True and False Prophets

By Bakon, Shimon | Jewish Bible Quarterly, July-September 2011 | Go to article overview

True and False Prophets


Bakon, Shimon, Jewish Bible Quarterly


I will raise up a prophet ... like you (Moses). I will put My words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command them (Deut. 18:18). Moses assures the children of Israel that God will raise up prophets for them. These prophets will be like Moses serving as teachers and guides for their generation, instructing that which the Lord puts in their mouths. However, the exact criteria of what constitutes them as true prophets are very scant. If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the word does not come true, that word was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him (Deut. 18:22).

According to rabbinic tradition, there were 48 prophets and seven prophetesses (TB Megillah 14a) [69 according to the Vilna Gaon]. Although the only biblical sign of a true prophet is accurately foretelling the future, some prophets seemed to have gained acceptance among the people without this. For example, Samuel was told by God that the house of Eli would be destroyed (I Sam. 3:11-14) which did come to pass (I Sam. 4:16-18), however the popular acceptance of Samuel as a prophet preceded the fulfillment of his dire prediction (I Sam. 3:20). Similarly, Nathan, well known for his courageous denouncement of King David in the sordid affair of Batsheva, is termed a prophet (II Sam. 7:2) even before he foretells the future, that David will defeat his enemies and his son will build the Temple (II Sam. 7:11-13). Since these prophecies would only be proven to be true a long time later, it may be that other, unrecorded prophecies of more immediate events were given to establish the veracity of these prophets.

Early prophets had many roles, ranging from helping people find mundane lost objects (I Sam. 9:6) to reviving the dead (I Kgs. 17:22, II Kgs. 4:35). However, the performance of a miracle is not proof that the prophet is true (Deut. 13:2-4). With the latter prophets, from Amos and Hosea to Malachi, prophecy as

we understand it today came to full fruition. They shared the following characteristics:

1. They served as the religious and moral conscience of Israel, berating the people for their misdeeds in tones "one octave too high" to use the terminology of A.J. Heschel in his magnum opus The Prophets.

2. They based their ministry on the firm belief that they were in the counsel (sod) of the Lord. To quote Amos: The Lord will do nothing, but He revealeth His counsel to His servants, the prophets (Amos 3:7). This sentiment is shared by Jeremiah (23:18).

3. They warned that disaster would strike as punishment for sins committed, which through true penitence could be avoided.

4. On the strength of being in the counsel of the Lord, they would make predictions for the future. Thus, Jeremiah predicted 70 years in advance the downfall of mighty Babylon. And when the seventy years of Babylon are over, I will take note of you and I will fulfill My promise to bring you back to this place (Jer. 25:12; 29:10).

5. They had a vision of a glorious future, following a Day of Reckoning. Today, looking back in hindsight, we know for sure who the true prophets were. However, projecting ourselves back to the time of their ministry, when two "prophets" were speaking in the name of the Lord, proclaiming contrasting messages, who was to be believed to be the true prophet? A classic example of this dilemma is the confrontation of Micaiah vs. Zedekiah at the end of the reign of King Ahab (I Kgs. 22:6-28). In this incident, Deuteronomy 18:20-22 offers a clear solution. If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the word does not come true, that word was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him (Deut. 18:22).

MICAIAH VS. ZEDEKIAH

How can we know the word which the Lord has spoken? The Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 89a), discussing the question of false prophets, specifically points to Zedekiah who "prophesied what he had not heard", presuming to speak in the name of the Lord, and to Hananiah son of Azzur (Jer. …

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