Knowing What God Wants

August 17th: Shof’tim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week's portion begins with the appointment of judges and officials who will, hopefully, "govern the people with righteous judgment." (Deuteronomy 16.18). A few chapters later, we get to a different kind of job assignment, the appointment of prophets. In Deuteronomy 18.15, we read,
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself (Moses); him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear the voice of the Lord God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.’ Whereupon the Lord said to me, ‘They have done well in speaking thus. 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; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call  him to account. 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.”

Back at Mount Sinai (here called Horeb), the people found the direct voice of God too much to handle, so they ask for Moses to be an intermediary between God and them (Exodus 20.15-16). God agrees with this arrangement and speaks through Moses for many years. Now, in preparing to enter the Promised Land, God and Moses want to make sure that the people will listen to any future prophets.

God also warns any potential charlatans that the penalty for impersonating a prophet is death. The problem is that, short of some kind of miraculous striking down of a false prophet, the people need a way to know whether someone walking in from the desert and declaring “Thus saith the Lord” is really sent by God. One condition is in the above passage: the prophet should never say that we should follow other gods. A second condition follows:
“And should you ask yourselves, ‘How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?’—if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of him.”  (Deuteronomy 18.21-22)

This seems simple enough, but what if the oracle does come true? Does it mean that everything the prophet says is the will of God? In last week's portion, an additional condition is added:
“If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives a sign or a portent, saying, ‘Let us follow and worship another god’—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the Lord you God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him, and host fast to Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death…” (Deuteronomy 13.2-6)

It is not just a matter of oracles or portents coming true, nor just of not pursuing other gods. This passage introduces the theme of observing God’s commandments alone—alone, without any changes. In other words, this passage was understood as saying that any change from the instructions in the Written Torah is ipso facto a false prophecy—and that false prophet is to be put to death. In other words, the real condition for a prophet’s authenticity is that he adheres to God’s written instructions (the Torah) and does not change them at all.  

Let us switch gears for a minute. In the Documentary Hypothesis approach to Biblical Studies, the Torah is not seen as a unified text but rather the compiled/edited combination of several pre-existing documents from different tribes, traditions, and times. Most scholars think that Deuteronomy dates from around 620 BCE (some 600 years after Moses) and reflects an attempt to fix some problems the religion had been experiencing—one of which was a plethora of different prophets, each declaring a different "word of the Lord." The fix took a while—and, of course, it was interrupted by the Destruction of Jerusalem in 586 and the Babylonian Exile, but around 500 BCE, we see pretty much the end of prophecy.

Why did prophecy stop? The traditional understanding (Orthodox Judaism) is that God just stopped sending prophets because God had already said everything that needed to be said, and it was written in the Torah and the books of the Prophets. Historical scholarship (for example, from Ellis Rivkin) suggests that the prophetic process became too uncontrolled, too variable, and too dangerous as the newly returned exiles were trying to put Judaism and Judah back together again while remaining loyal to the Persian Empire (under which the exiles were allowed to return). 

If someone had aspirations for leadership, couching them in the traditional words “Thus saith the Lord” was dangerous. If the ideas were new, the speaker could be labeled a false prophet. If the ideas were not new, then there was no reason to claim them as a revelation from God; the speaker could just interpret the already written words—in the Torah and Books of the Prophets. In other words, after 500 BCE, there was no reason for prophets to proclaim God's wishes for us, and the institution just faded away.


A modern question to consider: how do we know what God wants us to do?