Light from the Sidra

Shoftim ('Judges')

Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Prophet and loss

I once attended the meeting of a ‘Christian Spiritualist Church’. The only reason I attended was that an advert in the local paper invited the general public to attend and promised a question and answer session. On that basis I decided to go. I had expected a few elderly ladies sitting round a table in semi-darkness asking if anyone was there but the hall was filled with professional people, there was no table and lights were on all the time. However, cut a long story short, the questions I asked upset the resident clairvoyant and everyone else in the hall, so much so that at the end of the meeting everyone crowded around me to impart a piece of their mind. Suddenly, a man pushed his way through the crowd, stuck a finger in my face and declared angrily, ‘Listen to me, you. I’m a Jew and I come here!

‘Then you should be ashamed of yourself,’ I said. I told him that he had abandoned the God of his fathers to follow something Moses and the Prophets condemned. Furthermore, the clairvoyant was an obvious fake; her cold readings had been way off mark every time she made a pronouncement.

‘You gotta have blind faith,’ he shot back.

Blind faith, I told him, leaves you vulnerable to every con artist in the book. He should repent and go back to the Bible, in which Moses and the Hebrew Prophets speak with unerring accuracy. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, God warned Israel that the inhabitants of the land into which he was bringing them practiced divination, told fortunes, interpreted omens, practiced sorcery and spiritualism. These practices are abominations and Israel, as the people of Yahweh, is to be ‘whole-hearted’ (JPS translation) with their God.

In the following verses, YHWH assures his people that they will continue to have supernatural revelation because he will raise up from among them a prophet like Moses. Like Moses, the prophet will speak God’s words to the people and those who do not obey the prophet will be cut off from Israel.

False prophets – those who claimed to speak from God – were to die but how could anyone know who was a true prophet? Simple. If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH and the prophecy he utters does not come to pass or come true, he’s a false prophet.

After the death of Moses there were, of course, a number of true prophets but none of them can be said to equal Moses. Indeed, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy (34:10f), a later scribe has added: ‘And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land’ (JPS translation).

‘The Prophet’ was to be mighty in both word and deed. Like Moses, he was to be a worker of miracles and an accurate foreteller of the future. In the Second Temple period, Moses’ prediction of the ‘Prophet’ like him was regarded by both Jews and Samaritans (who accepted only the books of Moses as the Word of God) as a prophecy of the Messiah.

Since the Second Temple era there have been a number of contenders for the title of Messiah. Only two of them now have any followers: Shabbatai Tzvi and Jesus of Nazareth. Shabbatai Tzvi has a tiny remnant of disciples but Jesus of Nazareth has millions of Jewish and Gentile followers, a number that grows literally by the hour.

No miracles were ascribed to Shabbatai Tzvi, nor did he utter any prophecies that came to pass, but the four written accounts of the life of Jesus (two of them first-hand accounts, the other two based on eye-witness testimony) record his healing of lepers, cripples, the blind, the lame and even the raising of the dead.

Jewish anti-missionaries are quick to respond that Deuteronomy 13 warns Israel against miracle workers who seek to lead Israel astray from their God. Such occasions are a test from YHWH to see if the Jewish people will love him with all their heart and soul.

‘Miracles’ alone prove nothing. There have always been charlatans and stage magicians who are smart enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible and the unwary. The test of whether a miracle worker is from God is whether he teaches truth, and Deuteronomy 18 adds to that by providing a check and balance to chapter 13. Miracles, loyalty to God and true prophecy are a threefold cord that can’t be broken.

Jesus of Nazareth not only performed astonishing miracles, he also uttered remarkable prophecies about the manner of his own death: that he would be betrayed to the Sanhedrin by one of his own disciples; that he would be handed over to the Romans to be tortured and crucified; and that he would rise from the dead on the third day. Speaking in 33CE, he also prophesied that within forty years the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed so completely that ‘not one stone would be left on another.’

If Jesus is not the Messiah, Israel has been without a prophet of God for almost 2,500 years. If there have been no prophets in Israel of two-and-a-half millennia, what does that say about Moses? The absence of prophets for so long surely casts doubt on Moses’ qualifications as a prophet of God! But if the Prophet like Moses – the Messiah – did come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Moses is vindicated as a true prophet and Israel need no longer wait in hope for a Messiah who tarries.

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