Claims of prophethood have existed in many cultures through history, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and many others. Prophets are traditionally regarded as having a role in society that promotes change due to their messages and actions which often convey God's displeasure concerning the behavior of the people.
In Hebrew, the word נָבִיא (nāvî), "spokesperson", traditionally translates as "prophet". The second subdivision of the Hebrew Bible, TaNaKh (for "Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim"), is devoted to the Hebrew prophets. The meaning of navi is perhaps described in Deuteronomy 18:18, where God said, "...and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him." Thus, the navi was thought to be the "mouth" of God. The root nun-bet-alef ("navi") is based on the two-letter root nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself "open". Cf. Rashbam's comment to Genesis 20:7.
In addition to writing and speaking messages from God, Israelite or Jewish nevi'im ("spokespersons", "prophets") often acted out prophetic parables in their life. For example, in order to contrast the people’s disobedience with the obedience of the Rechabites, God has Jeremiah invite the Rechabites to drink wine, in disobedience to their ancestor’s command. The Rechabites refuse, wherefore God commends them. Other prophetic parables acted out by Jeremiah include burying a linen belt so that it gets ruined to illustrate how God intends to ruin Judah's pride. Likewise, Jeremiah buys a clay jar and smashes it in the Valley of Ben Hinnom in front of elders and priests to illustrate that God will smash the nation of Judah and the city of Judah beyond repair. God instructs Jeremiah to make a yoke from wood and leather straps and to put it on his own neck to demonstrate how God will put the nation under the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In a similar way, the prophet Isaiah had to walk stripped and barefoot for three years to illustrate the coming captivity, and the prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his side for 390 days and eat measured food to illustrate the coming siege.
The prophetic assignment is not always portrayed as positive in the Hebrew Bible, and prophets were often the target of persecution and opposition. God’s personal prediction for Jeremiah, "Attack you they will, overcome you they can't," was performed many times in the biblical narrative as Jeremiah warned of destruction of those who continued to refuse repentance and accept more moderate consequences. In return for his adherence to God’s discipline and speaking God’s words, Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet. Likewise, Isaiah was told by his hearers who rejected his message, "Leave the way! Get off the path! Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel!" The life of Moses being threatened by Pharaoh is another example.
According to I Samuel 9:9, the old name for navi is ro'eh, רֹאֶה, which literally means "Seer". That could document an ancient shift, from viewing prophets as seers for hire to viewing them as moral teachers. Allen (1971) comments that in the First Temple Era, there were essentially seer-priests, who formed a guild, divined, performed rituals and sacrifices, and were scribes, and then there were canonical prophets, who did none of these (and were against divination) and had instead a message to deliver. The seer-priests were usually attached to a local shrine or temple, such as Shiloh, and initiated others as priests in that priesthood: it was a mystical craft-guild with apprentices and recruitment. Canonical prophets were not organised this way. The similar term ben-navi ("son of the prophet") means "member of a seer-priest guild".