26. Degrees of Prophecy

Just as there are different types of prophecy, there are different degrees of intensity [II, 45]. However, while they are all degrees of prophecy, not all of these levels necessarily qualified one to be considered a prophet. The lowest two are merely steps on the way to attaining that status. (Sometimes such a person is referred to as a prophet because he received a degree of prophecy, but this person is not really a prophet. Imagine a person who goes to medical school and earns an MD but he does not go on have a residency or take his medical board exams. Such a person is a “doctor” but not a doctor.) Just as a prophet could receive more than one form of prophecy during their tenures, they could also receive prophecies on different levels.

The first degree of prophecy is the divine inspiration that a person might receive encouraging him in some noble endeavor. This influence is called “ruach Elohim,” “the spirit of God.” When it comes to people affected by this phenomenon, Scripture commonly uses such expressions as “the spirit of God rested on so-and-so,” or “God was with so-and-so.” The Judges, who led the nation before any kings of Israel were anointed, typically enjoyed this level of divine attention. (See, for example, Judges 2:18, 11:29, 14:19, et al.) The Rambam attributes this motivation to Moshe’s actions before becoming a full-fledged prophet, as well as to David’s actions. This level of prophecy does not move people to speak out on some matter; rather, it moves them to perform noble deeds. Of course, not everyone who succeeds in some great task was necessarily moved by “the spirit of God.” One way to tell is if the deeds lead to some spectacular outcome. For example, the way Joseph excelled in Potifar’s house was thanks to “the spirit of God,” seeing how it set in motion all that followed.

The second degree of prophecy is when a person is overcome by a feeling that moves him to words. He might compose songs of praise, discuss societal problems, or address his fellow men to improve their deeds. He does all these things while wide awake and fully aware. This is called “ruach hakodesh,” “the holy spirit.” While the Books of the Prophets, as the name suggests, were written with full-blown prophecy, the Books of the Writings (including Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and many others) were written with ruach hakodesh. King David, who composed the Book of Psalms, said, “The spirit of God spoke in me; His Word is on my tongue” (II Samuel 23:2), meaning that the spirit that rested upon him motivated him to compose those words. The 70 elders were also touched by ruach hakodesh, as per Numbers 11:25, “the spirit rested upon them, so they prophesized.” This is also the case of the High Priests who inquired of God by way of the Urim and Tumim; this was the result of ruach hakodesh.

David, Solomon and Daniel belong in the category of people motivated by ruach hakodesh rather than among such full-fledged prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. When David says, “The God of Israel spoke and said to me…” (II Samuel 23:3), he means that God sent him a message through a prophet. The same is true of Solomon in I Kings 11:11. However, when God spoke to Solomon in I Kings 3:5, it was not a prophecy at all, as verse 15 informs us that it was a dream. (This is different from the case of Jacob, who also spoke with God in a dream. Upon awakening, he recognized it as a prophecy (Genesis 28:16).) Daniel likewise received messages in prophetic dreams, as we see in Daniel 2:19, 7:1, 8:27, et al. Daniel and Solomon received dreams that contained accurate information, which is a form of ruach hakodesh. The pagan sorcerer Balaam also belongs in this category, as we see from such verses as Numbers 23:5, “God put a word in the mouth of Balaam.” When people refer to any of these people as prophets, it is only in the broadest sense of the word.

The third degree is the lowest level of actual prophecy: those who say things like “the Word of God came to me.” Such a prophet sees an allegory and its interpretation in a prophetic dream. Most of Zechariah’s prophecies are of this type.

In the fourth degree of prophecy, the prophet has a dream in which he hears the message quite distinctly but he cannot see the speaker. This was the type of prophecy first received by Shmuel (Samuel), as we discussed in the previous section.

In the fifth degree, a human being addresses the prophet in a dream. Ezekiel had some prophecies of this type. (See Ezekiel 40:4.)

The sixth degree of prophecy involves an angel addressing the prophet in a dream, as in Genesis 31:11, “An angel of God said to me in a dream….” This is the most common form of prophecy and most prophets experienced such a communication at one point or another.

In the seventh degree, the prophet has a dream in which it appears that God spoke to him. Isaiah had this kind of prophecy (Isaiah 6:8 – “I heard the voice of God, saying…”), as did Michayahu (I Kings 22:19 – “I saw God sitting on His throne…”).

In the eighth degree, the prophet is shown something allegorical in a vision (as opposed to in a dream). This is the kind of prophecy Abraham had “between the pieces” in Genesis chapter 15.

The ninth degree is when the prophet hears words in a vision. Abraham also experienced this, as per Genesis 15:4, “The word came to him, saying….”

In the tenth degree, the prophet sees a person speaking to him in a vision. Abraham experienced this form of prophecy (Genesis 18:1), as did Joshua (Joshua 5:13).

The eleventh and final degree of prophecy is when an angel speaks to the prophet in a vision. Abraham experienced this at the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:15). Excluding the level of prophecy that was unique to Moshe, this is the highest level to which a prophet could aspire.

You will note that in dreams, a prophet could perceive being addressed by a person, an angel, or God Himself (levels #5, 6 and 7, respectively). In a vision, he could only perceive being addressed by a person or an angel (levels #10 and 11). There is not a level in which a prophet perceives God in a vision as this exceeds a person’s optimal imaginative capabilities. God tells us as much when He says, “In a vision I make Myself known to him; in a dream I speak to him” (Numbers 12:6). God may make Himself known to prophets through visions but He will only speak to them in dreams.

The Rambam suggests that when God is said to speak to a prophet in a vision, we can assume that the prophet started out having a vision but that he subsequently lapsed into a dream state. We see this explicitly in the case of Abraham, who was already having a vision (in Genesis chapter 15) when a deep sleep overcame him (in verse 12 of that chapter).

Following this reasoning, the Rambam offers an alternative approach in which he differentiates between dreams and visions as follows: a prophet can only hear words in a dream; in a vision, he can only perceive allegories. If we follow this approach, the number of degrees of prophecy collapses to eight, with all forms of vision constituting a single level.