This is the last paragraph in a larger section of Deuteronomy that deals with authoritative roles within the ancient Israelite community. That larger section begins at Deuteronomoy 16:18. The parallel structure of that section of the text pairs the role of the prophet, who articulates the Holy One’s commands (Deuteronomy 18:9-22), with the role of the “judges and officials” who administer day to day communal matters with justice (Deuteronomy 16:18-17:7).
“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”Deuteronomy 16:20
This is Biblical justice, mind you, the kind represented by tzedakah boxes; the kind that includes care for widows and orphans and strangers, that is, care for the vulnerable; the kind be translated as “righteousness.” Just in case we were thinking of the kind that is sometimes the first thing we think of when we hear the word “justice,” namely the retributive or “payback” kind.
This is also our first in a quarter-long series on Old Testament prophets and near-prophets, and their role in God’s covenant community. These texts seem to call on us to be a little more courageous than usual, because they raise some of the toughest issues that face Christians in reading Hebrew/Old Testament scripture. So, I recommend buckling on our hermeneutical crash helmets.
Here are a few questions we might want to reflect on as we study this text:
What do we ordinarily mean by the word “prophet”?
How does the Bible seem to use the word “prophet”?
[For this, we will probably need to think of some examples of Biblical prophets. We could start with the books that are named for prophets; remember that the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings are treated as “the former prophets” in Hebrew Bibles, so we would want to include Joshua, Deborah, Samuel, and Nathan, among others.]
How does considering these figures expand, or modify, our ordinary use of the term? Do we notice anything about the important characteristics of Biblical prophets? What do we notice?
What are our impressions, thoughts, or feelings about “prophets” and “prophecy”? Would we say they are mostly positive? Mostly negative? Both? Neither? Why? Where have those impressions, thoughts, or feelings come from, do we think? How does all of that seem to affect the way we read this text? Is there anything we need to [try to] set aside as we read this text? What is that? Why?
Verse 15 says YHWH will raise up a prophet “like me,” that is, like Moses, for the community. What do we think “like Moses” means here, in this text?
Does the text itself give us any ideas about what it means? What ideas?
What was Moses like? [Here it might help to review some of the things we know about Moses, and what Moses does. We might want to look specifically at Deuteronomy 5; Exodus 5:1 (and more); Exodus 13:3-10; Exodus 14; Exodus 17; Exodus 18; Exodus 34:29-35; Exodus 39:32-43; Leviticus 8:1-5 (or more); Numbers 11:1-3 (or more); Numbers 12:3 (or that whole story); Deuteronomy 34:10-12. There is lots more we could look at! But this covers a range of the functions Moses performs between Exodus and Deuteronomy, and descriptions of Moses given in the text.]
Considering what Moses was like, in what way or ways would we expect later prophets to be “like Moses”? Thinking of later Israelite prophets, in what way or ways do we see them having been “like Moses”? In what way or ways not “like Moses”?
What will this prophet do for the people, according to the text? Why might the people need a prophet to do this, do we think? [Here it might help to review what the people are not allowed to do, and are asked to do, as described in verses 9-14.]
What would be the advantages of having a prophet in the community, do we think? What would be the disadvantages? Why do we say this?
Would the rules given in verses 20 and 22 help deal with any of the disadvantages of having a prophet? How? Would they create any new problems? What problems? Why do we think this?
Can we think of people today who are “like Moses” or “prophetic” in some way? What way or ways? Who, do we think? Why do we say that?
[More personal] Can we think of any time we, ourselves, were called on to act as “prophets” in some way? When was that? What happened? What did we learn?
[More problematic] Would we want to think about the differences in the way the ancient Israelite community was “supposed to be” organized, taking Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22 as a model, and the way our own communities are organized today? And what advantages that ancient Israelite plan had? And what disadvantages it had? And why we think that? And whether we wish we had prophets like Moses in our own community today?
This would probably get us into questions like what the conditions for that kind of community organization would be, and whether they could possibly apply to any present-day community, or ever seem to have applied to the ancient Israelite community, and what we imagine would be the pros and cons of that ancient situation vs. the situation today. People who would like to chew on some political theory might find this a wonderful line of discussion, but I fear others might wish we had never brought it up.
[Way way more problematic] Do we need to do some thinking about the way this text has been interpreted as a messianic text? Or how it has been interpreted by Christians historically?
This raises some knotty, but real, issues of what it means for us to read scripture faithfully, while trying not to read it anti-Judaically or even flat out anti-Semitically. The issues are particularly challenging here, because this text is referred to in the New Testament (see Acts 3:11-26) in a way I think many members of our class will find especially difficult.
That means two kinds of questions will face us almost immediately: (1) the question of what we think the Bible “is” – as in, direct quotes from God or something else, and if something else, then what else; (2) whatever we think the Bible “is,” what kind of freedom do we think contemporary readers have, or need to have, to question historical readings of particular texts. We might raise this question especially in light of later historical experiences, like the Shoah, which make us want to challenge some kinds of readings, and look harder for others.
Again, I fear some might wish we’d never heard about any of this. I might even be one of those people, as I have no special prophetic solution to the dilemmas involved. Nevertheless, honesty and a sense of responsibility leads me to feel required to mention this.
Whatever we decide to do, I promise to try hard not to do ALL the talking.
Image: “Figures in conversation, Étaples,” George Leslie Hunter, 1914, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons