I have learned over the years that it is important to carefully read the biblical text many times with curiosity in order to see what is going on in the story. One of those re-readings , for instance, helped me to see something interesting in 1 Samuel 10:1-16. Samuel tells Saul that he will encounter a band of prophets coming down from a worship site in Bethel. That much I knew already knew.
What had eluded me, however, was Samuel’s description of this “band of prophets.” They were armed with musical instruments featuring what we moderns would recognize as strings, woodwinds and percussion. Once I noticed this, I found other references to prophetic musical composers in the books of Exodus, Chronicles and Samuel. That launched Wascana Fellowship’s own foray into writing “prophetic” music. Wow! I thought I had figured out all there was to know about prophets in the Old Testament.
I was not even close.
Thanks to the even closer observations of real biblical scholars I learned that prophets abounded in ancient Israel. For example, Tim Bartee, in part 1 and part 2 of a series on “sons of the prophets,” follows the establishment of schools of prophets from the time of Samuel. He notes that there is a description of groups of prophets in cities on Samuel’s judging circuit. The circuit is described in 1 Sam. 7:15-17, and mentions the cities of Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and his home city of Ramah.
After Samuel anoints Saul, he tells him that the group of prophets he will encounter will be at the “Hill of God,” located near Bethel. He is then to go to Gilgal, where Samuel will meet him in seven days to offer sacrifice and instruct him about what to do. [Interestingly enough, the record does not say that he actually went to Gilgal before going home, which we learn in 1 Sam. 10:26 Is in Gibeah.] Samuel then gathers Israel to Mizpah to reveal him to the nation as their new king. Samuel has taken or sent Saul to the three centres of justice in Israel, and at least one of them (Bethel) has prophets and a worship site associated with it (though admittedly loosely, in the case of this group of prophets).
Saul begins a pattern of disobedience that leads to David being anointed in his place. In 1 Sam. 19:18-24. A jealous Saul tries to kill David, who flees to Samuel’s home at Naioth in Ramah. According to Burtee (and others) Naioth is a residential complex of some sort within the city of Ramah, which we might today call a college complex. Saul’s messengers find David staying there, with Samuel in charge of a group of “prophesying” prophets. First three groups of messengers and then Saul himself are caught up in the prophetic moment, allowing David to escape. It is hard to get past David’s dramatic escape to realize that here we find Samuel in charge of a group of prophets at a college in his home city.
During David’s reign we see prophets in the royal court and among the musical Levites, but not much is said about groups of prophets until the time of the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18:1-4 we read of a purge of true prophets by Jezebel the queen of Israel. Obadiah, a servant of the king, hides 100 prophets by fifties in two caves to protect them from Jezebel’s purge. If we are really paying attention to that it should surprise us that Elijah claims to be the only prophet left in Israel in 19:1-18. God tells him that he missed by about 7,000 “who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
Another indicator of schools of prophets comes during the handover of prophetic office between Elijah and Elisha. In 2 Kings 2 we see Elijah going from city to city on his farewell tour. At Bethel and Jericho bands of prophets approach Elisha to tell him that Elijah will meet his Maker. A group of 50 from among the company of prophets accompany the two to the Jordan River and witness Elijah’s departure and Elisha’s assumption of his mantle. He remains at the Jericho prophetic school for a while, performing miracles like healing the poison from their water supply.
Later, in Bethel, Elisha performs a miracle to help the widow of one of the members of “the company of prophets” pay off her debts and earn a living by multiplying her olive oil to fill every pot in the neighborhood. Back at his headquarters in Gilgal, a while later, he heals the poison from a communal stew pot (2 Kings 4:38-41). Looking past the miracle, Burtee notices that these are not individual families eating at individual homes, but rather a group of people sharing a communal meal. Just like one would expect at a college food service, for instance.
Somewhat later, the “company of prophets” complains that “the place we live under your charge” is too small for them. They go to the Jordan River area to cut logs for a larger communal dwelling. This is where the miracle of the floating axehead takes place. I had not looked beyond the miracle to realize that the reason they were cutting wood was to build a bigger dorm for their campus (2 Kings 6:1-7).
In 2 Kings 9:1-9 Elisha sends “a member of the company of prophets” on a very dangerous mission to anoint the next king of Israel, and then run for his life. It would seem that anointing the next Israelite king falls under the job description of the “company of the prophets.” We remember, of course, that Samuel anointed both Saul and David as kings.
Thus far we have only tried to establish that there were schools of prophets in ancient Israel that functioned from the time of Samuel until the demise of the nation of Israel. Next time we will see if there is any evidence of prophetic schools in the New Testament.
As a bit of a preview, it might be good to have a look at Acts 19:1-10. It might also be good to compare Paul’s prophecy to the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20:17-38 to his instructions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:3-11 and 6:2-10 (though the whole letter makes more sense if you understand that background).