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Divine Inspiration: Part Two

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

An explanation of who can receive prophecy, when and how.

There are seven gentile prophets mentioned in the Bible: Balaam, Beor, Job, Eliphas the Taimonite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zepher the Naamathite, and Elihu ben Berachel the Buzite.

Normally, prophecy is only granted to individuals of total Israelite lineage. They must be direct descendants of Abraham, as God told him, "I will be a God to you and to your descendants after you" (Genesis 17:7). Moses said, "God your Lord will elevate a prophet from you… from your brothers, just like me" (Deut. 18:15), that is, of total Israelite ancestry, just like Moses.

Therefore, prophecy usually is not granted to converts. Nonetheless, a convert may also be granted the gift of prophecy because of special merit. Thus, the prophet Obadiah, was an Edomite convert, but still became author of one of the books of the Bible. A prophet is therefore accepted because of his qualifications and message, an not because of his ancestry.

A prophet must have his intellect developed as perfectly as possible for a human being.

God said to Moses, "I will raise up a prophet for them… just like you" (Deut. 18:18). This indicates that to be worthy of prophecy, a person must perfect himself like Moses, above and beyond the ten steps leading to Divine Inspiration.

It is taught that a prophet must be intelligent, wealthy and strong. These refer to psychological, rather than physical traits. A prophet must be in perfect mental health, with his intellect developed as perfectly as possible for a human being. Besides this, he must also be expert in all areas of the Torah. He must have a wealth of spirit, with no desire for additional wealth or gain. Likewise, he must have strength of character, with his passions well balanced, and all his desires aimed toward God.

Meditative State

A person who attains these qualities is then ready to prepare himself for prophecy. He must focus his entire being toward God, and engage in meditation (hit'bode'edut), using methods known to the prophets. It is only in a deep meditative state that he can be worthy of a vision. At the time of prophecy, he is thus on a totally spiritual level.

An individual seeking prophecy must be careful to keep his motives absolutely pure. The preparations for prophecy are extremely rigorous, and without divine help, they can lead to psychosis and false visions rather than to true prophecy. Moreover, a neophyte prophet, who has not yet learned to master his gift, can easily misunderstand his revelation.

Therefore, every individual who desires to attain prophecy must have a master and guide. The function of the master is to teach the neophyte the techniques of prophecy, and help him avoid the pitfalls along the way. Those who sat at the feet of the great prophets and engaged in meditation attempting to attain prophecy were known as the "Sons of Prophets."

With the exception of Isaiah, every prophet in the Bible received his gift through his predecessors.

Even after a prophet attains a vision, he still needs a master in order to advance to higher degrees of prophecy. Like every other faculty, prophecy must be nurtured and developed.

Vision of Angels

A prophet's first experience may be so negligible that he might not even recognize it as prophecy. The prophecy may consist of a voice indistinguishable from human speech, as in the case of Samuel. It is then very much like a bat kol.

A prophet may also begin his career by seeing an angel, as in the case of Moses.

Often God uses the vision of an angel to prepare a person for prophecy.

Although an angel is an incorporeal spiritual being, with no shape or form, God can cause a person to see an angel in a vision. It is thus written, "God opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel" (Numbers 22:31). Often God uses the vision of an angel to prepare a person for prophecy.

Prophecy itself is often channeled through an angel. A prophet would thus make such a statement as, "I am a prophet like you, and the angel speaks to me" (1-Kings 13:18).

Just as there are many levels of intelligence, there are many degrees of prophecy. God grants a degree of revelation to each prophet according to his spiritual gifts and the needs of the time. It is thus written, "[God] makes a measure for the spirit' (Job 28:25).

Just as the depth and content of prophecy may vary, so may its quantity. While one prophet may only receive a very short message, another may receive enough to write one or more entire books.

Prophecy may occur in a wakeful vision or in a prophetic dream. A vision gained while the prophet is awake is a higher degree of prophecy. Similarly, hearing words is a higher level of prophecy than seeing a mere vision. Seeing the speaker is higher than hearing mere words. Having an angel speak is higher than being given a message through the vision of a human. The highest level of prophecy is hearing a voice, and knowing that it is directly from God.

Sub-Quantum Levels

The human brain is like a receiving mechanism upon which the soul can act. This action, however, usually occurs on the subtlest sub-quantum levels and it is marked by the mind's normal reverie and reaction to external stimuli. When a person's mind is completely relaxed as during sleep, the effects of the soul can sometimes be detected. On rare occasions, these effects may be manifest in normal dreams.

Through his meditation, the prophet may experience a vision while awake, or in a dream while sleeping. While receiving the vision, the prophet is totally unconscious of his surroundings. However, immediately after the vision is over, he returns to a normal state of consciousness.

Since the mechanism of prophecy resembles that of a dream, it is often referred to as a prophetic dream. God thus said, "If there will be a prophet among you, I… will make Myself known to him in a vision, I will speak with him in a dream" (Numbers 12:6). It is likewise written, "In a dream, in a vision of the night… [God] opens the ears of men" (Job 33:15).

Dreams are therefore spoken of as a touch of prophecy. The difference between a dream and a prophetic vision is quantitative rather than qualitative. Most dreams, however, do not contain true information.

Man's physical nature acts as a barrier, preventing him from experiencing the effects of his soul. Since these barriers are never totally overcome, one can only experience prophecy through one's physical senses, most often by seeing and hearing. Moreover, the human mind does not have any faculty to perceive the spiritual directly. Therefore, any vision of the spiritual that a prophet may perceive is seen as reflected in a dull, imperfect mirror.

It is for this reason that prophecy is usually expressed symbolically, just as in dreams. God thus said, "I have also spoken to the prophets, and have granted many visions; in the mission of the prophets, I have used symbolisms" (Hosea 12:11). It is for this reason that many prophets, especially neophytes, misunderstood or misinterpreted their prophecy.

Overwhelming Experience

Since its spiritual influx completely overcomes the prophet's physical being, prophecy can be an overwhelming, and even terrifying experience. Regarding Abraham, the Torah states, "Abraham fell into a trance, and a great dark dread fell upon him" (Genesis 15:12). In describing his vision, Daniel likewise said, "I saw this great vision and I became powerless. My appearance was destroyed, and my strength deserted me. I heard the sound of his words, and I fell on the ground in a trance" (Daniel 10:8,9).

Prophets often describe their visions in terms of whirlwinds, clouds and fire.

Prophets often describe their visions in terms of whirlwinds, clouds and fire. These denote the mental states through which the prophet must pass before he can obtain a vision.

A prophetic vision can only be obtained when one is in a perfect mental state. It cannot be attained when one is depressed, languid, or angry.

Before attaining a vision, a prophet must therefore be in a pleasant joyous mood. Joy in serving God is conducive to the prophetic influx. It is for this reason that the prophets often made use of music in attaining vision.

Even with every possible preparation and meditation, no prophet has enough control over his spiritual being to have a vision at will. Although a prophet may be in a state of readiness, a vision can only come when granted by God. However, even when a prophet is not granted a vision under such circumstances, he is granted an experience of the Divine.

The revelation of Moses was not prophecy, but a totally different, higher spiritual experience. Therefore, the limitations of other prophets did not apply to him.

Message for Others

Although revelation is primarily a gift to perfect the prophet himself, there are many instances in which a prophet is sent with a message to others.

When a prophet is sent a message for others, he must reveal it.

When a prophet is sent with a message for others, he is compelled to reveal it, even against his will. Jeremiah thus said, "If I say, 'I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name,' then there is a burning fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I struggle to hold it in, but I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9).

During the time of the first Temple, prophecy was very common in Israel. At times there were approximately a million people who had experienced prophecy.

Similarly, there were occasions when many people at once were granted prophetic experiences of God's presence, as by the Red Sea and at Sinai. It is thus taught that a common handmaid experienced a greater revelation at the Red Sea than Ezekiel did in his visions.

Prophetic Women

A prophet is usually shown concepts and ideas in symbolic form. Nevertheless, there were many prophecies that were destined to be preserved literally in the Bible. These were revealed to the prophet word for word. A prophet thus said, "[God's] word was in my mouth" (2-Samuel 23:2).

Every prophet expresses his prophecy in different language. The language of a prophet's revelation will usually reflect his own style of speech or writing.

Although many people had the gift of prophecy, the Bible only mentions those who had a message for all generations. There is a tradition that besides Moses and Aaron, there are 48 prophets mentioned in the Bible.

In many cases, women attained higher degrees of prophecy.

Just as many men experienced prophecy, so did many women. In many cases, they even attained higher degrees of prophecy than did men. There are seven prophetesses mentioned in the Bible: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Chana, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther.

There is a tradition that whenever a prophet's father is mentioned in the Bible, then the father is also a prophet. There is also a tradition that where a prophet's birthplace is not mentioned, he is a native of Jerusalem.

Historical Period

Prophecy lasted for 1,000 years in Israel, from the time of the Exodus (2448; 1313 BCE) until 40 years after building the Second Temple (3448; 313 BCE). The spirit of prophecy ceased that year when the last of the prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all died in a single month.

Prophecy is very difficult to attain when the Ark of the Covenant is not in its place in the Holy Temple. Therefore, when the Temple was destroyed and the Ark permanently concealed, prophecy became very difficult.

Moreover, prophecy can only exist in the Holy Land when it is inhabited by the majority of Israelites in the world. Therefore, when the majority of Israelites refused to return to the Holy Land in the time of Ezra, the land ceased to have its special status with respect to prophecy, and prophecy ceased to exist. However, it will be restored in the Messianic age, when the majority of Israelites once again live in the Holy Land.

Divine Inspiration: Part One

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.

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