[b-hebrew] 'Prophesying' 1 Samuel 18:10

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Tue Jul 6 11:55:45 EDT 2004

On 05/07/2004 04:42, Harold R. Holmyard III wrote:

> Dear Brian,
>> Another question from 1 Samuel.
>> In verse 10 of chapter 18, the Hebrew says that Saul was 
>> 'prophesying' in his house. What exactly does this means in this 
>> situation?
>> We have already been told in 1 Samuel 16:14 that the Spirit of God 
>> had already left Saul, and yet the Spirit of God is generally 
>> considered to be a necessary pre-requisite for a prophet in the 
>> Hebrew scriptures.
>> Most of the more literal translations of this passage in English use 
>> the word 'prophesying', but three of the more 'dynamic' translations 
>> [Good News, New Living & Contemporary English] use a phrase like 
>> 'raving like a madman'. Is there good justification for this, or is 
>> it a case of trying to force an acceptable translation based on 
>> theological presuppositions that someone without the Spirit of God 
>> couldn't prophesy?
> HH: This is the verb NB) in the Hithpael. Here below are the places 
> where it occurs. You can look at them yourself. The Dictionary of 
> Classical Hebrew gives "rave" as the meaning for the verb at 1 Sam 
> 18:10. Note the possible association of the verb with madness:
> Jer. 29:26  'The LORD has appointed you priest in place of Jehoiada to 
> be in charge of the house of the LORD; you should put any madman who 
> acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.
> HH: The Hebrew in Jer 29:26 for "madman who acts like a prophet" is 
> two participles linked by the waw conjunction. There is some 
> legitimate prophecy in the list below, but there is also a good deal 
> of false prophecy, which sometimes involves raving type activities:
> 1Kings 18:29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic 
> prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no 
> response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
> HH: There are also a considerable number of one-time prophetic 
> activities that resemble being possessed more than normal prophecy. 
> Since NB) in the Qal is the normal word for prophesy, the Hithpael may 
> carry some special flavor to it. "The Hithpael may denote esteeming or 
> presenting oneself in a state, sometimes without regard to the 
> question of truthfulness" (Waltke and O'Connor, _Biblical Hebrew 
> Syntax_, 26.2f). So somebody may pretend to be something. He may 
> present himself as something either truthfully or not truthfully.
Harold, I have reviewed your list of references and I am left far from 
convinced that there is anything inherently wrong in this kind of 
prophecy. It is sometimes used of false prophecy, of course. But there 
is a clear set of texts, mainly relating to earlier periods (from the 
Exodus to Saul), in which this kind of prophesying is something which 
happens when the Spirit of God comes upon someone, resulting in some 
kind of behaviour which is obvious to those around and identifiable as 
the work of God.

1 Samuel 18:10 is clearly a difficult verse. It requires some context:

16:14 RUAX YHWH had left Saul (QATAL), but RUAX RA`AH ME'ET YHWH was 
troubling him (WEQATAL)

16:23 RUAX 'ELOHIM would come upon Saul, but when David played RUAX 
HARA`AH would leave him (WEQATAL)

18:10 RUAX 'ELOHIM RA`AH came upon Saul (WAYYIQTOL) and (as a 
consequence?) he prophesied (hitpael, WAYYIQTOL), and David played for 
him, and he tried to kill David

19:9 RUAX YHWH RA`AH came upon Saul (WAYYIQTOL), and again David played 
for him and he tried to kill David

It is very difficult to explain this, especially if we try to use the 
categories of Christian and probably later Jewish theology. (If the 
Spirit of YHWH is the third person of the Trinity, how can he be RA`AH?) 
Are there two different spirits involved, or only one? And how does it 
relate to Saul's disobedience concerning the Amalekites (yes, them again)?

My own provisional take on this would be that (in the Hebrews' 
worldview) NB' hitpael is some kind of activity, more or less 
involuntary, which people start doing when they are taken over by a 
spirit, and is essentially the same whether that spirit is good or evil, 
because the spirits are essentially the same kind of being. Before 
16:14, e.g. in 10:10, a good or holy spirit had come upon Saul and his 
"prophesying" was something positive. But from 16:14 onwards (except for 
19:23,24 which are another puzzle) the spirit which came upon him was 
tormenting him and causing him fits of anger as when he twice threw a 
spear at David. But the symptoms of this evil spirit coming upon him are 
again described as NB' hitpael because they are basically the same symptoms.

As for what the symptoms are, we can only speculate. Maybe they were 
something like modern "speaking in tongues" which is attributed to the 
activity both of the Holy Spirit and of less holy spirits active in some 
traditional animistic religions.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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