I would imagine most of us are pretty familiar with Moses as the guy who led the Israelites out of slavery, or Moses the guy who went up on Mount Sinai. But maybe what we're not as familiar with is the fact that in the Bible Moses is often described as a prophet. In fact, he was the model/prototype prophet of the Old Testament. God said that he would raise up others like him (Deuteronomy 18:14-15), which is why in John 1:19-23, the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask John the Baptist if he was the Prophet, a reference to Moses. Moses proclaimed his message using the dual avenues of critique and hope, casting a vision for a different reality.
A Prophet's Two Part Approach
It’s worthwhile to look for a moment at the role and ministry of the prophet in the Ancient Near East. Prophets were not mere fortune-tellers. The primary role of a prophet in any ancient Near Eastern culture, including Israel, was to declare a message, or “oracle,” from a deity. Therefore the role of biblical prophets was to pass along oracles from Yahweh. Although these messages sometimes had a future outlook, that future was always discussed with an eye to the present. A prophet’s message was never simply forecasting for the sake of knowing the future; it was an urgent critique of the present coupled with a vision of things to come.
Walter Brueggemann, whose work The Prophetic Imagination, a rich meditation on the role of the prophet, contends that
“the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
Awakening our consciousness and perception can be done using a dual approach. The first part of the approach involves issuing a critique of the current situation on two grounds: social (how the current situation negatively effects people) and theological (how the current situation displeases God).
The second part of the prophetic approach offers hope for an alternate, better situation in the future. Critique and hope together motivate people to work toward this alternative. The scriptures demonstrate again and again the power of this pattern to move people out of their apathy and toward worship of God.
Moses Delivers a Social and Theological Critique
To Pharaoh, the critique delivered by Moses contained both the social and theological directive. The social one is easy to identify: God’s people would no longer be slaves; they would instead be formed into an independent, self-governing entity. In other words, “Let my people go.” Then Moses issued the theological critique, showing through the ten plagues that the Egyptian deities did not have the power or freedom to act as the Egyptians believed they could. This is important because the social situation, the enslavement of the Hebrews, was directly connected to the Egyptian religious system. For Egyptians of the period, Pharaoh was regarded as the manifestation of the sun god. His power was absolute. At the lowest rung of Egyptian society were shepherds, and sheep herding was the traditional livelihood of the Hebrew people. So the enslavement of Hebrews arose logically from Egypt’s religious system and was manifest in their social structure.
Brueggemann claims the theological cause at stake here is the freedom of Yahweh. In order to challenge Pharaoh, Moses had to issue a critique of Egypt’s gods, which included Pharaoh himself. When Pharaoh didn’t respond to the social directive by freeing the Israelites, God used the plagues as a judgement against him and all of Egypt’s gods. Only the freedom of Yahweh could result in the freedom of the Israelites.
Prophets after Moses also motivated people toward an alternative reality via this two-part approach: critique and hope. This duality is present in much of the Old Testament as God makes covenants with Israel and prepares them for the coming of the Messiah. Old Testament prophets continually critique Israel’s (and other nations’) sin and social problems, and hold forth visions of change and blessing to motivate faithfulness. The first twelve chapters of Isaiah offer a clear example of this pattern. The book cycles back and forth between calling Israel to repent of her unfaithfulness to God, and offering her a new vision of restoration and hope.
Reflect on the Past, Move toward Hope
Vision begins with looking back. Brueggemann argues that
“the prophet is rooted in energizing memories, summoned by radical hope. The church,” he says, “has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.”
Thus we must begin by looking at the work God has done in the past. This means reviewing Scriptural narratives of God’s power and work again and again. It also means that we must think back on God’s work in our own stories. This can be done corporately, by discussing current ways God is bringing his kingdom in our midst. It can also be done privately by reflecting on our own histories and experiences. Recalling God’s faithfulness in the past emboldens us to respond to the vision of new reality and to change.
But we do well to acknowledge that hoping for change is hard. At the risk of making generalizations, we tend to ridicule hope. For many of us, both believers and unbelievers, hope is countercultural. We can always draw on our experiences to show us that hope is a risk. It’s much easier to forget what God has done for us and accept our lot than it is to hope for something new. Brueggemann calls it “the depreciation of memory and the ridicule of hope.”
The prophet demands that, mindful of God’s work in the past, we push through our fear and embrace hope. Like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea and saw their enemies defeated, we crave the joy of a new vision. Like the prophets, we must critique passivity and forgetfulness. We must rehearse God’s work in the past. We must grasp a vision for the alternate reality God offers. If we can effectively ponder the ways God is working, the natural result is heartfelt praise.