Can There Be Another Prophet Like Moses?
The book of Deuteronomy has Moses presenting YHWH’s torah, i.e., laws and teachings, to the Israelites. At one point, Moses assures the Israelites that any future communication from YHWH after his death would come to Israel in the same way, namely, from the mouth of a prophet like Moses:
דברים יח:טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.
Deut 18:15 YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed.
Moses continues by reminding Israel that from the very beginning—namely from Mt. Horeb—they wanted a prophetic intermediary to tell them what YHWH wants of them:
דברים יח:טז כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתָּ מֵעִם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל לֵאמֹר לֹא אֹסֵף לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהָי וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת לֹא אֶרְאֶה עוֹד וְלֹא אָמוּת.
Deut 18:16 This is just what you asked of YHWH your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, “Let me not hear the voice of YHWH my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.”
YHWH, who accepted the idea of a prophetic intermediary at Horeb, agrees that this is what he will do in the future when needed:
דברים יח:יז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלָי הֵיטִיבוּ אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ. יח:יח נָבִיא אָקִים לָהֶם מִקֶּרֶב אֲחֵיהֶם כָּמוֹךָ וְנָתַתִּי דְבָרַי בְּפִיו וְדִבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּנּוּ. יח:יט וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמַע אֶל דְּבָרַי אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמִי אָנֹכִי אֶדְרֹשׁ מֵעִמּוֹ.
Deut 18:17 And YHWH said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. 18:18 I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; 18:19 and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
Thus, YHWH promises to send Moses-like prophets in the future when the need arises.
True and False Moses-Like Prophets
Leaving open the possibility of future Moses-like prophets, presenting new teachings from YHWH, raises the possibility of false prophets—how can the people know who is truly speaking in YHWH’s name? In ch. 18, Deuteronomy addresses this question first by threatening the false prophet himself:
יח:כ אַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וּמֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא.
18:20 But 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.”
The verse describes two types of false prophets:
- Prophets who falsely quote YHWH;
- Prophets who speak in the name of a god other than YHWH.
The latter case is clear-cut, as distinguishing between prophets who speak in YHWH’s name and those who speak in the names of other gods is simple. But how does this first criterion work—how is it possible to know if a prophet speaking in the name of YHWH is doing so truthfully? The text addresses this issue directly:
יח:כא וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה. יח:כב אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבוֹא הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.
18:21 And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by YHWH?”— 18:22 if the prophet speaks in the name of YHWH and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by YHWH; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.”
Prophets must substantiate their messages from God with a prediction that will be tested. Thus a Moses-like prophet comes with two things:
- A message from God with teachings about laws or proper behavior;
- A prediction or sign that will “prove” that the message is authentic.
The prediction or sign is not important in and of itself, but only to substantiate the message. Deuteronomy thus envisions the prophet’s message being held in limbo as the Israelites wait to see if the prediction comes true or not.
Prophecies with Time Sensitive Content
This use of predictions to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of a prophecy stands in stark contrast with other forms of prophecy in the Bible where the prediction is the entire point and it would be impossible to “wait and see” whether it comes true or not.
For example, a number of texts describe court prophets whose job it is to advise the king on decisions with immediate repercussions, such as whether he should go to war or not, as was common practice in ANE royal courts. The purpose of such prophecy (and other forms of divination) was to help a king make a decision that was in harmony with the gods’ desires.
A classic example of this is the prophecy of Micaiah to King Ahab, that if he goes to war against the Arameans he will be killed (1 Kings 22:28). If Ahab had listened to Micaiah, then he would not have gone to battle, and he would not have been killed, and thus Micaiah’s prediction would not have come true. Similarly, Jeremiah prophecies that war with Babylon will lead to Judah’s destruction (see e.g., Jer 21, 27, 37). If the king of Judah had listened to Jeremiah and not rebelled against Babylon, Judah would not have been destroyed, and again the prediction would not have come true.
Prophets can also be sent by YHWH to warn people of his displeasure and their upcoming punishment. For example, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and tell them that God will destroy the city. The Ninevites accept this message, mourn their immanent destruction, and—most importantly—repent their ways. God then decides to spare them.
By the standards of Deuteronomy 18 in which predictions are used to test a prophet’s veracity, Jonah would be a false prophet. But this is because Deuteronomy is envisioning Moses-like prophecy, in which the message is the key and the prediction merely a proof of veracity. In divine warnings, however, the prediction is meant to make the person change his or her ways to avoid God’s wrath. Inevitably, if they are successful, they will have the effect of not coming true.
Prophecies Are Not Absolute
Reading Deuteronomy together with other biblical texts yields the absurdity that predictive prophets or bearers of divine warnings who succeed in their mission (like Jonah) are, ipso facto, false prophets. The tension between Deuteronomy’s depiction of a prophet whose predictions don’t come true as a false prophet, and the existence of divine warnings that are intended to lead to repentance, and therefore may not actually take place, was already noted in rabbinic literature. A possible resolution to this tension was suggested by the 3rd century Amora, Samuel bar Nachman (j. Taanit 2:1):
רבי שמואל בר נחמן אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר לעשות טובה לא איש אל ויכזב. אומר לעשות רעה ההוא אמר ולא יעשה ודבר ולא יקימנה.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman said: “When the Holy blessed be he says he will do good, then [we must apply the verse] (Num 23:16): ‘God is not a man to be capricious.’ When he says he will do evil, then this is what [the verse] says (ibid.): ‘He will speak and not act, promise and not fulfill.’”
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), in the Mishneh Torah, “Laws of the Foundation of the Torah” (10:4), systematizes the above suggestion, offering an overall solution to the problem:
דברי הפורענות שהנביא אומר כגון שיאמר פלוני ימות או שנה פלונית רעב או מלחמה וכיוצא בדברים אלו אם לא עמדו דבריו אין בזה הכחשה לנבואתו, ואין אומרים הנה דבר ולא בא, שהקב”ה ארך אפים ורב חסד ונחם על הרעה ואפשר שעשו תשובה ונסלח להם כאנשי נינוה, או שתלה להם כחזקיה,
Afflictions that a prophet predicts, such as “So-and-so will die” or “famine or war will occur in such-and-such a year” and other such things, if they do not come to pass, this does not contradict the person’s prophecy, and we do not say that “he spoke but it did not come to pass” since the Holy One, blessed be He, is “slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2), and it is possible that they repented and were forgiven, as happened with the men of Nineveh, or that God gave them extra time as He did with Hezekiah.
אבל אם הבטיח על טובה ואמר שיהיה כך וכך ולא באה הטובה שאמר בידוע שהוא נביא שקר, שכל דבר טובה שיגזור האל אפילו על תנאי אינו חוזר,
But if [the prophet] promised something good, and said “such-and-such good thing will happen” and it didn’t happen, then we know he is a false prophet, since every good thing God promises to do, even conditionally, he does.
The rabbinic solution outline by Maimonides offers a compromise: Deuteronomy 18’s rule of the false prophet is only valid for positive predictions, whereas negative predictions can be voided. Although Maimonides is building on Samuel bar Nachman’s midrashic reading of Num 23:16, his language is reminiscent of Jeremiah’s retort to Hananiah, who prophesied that Jerusalem would be spared and the original exiles returned:
ירמיה כח:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה יְ־הוָה יָקֵם יְ־הוָה אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִבֵּאתָ לְהָשִׁיב כְּלֵי בֵית יְ־הוָה וְכָל הַגּוֹלָה מִבָּבֶל אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה. כח:ז אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֶיךָ וּבְאָזְנֵי כָּל הָעָם. כח:ח הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנַי וּלְפָנֶיךָ מִן הָעוֹלָם וַיִּנָּבְאוּ אֶל אֲרָצוֹת רַבּוֹת וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת לְמִלְחָמָה וּלְרָעָה וּלְדָבֶר. כח:ט הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ יְ־הוָה בֶּאֱמֶת.
Jer 28:6 The prophet Jeremiah said: “Amen! May YHWH do so! May YHWH fulfill what you have prophesied and bring back from Babylon to this place the vessels of the House of YHWH and all the exiles! 28:7 But just listen to this word which I address to you and to all the people: 28:8 The prophets who lived before you and me from ancient times prophesied war, disaster, and pestilence against many lands and great kingdoms. 28:9 So if a prophet prophesies good fortune, then only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that YHWH really sent him.”
Jeremiah’s point may simply have been the prophecies about good fortune are so unusual that they can only be believed once they have occurred. Nevertheless, for Maimonides and the Sages, this distinction was the key to solving the conundrum of the “prophetic test” in Deuteronomy 18.
Even so, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman and Maimonides had no choice but to make use of this statement to derive a meaningful compromise between what is stated in Deuteronomy about predictions as tests and what is found regarding prophecy in other biblical books, in which predictions often do not come true, nor are they necessarily meant to.
Once we read Deuteronomy as a separate treatment of prophecy, not necessarily meant to be read together with other biblical treatments, a different answer presents itself: Deuteronomy is not interested in classical prophecy, only Mosaic prophecy. Since predictions in and of themselves don’t matter to Deuteronomy, they can be reimagined as tests of a prophet’s veracity. Thus, the “prediction test” is really only relevant to Moses-like prophecy; it is an invention of Deuteronomy and does not exist in other biblical books.
Prophets of Other Gods who Performs Signs and Wonders (Deut 13)
Reading Deuteronomy 18 alone, a reader might conclude that once a Moses-like prophet has been established as authentic, the Israelites are to listen to whatever he or she says. But the law of the idolatrous prophet earlier in Deuteronomy makes it clear that this is not the case. This law is found in Deut 12:29-13:19, a complex of laws describing what measures the Israelites must take to stop an incursion of Canaanite polytheistic religion in their midst.
The section begins by forbidding the Israelites to mimic the practices of the previous inhabitants, and this is even applied to worshiping YHWH in the manner the Canaanites worshiped their own gods. The text continues to concern itself with possible ingress of Canaanite practices, following a logical sequence:
- A prophet speaking in the name of a god other than YHWH (13:2-6);
- A relative trying to persuade his family to worship a god other than YHWH (13:7-12);
- An entire Israelite town turning to the worship of a foreign god (13:13-19).
The case of the prophet reads:
דברים יג:ב כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת. יג:ג וּבָא 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, 13:3 and the sign or portent that he named to you comes true saying, “Let us follow and worship another god—whom you have not experienced, 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.
Here we see that even if a prophet were to pass the test, and their prophecy were to come true, if the message involves worshiping a foreign god, then the person is a false prophet.
Violating Deuteronomy Is the Same as Worshiping another God
The disqualification of prophets speaking in the name of another god is also clear in Deuteronomy 18, but here, the text continues with more specifics that introduce a whole new element:
דברים יג:ה אַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.
Deut 13:5 Follow none but YHWH your God, and revere none but him; observe his commandments alone, and heed only his orders; worship none but him, and hold fast to him.
Verse 5 implies that not only is it illegitimate for the prophet to suggest worshiping other gods, but it is even forbidden for the prophet to suggest not keeping YHWH’s commandments, i.e., the laws of Deuteronomy. The equivalence between worshipping other gods and not keeping YHWH’s commandments appears again in the description of the false prophet’s punishment:
יג:ו וְהַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ חֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא יוּמָת כִּי דִבֶּר סָרָה עַל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְהַפֹּדְךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לְהַדִּיחֲךָ מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בָּהּ וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.
13:6 As for that prophet or dream diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to YHWH your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt and who redeemed you from the house of bondage—to make you stray from the path that YHWH your God commanded you to follow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.
The point is made even clearer when reading the law of the false prophet in the context of the verse immediately preceding it:
דברים יג:א אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.
Deut 13:1 Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.
Thus, any prophet who states in the name of YHWH a law not in accordance with Deuteronomy is by definition a false prophet. But if “the path which YHWH commanded” is a reference to the laws of Deuteronomy, this law states that the Israelites are forbidden to add or subtract anything! What then, could a future prophet like Moses possibly say?
Cancelling Mosaic-Prophecy as a Live Option
Although Deut 18:18 describes the future arrival of a “prophet like Moses,” it is actually doing everything possible to make this impossible. Considering the centrality of Moses’ role as law-giver, and the Deuteronomic warning that no expansion or contraction of the Deuteronomic Law Collection is permissible, Deuteronomy could not have really envisioned another Moses arriving on the scene. Even if it stops short of saying that no other Moses-like prophet could ever arise in Israel, this is what the legislation seems aimed at accomplishing.
Deuteronomy’s strict test of prophets makes prophecy like Moses essentially impossible. Moreover, even if a prophet could somehow pass the prediction test, such a prophet would be limited to reiterating or supporting Moses’ message of loyalty to YHWH and keeping YHWH’s commandments as stated in Deuteronomy. Thus, while Deuteronomy ostensibly allows for future Moses-like prophets, it effectively ends this prophetic activity by making it impossible or at best limited to reiterating Moses’ message in Deuteronomy, and even this was probably only meant as a theoretical possibility.
Having Your Prophecy and “Eating It Too”
Deuteronomy’s position has the advantage of basing itself on prophetic religion, claiming that its laws were transmitted by God, but at the same time, relegating this kind of prophecy to the distant past. By making further Mosaic prophecy virtually impossible, Deuteronomy does not have to deal with the potentially chaotic effects of “actual prophets” on ongoing religious life or the possibility that some later prophet will overturn the laws and teachings it records in the name of the greatest of all prophets, Moses.
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August 23, 2017
January 21, 2021
Jonathan Stökl is Lecturer in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at King’s College London. He completed his D.Phil. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the Oriental Institute of the University of Oxford. He is the author of Prophecy in the Ancient Near East: A Philological and Sociological Comparison and editor with Corrine L. Carvalho of Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East.
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