The notion that there are people who claim to have heard the voice of God – and that it is wise to listen to them – might seem slightly far-fetched in our contemporary reality.
The biblical prophets spoke words and warnings from God from the margins of society to a population that was largely unprepared and unwilling to hear their message.
As contemporary readers, what are we to make of these figures, and the very idea of prophecy?
Many have asked what is the difference between prophecy and madness, such is our scepticism about the manner of prophetic revelation. What were these people really hearing? Was it actually God?
The anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann has studied people in our era who believe they hear God’s voice. She explains how life in a religious community conditions people to recognise key messages and values as God-like, such that they experience part of their mind and conscience as the voice and presence of God.
When people are steeped in religious teachings and ideas, they understand the appearance of such thoughts as not their own mind, but rather as God speaking within them.
Luhrmann’s research can help us understand what the dynamics of prophecy may have been in antiquity.
It is hard to believe that within historical memory there were individuals who were singled out for a particular revelatory experience.
Instead, we might view the prophets as individuals who, steeped in the teachings and principles of the God of the Torah, were sharply attuned to the value of those words to the world around them, and whose conscience drove them to speak the truth in their age.
- Deborah Blausten is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College