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Commentary: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The book of Deuteronomy is central to the Old Testament—some have even said that it is the center of the Old Testament. Yet, it remains a difficult book to read. One may not be certain about the date or place at which its various parts were composed. The introductory speeches (chapters 1-11) seem a bit repetitive. And a collection of laws or stipulations (chapters 12-26) is never easy to comprehend in toto. Nonetheless, for those interested in understanding Old Testament ethics, as well as the nature of ancient Israelite society and religion, there is no more comprehensive source than this complex book. To read texts such as Dt 6:5 is to enter a world of the most devout piety.
Portions of the Deuteronomic law code specify various religiously justified roles in ancient Israelite society, e.g., the judge (17:9), the king (17:14-20), the Levitical priest (18:1-8). Lesson five is part of these prescriptions; it specifies the role of the prophet.
Rationale for a Prophet (vv. 15-17)
The first two verses about the prophetic office provide a rationale for the prophetic role based on Israel's earlier experience with God. Verse 16 quotes the people speaking at Mount Sinai. Although these particular words are not preserved in the book of Exodus, the moment and emotion that spawned them is. God was present at Mount Sinai in a terrifying presence. When we read about thunder, lightning, and smoke (Ex 20:18), the picture seems to be an enormous earthquake and thunderstorm rolled into one. It is no wonder that the people were frightened. According to Ex 20:19, they spoke to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." (Such a fear was reasonably grounded since contact with the deity or the holy could be fatal [e.g.,2 Sam 6:6-7].) The people wanted an intermediary to speak God's words to them.
Although the Sinai accounts in Exodus do not define Moses as a prophet, the book of Deuteronomy does. It is really a creative move. One could have defined him as priest, since priests also act as intermediaries and speak words of God to the people. (There are hints elsewhere that a priestly group traced their heritage to Moses.) However, Moses is a prophet in the eyes of Deuteronomy; in fact, the prophet par excellence, "never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses" (Dt 34:10).
For the people to have asked for a prophet once did not necessarily involve a request that there be other prophets. Other prophets there were though, and Deuteronomy 18:15 provides the justification for them. (Notice the ambiguity in the translation and notes of v. 15, i.e., "prophet" versus "prophets.") In fact, there were times in Israel when prophets were prominent, e.g., the one hundred years before the defeat of Judah in 587 BCE, and other times when prophecy seemed relatively unimportant, e.g., after the rebuilding of the temple in 520 BCE. This variation raises questions about how appropriate prophecy is in various times, even our own.
One Notion of Prophetic Authority
(vv. 18-19)
Israelite prophets claimed different sorts of authority for their activities. Some claimed to have seen visions, others to have experienced dreams. Most prominent, however, is the motif of hearing or experiencing God's word, which is present in Dt 18:18. Some of the most prominent prophets stood in this tradition, namely, of claiming to have a direct word from the deity (see Jer 1:9; Ezek 2:9-3:4). In this sense, one may say that Jeremiah and Ezekiel are prophets
"like Moses." The deuteronomic prescription wanted to be precise about the nature of these words—they had to be spoken "in my name." Just to say "Act justly, behave in a righteous manner" would not count. Rather, the prophets had to establish their message as that of the deity's messenger. Hence, they used little phrases that identified them with the one who had sent them. The classic formula is "Thus says the Lord," which was used for centuries, viz., from at least the time of Amos (e.g., Amos 2:1) to the time of Ezekiel (Ezek 30:6). Anytime an Israelite heard someone using this language before a speech, they would know a prophet was active. And since they were Yahweh's words, people were expected to pay attention (though the biblical record is full of examples in which Israelites did not pay attention to God's words—and Jonah presents an interesting example of non-Israelites who did pay attention to God's words.).
False Prophets (vv. 20-22)
The last three verses wrestle with a profound problem: How does one discern phony prophets? In Israel, one criterion was the identity of the deity being proclaimed. If it was not Yahweh, e.g., Ba`al, the people would not have to heed that individual (and were to execute that person). The far more difficult case involved the prophet who speaks in Yahweh's name, but offers a word that Yahweh had not spoken, the so-called false prophet. Here the prescription stipulates that people need to wait and see if the word comes true. If one had the luxury of waiting, this test might have helped. But we may read episodes such as Jeremiah 28 in which Jeremiah and another prophet, Hananiah, were in conflict. One had to be a false prophet. And yet, how were people to respond in the immediate crisis? Deuteronomy 18 is of limited help here, as it is today when people within religious traditions stand in fundamental conflict and both claim to be right. Maybe prophecy worked best when there was only one prophet around.
David L. Peterson