The Miracle-Working Early Prophets and the Jewish Social Conscience: Teacher’s Notes


Instructor Rabbi Rachel Adler PhD
Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles


We tend to assume that the prophets who formed the Jewish social conscience were the later literary prophets such as Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah and Amos. However the charismatic miracle workers Elijah and Elisha also had an important and formative critique of power and social justice. We will study the Elijah and Elisha narratives in the two books of Kings to examine these questions of charisma, characterization, and social ethics. We will also look at the role gender plays in these narratives and ask why women are often the recipientsof miracles. We will be using the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh and some handout sheets from the instructor.

The Social and Historical Context of The Eliyahu/Elisha Narratives

The narratives we are looking at come from a time when Israelites were still transitioning to societies ruled by a central authority. Early Israel was what is called a segmental society. Leadership came from family lineages, from more extended family structures called clans and finally from the tribes to which those clans belonged. We know from a few stories that women exercised some leadership in those structures. They were called “wise women.” Once kingship became entrenched, so did its old boys network. The hope was that a society united under a king would be able to expand its territory and protect it better from great powers. Show maps. This little piece of real estate is the only practical way to move an army from the great empire to the south to the great empires to the north. Assyria began consolidating its power about the time Omri, Ach’av’s father came to the throne.

You probably know that the first kings were Saul, David, and David’s son Solomon (Shlomo) who first ruled Israel. It was Shlomo’s son Rechovam who presided over the splitting of the kingdom into two kingdoms. The Eliyah u/ Elisha narratives come from the northern kingdom which took the only name Israel while the southern kingdom was called Judah for its largest tribe. The northern kingdom was much more unstable than the southern kingdom. You can see that in the number of rulers in the northern kingdom as compared to the southern kingdom. Their reigns were short because they kept getting assassinated. (7, out of 8 kings!) Israel was more diverse and more cosmopolitan. For both kingdoms the economic base was agriculture and small handcraft industries, but Israel had more cities and more trade. The heirs of the Davidic monarchy had the Davidic theology about kingship to sustain them. David Melekh Yisrael Chai V’kayiam. The northern kings didn’t (cartoon of two kings: You know except for the divine right of kings I’m not much interested in theology) The northern royal theological attitude was whatever god offers me the best deal, that’s my god. That’s a problem for worshippers of YHWH because the king is subordinate to this supreme King. One answer is to try to get rid of the people who are promulgating such a theology. After all, in Egypt, later in Rome, in other places as well the king solves the problem by declaring himself a god. However Yahwism was deeply engrained in the populace. Prophets had a lot of political power. Economically, there has started to be far greater wealth inequality in both kingdoms. Absentee landlords foreclosing on small farmers, debt slavery, the development of a large class of land less poor.

What is a prophet?

miracle-workers and charismatics. Eliyahu and Elisha even raise the dead. These earlier prophets do not seem to have married and were socially marginal like the prophetic bands. The later prophets are sometimes called literary prophets. Their prophecies are written in beautiful, ornate language, often poetry. Some of the literary prophets are also performance artists, using symbolic objects and dramatic gestures to enact their prophecies in public spaces. Some give their children symbolic names as prophetic statements. First Isaiah names one son She’ar Yashuv, “a remnant shall return” and another Maher Shalla! Chash Baz, “pillage hastens, looting speeds.” Hosea marries a so-called “whorish woman” and names their son Jezreel, to commemorate King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s theft of the vineyard of Naboth (1Kings 21) and Lo-Ami, “you are not my people,” and his daughter Lo Ruchama, “Unpitied.”

• Prophets are not generic. They are very different personalities, from different social classes, mostly male but a few female. Moses’ sister Miriam is described as a prophet. The prophet Micah cites her along with Moses and Aaron as divinely appointed liberators from Egypt, which suggests that there are stories about her that Bible redactors suppressed. Chulda, a female prophet contemporaneous with the prophet Jeremiah, is the one who authenticates the book of Deuteronomy for King Josiah. First Isaiah is an aristocrat, possibly a kind of secretary of state to kings Achaz and Hezekiah. Ezekiel may be a kohen. He is very concerned with Temple affairs and ritual purity. He is also the most mystical of the prophets. Amos describes himself as a shepherd and a tree-trimmer. Micah identifies with common working people.

Why Read the Prophets?

There are multiple lenses through which to read the prophets. One can read the prophets

1) As reactions to the history of their time period. This is necessary for interpreting historical references that would otherwise be unclear, but neither useful nor relevant unless one likes ancient history a lot.
2) As beautiful literary productions. Many of the texts are indeed stunningly beautiful, but again, of interest mainly to people who like ancient literature.
3) As texts that embody ethical and theological values relevant to our own lives. This approach relies partially on approaches 1 and 2 for help in interpreting and making sense of the texts, but asserts that the meanings we take from the texts offer us enduring truths and values that continue to move us. Many (though not all) of the prophets are social critics, getting in the faces of kings and officials as well as angry crowds.

Although there seems to have been a belief that it was bad luck to kill a prophet, Jeremiah gets thrown in prison for sedition and beaten up by a mob, Amos gets tossed out of the northern kingdom, and Elijah has to run for his life from Ahab and Jezebel.

Prophets model a standard of courage and integrity about speaking truth to power. Most of them communicate God’s terrible indignation about forcing impoverished people into slavery or seizing their children as slaves if they can’t pay their debts or preying upon the marginal members of society. They sneer at attempts by the rich to buy God off with sacrifices or with pious behavior like fasting. Isaiah 57, which we read in the morning Yom Kippur, is a memorable example of this kind of prophecy, and it was taken into the liturgy precisely to throw our Yom Kippur piety in our faces just as we were patting ourselves on the back for going hungry.

There are prophetic utterances that are harder to redeem as sacred texts. Ezekiel, for example, is incredibly misogynistic to the point of pornography, as some feminist theologians have pointed out. Jonah, whose book we read Yom Kippur afternoon is impressive because he is the clueless prophet, the obnoxious and vengeful prophet who does not believe in teshuvah. God has to teach him about compassion. We read this hilarious book Yom Kippur afternoon to teach us that we are Jonah, despairing and compassionless, wishing over and over to die rather than live. But my point is that, one way or another, all the prophets may offer us some important illumination that moves us to look anew at our individual selves and at our obligations as members of society.

Physical structure of the land
From: Frank S. Frick – A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures
(Click on the image to enlarge)

Download Handouts

We shall describe the weightiness – Page 1
We shall describe the weightiness – Page 2
We shall describe the weightiness – Page 3 (From Mishkan Hanefesh)
We shall describe the weightiness – Page 4 (From Mishkan Hanefesh)
We shall describe the weightiness – Page 5 (From Mishkan Hanefesh)
Max Arzt Justice & Mercy Commentary on the Liturgy of the Day of Atonement
Unethane toqef Geniza version

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The Miracle-Working Early Prophets and the Jewish Social Conscience:
Course Outline

Session 1 What is a Navi? What makes the early charismatic nevi’im different from the later literary nevi’im? What is the historical context of the earlier nevi’im, Eliyahu and Elisha? What is Sefer Melakhim 1&2 and how does it fit into the canon of Tanakh?
Session 2 1K 16:23-17:24 The Miracles of Eliyahu: Encounters with the Poor
Session 3 1K 18 The Miracles of Eliyahu: Nation and Drought
Session 4 1K 19 and 1K 21 2K 1-2 The Succession of Elisha.
Session 5 2 K 3 – 4. The Miracles of Elisha
Session 6 2K 5 to 8:15 The Miracles of Elisha