Communications from God. The term refers both to divine responses to a question asked of God and to pronouncements made by God without His being asked. In one sense, oracles were prophecies since they often referred to the future; but oracles sometimes dealt with decisions to be made in the present. Usually, in the Bible the communication was from Yahweh, the God of Israel. In times of idol worship, however, Israelites did seek a word or pronouncement from false gods (Hosea 4:12). Many of Israel's neighbors sought oracles from their gods.
Although the word oracle is not very frequent in the Old Testament, oracles were common in that period. This difference occurs because the Hebrew words translated “oracle” may also be translated as “burden,” “saying,” “word,” etc. Translations are not consistent in how they render these Hebrew words. Both the NRSV and the NAS translate the same Hebrew word as “oracle” in
Numbers 24:3, but it is rendered “declare” in
1 Samuel 2:30.
Jeremiah 23:33-34 makes a play on a Hebrew word which may be translated either “burden” or “oracle.” The NAS uses “oracle,” but the NRSV and KJV use “burden.” Moreover, in the KJV the English word oracle is used to refer to the holy of holies in the Temple.
Concordance study shows the following meaning and use of “oracle.” Sometimes “oracle” refers to the whole of a prophetic book (Malachi 1:1 NRSV) or a major portion of one (Habakkuk 1:1 NRSV). In Isaiah, several smaller prophecies of judgment or punishment are called “oracles” (Isaiah 13:1 NRSV;
Isaiah 14:28 NRSV). The NRSV also entitles
Zechariah 9:1 and
Zechariah 12:1 “An Oracle.” Specific sayings about God's judgment on Joram (2 Kings 9:25 NRSV) and Joash (2 Chronicles 24:27 NRSV) are also called oracles. Other examples, although the word oracle is not used, include Elijah's word to Ahab (1 Kings 21:17-19) and Elisha's word to Jehoram (2 Kings 3:13-20). On the basis of these kinds of usages, many Bible students understand oracles to be divine words of punishment or judgment. However, Balaam's oracle (Numbers 24:3-9) is a blessing. Also references to Ahithophel's counsel (2 Samuel 16:23) and to oracles in Jerusalem which were pleasing but false (Lamentations 2:14) show us that prophetic pronouncements were not always negative.
The New Testament does not reflect quite the same use of oracles or the word oracle as does the Old. The early church did have prophets like Agabus (Acts 21:10-11), who expressed God's word regarding what was to come. The word oracles in the New Testament most often refers to the teachings of God in the Old Testament (Acts 7:38;
Romans 3:2). It may refer to Christian teachings, too (Hebrews 5:12).
Why Were Oracles Given? We must distinguish between oracles that were sought and those that came without any request. The first kind might be called “decision oracles.” The second kind will be referred to as “pronouncement oracles.” Decision oracles came when people asked God a question or sought His counsel. For example, David needed to know the right time to attack the Philistines. So he asked God. The answers he received were oracles (2 Samuel 5:19,2 Samuel 5:23-24). Saul, the first king of Israel, was chosen through an oracle (1 Samuel 10:20-24). In that case, the communication from God was through the casting of lots. The falling of the lots was considered an oracle from God. Decision oracles, then, were God's response to questions and concerns in the present. They did not condemn sin or predict the future in any specific sense.
Pronouncement oracles were God's word to a situation or a person even though no word (from God had been sought. (But, see comments below on Balaam's oracle.) The pronouncement oracles were sometimes brief as when Elijah foretold a drought in Israel (1 Kings 17:1). The message could be long; thus the whole Book of Malachi is a pronouncement oracle. This kind of oracle usually told what was going to happen. It also frequently condemned sin. It expressed God's view of present acts or circumstances. In that sense, many of the prophecies in the Old Testament were pronouncement oracles. Because they were God's word, these pronouncements were true, even though they could be changed as in the case of Jonah's pronouncement over Nineveh (Jonah 3:4-9).
Pronouncement oracles were given to produce an effect. People were to hear and to change their ways. With that in mind, the pronouncement oracles against foreign nations form a special group. Many of the writing prophets have pronouncements against (or concerning) nations surrounding Israel (Amos 1:1;
Jeremiah 46-51). These foreign nations had little chance to hear and heed the word of an Israelite prophet. Other nations had their own gods and their own prophets. Apparently, the pronouncements over foreign nations were intended to have an effect on the people of Israel as well as bring about the events described. At times, Israel or Judah heard their name included among foreign nations (for example,
Amos 2:4-16). God cared for the other nations even though they cared little for Him. God's expression of concern by pronouncing judgment (or salvation as in
Isaiah 19:19-22) was intended to remind Israel of her mission to share God with others. At least, these words reminded the hearers of God's international, even universal, power and expectations.
Balaam's oracle (Numbers 24:1) is a special case. Balak sought a pronouncement through the prophet Balaam. Balak's intention was to curse or to pronounce judgment on the Israelites. God did not allow this but gave Balaam an oracle of blessing to pronounce. Balaam's oracle, then, was positive and sought—a positive pronouncement oracle. The seeking of a pronouncement like this may have been more common than we know. Oracles came either in response to human questions or when God wished to make His views known to produce a change.
How Were Oracles Given or Received? Oracles were given through special people. Although anyone could seek a word from God and many, such as Gideon or Abraham, received an oracle directly; these divine communications usually came through either priests, prophets, or prophetesses. These two groups seemed to have their own specific ways of receiving oracles. In the earlier period, priests were more often sought out to receive a word from God. Later, the prophets were more prominent. Of course, for a long period both functioned as intermediaries. One caution about prophets and their pronouncements must be made. Often the prophets were not prophets until they received God's word (consider Amos' experience in
Amos 7:14-15). The word came to some reluctantly as in the case of Jeremiah. God's giving of an oracle to a man or woman made them a prophet; for, when the divine word came, the prophet had to speak (Amos 3:8).
Different methods were used by priests and prophets to receive the two forms of oracles, although we should not try to make too rigid a distinction. Decision oracles often came through the use of objects. Examples of such objects include the High Priest's Urim and Thummim and the ephod. Lots, too, were used. See Urim and Thummim; Ephod; Lots.
Decision oracles could also come through a person without the use of any objects. David sought the Lord's will at the point of building a temple. His answer came through Nathan, the prophet (2 Samuel 7:1). In
1 Kings 22:1, a dramatic conflict arose while the kings of Judah and Israel together sought a decision oracle. No objects were used in this case. The drama came from a true prophet receiving one answer regarding the decision and a large number of false prophets giving a different answer. Prophets did sometimes use music as a means of receiving a decision oracle as did Elisha (2 Kings 3:15). However, the exact way music was used is unclear to us.
Frequently, the Old Testament gives no indication as to how God communicated His pronouncement oracles to His prophet or priest. Careful reading of the Old Testament shows a variety of methods in use. Audition—the actual hearing of a voice—and visions undoubtedly played a part in the receiving of God's words. We cannot know how much of God's revelation came through the actual ear or eye or how much came through the mind. Balaam spoke when the Spirit came upon him (Numbers 24:2). He described himself as one whose eye was opened, one who heard God's word and saw His vision. Nahum and Habakkuk wrote of a vision or of seeing their oracles (Nahum 1:1;
Habakkuk 1:1). Through Jeremiah, God condemned those prophets who relied on dreams to receive an oracle (Jeremiah 23:23-32). However, Solomon earlier had received God's pronouncement in a dream (1 Kings 3:5.). Several times God used scenes which the prophet saw as a means of giving a pronouncement oracle. Some of the scenes were external (Jeremiah 18:1-12), and some were visionary (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The frequent use of sights in pronouncements has led some to believe that the prophets had encounters with God that later they had to interpret and communicate to others.
Regardless of how the oracle came, it was to be expressed to others. This expression seems most often to have been oral. The priest or prophet told the oracle to either the individual or a group. The place may have been in a field or a king's throne room. The pronouncement oracles were often proclaimed in the city, even in a temple (Amos in Bethel and Jeremiah in Jerusalem). Many of the oracles, though, give us no indication of where or when they were spoken.
Oracles which were not simply yes or no seem most often to have been given in poetic form. This is especially true of the pronouncements of the writing prophets which have been preserved for us. Though given orally in the beginning, at some time the pronouncement oracles were written down. They may have been written by disciples of the prophet or by others who heard. They may have been written when they were first told or at a later time. Whatever the case, the oracles were given by God and preserved for us.
How Did People Respond to the Oracles? Again, a distinction should be made between the decision and the pronouncement oracles. Those who were seeking God's help or counsel in a decision-making process undoubtedly acted on what they learned. Others, who heard oracles they had neither sought nor welcomed, may not have been as quick to accept the pronouncement (consider Elijah's words to Ahab,
1 Kings 21:20-24). Most often the response of those who heard or read the oracles of God can be guessed at. Two points should be recognized. First, oracles were remembered long after their pronouncement. When Jehu killed Joram (2 Kings 9:25), he had the body taken to Naboth's vineyard in order that an oracle pronounced in Ahab's day might be fulfilled. Second, though we do not know the response of the original hearers, God's pronouncements are still being read and are producing change in people in our day. Thus, the oracles are still functioning. See Inspiration; Priest; Prophet; Spirit.