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D'varim/Deuteronomy 18:21 And if you ask in your heart, "How shall we know the word that the L-rd has not spoken?"
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As so often happens, our text starts with a textual disagreement: does the word mean "and if" - for example, the ESV, "And if you say in your heart ..." - or "and when" as preferred by Rashi and other commentators? A number of English translations neatly sidestep that question by offering some variation of "You may say to yourself ..." (NRSV) or "Now should you say ..." (TLV and NJPS). We have recently seen that has quite a range of meanings - for, that, when, because, if, except, but, etc. (see Ekev 5782) - but here in D'varim chapter 18, the context probably limits the choice to 'if' or 'when'.Abravanel further limits the context to "a case where two prophets have spoken and they contradict each other." Rabbi Hirsch says that "a proclamation which exhorts us to a defection from G-d, or from His Torah even if it declares only one single commandment as abrogated, proves thereby that the proclamation is false."
Rashi justifies his choice of 'when' by pointing to one of the occasions when it was necessary for the people to decide which one of two prophets - Hananiah or Jeremiah - was right when they brought opposing words claiming to be "from the L-rd": It is 'when because "you are destined to say this when Hananiah son of Azzur shall come and prophesy, 'Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the L-RD's house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon' (Jeremiah 28:3, ESV), while Jeremiah cries out 'Thus says the L-RD: Do not listen to the words of your prophets who are prophesying to you, saying, "Behold, the vessels of the L-RD's house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon," for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you' (27:16, ESV)". On this basis, it should be 'when' and not 'if' because such situations and questions are bound to arise. The Ramban agrees: "the text does not say 'if you ask' but 'when you ask', because they needed to know whether they must obey it."
Richard Elliott Friedman is surely right when he says that "it is one of the Bible's central and most difficult questions: How does one tell a true prophet from a false one?" Certainly, Moshe provides an answer to his question in his very next sentence: "if the prophet speaks in the name of the L-RD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the L-RD" (D'varim 18:22, NJPS), but that's a matter of hindsight. If a prophet tells you which horse will win the Grand National the day before the race, you have to wait until the race has happened before you know whether the prophesy is true or false. The early sages frame Moshe's question and answer more positively: "What is the thing which the L-rd has spoken? That which the prophet had spoken and it came to pass" (Sifrei 178). Hirsch explains that a prophet is validated "either by the occurrence of a miracle in nature which the prophet had predicted, or by the occurrence of a predicted event in history."
Sometimes, you would have to be very patient to wait for the event to happen. In the case of Hananiah and Jeremiah above, you would have had to wait for two years before you would be sure that Hananiah was the false prophet and Jeremiah the true, had Jeremiah not told Hananiah that because he was misleading the people, "This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the L-RD" (Jeremiah 28:16, ESV), followed by the narrator telling us laconically, "in that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died" (v. 17, ESV). The penalty for false prophets - "that prophet shall die" (D'varim 18:20, NJPS) - was carried out, by HaShem Himself!
Complicating the issue, however, is that a decision is often required as a result of a prophet speaking. You have to do something now or soon, without having the time to wait and see what happens, because by then it would be too late! After Elijah's context with the prophets of Ba'al at Mt. Carmel, even though it had not rained for over three years, he told King Ahaz to "go up, eat and drink, for there is a rumbling of rain" (1 Kings 18:41, NJPS). By the time the king had eaten, Elijah told him, "Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you" (v. 44, NJPS), at which "the sky grew black with clouds; there was wind, and a heavy downpour fell" (v. 45, NJPS). If the king had waited to see if Elijah was right, he would have been caught in the rain and possibly flash-flooding. He had to take a decision right now. Similarly, when Joshua commanded the people to march round Jericho for seven days - so one of those days must have been Shabbat - becauseHaShem had given the city into their hands, or when he commanded the priests to step into the Jordan while carrying the Ark with the promise that the waters would part, the people had to obey right there and then. Pharaoh faced the same dilemma when Yosef interpreted his dream; if he waited until the end of the seven good years to see if Yosef's prediction of seven years of famine was true it would be far to late to store up food.
How do we move forward from the impasse? How can the words of a prophet ever be believed and obeyed as authentic, if we have to wait until it is fufilled before knowing for sure? As Friedman says, "the question [is] how to know at the time of the prophecy whether it is from G-d." The Sages offered the proposal that a prophet only had to give a clear sign once: "If he was well established [as a prophet], it is different ... it is only at the first time that he comes to the people as a prophet with a message from G-d that he has to legitimise his position by a miracle or by prophesying an event that then takes place" (b. Sanhedrin 89b). This shows, says, Christopher Wright, "that prediction, although not the only or main aspect of the prophetic message, was an expected means of establishing a prophet's credentials. But it is very significant that the test is framed negatively, It cannot be reversed to imply that if a prophet's prediction came true he was therefore a true prophet for that reason alone."1
That shines light on some of the background to what we hear going on in the gospels: "And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven" (Matthew 16:1, NASB). Certainly, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees may have had other motives as well when they asked for an open sign, but they were working according to the accepted protocol of the time: if you want the status and credentials of 'prophet' then you have to perform some miracle beyond the ordinary, or you have to predict (in advance) some event that then takes place. Not put, perhaps in the most diplomatic way, but theirs was not an unusual or unexpected request.
Now let's interpret Yeshua's response: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah" (v. 4, NASB). He clearly rebukes the religious leaders for their lack of faith, but why? Because they had already seen, heard and been show evidence of many miracles - the healings, exorcisms and raising from the dead. As Yeshua has told John's disciples who, essentially, although they asked from right motives and in less aggressive words, asked the same question, "the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (11:5, NASB). To a hostile crowd, Yeshua said, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?" (John 10:32, NASB).
But look carefully at His next words. Yeshua says that the only sign that will be given was the sign of the prophet Jonah: "just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40, NASB). This, the largest of His signs, was predicted beforehand - "the Son of Man has to endure much suffering and be rejected by the elders, the head cohanim and the Torah-teachers; and He has to be put to death; but on the third day, He has to be raised to life" (Luke 9:22, CJB) - and then fufilled in every detail. When the women went to visit His tomb after the crucifixion, they found no body; only an angel told them, "He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you" (Matthew 28:6-7, NASB).
Speaking some months later to the crowds in the Temple courtyards after the healing of the man begging in the Jaffa Gate, Peter makes the link clear: "Moshe said, 'The L-rd G-d will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.' ... G-d, having raised up His servant, sent Him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness" (Acts 3:22,26, ESV). Here's another of Peter's "this is that" moments! Yeshua not only fulfilled prophecy, but He proved Himself to be the prophet by fulfilling the Torah's test for a true prophet. Walter Brueggemann points out that the Torah talks of "two types of prophet: one who commands Torah, one who anticipates YHVH's future."2 Yeshua does both! He is the one who must be fully obeyed as He calls us to accountability, offers us grace and salvation, rescues us from our sins and is coming to judge the earth.
1. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 218.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 196.
Further Study: D'varim 18:18-19; Isaiah 11:4-5; Psalm 96:11-13; Revelation 19:11-16
Application: The crucifixion and resurrection prove beyond doubt that Yeshua is the anointed Messiah of G-d, the king and high priest of Israel, the coming judge of the whole earth, and the promised Saviour of Israel and all those G-d has called from the nations: "And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd" (John 10:16, NASB). The only question is: are you in His flock? Ask Him today and make sure.
Comment - 10:55 28Aug22 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for this drash. Love the way the drash is crafted, starting with bringing forth the qualifications of a true prophet that will be verified. To the delivery, the authenticity of the signature of grace and truth, the prophet like Moshe, Yeshua of Nazareth. As we are in Elul, and the King Messiah is in the field, let us share our hearts honestly with the one who can make us Echad!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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