Can a False Prophet Perform Miracles?
In Deuteronomy 13, Moses warns the people about the possibility of false prophets, who are attempting to steer the Israelites toward the worship of other gods:
דברים יג:ב כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת. יג:גוּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם. יג:ד לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם.
Deut 13:2 If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner—and he gives you a sign or a portent, 13:3and the sign or portent that he named to you comes true—saying, “Let us follow other gods—whom you have not known—and worship them,” 13:4 do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For YHWH your God is testing you to see whether you really love YHWH your God with all your heart and soul.
The text suggests that a false prophet could perform a miracle or predict the future. He gives a “sign or portent” and “the sign or portent . . . comes true.”
This implication troubled R. Akiva, as we see from his debate with R. Yossi the Galilean about this verse (Sifre Devarim84:3):
ובא האות והמופת, אמר רבי יוסי הגלילי ראה עד היכן הגיע הכתוב סוף עובדי עבודה זרה ינתן להם ממשלה אפילו על חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות אל תשמע להם מפני מה כי מנסה ה’ אלהיכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אוהבים, אמר רבי עקיבה חס ושלום שמעמיד המקום חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות לעובדי עבודה זרה הא אינו מדבר אלא במי שהיו נביאי אמת מתחילה וחזרו להיות נביאי שקר כחנניה בן עזור.
“And the sign or portent comes true” – R. Yossi the Galilean said: “See how far the verse goes: in the end the idolaters will be given power over the sun, moon, stars, and constellations, but do not listen to them since the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love Him.” R. Akiva said: “Heaven forfend that God would stop the sun, moon, stars, or constellations on behalf of idolaters! Rather, the verse is speaking of those who were once true prophets but then turned to become false prophets, as was the case with Hananiah ben Azzur.
Rabbi Akiva’s problem is clear: How could someone who was not sent by God, in fact someone who is trying to undermine proper belief in God, have such super-human powers? Nevertheless, R. Akiva’s answer does not really solve the problem, since it begs the question: Why would God allow treacherous former prophets to maintain their supernatural powers?
The medieval peshat commentators likewise had trouble accepting the implication of the verse at face value, and came up with a number of alternative meanings.
Ibn Ezra’s Three Explanations
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), the Bible commentator and philosopher, offers three explanations, two from earlier commentators and the third, his own.
1. Plagiarized Prophecy
The first position ibn Ezra quotes is that the false prophet may have stolen the sign from a real prophet:
ויש אומרים, כי יתכן להיות הנביא ממגנבי דבר השם. ופי’ שאמר נביא האמת שיהיה אות כך להצדיקו, ושמע השומע, והגידו להיות אות לנפשו.
Some say that this [false] prophet may be stealing [i.e., plagiarizing] the words of God. In other words, a true prophet offers a specific prediction in order to establish his credibility. He [the false prophet] hears this prediction and then offers it himself to establish his own credibility.
According to this explanation, a false prophet could successfully predict the future only by plagiarizing from a true prophet who legitimately predicted the future. The theological problem thus disappears. The Torah is telling us that it may look as if a false prophet has been told the future by God, but this is not so.
2. Unreasonable Claims
The second solution ibn Ezra cites is that the prophecy is rejected because it is unreasonable:
ויש אומרים, כי אפילו בא האות והמופת אין להאמין בו, כי הוא דבר הפך שקול הדעת.
Others say that even if the prediction comes true, we should not believe it, because it = [message conveyed by the false prophet] is against reason.
According to this second explanation, miracles of all sorts—those performed by the prophets of God or by false prophets—are never determinative. Reason trumps miracles. Since the message of the prophet—to worship false gods—is inherently counter to reason for ibn Ezra, no amount of proof from miracles can compel someone to worship those gods.
In the 14th century, this same point was made forcefully by another philosophically inclined Bible commentator, Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles. After discussing the same two possibilities ibn Ezra quoted above, Nissim goes on to explain why God would perform such a test and why a false prophet with powers would fail to influence true believers:
בזה תבחן תבונתכם ותקנו לכם מזה מדה חזקה להחזיק באמת מפני שהוא אמת. גם בזה ידעו כל העולם שאתם מחזיקים באמונתכם אמונה חזקה. ויהיה זה ראיה ונסיון אם ישכם אוהבים האמת בכל לבבכם ונפשכם. ר”ל אם תחזיקו באמת ותאמינו בו מפני שהוא אמת ותדעוהו ידיעה שכלית לא מפני הקבלה לבד מנהג אבותיכם בידיכם. כי מי שידע האמת . . . לא יתרשל בו ולא יסופק בו בעבור אות ומופת שיעשה כנגדו נביא שקר.
With this [test of the false prophet] your wisdom will be tested, and you can develop through it a strong character trait, namely, following truth because it is the truth. Furthermore, through this the whole world will know that you hold firmly to your beliefs. And this will be a proof and a test, whether you love the truth with all your hearts and all your souls, in other words, whether you hold firmly to the truth, and believe in it because it is the truth, and know it with intellectual knowledge, not merely because of tradition or because you are following the custom of your fathers. For one who knows truth . . . will not grow indolent about it and will not have doubts on account of a sign or wonder that a false prophet performs to discredit it.
According to this, the man of reason should pay no attention to miracles. This position does not take a stand about whether a false prophet can perform a miracle, only that the question does not matter.
3. “Signs and Portents” Are Symbolic Actions
Finally, ibn Ezra offers his own explanation:
ולפי דעתי, שיש אות גם מופת כמו סימן. והעד: דברי ישעיה, שאמר: הנה אנכי והילדים אשר נתן לי ה’ לאותות ולמופתים (ישעיה ח, יח), ואות הנביא, כאשר הלך עבדי ישעיה ערום ויחף (שם כ, ג), ואותות בניו שמותם על דבר המקרה שיהיה בימיהם והם: עמנואל (שם ז, יד), מהר שלל חש בז (שם ח, ג), ושאר ישוב (שם ז, ג), ובמכות – והיו בך לאות ולמופת (דברים כח, מו), וכן רבים.
In my opinion, the Hebrew words אות and מופת here have the sense of “sign” [and do not refer to anything supernatural]. The words of Isaiah provide evidence for this interpretation. He said “Behold, I, and the children whom God has given me, are לאותות ולמופתים—for signs and for portents” (Isaiah 8:18). Another example, the prophet’s אות—sign: “…just as my servant Isaiah walking naked and barefoot… [is an אות ומופת—a sign and a portent]” (Isaiah 20:3). Furthermore, the names of his sons are signs (אותות) about an event which would occur in his lifetime: “Immanuel”(Isaiah 7:14), “Maher-Shalal-Ḥash-Baz” (Isaiah 8:3), and “Shear-Yashuv” (Isaiah 7:3). Similarly, concerning the plagues [that God said He would inflict upon the sinning Israelites, Scripture says,] “They will serve you as signs and proofs” (Deut 28:46). Many similar examples exist.
According to ibn Ezra, the words אות and מופת (signs and portents) here do not refer to anything supernatural but to symbolic actions. Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot involved no supernatural element; it was a symbolic action. Similarly, when God told Isaiah that the baby that would soon be born should be called Immanuel (“God is with us”), the naming of the baby was not a miraculous occurrence. The name was purely symbolic.
Following this explanation, a false prophet is never able to perform a miracle or predict the future. He might perform a compelling symbolic action that could tempt you to follow him, but the Torah is telling you not to.
What Is the Test?
Ibn Ezra’s explanation has several weaknesses. First, he does not address the question of how to interpret the phrase ובא האות והמופת, which suggests that the false prophet made a prediction about the future that came true. Another weakness, which ibn Ezra recognizes, is that our passage says that false prophets constitute a test of the Israelites’ loyalty by predicting the future in order to test the Israelites. But if the false prophet simply performed a symbolic action, what is the test?
To this ibn Ezra answers:
וטעם כי מנסה – בעבור שעזבו, ולא המיתו
The meaning of “test” here is that He [God] left him [the false prophet] alone and did not kill him.
God, according to ibn Ezra, tests us with false prophets by allowing them to live. God could make things easier for us by killing off the false prophets. But since He does not, we must resist the temptation of listening to them. With this unusual explanation, ibn Ezra is able to insist that false prophets have no supernatural powers and nevertheless constitute a test for the Israelites.
False Prophets Have Power Too: Rashbam
Ibn Ezra’s Northern French contemporary, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1165) was not bothered by the verses about false prophets, since he believed that false prophets were able to perform miracles and/or predict the future:
ובא האות והמופת – שיודעים עתידות על ידי רוח טומאה ותרפים ואוב וידעוני
[The sign of such false prophets could come true] because they know the future, since they make use of the forces of impurity or teraphim, or [they consult] ghosts or familiar spirits.
In Rashbam’s understanding, the world is filled with effective ways to predict the future. Some, like biblical prophecy, are legitimate, but many of the other methods are not. Sorcery is forbidden not because it does not work, but despite the fact that it does. The simple understanding of the story of Saul and the woman from En-dor who consults spirits (בעלת אוב) in 1 Samuel 28 supports this claim.
For Rashbam, the “test” from God in these verses is explained simply:
כי מנסה י”י וגו’ – נתן כח בכשפים לדעת נולדות, לנסות ולזכות ישראל שהתרה בהם: לא ימצא בך מעונן ומנחש ומכשף וגו’ עד תמים תהיה עם י”י אלהיך (דברים י”ח:י’-י”ג). ואם לא יאמינו לאותות נביאי עבודה זרה, זו היא זכותן.
“Because YHWH is testing you” – God granted powers to the forces of sorcery to be able to predict the future in order to test the Israelites and to increase their merit. He warned them (18:10-13), “Let there not be among you … a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer…. You must be wholehearted with YHWH your God.”If the Israelites refrain from believing in the signs of idolatrous prophets, it will be to their merit.
The fact that God created a world where sorcerers and other diviners have real powers constitutes a test for the Israelites. In this way, Rashbam has, indirectly, softened the text a little. The Torah is not suggesting that God endowed any specific false prophet with powers in order to test us, an idea that already bothered the likes of Rabbi Akiva, as discussed above. Rather, according to Rashbam, God created a world where false prophecy is possible and actually happens; accordingly, the Israelites can be tested through it.
Urim and Thummim vs. Impure Divination
Rashbam makes his belief in magical powers and divination clear in another passage, his comment on the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30):
את האורים ואת התומים – כעין השבעות על שמות בדבר הק’ שהיה נותן בחשן להגיד משפטן וצורכיהם.אם האומות מגידים להם תרפים וקסמים שלהם ברוח טומאה להבדיל כמה הבדלות בין טומאה לטהרה קל וחומר לקדושה שמגדת:
“The Urim and the Tummim” – A type of conjuring using divine names to determine God’s words. They were placed inside the breastpiece and were used to provide [answers for] the decisions required by the Israelites and [information required in order to fulfil] their needs. If the other nations have teraphim and magic that tell them the future through the forces of impurity, how much more so may it be done through the forces of holiness; although one should hardly be comparing the forces of impurity and the forces of purity at all!
Rashbam assumes that his readers know that teraphim and magic work and he builds on this assumption to sustain his claim that the Urim and Thummim worked that way, too.
Is Rashbam Being Polemical?
Rashbam’s interpretation reflects his belief that our world contains forces of good and forces of evil, and that supernatural powers can be found in both. Nevertheless, as he lived in a Christian world, it might be tempting to connect the dots between the “false prophet with magical powers” and the stories about Jesus in the New Testament.
Whether Rashbam had these in mind or not, Rashbam’s younger Northern French contemporary, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor makes this connection explicit:
וכל שכן אם יעשה על ידי מכשפות כגון ישו שהוציא כשפים ממצרים או על ידי אחיזת עיניים או על ידי גניבה.
How much more so [should we never listen to the words of] someone who performs [miracles by using] magic, as Jesus did, who [performed signs by using magic that he first learned in Egypt and then] brought [that] magic out from Egypt; or if the sign is performed through sleight of hand or through theft.
As was his wont, Bekhor Shor is explicitly anti-Christian. On the other hand, there is no hint in Rashbam’s words that he is alluding to Jesus.
Much has been written about the extent to which Rashbam concerns himself with Christianity. Rashbam makes critical comments from time to time about Christian Bible commentaries, and he defends Judaism against Christian claims. He refrains from the type of insulting vituperation about Jesus that characterizes Bekhor Shor here and in other passages. Of course one cannot rule out the possibility that he was thinking about Jesus when he commented on our verse. But it seems more likely that he is simply explaining the verse.
Polemic Against ibn Ezra
Nevertheless, I believe it is possible Rashbam is polemicizing here, only not against Christianity, but against ibn Ezra. Itamar Kislev has argued that Rashbam’s Torah commentary reflects knowledge of ibn Ezra’s “short commentary” on the Torah,part of which is his commentary on Deuteronomy. If so, Rashbam may be emphasizing here his belief in the powers of sorcery in order to distance himself from ibn Ezra’s philosophical approach.
Rashbam and ibn Ezra
Ibn Ezra and Rashbam were two of the greatest advocates of peshat, the plain or contextual interpretation of the Bible, in medieval times. Rashbam was just a few years older than ibn Ezra. At one point, they both lived in Northern France. It is tempting to imagine them meeting and talking about Bible interpretation, but most scholars doubt that that happened. Both of them were daring Bible commentators who were often willing to buck traditional exegesis. But the differences between them are significant.
Rashbam was a leading Talmudist and expert in halakhah. Ibn Ezra is not known for any contributions to those fields. Aside from his Bible commentaries, he wrote poetry and works of grammar, philosophy, and astrology (science). He was a proud Spanish Jew, a product of the so-called Golden Age in Spain.
Ibn Ezra spent the last decades of his life in Christian Europe and, as Uriel Simon has argued, looked down on his Ashkenazic brethren, viewing them as culturally backward. In particular, he had disdain for their lack of knowledge of Hebrew grammar and philosophy—two areas that he felt were crucial for educated Jews.
Peshat or Philosophy
Their respective attitudes towards Greek/Arabic style rationalist philosophy undergird the difference between ibn Ezra and Rashbam’s approaches to this passage. For ibn Ezra, “finding” that the Torah is saying something philosophically valid is more important than uncovering the plain meaning, the peshat of the biblical text. Or, to put it differently, since the text is divine, it must be in line with philosophical truth, even if the words need to be stretched to make them fit with this truth.
Rashbam, on the other hand, generally does not place limits on his search for peshat, and felt that the plain meaning of the text may contradict halakhah. Moreover, he believed in magic, as we saw above, and was not interested in Greek/Arabic style philosophy, as was the norm in his community.
Nowadays, we do not believe in magic or sorcery, and thus may be inclined to prefer ibn Ezra’s understanding of the world. Nevertheless, to try to interpret the Torah to fit with 21stcentury conceptions of reality would be forcing the text to say something it does not, just as ibn Ezra did by trying to read the Torah as a document reflecting medieval Greco-Arabic rationalism. Instead, it would seem that Rashbam’s more natural approach to the text comes closest to the modern academic way of reading it, even if some of his premises about how the world works are starkly different than ours.
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August 7, 2018
January 24, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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