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Haim (Howard) Kreisel





What Is Prophecy?





APA e-journal

Haim (Howard) Kreisel





What Is Prophecy?








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What Is Prophecy?

The nature of prophecy is perhaps one of the most overlooked questions, but it was critically important to the medieval Jewish philosophers Sa’adia Gaon, Judah Halevi, Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides.


What Is Prophecy?

Moses receives the tablets, Pieter Franciscus Martenasie, after Charles Joseph Dominique Eisen, 1739-1789. Rijksmuseum

“I was startled by Nahum Glatzer’s words that only the election of the people of Israel came from God, but that all the details of the Law came from man alone. I should have formulated this – and have actually done so to myself – in very much the same way, but when one hears one’s own ideas uttered by someone else, they suddenly become problematic. Can we really draw so rigid a boundary between what is divine and what is human?” – Franz Rosenzweig[1]

The Nature of Prophecy

At first glance, the nature of prophecy would appear to be a relatively marginal feature of Jewish thought. In fact, discerning prophecy’s essence was critically important to leading medieval Jewish philosophers, including Saadiah, Maimonides, Yehuda HaLevi, and Ibn Ezra. Their ideas on the topic, many of which are not widely known, are complex, and are often very distant from the popular notion of God speaking directly to the prophet.

Is prophecy a natural phenomenon, stemming from a human being’s innate ability to encounter the divine, or is it more of a supernatural phenomenon, representing God’s active involvement in communicating with humans? To put it differently, what is God’s precise role in the prophecy?

This issue is a subset of a larger debate concerning the role of the Divine in an otherwise natural order. Even thinkers who adopt a naturalistic approach where prophets “receive” prophecy by advancing intellectually, still had to explain whether the Revelation at Sinai and Moses’ giving of the Torah should also be seen as events that can be explained naturalistically or whether they are the most blatant exceptions to the rule.


Saadiah Gaon – God’s Direct Speech

One traditional rabbinic approach to prophecy, one that imagines God actively communicating with the prophet, appears in R. Saadiah Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions(third treatise), which asserts that God is immediately involved in every transmission of prophecy. R. Saadiah remains loyal to a traditional conception in which God sends angels to chosen individuals with a specific message.[2] Alternatively, God sometimes creates speech in the air and sends it to the hearing of the prophet. In terms of the Revelation at Sinai, R. Saadiah assumes that the speech heard by Israel was speech that God actively created.

Saadiah sees no rational reason to reject this approach to the divine activity, which pictures God as an active agent in prophecy. Nevertheless, he is troubled by the corporeal descriptions of God during prophecies, such as Isaiah (6:5), Ezekiel (1:26-27), or even Exodus (24:10).[3] In such cases, Saadiah claims that the descriptions are literally true but do not refer to God, but to God’s kavod (created Glory) – a being similar but superior to the angels which can assume different forms and is made visible to the prophet in order to confirm the divine communication.[4] Saadia is forced to see it this way since God is incorporeal and thus has no actual body or voice.


Straddling the Fence: The Kuzari’s Struggle with Arabic Philosophy

While R. Saadiah continued to hold on to a traditional rabbinic conception of prophecy as God’s active communication with the prophet, modifying it only to accommodate the view of God’s incorporeality, the later inroads made by Arabic Aristotelian philosophy in Jewish rationalistic circles changed this picture dramatically. This can be seen even in the philosophy of R. Judah Halevi who wrote his Kuzari in large measure to combat the views of these Muslim philosophers.

Critique of the Philosophical Model

On one hand, R. Judah Halevi is adamant on the point that no naturalistic explanation can account for the prophecy of Moses and the Revelation at Sinai, as he argues in Kuzari 1.87 (my translation):

The people heard the pure speech in the Ten Commandments… The multitude did not receive the Ten Commandments from single individuals and not from a prophet, but from God. …Moses was addressed by a speech that originated with God. It was not preceded by any thought or suggestion in Moses’ [mind].
Prophecy is not, as the philosophers think, the conjunction of the soul, whose thoughts are purified, with the Active Intellect, also termed the Holy Spirit and Gabriel, and the apprehension of it. It is possible [according to the philosophers] that at that moment he would imagine in a dream, either while asleep or awake, that a person is speaking to him. He would hear his imaginary speech in his soul, not by way of his ears. He would see him in his imagination, and not by way of his eyes. He would then say that God spoke to him. These notions were negated by the great Gathering [at Sinai].[5]

Halevi here leans towards R. Saadiah’s idea that the speech heard by Moses and the people is speech created by God.

Endorsement of the Philosophical Model

Yet in other passages in the Kuzari, when the divinity of the Torah is not at stake, he does not dismiss the philosophers’ view out of hand, and even appears drawn to their naturalistic approach:

The Divine Matter (amr ilahi) singles out one who is worthy of its conjoining with him and becoming his lord, as in the case of the prophets and the pious, just as the Intellect singles out one of perfect natural qualities, a well-balanced soul and moral traits, to inhabit it in a perfect manner, as in the case of the philosophers. (Kuzari 2.14)

Halevi is even prepared to entertain the philosophic view that the images beheld by the prophet were created by their own imagination though they impart truths of the divine incorporeal world which the prophet grasps by way of these images. Halevi refers to this special (prophetic) sight as an “inner eye.”

Just as the Creator established with precision this relation between the external sense and the corporeal entity that is perceived, so He established with precision the relation between the internal sense and the incorporeal entity. Upon the noblest of his creatures God bestowed an “inner eye” that sees all things in their unchanging reality. The intellect learns by means of it the essence of these things.
One who was created with this “eye” is the one who has true vision. He sees the whole of humanity as blind, and directs and guides them. This “eye” is possibly the imaginative faculty when it serves the intellectual faculty. It sees great, awesome forms that teach unmistakable truths…

Halevi claimed that “Moses was addressed by a speech that originated with God. It was not preceded by any thought or suggestion in Moses’ [mind].” Yet he believed that other prophets used their imaginative faculties in the reception of prophecy. This idea relates to Halevi’s understanding of the problem of God’s corporeality as well:

They [the prophets] without doubt saw the divine world with an “inner eye.” They saw forms that were appropriate to their nature and to which they were accustomed. They described in corporeal terms what they saw. These descriptions are true in regard to what estimation, imagination and the senses grasp, but they are not true in regard to the essence that the intellect grasps. (ibid. 4.3)

According to Halevi, God did not have to create a body to function as God’s glory (in lieu of an angel), since the body pictured by the prophets was not a physical object but a mental construct. Ironically, the Kuzari, an ostensibly apologetic work, reflects the great extent to which the author was influenced by the philosophers he sought to discredit.


Ibn Ezra – Prophecy through the Eyes of an Astrologer and Medieval Scientist

While Halevi wavers between Saadiah’s approach and that of the Aristotelian philosophers, his younger friend Abraham Ibn Ezra virtually adopts the latter. Ibn Ezra does not believe that prophecy means that God speaks to the prophet. In fact, nothing could be further from Ibn Ezra’s approach to prophecy than the view of the prophet as a passive recipient of all that God wishes to reveal to him.

Angels as Visions

In opposition to Saadiah, Ibn Ezra does not regard messenger angels as created corporeal entities conveying God’s communication. Rather, the prophet sees angels in a dream or vision; that is to say, what is actually seen is the product of the prophet’s imagination.[6]

For example, Abraham’s prophecies are to be understood as the product of his imagination.[7]Similarly, in his commentary on Jonah (1:1), Ibn Ezra hints at a radical view that even the story of the sacrifice of Isaac took place in a vision of a prophecy, just like the story of Jonah living in the belly of a huge fish for three days.[8]

Prophecy as Conjunction with God

Ibn Ezra regards prophecy as a form of conjunction with God, which can be attained only after extensive preparations. A person achieves this state only after intensive learning, rising on the ladder of knowledge until he apprehends God to the extent of human ability.

This view emerges clearly from his Long Commentary to Exodus 3:15,[9] as well as in Yesod Mora, chapter 10. In the former passage, he also stresses the need for hitbodedut[10] – isolation of either the physical or perhaps psychical kind.[11] Ibn Ezra makes the reverse point as well (Gen 37:35),[12] that strong emotions such as sorrow result in the cessation of prophecy, as illustrated through Isaac and Jacob.[13]

Two Kinds of Prophets: Predictors and Messengers

Despite the greatness a human being must reach, according to Ibn Ezra, in order to “naturally” achieve prophecy, prophets remain human. They are not perfect, although some prophets are greater than others.

Ibn Ezra distinguishes between two kinds of prophets, those foretelling the future and those who are messengers conveying God’s commands (Gen 27:19). The latter are greater. They never err or deceive in prophecy, though they can err in other matters. Ibn Ezra notes, for example, how Moses was mistaken in deciding to take Zipporah with him to Egypt (Exod 4:20).[14]

Prophets who predict the future, however, are less great. Ibn Ezra willingly acknowledges that such prophets do not always speak truthfully and at times may even err in their predictions. Thus, he shows that Abraham, Jacob, David, and Elisha, among others, spoke deceivingly though they were prophets (Gen 27:19).[15]

Working Miracles by Controlling the Heavenly Bodies

Another of Ibn Ezra’s radical views, which reflects the human dimension of prophecy, is his view of the prophet as a miracle worker.[16] The prophet, by climbing the ladder of knowledge until he has apprehended God, designated as “the All” (הכל),thereby conjoins with God and can perform miracles (Num 20:6). In this manner, Ibn Ezra explains Moses’ miracle (not God’s!) of bringing forth water from the rock.[17]

Moses’ soul, which achieved the highest level of conjunction with the heavenly bodies—Ibn Ezra was an earnest believer in astrology—was able to change their effects miraculously, something the forefathers could not do. This is the meaning of the notion that only Moses knew the four letter name of God.

Avoiding the Control of the Heavenly Bodies

The forefathers, who also attained conjunction but a lesser level represented by their knowledge of God as El Shaddai, were able to escape the decrees of the heavenly bodies, if not control them as Moses did. The prophet accomplishes this by attaining knowledge of the future while in the prophetic state, enabling him to take steps to avoid the impending evil (Exod 33:21, long commentary).

He illustrates his point about the uniqueness of Moses through an example of a city about to be flooded. Learning of this event, the typical prophet is able to save himself and others by warning them in advance and evacuating the city before the disaster occurs. The flood still occurs, but the lives of the inhabitants are spared. Moses, however, could stop the flood.

Ibn Ezra’s explanation of the two levels of prophecy and how they function by tying into the “scientific” world of astrology, highlight both the human and the naturalistic dimensions of prophecy.[18]

Moses as the Author of the Torah

Ibn Ezra famously implies that a number of verses in the Torah were not written by Moses.[19]As radical as this view may be,[20] no less radical in my mind is Ibn Ezra’s very explicit view that Moses himself wrote much of the Torah. That is to say, Moses did not act as a scribe recording precisely what he heard by way of divine revelation, but often recasts the prophecy he heard in his own words.

Ibn Ezra appears to see much of Deuteronomy this way, since the simple meaning of the text is that Moses is retelling the stories in his own words, and should be understood in this manner. Even when it comes to legal changes, like the differences in the formulation of the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Ibn Ezra explains these as simply the product of Moses’ decision to use his own words in retelling the divine speech heard by Israel (in the same manner that he retells the stories).

In his extensive long commentary on Exodus chapter 20, Ibn Ezra argues at length against all the miraculous explanations that are devised to explain the discrepancies between the two passages.[21] In general, he argues, the use of synonyms in repeating certain laws is not a result of any divine decision but a choice on Moses’ part, since it makes no difference if certain words are substituted for others as long as the different words convey the same meaning. Furthermore, the writing of words in either a short or long form is the product of Moses’ scribal proclivity rather than a decision on the part of God.

Ibn Ezra as a Rationalist Working Prophecy into the “Natural World”

Nevertheless, numerous passages in Ibn Ezra’s writings illustrate his belief in God’s direct and personal involvement in determining who is to receive prophecy, and the contents of the message that are revealed to this individual. It is an open question whether these passages should be understood literally or are meant to conceal a radical naturalistic approach. Yet Ibn Ezra leaves little doubt that God generally operates by means of the fixed order and even apparent supernatural phenomena are in fact exceptional natural ones.[22]


Maimonides’ Perspective: Incorporating Arabic Philosophy

The breakdown of rigid boundaries between the divine and human, in my mind, characterizes Maimonides’ approach to prophecy. While the prophetic emanation—not the actual speech heard or the visions beheld by the prophet—originates with God, it receives its substantive form by distinctly human faculties, namely, human reason and imagination.

Maimonides discusses this idea explicitly in Guide of the Perplexed 2.36:

Know that the true reality and quiddity (=essence) of prophecy consist in it being an overflow overflowing from God, may He be cherished and honored, through the intermediation of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty. This is the highest degree of man and the ultimate term of perfection that can exist for his species; and this state is the ultimate term of perfection for the imaginative faculty.

Maimonides elaborates upon his approach in the subsequent chapters. The prophet may experience an “angel” in corporeal form, but that derives from the prophet’s imaginative faculty connecting with the Active Intellect, a heavenly incorporeal entity. Similarly, the “words” heard by the prophet in the vision are produced by the prophet’s own faculties giving verbal expression to the understanding attained as a result of the emanation.

Only a person of a perfect physical disposition, perfect moral character traits, and a perfect intellect, one who has mastered all of the theoretical sciences culminating in metaphysics, is capable of attaining the emanation from the Active Intellect that results in prophecy. The emanation acts as a force that strengthens the prophet’s perfected rational faculty and imagination, allowing it to operate in a maximal manner to attain knowledge of theoretical matters, social directives (i.e., ethics and political decisions), and the future.

Distinguishing Prophecy from Philosophy

Maimonides distinguishes prophetic divination from the emanation attained by the philosopher and that attained by diviners and legislators only by the human faculties involved in its reception (Guide 2.37). In this way, he makes it clear that he regards prophecy as a completely naturalistic phenomenon (though not coterminous with philosophy).

Maimonides hints that the prophetic mission itself results from the feeling of compulsion arising in the souls of some, but not all, of the prophets, to perfect others with the knowledge they acquired. The same emanation, he notes, results in the feeling of compulsion in some philosophers, but not all, to impart the knowledge they acquired to others (ibid.).

Simultaneously Natural and Divine

For Maimonides, then, it is not that one aspect of prophecy is human and another aspect of prophecy is divine, rather, everything that the prophet experiences, hears and sees is both human and divine simultaneously. The prophet is neither a passive instrument nor an active agent; he is at once both.

Though the imagination in conjunction with the rational faculty produces the prophetic message, Maimonides would be the first to argue against the conclusion that the prophet’s message is in essence only a human message. He would certainly reject all that follows from such a conclusion.

The divine operates by way of the human just as it operates by way of nature. The divine message is given substance by the activity of the human being. Thus, to say that the emanation is divine while the images beheld are humanly produced is to create a false dichotomy between the human and the divine. The meeting of the two dimensions results in a phenomenon that is simultaneously divine and human.

Mosaic Prophecy and the Transmission of the Torah

But what about the Revelation at Sinai and the transmission of the Torah to Moses in Maimonides’ thought? Does he hold that these too are to be explained in a naturalistic manner? Admittedly, in this case Maimonides appears to posit God’s direct intervention in history not only in his legal works – most prominently in his thirteen principles of the faith,[23] but even in the Guide.

Nevertheless, some passages in the Guide contain exceptionally subtle hints –perhaps reflecting the sensitivity of the subject involved – that this was not his true view. True, the subtly of these intimations might be dismissed as more in the mind of the beholder than in that of the author. Nevertheless, it would be exceptionally strange for Maimonides to present a naturalistic theory of individual providence almost explicitly (Guide 3.17-18, 24), to understand miracles as in some manner implanted in nature (ibid. 2.29), to view prophecy itself as a natural phenomenon, and then to limit God’s immediate involvement in history to the transmission of the Torah alone.[24]

The Influence of Arabic Philosophy on Judaism

The spread of science and philosophy in the Arabic speaking world led many Jewish rationalists to approach Scripture in accordance with the philosophic conception of God. Thus, they adopted a far different attitude to God’s relation to the world–and the exact role God plays vis-à-vis particular eventsthan the one traditionally posited by the classical rabbis. This in turn led to a different conception of the relation between the divine, natural and human, one that essentially blurs the boundaries between these categories.

This is not just a Spinozistic idea or an idea that characterizes the Reform and Conservative movements in the modern period. It is an idea clearly developed by Ibn Ezra, followed by Maimonides, and then more explicitly by some medieval Provencal and Spanish Jewish philosophers.It was strongly attacked in the past by the more traditionalist factions of Jewish society, just as it continues to be strongly criticized today, for as the wisest of men noted: There is nothing new under the sun.


September 10, 2015


Last Updated

January 16, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Haim (Howard) Kreisel teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, where he holds the Miriam Martha Hubert Chair in Jewish Thought and is the Director of the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought. Among his books are Maimonides’ Political Thought and Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy.