A True Prophet - Reflections on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, January 22, 2024

A True Prophet

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Let me begin with a confession. I have on more than one occasion made serious fun of this passage of the Bible. And why not? The text announces that the way a prophet is to be judged as from YHWH or not is, on the surface at least, frankly unhelpful in the extreme. “How can we recognize a word that YHWH has not spoken?” says Deut.18:21. A quite reasonable and important question, to be sure. The answer? “If the prophet speaks in the name of YHWH but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a thing YHWH has not spoken” (Deut.18:22). Well, come on! Because none of us has a handy crystal ball to discern whether a “thing” spoken will or will not come true, such a criterion for judging whether a prophet is or is not sent by YHWH appears decidedly useless. What can the author of Deuteronomy be thinking by offering to us such a seemingly foolish way of evaluating prophets? 

          Note the context of the prophetic claim. God promises, through the mouth of Moses, that God will surely send to the people “prophets like me (Moses); you will pay attention to such prophets” (Deut.18:15). Though the NRSV has chosen to make the references to the future prophet singular—i.e. one prophet—the Hebrew plainly says “prophets,” plural. “Prophet” singular appears in vs.19 with the singular pronoun “he”. Of course, this text has long been employed by Christian readers as a prediction of the “prophet like Moses” that they assumed to be Jesus of Nazareth. Those plural nouns are not altogether helpful for such a reading, for if there will be several or many prophets of God to come, Jesus could be seen to be one among many. That will hardly do if Christians assume that Jesus is finally the only prophet like Moses that may be expected. Muslims have also read this passage as a predictor of the coming of Mohammed, for them a Moses-like prophet, and for them the only true prophet of Allah. 

          However that competing theology is to be adjudicated, the problem remains concerning the recognition of the true prophet of God. We should also note that the Hebrew word for “word” and “thing” is the same. The word davar refers both to speech and to the referent of speech. Thus, a prophet’s words are at the same time the things to which the prophet refers. By necessity, then, the words of a true prophet will surely become the things the words refer to. It could be, on the one hand, that the text is rather more trivial than it first appears. The condition that makes for a true prophet may refer only to mundane issues of everyday life, short-term predictions that could be quickly verified or falsified by the events.

          On the other hand, if the literary prophets are here in mind, predictions of national catastrophe, almost always dependent on the refusal of Israel to change its evil ways, are hardly subject to the simple criterion of “if it comes true,” while predictions of glorious national restoration are always projected beyond the immediate future, and thus also hardly to be adjudged true or false in the moment. By necessity, Deuteronomy must be thinking of the longer history of Israelite prophecy, rather than a more immediate evaluation. Those of us in the 21st century may be able to identify with this thinking. 

          Deuteronomy, composed perhaps just after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, late in the 8th century BCE, knows of prophets who spoke of a dire future for Israel if it did not change its evil ways. Now living in Judah, after seeing the destruction of Israel, itself threatened in many ways from within and without, the author uses that prophetic history (see Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah) as a warning to those who imagine that any old prophet will do! No, he says. Only prophets who speak for God and whose words have come true are to be heeded and feared (Deut.18:22). Thus, he is not speaking only of local people, claiming to speak for God, suggesting that they know what God has in mind for them and for their listeners. I believe that his own grasp of prophetic history has led him to speak of this criterion for judging true and false prophecy. 

          The most famous example of a seemingly immediate judgment between a true and false prophet may be found in Jeremiah 28, where Hananiah says that the exile of Israel to Babylon, which apparently has recently occurred, or is about to occur (587BCE), will be a brief and relatively painless one (Jer.28:2-4). Jeremiah begs to differ, announcing that the exile will be a long and disruptive one for Judah (Jer.28:12-17). We of course know now that Jeremiah was the true prophet, by the criterion of Deuteronomy: the exile was indeed long (two generations), and deeply disruptive for the chosen people. 

          So, my too-easy dismissal of Deut.18 in the matter of judging true and false prophets may have been too hasty. Those who claim to speak for God may be believed for a moment, or even for a brief time, but over time their words and things may prove empty and hollow, given what finally comes of their words. Those of us who have lived some time on the earth—I am nearing the end of my 8th decade—have witnessed any number of would-be prophets whose words have not proven true, and whose actions have not stood the test of time. You can name them as well as I, though some have faded into the mists of the past. Perhaps the more important learning from Deut. 18 is that God will without fail send to us true prophets in the manner of Moses, men and women who speak truth to us, sometimes hard truth that we are reluctant to hear, yet the truth that is for our good straight from the mouth of God.

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