Oracle (in the Bible)

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The Israelites, like other ancient peoples, asked (Heb. šāal: Nm 27.21; Jgs 1.1; 20.22; 1 Sm 10.22; 23.2;30.8; 2 Sm 2.1; 5.19; or dāraš: Gn 25.2223; 1 Sm 9.9; 1 Kgs 22.8, 1423;2 Kgs 22.1819) their God for information about imminent matters of personal or national importance or about future events. Yahweh answered in most cases through officially recognized persons (priests, seers, prophets, etc.) and in different oracular ways that were dignified and worthy of His nature and revelation. He condemned practices that were too base or humanistic, or that placed Him as one among equals or even as the chief one of many gods.

One of the principal functions of the priests was to utter oracles (Dt 33.8), and this type of oracle was called tōrāh, "instruction law" (Jer 18.18). Thus, Moses was often approached to inquire of God for the people and make known His decisions (Ex 18.1516; 33.711). The high priest through the urim and thummim (Ex 28.30;

Lv 8.8) or the ephod (1 Sm 23.612; 30.78) gave divine answers. The Levite priest of Micah was consulted by the Danites for a divine decision (Jgs 18.56). Levitical priests were to try difficult cases at God's chosen sanctuary, and disobedience to their decisions carried the death penalty (Dr 17.812). There was also a common custom of casting lots, and this was regarded at times as indicating the divine will (1 Sm 14.3842; Acts 1.26).

The seer (Heb. rōeh ) and the prophet (Heb. nābî' ) also were consulted for divine decisions; e.g., the seer Samuel (1 Sm 9.9; 11.1820), and the Prophets Nathan (2 Sm 7.17), Elijah (1 Kgs 18.3639), Elisha (2 Kgs8.715), Isaiah (Is 38.16), and Micaiah, son of Imlah (1 Kgs 22.728). Even without its being requested, their pronouncements and writings were regarded as words or oracles of Yahweh. The technical term for an oracle of a prophet is n e'ūm yhwh, literally "pronouncement of Yahweh." It occurs 361 times in the Hebrew OT, mostly in the books of the "writing" Prophets, where it generally stands at the end of a short oracle given in Yahweh's name, traditionally rendered in English as "Thus says the Lord." It serves as a sort of signature guaranteeing the authenticity of the oracle.

Bibliography: a. barucq, Dictionnaire de la Bible supplement, ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 6:775787.

[j. e. steinmueller]