On being God’s prophet

Here is a series of reflections on the “emptying out” that so often—necessarily?—precedes the giving of God’s word to a prophet. And maybe more than a prophet, as well. Here, for instance is how Amos was called (Amos 7:14,15)

14 ‘I am not a prophet,’ Amos replied to Amaziah, ‘nor do I belong to a prophetic brotherhood. I am merely a herdsman and dresser of sycamore-figs. 15But Yahweh took me as I followed the flock, and Yahweh said to me, “Go and prophesy to my people Israel.”

And, at the other end of the historical chain, and (conveniently) at the other end of the alphabet, we have Zechariah. (1:1)

In the second year of Darius, in the eighth month, the word of Yahweh was addressed to the prophet Zechariah (son of Berechiah), son of Iddo, as follows…

The Hebrew word translated “prophet” is navi. I knew that. Here, by the courtesy of Wikipedia, is something I did not know and since I understand it only superficially, I will just pass it along to you as factual.

Thus, the navi was thought to be the “mouth” of God. The root nun-bet-alef (“navi”) is based on the two-letter root nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself “open.”

In Deuteronomy 18, God says “…I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.” Consider that if the principal meaning of nun-bet is “hollow,” i.e., empty. Now consider it if the principal meaning is “open,” i.e. not closed.

Think of it this way. If you are sitting in a plane that is not taking off. Why is it not taking off? There is a problem, let’s say, with two of the cargo hatches. The first one has the door stuck shut and no one can open it. Inside, it is empty and would carry all the cargo anyone needs. The second one opens up very nicely, but it is already full.

One is hollow (but closed); one is open (but full). You see the problem. That particular plane is not going to be God’s prophet under either condition. It may very well be that the root nun-bet means either hollow or open, but in the cargo scenario, we can see that both hollow and open are going to be required.

Let’s just set that aside and consider some examples, some biblical, some cinematic.


nabi 1Here, for instance, is Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in the movie, Ghost. Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) has been killed in a holdup gone bad. He knows who killed him, but he cannot communicate it to Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), his fiancé. For that, he needs someone who is “open to the spirit world.” Notice “open.” She is not empty, or “hollow,” however. She is a con artist who has pretended to be a “spiritual advisor” for many years. Pretending to have this gift is her con; she has no idea she really has it.

When Sam discovers that Oda Mae can hear him, he bullies her into going downtown and finding Molly and telling her what happened. He needs for her to say exactly what he is telling her to say. And she does do that, at first. She wants to get it over with so she can go home.

But there is also a status in this “prophet thing.” She kind of likes being asked questions that only she has the answer to. Now she “has the answer” in the sense that she repeats what Sam tells her. If Sam had been speaking Russian, Oda Mae could have repeated all the sounds and Molly would have understood their meaning, even though Oda Mae would not have understood what she had said.

But “having the answer” is seductive. Oda Mae can seem, in her conversation with Molly,nabi 3 to be an expert on things spiritual. “Why is he still here?” Molly wonders, having been persuaded by Oda Mae that she can hear Sam. “I don’t know,” says Sam. It is a line only Oda Mae and the viewers can hear. “He’s stuck, that’s what it is,” says Oda Mae. “He’s in between worlds. You know it happens sometimes that spirit gets yanked out so quick that the essence still feels it has work to [on] here.”

Oda Mae knows none of that. She was closed, as in one of the senses of the nun-bet complex. Then Sam forced his way in. [1] And she was empty. There were, in her, only Sam’s words and only she could hear them. But she didn’t stay empty. She became what we would call a false prophet—saying what has not been given to her to say—but which I am sure she would call “a true prophet plus.” She continues to say what Sam tells her to say and then she says more. What could it hurt?

A scene or so later, Molly shows us what it looks like to do it right. She goes to the police as Sam (through Oda Mae) asked her to and she tells them exactly what Sam told her to say and no more. She is ridiculed. Oda Mae has a long record of convictions and nabi 2incarcerations. That’s reality for the police. There are still discrepancies in Molly’s account to be accounted for. No one like the person the police know Oda Mae to be could possibly have known the things Molly describes. On a better day, that might have stopped the cops and made them wonder. This cop was compassionate, unlike his fellow officer at the next desk, but Oda Mae has a record and the actual killer, Willy Lopez, does not. End of story.



Was Jesus “empty” after he had “emptied himself?” (Philippians 2:8). Theologically, there is a lot riding on it. This hymn, called “the kenosis passage” [2] is of interest in this context only because the Christ, having emptied himself, was empty, but he didn’t stay empty. [3] He learned obedience…through his sufferings.” (Hebrews 5:8). Unlike Oda Mae, he didn’t improvise “new truths.” Even in John, at the very highest of the gospel christologies, Jesus says, “In all truth, I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing; he can do only what he sees the Father doing.”


Although it would be saying a good deal too little to say of Jesus that he was only a prophet, it would not be too much to say that having emptied himself, he remained open to God’s word to him and he said what God told him to say. Saying that and only that is very much within the prophetic tradition. Oda Mae Brown, by contrast who, having been forcibly opened (the Henry the 8th song) and found to be empty, did not stay empty. [4]  She really liked the prophetess role and pushed it as far as it would go. She didn’t say what Sam told her to say and nothing more, as a prophet in the nun-bet tradition would.
[1] He sang “I’m Henry the 8th, I am” day and night until Oda Mae agreed to help him.
[2] The Greek kenóo means “to empty,” and it is an aorist tense verb meaning that the action occurred only once, even though the effects may continue.
[3] An interesting example of the same process, with inside and outside reversed (but the problem, i.e. Incarnation, remaining the same) is Sir Robin the Brave in The Muppets Frog Prince. Because of an evil enchantment, Sir Robin is still himself on the inside, but he is a little frog on the outside. His task is to convince the other frogs, especially Kermit, that the discrepancy between inside and outside does not mean what he thinks it means.

[4]  Moses had that same trouble, you will recall.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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