By John C. Holbert
Lectionary Reflections on Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
The context is Deuteronomy, usually assigned by scholarship to the 7th century BCE, a document having something to do with the discovery of a scroll in the rebuilding temple of Jerusalem by some workers employed by King Josiah for the task. Upon examination of the scroll, and upon its authentication by the rather surprising female prophet, Huldah, Josiah proceeds to alter the course of Israel’s life following the commands he has read. He centralizes the worship of Israel in Jerusalem, thereby ordering the demolition of all ancient shrines outside of the capital. This action surely had a profound effect on the rural economies, many of which were centered in those shrines and their priests and their sacrificial practices. And that was only one symptom of a more general crackdown on what was now seen as a laxness in religious beliefs and practices. Deut 18:15-20 must be seen in that light.
The literary fiction of Deuteronomy is that Moses is preaching a series of sermons to the Israelites who are assembled at the verge of the land of promise, having survived their long forty-year sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai. In his sermons Moses warns and cajoles and promises and challenges with laws and statutes that he has received from YHWH, among which are included the famous ten words of the Decalogue (Deut 5: 6-21 and echoed in Exodus 20:2-17—which of these lists is chronologically primary is a mystery sealed in the past forever). As a part of the current sermon of Chapter 18, the preacher turns to the subject of prophets and what is to happen after the great Moses himself is no longer with them, a reality they will experience far sooner than many had imagined (see Deut 34).
“A prophet from among you, from among your kin, just like me, YHWH your God will raise up; you all must listen to him.” Moses first tells his congregation that they need not fear his absence, since YHWH is always in the business of raising up prophets just like Moses. Moreover, the new prophets will be “just like him,” presumably equal in stature and reliability. Furthermore, they will not be strangers, but rather “from among you, your own kin.” They all know Moses; he is one of them, one who has suffered with them and because of them. YHWH’s new prophets will be the same, he promises. And because all that is so about the new prophet, they all “must listen to him.” They must take his word as authoritative just as they accepted the word of God from Moses’ lips.
This will happen, Moses continues, precisely because this is “in accordance with all that you asked from YHWH your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly.” When Israel gathered at the base of the sacred mountain (sometimes called Sinai), they showed great fear, and demanded an intermediary who would stand between them and the fiery YHWH. They said, “I never again wish to hear the voice of YHWH my God nor see that great fire lest I die!” Perhaps in the background of this fear lies the memorable tale of the calf of gold and the heroic actions of this same Moses to rescue them from the fury of their God (Ex 32). And YHWH can only agree with them, telling Moses that ‘they are right in what they say.” And as a result, “A prophet I will raise up for them from among their own kin, just like you, Moses, and I will place my words on his lips, and he will speak to them all that I command them.” And with that final “them,” the text becomes a bit less clear. For now it could be that Moses is not referring to one future prophet only but to many prophets who will follow him and YHWH. Indeed, the NRSV footnotes to this passage’s translation suggest that the complex movement between one prophet only and multiple prophets is common in this Hebrew text. Of course, it is obvious that the early Christian communities much preferred to read the passage as speaking of one prophet so as to tie the promise to the one they called the Christ. The text, however, is more ambiguous.
“Now anyone who does not listen to the words that I command in my name, I will seek after that one” (NRSV—“I myself will hold accountable”). Vs 19 warns that all must listen to the new prophet for fear of YHWH’s deep displeasure. But vs 20 moves toward the danger for the prophet him or herself. “Yet, any prophet who dares to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him or her to speak or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet will die!” Harsh words indeed! The people had better listen to the prophets “like Moses” who are sure to come, and the prophets had better speak what they are called to speak and to speak only in the name of YHWH.
Well, all that is clear enough: listen only to YHWH-inspired prophets like Moses, and, if you are one of them, speak only words inspired by that same YHWH. But an obvious problem lingers: how can you know who speaks for YHWH, and so how can you know that the one to whom you are listening is in fact inspired by YHWH to speak? The answers to those questions hardly have easy answers, and the one very soon offered by Deuteronomy is patently useless. “How can we recognize a word YHWH has not spoken,” some smart Israelite asks the preacher, Moses? He replies, “If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH, and the thing does not happen nor appear, the word is not YHWH’s word; it is a presumptuous word. Do not fear it” (Deut 18:21-22)!
Well? The question remains: how are we to know? How are we to know that a new Moses-like prophet has come among us? How are we to test whether she speaks the word of YHWH or not? Perhaps Deuteronomy’s vain attempt to provide physical criteria for truth shows us where we always must turn: persistent and active faith in a God who will always give us prophets like Moses. We finally cannot absolutely KNOW. We can only trust. But such trust is not a one-time thing; it is a struggle over time, involving keen effort and deep persistence. What we can know is that God will always give us prophets. But it is always up to us to discern their truth—or the lack thereof.