Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Prophets and Scribes

Posted by foryourfaith on May 18, 2012


In the early days of their history the Israelites had no king. Or rather, the Lord God was their king, and he kept in touch with his people through prophets – men and women who spoke for him. There were probably thousands of Israelite prophets, but only a small number of them are known today.

In the 200 years or so after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, prophets advised the judges who ruled the land – or even, like Deborah, ruled as judges themselves. The last judge-prophet was Samuel, who under God’s guidance, chose and anointed Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. But even in the days of the kings, prophets wielded power, advising people and their leaders and, at times, even boldly confronting kings who disregarded God’s will. Stories of these prophets are found in the books of Samuel and Kings, where nits and pieces of their prophecies are recorded. The words of later prophets, the so-called writing prophets, are recorded in biblical books that bear their names.

The earliest writing prophets were Hosea and Amos, who called for religious and social reforms in the northern kingdom of Israel. (The land of the Israelites had spit into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon, Israel’s third king.) Hosea and Amos assured the people that the Lord would protect them if they turned back to him, stop worshipping idols, and started to care for the needy. In addition, the prophets Micah and Isaiah condemned the injustices and idolatry they found in both Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The great prophet Isaiah also warned that God would send the Assyrians to invade Israel as punishment for the sins of the people. All these prophets went unheeded and as Isaiah had foreseen, the Assyrians obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel. After 721 BC it no longer existed.

Later prophets turned their attention to the surviving kingdom of Judah, generally begging the people to remember the Lord and follow his word. They included Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and the unstoppable Jeremiah, who advised Judah’s last five kings.

In 597 BC, after the first of two invasions of Jerusalem, the Babylonians brought home 8,000 captives, including Ezekiel. From exile Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, but his people ignored him until the temple did fall during the second Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 586 BC. From then until his death, Ezekiel preached hope, reassuring his people that God would resurrect Israel, like a pile of dry bones coming back to life. In 539, Babylonia was conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia, who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to rebuild it.

Generally prophets delivered their prophecies spontaneously, perhaps accompanied by music and dancing. But their words were later written down in highly structured poetic form, and no one knows by whom. The prophets themselves may have later written down and polished their own pronouncements, but in many cases, it is believed, disciples of the prophets wrote down their teacher’s words for later study and teaching. Often these disciples edited the texts to fit new circumstances and, in certain cases, probably even added to the prophecies. The book of Isaiah suggests this process, as its writings cover a period of some 200 years. Not only is this far too long a period for one man to have prophesied, but there are obvious differences in writing style that strongly suggest the work of two or even three writers. Only the prophecies in chapters 1 to 39 of the biblical book of Isaiah are believed to have been made by the historical Isaiah.

Prophetic works were also preserved by scribes. This method of preservation is vividly described in chapter 36 of the book of Jeremiah. We read there that when King Jehoiakim of Judah forbade Jeremiah to enter the temple to proclaim his prophecies, God told the prophet to write down all his words and have them read to the king. Jeremiah then dictated all his past prophecies to his scribe, Baruch, who copied them down in a scroll. Baruch then went to the temple where he publicly read Jeremiah’s words. When officials of the king heard about this, they sent for Baruch, had him read the prophecies to them, then took the scroll from Baruch and told him to go into hiding along with Jeremiah. The officials then went to the royal palace and fearfully read the prophecies to the angry king, who promptly burned the scroll. But the prophecies were not lost, for God ordered Jeremiah to have the scroll rewritten, and Baruch again took down his master’s words. The new scroll probably formed the basis for the first 25 chapters of the book of Jeremiah.

In 582 BC Jeremiah and Baruch were forced to take refuge in Egypt. There, Baruch continued as Jeremiah’s secretary-scribe, writing down the prophet’s pleas that the Israelites be faithful to the Lord. While in exile Baruch probably wrote most of chapters 26 to 45 of the book of Jeremiah. According to the later tradition, Baruch also wrote the book of Baruch, a work found in the Apocrypha. However, scholars now believe that the book of Baruch was written centuries after the scribe’s death.



Baruch was born in Jerusalem to a prominent family of scribes. And even though his brother Seraiah, who was a minister in the king’s court could have secured him an important position, Baruch gave up court life and dedicated himself to the thankless and often painful job of following the unpopular prophet Jeremiah. Throughout the turbulent final years of the fiery Jeremiah’s career, Baruch faithfully acted as the prophet’s secretary, refusing to desert him while he was in prison, helping him escape the murderous plots of rival court prophets, and even defying the king by reading Jeremiah’s unwelcome prophecies in public. After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, Baruch went with Jeremiah a few miles north to the small town of Mizpah. When trouble erupted there, Jeremiah’s supporters urged the prophet to flee with them to Egypt. When Jeremiah refused, the people accused Baruch of inciting the prophet against them in an attempt to get them all exiled to Babylon, and they forced both Jeremiah and Baruch to go with them to Egypt. While in Egypt, Baruch probably shaped much of the biblical book of Jeremiah.


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