concluding that P holds an antiprophetic stance. Chapter Six, after initially reviewing the breadth of perspectives on ancient Israelite religion, discusses how Wellhausen, even in his attempt to distinguish the theological from historical, was unknowingly driven by his own perspective on religion. As a conclusion, he argues that biblical studies should be studied within the realm of humanities, such as ancient Near Eastern studies, rather than the realm of theology, noting his own study as one which provides “a richer and more nuanced appreciation of some distinctive views of prophecy and law in the history of Israelite religious thought” (208).

Stackert accomplishes his goal of demonstrating the breadth of theological tradition in the history of Israelite religion. Most praiseworthy is his ability to locate and draw out the nuances between the various sources. As he notes, many scholars overlook certain aspect of the sources and generalize based on the work of Wellhausen. Yet, by providing reason to doubt certain aspects of Wellhausen’s work, he illustrates the importance of each sources trajectory regarding prophecy and law, providing analysis essential to any future study of prophecy in the Torah and Moses’ literary character.

As for points of disagreement, there was only one place in which his argumentation needed more support. Chapter Five notes that “two specific omissions from P emphasize its antiprophetic stance… because P addresses the question of the performance of religious practices that YHWH did not sanction” (171). Stackert then draws of Nadab and Abihu’s death (Lev 10:1-2) and Korah’s death (Num 16), both P material, as evidence that “religious innovation provokes a fatal divine response” (172), his reason that post-Mosaic prophecy is not permitted in P. Yet to compare these two passages is inadequate evidence for such a claim. Leviticus 10:16-20 specifically notes Aaron’s error, perhaps intentional, in failing to eat the goat in the sanctuary, as Moses commanded. If God is against religious innovation, or differences in what he commands, Aaron should have died as well. He did not, and was in fact justified in his religious innovation. Thus, Stackert’s use of the beginning of the narrative in Leviticus 10 fails to take into account the greater complexities of the passage. In summary, his argument that P opposes religious innovation is weak in that he fails to explore or note the complexities of Leviticus 10’s narrative, leaving him with only one argument for P’s stance against religious innovation.

Even so, A Prophet Like Moses is valuable for research relating to the prophetic nature of the Torah and Moses, as it presents a ground-breaking and unique perspectives on how to understand the relationship between prophecy, law, and Moses. Stackert’s nuanced approach, additionally, demonstrates a focused approach on the history of Israelite religion and may be used as a guide for future research due to how it understands the complex dynamics of law and prophecy. And because his focus draws on the historical dynamics of law and prophecy, it opens doors for much future research regarding each source’s unique time period. In conclusion, Stackert’s nuanced analysis of the Hebrew Bible and willingness to look beyond generalized dynamics between law, prophecy, and Moses allow his work to potentially become a launch pad for future studies exploring the nature of the multi-faceted, historically rooted, theological traditions of ancient Israel.

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