Our parashah this week raises a very interesting question about prophets and prophecy. It also raises an important issue about how to relate to other forms of monotheism. In Deuteronomy 18, God speaks to Moses about the people of Israel with these words: "I will raise up for them from among their own people a prophet like yourself, in whose mouth I will put My words and who will speak to them all that I command; and anybody who fails to heed the words [the prophet] speaks in My name, I Myself will call to account" (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).
The Hebrew term for "prophet" is navi, a word that comes from the old Hebrew word to call or proclaim — in this case, to call out or proclaim the word of God. Moses is the prophet par excellence, but the Patriarchs and some of the Matriarchs are also considered prophets because they also received communication from God. So are the prophets who came after Moses, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and dozens of lesser-known prophets as well. Our passage warns the people to obey the words of future prophets who will arise and speak to Israel in God's name.
Prophets have an authoritative voice because they speak for God. God's authority surpasses all else, so prophets outrank the king and even the High Priest in the Temple. That's why they were so beloved by some, but also considered dangerous to others. When the prophet Micaiah told the king of Israel something he didn't want to hear, the king put him in prison (I Kings 22:13-28). Jeremiah was threatened, beaten, put into stocks, and thrown into a dungeon from where he cried out, "And I was like a docile lamb that is led to the slaughter" (Jeremiah 11:19). Other prophets weren't so lucky. Uriah the prophet was killed by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 26:20-23), and the prophet Zechariah was stoned to death (II Chronicles 24:20-21).
Prophets are, by their office, threatening to the status quo. They speak out for the poor and for the unprotected. They require governing authorities to rule justly. They also, sometimes, speak lies and demand evil practices.
The Talmud calls one who is in this group a "false prophet," nevi sheker (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89a), but in the Bible they are also referred to as prophets, though prophets who give false messages in God's name or who prophesy in the name of false gods. Our passage continues: "that prophet shall die," umet hanavi hahu (Deuteronomy 18:20).
The issue of false prophets is not merely theoretical, but something that affects us even today. Today, of course, it is not acceptable to kill people we consider false prophets, but we are nevertheless confronted with people who claim to speak sometimes quite strange utterances in the name of God, and they are not simply upsetting. They can be deadly.
Cult leaders, for example, often claim the authority to found new religions in God's name, and sometimes these religions teach strange and even dangerous messages. Or not. Sometimes they simply believe that they are receiving divine communication, and the message they receive is not problematic at all — just different, or perhaps strange. But they may not necessarily be stranger than some of the biblical prophets. As my Bible professor Harry Orlinsky taught many years ago, if the prophet Zechariah were walking around in Manhattan he probably would have been locked up. (That was before the law was changed that required releasing many types of disturbed people who should probably be hospitalized and cared for).
Scholars of religion remind us that all the great religions began as something like "cult movements" led by prophets who went against the status quo. They were always opposed by the establishment religions for the same reasons that we tend to abhor new religious movements today. New religions are inherently threatening because their very existence is a statement that something is lacking in the old religions.
Academics in the field of religion sometimes tell this joke. Question: What's the difference between a cult and a religion? Answer: About a hundred years. If a "cult" survives one hundred years, it must grudgingly be considered a religion by the establishment. Such is the case with the Mormons, for example (the LDS Church), and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Such was also the case with early Christianity and Islam, and probably the religion of the Bible.
So how can we tell whether a prophet is a "true prophet" (nevi emet) or a false prophet (nevi sheker)? Our passage gives us an answer: "And should you ask yourselves, 'How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Eternal?' If the prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Eternal; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of that person" (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
That piece of advice is helpful in relation to those self-proclaimed prophets who warn that the world will end tomorrow or perhaps next week or next year. This kind of prophecy has a cut-off date. If it doesn't happen, then the person is not a real prophet.
But if you look at the profound and familiar prophecies found in the utterances of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other biblical prophets, you will find no cut-off date. And if you examine the prophetic utterances of the New Testament from the Gospels to Revelation or read the announcements of the approaching Endtime, with its cosmic signs found in the Qur'an, you will find no concrete markers, no indicators that can be used to invalidate them. The prophetic utterances found in all our scriptures are couched in language vague enough that it is virtually impossible to claim that they are wrong, the time has lapsed, and they did not come to pass. Here is some helpful advice for aspiring prophets. Never give a cut-off date. Remain subtle and mysterious, (it may save your life).
But in all seriousness, we are occasionally confronted by extraordinarily inspiring people who offer good and perhaps stunningly remarkable advice, though sometimes a bit strange as well. Sometimes, such inspiring people seem to be inspired themselves. We learn from our passage on prophecy that it is important to listen to them. Do not dismiss such people out of hand, even when their message may seem a bit wacky. They may have something truly important to contribute. They may even be prophetic.
But we are also cautioned to listen carefully and weigh the message by our own standards of reasonableness. We must be truly open to new ideas, but we must not allow ourselves to be deceived.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and Senior Fellow in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.