“When you come into the land which G-d your G-d gives you, do not learn to do as the abominations of those nations.” (Deut. 18:9) The list of abominations includes fortunetellers, warlocks, those who pass their children through fire, inquirers of the dead, and Onnanim and Kosmim, who give signs based on times and events respectively. G-d says, “For it is an abomination to G-d, all who do these things, and because of these abominations, G-d has banished them from before you. Perfect shall you be with G-d, your G-d.” (ibid, 18:12,13)
The next few verses are interesting. Moses says to the Jews:
“For these nations that you inherit, to the Onnanim and to the Kosmim do they listen, and you, not so has G-d given you. A prophet from your midst, from your brothers like me will G-d your G-d raise up for you, to him shall you listen. As all that you requested from G-d your G-d at Horeb (Sinai) on the day of the Assembly saying, ‘I cannot continue to hear the voice of my G-d, and this great fire, I cannot continue to gaze at, so I shall not die’. And G-d said to me, ‘They have spoken well. A prophet I will raise for the from among their brothers like you, and I will place My word in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command. And it will be the man who does not heed to My word that he speaks in My name, I will exact punishment from him. However, the prophet who wickedly speaks a matter in My name that I did not command him to speak, and that he speaks in the name of other gods, and you shall kill that prophet’. And when your say in your heart, ‘How shall I know the matter that G-d has not said?’ That which a prophet says in G-d’s name, and the matter does not come about, it does not eventuate…that is the matter which G-d did not speak of, with evil did that prophet speak, do not fear him.” (ibid, 18:14-22)
We are struck with a few questions. Are we to understand the prophet’s purpose is to simply take the place of fortunetellers? I ask this, as the verses state:
“For these nations that you inherit, to the Onnanim and to the Kosmim do they listen, and you, not so has G-d given you. A prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me, will G-d your G-d raise up for you, to him shall you listen.”
If it is an abomination to inquire from Onnanim and Kosmim, what then is the difference if we inquire of the future from a prophet? It also seems from these two verses, that the prophet comes to address future events. However, we know that prophets existed long before this era. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. were all prophets. They did not function to forecast events. So we wonder about the apparent inconsistency in the roles of previous and subsequent prophets.
My second question is based on these verses:
“As all that you requested from G-d your G-d at Horeb (Sinai) on the day of the Assembly saying, ‘I cannot continue to hear the voice of my G-d, and this great fire, I cannot continue to gaze at, so I shall not die’. And G-d said to me, ‘They have spoken well. A prophet I will raise for the from among their brothers like you, and I will place My word in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command.”
From here, it appears that had the Jews not requested Moses to intervene at the Revelation at Sinai, protecting them from the intolerable, mighty sounds and sights, “prophets” would not become an institution. G-d’s response to their request is:
“They have spoken well. A prophet I will raise for the from among their brothers like you, and I will place My word in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command.”
As prophets predated Sinai, how do we understand G-d’s words that prophets appear to be a response?
Additionally, we learn that prophecy is a natural result of one’s perfection, as Maimonides states:
“…a person must satisfy the following conditions before he can become a prophet: The substance of the brain must from the very beginning be in the most perfect condition as regards purity of matter, composition of its different parts, size and position: no part of his body must suffer from ill-health; he must in addition have studied and acquired wisdom, so that his rational faculty passes from a state of potentiality to that of actuality; his intellect must be as developed and perfect as human intellect can be; his passions pure and equally balanced; all his desires must aim at obtaining a knowledge of the hidden laws and causes that are in force in the Universe; his thoughts must be engaged in lofty matters: his attention directed to the knowledge of God, the consideration of His works, and of that which he must believe in this respect. There must be an absence of the lower desires and appetites, of the seeking after pleasure in eating, drinking, and cohabitation: and, in short, every pleasure connected with the sense of touch.” “A man who satisfies these conditions, whilst his fully developed imagination is inaction, influenced by the Active Intellect according to his mental training - such a person will undoubtedly perceive nothing but things very extraordinary and divine, and see nothing but God and His angels. His knowledge will only include that which is real knowledge, and his thought will only he directed to such general principles as would tend to improve the social relations between man and man.” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XXXVI)
Prophecy is described here as a natural result of one’s perfection – not as it appears from Deuteronomy – a response to the Jews’ request that Moses intervene.
We therefore have three questions: 1) What is the difference if we consult Onnanim or Kosmim instead of prophets? 2) Why is ‘forecasting’ the mark of a prophet, as opposed to miracles or some other distinction? And 3) Would we have prophets today, had the Jews not asked Moses to intervene at Sinai?
Prophets vs Idolaters
Ibn Ezra addresses the first question, which should be obvious to us all. He says that Moses told the people that G-d would raise a prophet “like me”. Meaning, “That he is a prophet of G-d, and not an enchanter.” (Ibn Ezra, Deut.18:15)
Our prophets differ from enchanters, soothsayers and diviners, in that our prophets receive true knowledge “from G-d.” They speak of reality, not fantasy, as do all others. “The Lord God hath spoken, who shall not prophesy?” (Amos 3:8) All others are false. The command “…do not learn to do as the abominations of those nations” must be understood as, “do not inquire of falsehoods.” We are informed that G-d’s prophets alone obtain the knowledge of the future. This brings us to our next answer.
Forecasting: Proof of Prophecy
G-d defines the prerequisites of prophecy: completely accurate forecasts, not miracles. Why should forecasts prove one as a prophet, and not miracles?
One area that man possesses no knowledge, ideas of which must emanate from G-d, is knowledge of the future. Such knowledge reaches man only through a prophetic vision. There is no other means. Man can perform elaborate sleight-of-hand, illusions, and mind-reading ploys. However, even these will not fool an astute observer – he will see through the smoke and mirrors. However, no one can predict the future.
Our minds work by observation via sense perception. Perception, by definition, is the act of sensing “that which already exists”. Sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell can only function when the perceived object is already in existence. Hence, that which does not yet exist (i.e., the future) is impossible for man to perceive. So when someone forecasts the future with exact precision – when the most minute detail of his forecast comes true – we know he is trustworthy to be a prophet. “Trustworthy?” you ask. “Should not this confirm 100% prophecy upon him?” you say. Yes, in accordance with Maimonides: “And if his words come about completely, he is ‘believed’ in our eyes. And we test him many times. If we find all his words to be true, then he is a true prophet.” (Laws of Torah Fundamentals. 10:1-2) The Torah says that prophecy is that which G-d gives to man: “…and I will place My word in his mouth…” (Deut. 18:18) The requirement, Maimonides states, to test the prophet many times, indicates that even on one occasion, someone may successfully guess correctly at the future. But this cannot happen consistently. But when someone does consistently predict the future with minute details, then he is confirmed to be a prophet.
Additionally, and in accordance with Maimonides above, and as Nachmonides states (Deut. 18:21) we accept one as a prophet, as he has already displayed an unwavering adherence to G-d's word, and a high level of intelligence. G-d relates to someone on a high level, not a simpleton. Hence, a perfected and intelligent person would be accepted as a prophet, if all other requirements were met. Maimonides too states, “We must examine the merits of the person, obtain an accurate account of his actions, and consider his character. The best test is the rejection, abstention, and contempt of bodily pleasures: for this is the first condition of men, and a fortiori [certainly] of prophets.” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XL)
However, we would dismiss a self-proclaimed prophet who displayed none of the prerequisite perfections. Even if one were to perform a feat we could not explain, but simultaneously deviated from G-d's word, he would not be accepted as a prophet. Miracles do not qualify one as a prophet, he must be perfected, intelligent, and adhere exactly to G-d's Torah Laws and philosophy. Certainly, when a prophet would deviate from Torah, we will uncover his miracles as clever manipulations, and nothing more. G-d will not enable impostors to effectuate miracles, as this would deceive man, not educate him. True prophets did not veer at all from G-d's Torah. Had they done so, we are commanded by G-d's words to kill them.
“There were prophets before Moses, as the patriarchs Shem, Eber, Noah, Methushelah, and Enoch, but of these none said to any portion of mankind that God sent him to them and commanded him to convey to them a certain message or to prohibit or to command a certain thing. Such a thing is not related in Scripture, or in authentic tradition. Divine prophecy reached them as we have explained. Men like Abraham, who received a large measure of prophetic inspiration, called their fellow men together and led them by training and instruction to the truth which they had perceived. Thus Abraham taught, and showed by philosophical arguments that there is one God, that He has created everything that exists beside Him, and that neither the constellations nor anything in the air ought to be worshipped; he trained his fellow-men in this belief, and won their attention by pleasant words as well as by acts of kindness. Abraham did not tell the people that God had sent him to them with the command concerning certain things, which should or should not be done. Even when it was commanded that he, his sons, and his servants should be circumcised, he fulfilled that commandment, but he did not address his fellow men prophetically on this subject. That Abraham induced his fellow men to do what is right, telling them only his own will [and not that of God], may be learnt from the following passage of Scripture: “For I know him, because he commands his sons and his house after him, to practice righteousness and judgment” (Gen. xix. 19). Also Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kohath, and Amram influenced their fellow men in the same way. Our Sages, when speaking of prophets before Moses, used expressions like the following: The bet-din (court of justice) of Eber, the bet-din of Methushelah, and in the college of Methushelah; although all these were prophets, yet they taught their fellow-men in the manner of preachers, teachers, and pedagogues, but did not use such phrases as the following:” And God said to me, Speak to certain people so and so.” This was the state of prophecy before Moses. But as regards Moses, you know what [God] said to him, what he said [to the people], and the words addressed to him by the whole nation:” This day we have seen that God doth talk with man, and that he liveth.”(Deut.V.21)” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XXXIX)
Of course, there were indeed prophets prior to Moses, and the Jews’ request that Moses intervene at Sinai. However, Maimonides’ primary lesson here is that which another Rabbi expounded upon: the patriarchs did not refer to their prophecies as a means of inducing others to follow G-d. The method used by the patriarchs to teach others was “reasoning”. Their wish was to imbue other people of the truth of G-d’s existence, and His desire for justice and morality: “For I know him, because he commands his sons and his house after him, to practice righteousness and judgment.” Abraham taught by means of rational arguments, not by means of coercion, or citing G-d’s word is the reason to act.
The patriarchs taught a “method” of living: following reason. They desired that man recognize his intelligence, and its precise design for unlocking knowledge. This is man’s primary mission, enabling his utmost happiness, and the path man must follow in all of his daily activities…for this is how the world runs; on reason. Reasoning allows man to arrive at truths, and gain knowledge of reality, which fills man’s life with purpose and the highest level of fulfillment.
But Maimonides says, “This was the state of prophecy before Moses.” We therefore ask, “What is the state of prophecy subsequent to Moses?” Again, the Torah says:
“A prophet from your midst, from your brothers like me will G-d your G-d raise up for you, to him shall you listen. As all that you requested from G-d your G-d at Horeb (Sinai) on the day of the Assembly saying, ‘I cannot continue to hear the voice of my G-d, and this great fire, I cannot continue to gaze at, so I shall not die’. And G-d said to me, ‘They have spoken well. A prophet I will raise for the from among their brothers like you, and I will place My word in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command.”
What bearing does the Jews’ isolated request at Sinai have on the state of prophecy from that point, and forever? Ramban addresses this question. (Deut. 18:16) He says that just as the Jews requested Moses to hear G-d’s word and convey it to them, so too, the Jews thereby accepted the institution of prophecy, eternally. This makes sense. The Jews were not saying Moses alone was fit to convey G-d’s word, but that any prophet should obtain G-d’s word on their behalf, and teach them what His will is.
What is the state of prophecy subsequent to Moses? Maimonides writes:
“The history of all our prophets that lived after Moses is well known to you; they performed, as it were, the function of warning the people and exhorting them to keep the Law of Moses, threatening evil to those who would neglect it, and announcing blessings to those who would submit to its guidance. This we believe will always be the case.” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XXXIX)
“But the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man; he must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, and the order of society be well established. I therefore maintain that the Law, though not a product of Nature, is nevertheless not entirely foreign to Nature. It being the will of God that our race should exist and be permanently established, He in His wisdom gave it such properties that men can acquire the capacity of ruling others. Some persons are therefore inspired with theories of legislation, such as prophets and lawgivers: others possess the power of enforcing the dictates of the former, and of compelling people to obey them, and to act accordingly.” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XL)
Maimonides teaches that the goal of prophets subsequent to Moses, was to enforce the Torah. Torah did not exist prior to Moses; so previous prophets did not have the role of enforcing the G-d-given Torah system. The perfection of the patriarchal prophets was their desire to help others realize G-d and reality through the exclusive use of intelligence. For this reason, G-d selected them as forefathers of a nation, that they should be the example of the pinnacle of human perfection, i.e., men who realize G-d and truth with the intelligence alone. However, G-d’s will demanded that at a precise moment in history, a system be forged and promulgated. Once this Torah system was given, prophets now played a different role, as Maimonides clearly states.
“They Have Spoken Well”
We may ask one more question: Why did G-d say, “They have spoken well” in connection with this request of the Jews that Moses intervenes? To answer this question, let us read G-d’s plan of Revelation at Sinai, as He told to Moses:
“Behold, I will come to you in the thickness of cloud, so the people will hear when I speak to you, and also in you will they believe forever…” (Exod. 19:9)
G-d tells Moses that one purpose of Revelation at Sinai was to validate Moses as a prophet, “…also in you will they believe forever...” Since Sinai was to serve this purpose, when the people said to Moses that he should intervene on their behalf, they were in effect proving G-d’s words that Moses will be believed. As such, G-d responds in parshas Shoftim, “They have spoken well.” Meaning, the Jews’ suggestion was precisely in line with G-d’s plan.
We also learn from Maimonides’ inclusion of prophecy as one of the 13 principles, that this institution is essential to our concept of G-d. For without our conviction in prophecy, we falsely conclude that G-d does not direct man, neither does He desire our best life. Without knowledge of prophecy, man concludes, as did Aristotle, that G-d is not concerned with mankind. However, as a Rabbi once taught, our mark of distinction – the Tzelem Elokim (intelligence) is named after G-d Himself – indicating this faculty’s central role in our lives, and G-d’s exclusive cause not only of our creation, but of His plan for us.
Prophets, subsequent to Sinai, were not given prophecy as a “response” to the Jews’ words. Prophets as teachers of Torah would have risen regardless, as G-d said to Moses in Exodus above. And prophets as perfected individuals always existed, and would continue, as Maimonides taught: it all depends on one’s perfection. We learn that Onnanim or Kosmim lie to mankind, while prophets speak only that which emanates from G-d’s wisdom. Therefore, “forecasting” is the singular mark of a true prophet, as this is one area in which man has undeniably received G-d’s words, and cannot be mimicked by charlatans.