Old Testament Prophets

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


Just wondering: how were the Old Testament prophets were recognized as prophets by the people? Did they dress in a certain way? Example: How did the widow of Zeraphath know Elijah was a prophet when he went to stay with her? It seems she recognized him. And how did the Shunnamite woman know Elisha was a "man of God"? Did word just get around because of what they were doing?


The issue of prophets and prophecy is a favorite topic of many scholars because so little is known about them and their work. Most agree that a prophet was someone who received a call from God and was a spokesperson for God. Known prophets were also models of godliness for the community. On the other hand, many times they delivered messages of judgment for Israel and/or the other nations. Not surprisingly, those prophetic messages were oftentimes rejected, and those prophets were badly received.

That does not appear to be the case, however, for Elijah and Elisha. The division of the kingdom had already occurred and, according to the Biblical account, the northern kings were “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.” King after king followed the practices of their fathers, which included the worship of other gods. Ahab took over in the mid-ninth century BCE. Without warning, Elijah, the Tishbite, approached him one day and said, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years.”

His words were true: there was no rain, and the brook dried up. At that point, the Lord directed Elijah to Zarephath, telling him, “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” When he arrived, he saw a widow gathering sticks and called out to her, asking for a drink of water. As she turned to comply, he also asked for a piece of bread.

That called for a response. She said, “As surely as the LORD your God lives, I don’t have any bread.” Perhaps Elijah was testing her. But he also reassured her saying, “Don’t be afraid…The God of Israel says, ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run out.’ ” She did what Elijah asked, and they had food every day from then on. After Elijah saved her son, the woman said, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” Though the details are scant, it is not clear that they had any initial expectations of each other. Elijah’s request was outrageous in a time of hardship; yet, she responded kindly. The rest, as they say, is history.

Needless to say, however, Elijah’s reputation soared. In 2 Kings 1, he intercepted the king’s messengers who were on their way to get advice from a different prophet. They returned to the king and described the Prophet who had spoken to them: “He had a garment of hair and a leather belt around his waist.” The king’s immediate response was, “That was Elijah, the Tishbite.” That is one of the few instances in which any physical description is given.

As for Elisha, the story tells us that God told Elijah to anoint him as his prophetic successor. Elisha was plowing fields when Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha followed willingly. Though profoundly influenced by Elijah, Elisha eventually came into his own, performing twice as many miracles as Elijah. Unlike Elijah who usually worked alone, Elisha surrounded himself with others. He also traveled extensively, observing how people lived and helping them as the need arose.

One such instance occurred in Shunem. A wealthy woman was particularly hospitable, insisting that he eat with her and her husband. The couple was so pleasant that eventually it became part of his routine. She identified him as a “man of God,” and convinced her husband to build a small room for him that would be ready whenever he came to town.

Some time later, Elisha offered to repay her kindness by putting in a good word with the king or providing some other favor. She declined his offer, saying she was very content. But Elisha’s servant told him that they longed for a child. Elisha told her they would have a child in a year’s time. Years later, the child fell ill and died. Laying the child on Elisha’s bed, she went out to find him. The story ends with Elisha restoring her son’s life, much like Elijah had done earlier with the widow’s son in Zarephath.

The only physical description ever given about Elisha is that he was bald (see 2 Kings 2:23). Clearly, he was a man who did a lot of good. He had a steady ministry, moving among the people and providing service. People knew where to find him if they needed help. For decades, he served the people of Israel. He shared their blessings as well as their hardships. Through it all, he lived a consecrated life as a “man of God.” No doubt, that’s how people knew who he was.

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