Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” Genesis 20.6-7.
It would make a good question for a Bible quiz — Who is the first person in the Bible to be called a prophet? The answer lies in this morning’s reading and it is … Abraham! For in the two verses quoted above God is speaking to Abimelech, the king of Gerar (an important caravan centre on the border between Canaan and Egypt) and “the man’s wife” who has to be “returned” is Sarah, the wife of Abraham, whom Abimelech has taken into his harem in the mistaken belief (fostered by Abraham) that she is Abraham’s sister.
So what exactly is a “prophet”? The Hebrew word nabiy that is used here has the primary meaning of “spokesperson”. This becomes clear when (over 500 years later) God tells Moses: “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land” (Exodus 7.1-2). Though a prophet is commonly thought of as someone who foretells the future, these words of God to Moses show that that is not an essential element of prophecy at all. A prophet’s role is simply to communicate to others what has been communicated to him, and if he or she does foretell things (as many prophets do), it will simply be because the message that God has given to him or her happens in that particular instance to relate to the future.
I note with interest that, according to this morning’s passage, Abraham will be functioning as a prophet when he prays for Abimelech and the prayer is answered. To unpack that … Abraham will hear God tell him what to pray and he will then pray it; and because it is a prayer that God has put into Abraham’s mouth it is a prayer that cannot not be answered. How I would love more of my prayers to be prophetic prayers … spokesperson prayers where God puts the prayer on my lips because he is already committed to answering it once I have prayed it.
Indeed, as I contemplate the start of 2009 in about fifteen hours time, I think my greatest wish for the new year is that I might be more of a prophet … that I might hear God more clearly and pass on more clearly what he gives me to say. I recall Isaiah — “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people …'” (Isaiah 6.8-9).
The ability to be a spokesperson for God is something that Paul specifically urges me to wish for and to pray for: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Corinthians 14.1-4).
Lord Jesus, in this year ahead please make me a clearer and more consistent voice of encouragement and consolation to your people everywhere, building up your church throughout the world as I pass on to it the words of life that you will give me to say. Amen.