God Chooses The Disadvantaged As Prophets – OpEd


Prophethood is a concept that is common to all three Abrahamic religions. Significant portions of the Qur’an, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible are dedicated to the words of the Jewish Prophets. Prophets who are given a divine book with a separate Shariah for Muslims or Halakah for Jews, are called “messengers”. So, every messenger is a prophet, but the great majority of prophets are not messengers.

God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all peoples, sends prophets to every nation without making any discrimination in race, language or nationality. As is clearly stated in the Quran:

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and your (skin) colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. (30:22) Also “There never was a people, without a warner having lived among them” (35:24); and “To every people (was sent) an apostle.” (10:47)

All prophets are special and devoted servants of God, but each prophet has a different personality and was chosen by God for a diversity of purposes to fulfill a specific duty and to convey to their people the divine decrees revealed to them. The prophets also differ in character traits, appearance and gender. Miriam, the sister of Prophets Moses and Aaron also was herself a Prophet (Torah Exodus 15:20), and Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14).
There is a long line of Biblical stories of God working through the “underdog” or the powerless. In Genesis, Jacob, the younger tent-dwelling son, becomes the namesake of the people of Israel, not his elder, warrior brother Esau. In fact, it was his mother Rebekah, not his father Isaac, who favored Jacob and successfully pressed for his advancement, despite living in a society in which men’s wishes were afforded greater attention.

Other examples abound in the Bible: Gideon is the youngest son of a small family when he is chosen by the angel to be a leader (Judges 6:15); Jephthah is the son not of his father’s wife but of a harlot who had been exiled by his brothers (Judges 11:1–2). 

Prophet David was the youngest son of Jesse, a small boy compared to his tall oldest brother, when Prophet Samuel chose him as the next leader (1 Samuel 16:6–12); and Prophet Solomon is the son of the woman with whom David committed adultery, and he is not David’s oldest son. 

Again and again, God chooses unlikely, disadvantaged, human beings as His instruments, either flipping systems of social power, or making it supremely clear that the true power belongs to God alone, or both. This was true from Prophet Abraham, who was a Hebrew immigrant (Genesis 14:13) to Prophet Muhammad who was an illiterate orphan.

Rahab, was a Canaanite convert who decided to join the Israelites and converted to Judaism. The rabbis claim that this once childless harlot marries Joshua himself, and gives birth to a line of prophets and priests. Talmud Megillah 14b lists 8 male prophets as her descendants, with the addition of a 9th—Huldah the prophetess, who was a prophetess mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings 22:14–20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22–28. 

All prophets are special and devoted servants of God, but each prophet has a different personality and was chosen by God for a diversity of purposes to fulfill a specific duty and to convey to their people the divine decrees revealed to them. The prophets also differ in character traits, appearance and gender. Miriam, the sister of Prophets Moses and Aaron was a Prophet (Torah Exodus 15:20), and Deborah (Judges 4:4) Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and  Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14).

However, all God’s prophets are the same in one specific way: they all have made a covenant with the One and Only God who created the universe. “When We took from (all) the Prophets their covenant, and from you (Muhammad), and from Noah, Ibrahim, Musa, and `Isa son of Maryam. We took from (the five of) them a (very) strong covenant. (33:7)

Some of the prophets God chose are very flawed human beings struggling to do God’s will (King David and Prophet Abraham’s grandson Prophet Jacob being the best known for their being courageous, cunning and crafty) and we can learn a great deal from their moral struggles and their spiritual outcomes.

Even the greatest of prophets like Abraham (who was God’s friend) and Moses (who God spoke to face to face) had flaws as Prophet Abraham said: “(Allah) Who, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the Day of Recompense.” (Qur’an 26:82) and Moses (“The Hebrew”) a man of his (Hebrew) party asked him for help against his (Egyptian) foe, so Moses struck him (the Egyptian slavedriver) with his fist and killed him. He (Moses) said: “This is of Satan’s doing, verily, he is a plain misleading enemy.” (Quran 28:15)

The Quran orders all Muslims to believe not only the Prophet of Islam, but also to believe all the other prophets sent to the thousands of tribes and nations preaching in 7,000+ languages in the world, and especially mentions the Abrahamic family of prophets and messengers: “Say ‘We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to (Messengers) Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in submission)’.” (Qur’an 2:136)

So, every Muslim has to believe in all the prophets sent before Prophet Muhammad in general; and in each of the prophets whose names are mentioned in the Quran in detail. It is clearly stated in the Quran that a prophet chosen from among each nation was sent to that nation (35:24; 10:47; and 17:15)

Professor Meira Z. Kensky of Coe College offers a very insightful article in the Times of Israel (November 18, 2021) that alerts us to how Prophet Jacob makes preparations in anticipation of meeting his long estranged, and perhaps violent, brother Esau. But we get a totally unexpected, wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious man at the ford of Jabbok. The Torah states: Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Genesis 32:25)

We get no introduction to this man, and we have had no preparation for this battle. This struggle  literally comes out of nowhere. Jacob prevails in the hours-long struggle, but he is wounded in the thigh (verse 26). The man tries to leave, but Jacob says he will not release him until the man blesses him (verse 27). Here is another unexpected situation where Jacob—though wounded—prevails, and Jacob intends to learn what it all means.

Rather than giving him a blessing, the man asks Jacob his name, and then he gives Jacob a new name (Genesis 32:29 “He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and you prevailed.”

This is what Professor Meira Z. Kensky calls a red flag moment, a signal from the Torah to pay very close attention. This encounter is the moment where Prophet Jacob receives the name that will become the name of the Jewish nation for the next 3,500 years.

This is the name used by both the Christian New Testament and the Muslim Qur’an. It also is a name which includes a shocking concept; “…for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

Since Jacob gets renamed Israel in this narrative, it is critical to think about what this narrative is saying about the People of Israel as a whole; as well as the Holy-land of Israel in particular. This nighttime encounter at the ford of the Jabbok river, is the eastern border of Canaan. The Jabbok is elsewhere marked by the Bible as a political boundary (Torah Numbers 21:24, Torah Deuteronomy 3:16) and becomes one of the boundaries of Israelite territory (Bible Judges 11:13-22).

By returning to the Land of Israel and crossing this river, Jacob, representing Israel, crosses from outside into the promised land. River crossings always leave those who cross over particularly vulnerable and the Torah narrative strands Jacob there alone, without servants or supporters. With Jacob representing the people of Israel, the narrative highlights how dangerous Israel’s coming back to Canaan was; how vulnerable to attack they were, and how nobody was there to support them.

“So when he (Prophet Abraham) turned away from them (his homeland’s idol worshippers) and from those whom they worshiped besides the one God, We gave him Isaac and Jacob and each one of them We made a prophet.” (Quran 19:49) “And We bestowed upon him Isaac and a grandson Jacob, and made each of them righteous.” (Quran 21:72) “… and of the descendants of Abraham and Israel, and of those whom We guided and chose.  When the verses of the Most Merciful were recited to them, they fell down prostrating and weeping.” (Quran 19:58)

In the Hebrew Bible, Prophet Abraham is the first person to be called a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb ‘to go over a boundary’— like the Euphrates or Jordan river— or ‘to be an immigrant.’ The first thing God told Prophet Abraham in the Biblical account was: “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name (Israel) great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Bible, Genesis 12:1-2)

So Prophet Abraham was what we can call the first ‘Islamic Hebrew’ or the first ‘Muslim Hebrew,’as the Qur’an indicates: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyaan, ‘a Christian,’ but rather a Haniifaan, ‘a submitter to God,’… (Quran, 3:67) i.e. ‘a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God’ who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel) into a great multitude of monotheists called the Children of Israel  —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic.

Professor Kensky maintains that all of this reminds us that the Jacob narrative stands in for the plight of Israel: the Jewish People must negotiate what it always has meant to be a small nation surrounded by larger, more powerful nations. This means using its wits and seeking every opportunity to survive and come out on the other side.

At the same time, Jacob must learn that his success comes not only because of being clever; but because of God’s help. Jacob, standing in for all of Israel, needs to be flexible and strategize  through a difficult life, and ultimately learn he cannot by himself control his fate, either at the Jabbok or beyond.

This unanticipated encounter at the Jabbok, with its ambiguity forces its audience of Israelites then and now, to confront the unpredictable nature of reality, and yet to trust in themselves and also to trust that with God’s help Israel (the Jewish People) will prevail.

“And remember Our servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (all) owners of strength (to struggle) and (gain more) of religious understanding.” (Quran 38:45) Since the Jacob narrative stands in for the plight of Israel: the Jewish People must always negotiate what it means to be a small monotheistic nation surrounded by larger, more powerful nations both then and now.

Several generations of oppression in a country whose King was considered Divine, requires Prophets like Abraham who begs to negotiate even with the One God of Space and Time in order to save the people of S’dom.

It requires prophets like King David who when publicly denounced as a murder and an adulterer by Prophet Nathan; does not kill Prophet Nathan; but shows he is contrite, and starts singing the songs of the Zubar-Psalms. For centuries Israel needed Prophets who would challenge powerful kings and priests.

Finally, the Arab tribes of Arabia lived for many centuries in a state of anarchy and tribal warfare. They needed an ideal leader like Prophet Muhammad to unite them.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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