‘Any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet shall die. And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?”—if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him”’ (Deut. 18:20–22).
This is a passage that would appear to have very little practical implications. Prophecy as an institution was absolutely critical to our Bible and to Biblical Israel. Since Moses was understood to have been the greatest of the prophets (Deut 34:10), without prophecy a large percentage of the Torah would be blank. Centuries after Moses’ death, the classical prophets—Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the others—articulated with enormous power and courage God’s condemnation of the failures of Israelite society to live up to its commitments under the covenant, especially with regard to its most vulnerable members. These prophets were unafraid to proclaim their criticisms even in the presence of kings. They were uncompromising in their predictions of disaster unless the people changed their course, and inspiring in their message of comfort and hope once the disaster occurred.
But all that was in the past. In the classical Jewish tradition, prophecy was consigned to ancient history: “After Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi died, the holy spirit [of direct divine inspiration] departed from Israel” (b. Sanhedrin 11a). And it would return in the future: a restoration of prophecy was understood to be an integral component of the messianic age. In the present post-biblical and pre-messianic era, anyone who claims to speak as a prophet is ipso facto assumed to be in the category of the false prophet described in the verses above. Indeed, some scholars believe that this was precisely the legal basis on which a High Court in Jerusalem condemned Jesus of Nazareth before his execution by the Romans.
But let’s unpack the underlying significance of this legislation. The prophet may be defined as someone who claims to have received a direct communication from God and is mandated to communicate that message to wider circles of the society. The premise is that God speaks to certain selected individuals in a manner that is not available to the vast majority.
How do we understand this assertion about God speaking? Is it in an audible voice that would be heard not just by the prophet but by someone standing next to him, a voice that could be recorded and transcribed by someone else? Clearly not, for then there could be no confusion about false prophecy. It must therefore be a form of communication that only the prophet can hear: mind to mind, very similar to what we mean when we say that we just had an important new idea.
This is where the problem begins. How could anyone be certain if that new idea really came from God? What happens if two people claim that they have received a message from God, which they must communicate to the world, but the two messages are incompatible, or contradictory? Would people listening to two individuals, both speaking in God’s name, have been able to distinguish who was the true prophet, and who deserved to be put to death according to our verses? Does the ‘false prophet’ know that he is fabricating a message and fraudulently attributing it to God? Or were those deemed to be ‘false prophets’ fully sincere, absolutely convinced that they were speaking God’s word, passionate about the importance of communicating it to others?
Commenting on Deuteronomy 18:21, Rashi noted that such a case of confusion actually occurred at a critical moment in the history of Judea. When Jeremiah prophesied in God’s name that the Temple is in danger of being destroyed and Jerusalem made into ‘a curse for all the nations’ (Jer. 26:6), he was seized by priests and other prophets, accused of prophesying falsely in God’s name and therefore being worthy of death. When the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, other prophets (following Isaiah more than a century earlier) said that God would not allow His holy city and His Temple to be violated; Jeremiah insisted that there was no purpose in resisting the besieging army, that the Judeans should submit and go into exile (Jer ? . When the first group of Judean leaders were taken to Babylon, other prophets said that the vessels of God’s house would be restored very soon; Jeremiah insisted that the exile would last a lifetime and that people should accommodate to life in Babylonia (Jer. 27: 12 -22).
Who could have known who was right at the time? The Torah provides an answer: if the oracle does not come true, it was said by a false prophet (Deut 18:22). But that would have been of no use to those in Jerusalem who had to decide whether to continue defending their city or to submit—with both positions eloquently urged by people who sincerely believed they were speaking God’s message. It is only in retrospect that the true prophet can be identified, and his words chosen to be included in the Sacred Scriptures. At the time, confusion would have reigned.
It was for this reason that the Rabbis of the Talmudic period decided that prophecy had ceased, that ‘the holy spirit departed from Israel’, centuries before their time. This was not a statement about God getting tired of talking. It meant simply, ‘We no longer accept the claim of direct communication from God as source of authority in our society.’ As we do not in ours. Our ground-rules are different, the rabbis were saying. If we want to know what God wants of us, the way to discover it is through a painstaking intellectual analysis of the classical texts of our tradition.
Unlike many of their Christian colleagues, rabbis today do not claim to be preaching ‘God’s word’ in their sermons. The religious life is not a response to hearing a voice that gives us clear directions. Study has replaced direct revelation, study that takes significant commitments of time and effort. There are times when ambiguity and uncertainty make our decisions painfully difficult. But—at least until the dawning of the messianic age—this is the best way we have for us to gain some understanding of what God demands of us in facing the anguishing challenges of the present.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.