Studying Deuteronomy 18 15-22

We are studying a particularly historically contentious text, from the standpoint of the history of interpretation, for Sunday, March 7: Deuteronomy 18:15-22, which includes the promise of a “prophet like Moses” and a test for authenticating non-false prophets. We’ll need some extra sensitivity to “contexts of interpretation” for this one, I expect. [Some questions on the text are here.] In the meantime, here are a few notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We haven’t spent much time in Deuteronomy – this is just our third text from Deuteronomy in almost five years. [See notes here and here.] That’s striking, actually, considering how significant the text of Deuteronomy is, historically and canonically and thematically and practically, especially in the context of rabbinic Judaism. Also considering how often Jesus quoted it. The person at seminary who told me Jesus quotes it more often than any other scripture was mistaken – Jesus quotes Psalms the most – but not by much. Deuteronomy takes second place.

The traditional understanding of the authorship and date of the text diverges a lot from the contemporary scholarly view. We might have learned in Sunday school to call Deuteronomy one of the “five books of Moses.” Scholars, however, think of Deuteronomy as a work of the 7th century BCE, a post-exilic work. The existing text represents carefully edited existing sources along with new material, giving readers a sophisticated expression of exclusive faithfulness to the God of Israel (YHWH) as observance of torah. [There is a very nice, condensed treatment of the history of the text online as a lesson plan here; don’t be distracted by the typos.]

This text presents itself as the record of Moses’s sermonic address to the Israelites assembled on the Plains of Moab, just before their entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan. We could read it as a constitution for the way of life of the covenant faithful in that world to come.

An important question for the rabbis, and the early Christians, and now for us, is how that constitution and way of life pertains to “us” – and who, indeed, “we” are in relation to this text.

The early Christians subscribed to a messianic reading of the text. That reading was canonized in Acts 3:19-24. Some of their non-Christian Jewish counterparts also read the text with messianic expectation. Later rabbinical interpreters, however, like Rashi, explained the reference to “a prophet like Moses” differently, as having to do with drawing prophets from within, rather than from outside, the community of Israel.

Rather than joining the ranks of those who make statements about “what the text really says” along these lines, I recommend noticing that the messianic reading, in particular, is “how we [Christians] read it” – or tend to. I count myself in that “we.” When I come across Moses saying “the Holy One will raise up for you a prophet like me” my mind jumps right to Jesus, automatically. It takes my next heartbeat to remember that reading it that way is always already an interpretive choice.

As Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler point out,

… after-the-fact reading does not make the conclusion wrong; rather, it makes it contingent on a prior set of beliefs. The person beginning with the view that Jesus is the culmination of the scriptures of Israel, and that all those scriptures point to him, will find confirmation of the view. The person who lacks such a prior belief is unlikely to be convinced by such Christological readings.[1]

At a minimum we need to see that the immediate context for this text begins in verse 9, with the prohibition of various forms of magic. Instead of magic, the Israelites will have prophecy – revelation.

The slightly larger immediate context for the text begins in 16:18-17:7, the provisions for appointing judges and officers. Daniel Block, in “A Prophet Like Moses? Who or Why?” analyzes this “relatively self-contained” unit of text from 16:18-18:22 as having a concentric ring structure. The center is the verses that focus on the king (17:14-20), who is portrayed as a model of covenant faithfulness and righteousness. Around that are verses that deal with the priests. In the outer ring are the judges, at the beginning, and our text at the end, parallel to the verses that deal with the judges, which sets up the role of the prophet as instrumental for adhering to divine torah (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5). On Block’s reading, the focus throughout is that these officials should model and mediate covenant faithfulness and righteousness.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 is the lectionary Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday after Ephiphany Year B – this year, in fact. [If you take a look at all the readings of the day, you will notice how the lectionary inscribes the Christological reading as “just obvious.” Admittedly, that’s the lectionary’s job. Or, is it?]
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CLOSER READING: We should really start reading with verse 9. Verses 9-14 prohibit seven or eight “abhorrent” magical practices, several of which, like “inquiring of the dead,” seem to have something to do with foretelling the future. The paragraph that begins with verse 15 responds to this prohibition.

In verse 15, word order may make a difference in how we understand the sentence. Compare these two translations, for instance:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” (NRSV)

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself.” (JPS)

Hebrew word order is closer to the second version.

The same word order difference shows up in verse 18; in Hebrew, it’s more like “a prophet from among your brothers (kin), like you.” Saying it like that in English seems to me to push the reader towards thinking of the relevant similarity as the kinship. Saying “a prophet like me from among you” seems to lean towards the idea that the relevant similarity is something other than kinship.

Verse 16 is a long sentence. Verse 17 is a really short sentence, just six words in Hebrew. It’s a dramatic contrast: all that protest from the Israelites, such a quick agreement by YHWH. [The same event is described in greater length in Deuteronomy 5:22-33.]

In verse 20, the word translated “presumes” is literally “boils up” or “seethes.” We can probably imagine how boiling could be extended metaphorically to refer to presumptuousness.

We can note that two distinct kinds of prophecy problems are being identified in this verse. One kind of false prophet speaks in the name of another god. Another speaks a word not commanded by YHWH.

Verse 21 implies that the more difficult problem will be the prophet who speaks a word that YHWH hasn’t spoken first. Presumably, the prophets of another god will be seen immediately for who they are.

[We might want to think about how these two kinds of prophets relate to the commandment in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, covering prophets who propose following other gods.]

We might call the test in verse 22 “predictive validity.” Jonathan Stökl has pointed out that this test makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for a “prophet like Moses” ever to arise in practice. In particular, a prophet with a call to repentance in the face of looming disaster will always appear to be a false prophet if their call is heeded and the disaster averted. As happens, for instance, to Jonah.

Overall, we will probably want to do some thinking about what we think it means for someone to be a prophet “like Moses.” We might ask ourselves what that would look like in today’s world – and how such a figure would be likely to be received.
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[1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, HarperOne, 2020, 43.
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Torah scroll

Images: Torah scrolls at reconstructionist synagogue in Montreal by Genevieve2 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; detail of a picture By Berthold Werner [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Studying Deuteronomy 18 15-22”

    • It certainly seems that way – and yet, how the people of Israel were supposed to apply those instructions is questionable. At what point would you assess whether the prophet’s word was or wasn’t fulfilled? Think of Jeremiah, for instance, in his youth, before the Babylonians win. Or think of Ezekiel and the vision of the temple. But we don’t think either of those major prophets should have died. Even more difficult ishow people today need to take this text. In most cases, it would be criminal to actually try to put a prophet, even a false one, to death. So it seems to me that our response to this text cannot be a simple one.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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