Israelite prophets, some represented in the Jewish Hebrew Bible, have claimed to have received messages from God. Why should I trust them? Why should we trust them?
Why should I believe the Jewish prophets, declaring they only served as a conduit, so to speak, to the Word of the Divine, and not any number of lunatics making claims of a similar nature, some even judged by society (justifiably, based on science) to merit access to specially dedicated institutes, wherein one lives, free of charge, under strict medical care?
The Hebrew for Bible is Tanakh, acronym for first letters of the three parts of the Jewish Bible: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings). In fact, the Jewish Bible is “awash” with writings of prophets. According to Jewish tradition, “the number of prophets in the era of prophecy was double the number of Israelites who left Egypt (600,000 males). Only 55 prophets are recorded, because they said prophecies that have relevance for future generations and not just for their own generation” (Wikipedia, entry “Prophets in Judaism”).
What was the era of prophecy within the ancient Jewish nation?
Prophecy existed therein for many generations, spanning nearly nine centuries — starting with the biblically-declared prophet, Moses (14th-13th century BC, possibly 1391-1271 BC; refer, for example, to Numbers 12:4-8), ending with prophet Malachi (possibly Ezra the scribe, active in the years following the reconstruction of the Second Temple in 536 BC, namely, fifth century BC; Malachi is believed to be pseudonym since it means — “My Messenger”, a word implied in the last chapter of the book of Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of Jehovah”, Malachi 3:23).
Given the long time span of active prophesizing by thousands of Israelite prophets, and the public acknowledgement at the time, by authoritative rabbis (as recorded by Jewish tradition; see references in the afore-cited source) of termination of Jewish prophecy with prophet Malachi; Given that in all recorded prophecies (as expounded in the Jewish Bible), the prophet explicitly claims that God spoke to him, or through him; Given our current knowledge of the vast, indeed gigantic, dimensions of the universe (a humbling experience, unknownst to past generations); And, finally, given the acknowledged non-existence of prophecy ever since Malachi within the Nation of Israel (as previously alluded to);
Given all that:
Why should I believe prophecies in the Bible, delivered by human beings (Jewish prophets) “arrogant” enough to explicitly claim that God spoke to them, and that they conveyed the Word of the Creator of all that exists, “The Heavens and The Earth” (Genesis 1:1)??
Put more bluntly: Wherefrom did Jewish prophets draw the audacity to speak in the name of God?
I have been personally struggling with this important question for an appreciable part of my life; and I arrived at some important conclusions. I wish to share them with you. I emphasize, however, that I address herewith only prophecies in the Jewish Hebrew Bible, with which I am well acquainted.
How can one relate to a human being, claiming to deliver the word of God, in other words, claiming that God spoke to him or her?
The response can be tagged into one of three possibilities:
- A False Prophet, knowingly lying;
- A False Prophet, deceived by his own imagination (whether mentally-ill, or captured by an ego-explosion that led to a distorted perception of reality);
- A True Prophet.
The Bible relates to the possibility of a false prophet in no ambiguous terms: “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gave you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not obey the words of that prophet…” (Deuteronomy 13:2-4).
These verses obviously attest to the wide prevalence of the phenomenon of prophecy among the Israelites already on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. For example, Moses responds to Joshua, his servant (Numbers 11:29): “…Are you envious for my sake? would that all of Jehovah’s people were prophets and that Jehovah put his spirit upon them”. In Jewish tradition, Moses, who led the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, is considered the greatest of the Jewish prophets, apparently relying on explicit verses in the Torah (conveying a message from the Divine):
“Not so with my servant Moses, for he is the entrusted one in all of my household” (Numbers 12:7).
Later prophets were marked not by giving signs or doing wonders (relate to earlier quote about a possible signature of a false prophet), but by producing prophecies intended to be fulfilled either in the prophet’s own time, or intended for later generations (as most biblical prophecies are, having “relevance for future generations”). In fact, the main mission of true Israelite prophets in ancient times was not predicting the future, but to warn about possible future consequences, if the Children of Israel continued with their mal/unethical behavior. In other words, Israelite prophets in ancient times were social messengers, destined to warn about moral decay, deterioration, either in the public sphere or in the personal domain; Warning about consequences for abandonment of moral standards, as the latter are preached in the Torah.
What then distinguish Israelite prophets in biblical times, rendering their writings, their prophecies for the future, credible?
There are certain personal traits to biblical prophets, which make them credible and distinct from supposed prophets (past and current). We address these in the following four sections:
1. Personal Integrity; 2. Humility; 3. Escape and suffering, finally — resignation (to mission); 4. Sophistication.
1. Personal Integrity (virtues)
Jewish prophets grew in a Jewish culture that cherished and glorified personal virtues, as implied from the roots and core of that culture, the Ten Commandments and the biblically-declared Covenant between Jehovah and his people (“Jehovah’s people”; refer to earlier quote from Numbers). The main core of Jewish prophecies is not predicting the future (although some are), but rather warning in the public square about future consequences of violating morality standards, as expounded in Torah. The prophets had a social message, not a presumptuous message that they saw the future clearer than anyone else because God had spoken to them. This trait is standing up, in full view, from every single word of every single chapter of every prophecy.
The emphasis on justice, equality, help to the poor and the helpless (like widows, orphans, migrants, slaves), keeping moral employment-standards (paying on time, paying fairly, ensuring rest-days for all), personal righteousness, they were all embedded foremost in every single message of the prophecies, right, left and center.
Reading these social messages by the prophets, constantly calling for exercising, in the public domain as well as in the private, the moral commandments of God — Can one even conceive of these prophets as some esoteric group of people, exercising some gigantic plot of deception, passing on from one generation to the next over nine centuries??
(see a recent archeological validation of the existence of prophets in ancient Israel — a Seal of Isaiah, discovered in excavations in the City of David, Jerusalem, attributed to Prophet Isaiah).
One of the most preached virtue by Jewish prophets is humility.
Humility is a pre-condition, indeed a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Divine revelation. To be attuned to Godly messages, indeed to be close to God, one needs to prepare an “empty vessel”, capable of receiving Divine messages, absorbing and then retain them for public pronouncement. This is impossible when the soul, the psyche, is filled-to-overflow with the ego, its aspirations and its desires. Therefore, Torah and the prophets endlessly emphasize the humility of Jewish biblical heroes, prophets or non-prophets, prophet Moses in particular:
Abraham: “And Abraham answered and said, behold now, I have taken upon me to speak to the Lord, and I am dust and ashes, what if the number of righteous be five less than fifty, will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?..” (Genesis18:27-28);
- “And Moses said to God who am I that I shall go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11);
- “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3);
Isaiah: “The spirit of Jehovah God is upon me because Jehovah anointed me to announce good tidings to the humble…” (Isaiah 61:1);
Micha: “He has shown you, O man, what is good and what does Jehovah demand of you, but to do justice, and love grace and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8);
King David: “But I am a worm and no man, a reproach of men and despised by people” (Psalms 22:7).
Such preached humility of Jewish prophets or Jewish biblical figures should be contrasted with conduct, revealed by written sources of other supposed prophets (Jewish or non-Jewish), who, over centuries of written history, had used claims of Divine revelations in order to boost objectives of extremely egoistic or ego-centered nature, like conquering land, or conquering people (read enslaving), or stealing souls of people.
3. Escape and suffering (physically, emotionally, spiritually); finally — resignation (to mission)
Escape from mission, suffering for the mission and often paying dearly for the mission. As a general rule, biblical prophets were unwilling reluctant messengers of God. And they expressed their anxiety of the mission, their reluctance to fulfill the assignment and their suffering for it in any number of different ways — by escape, by expressing personal displeasure with the “Mission from Hell”, or by expressing resignation to mission, knowing full well that the latter was seeded with social outcast, often accompanied by physical torture inflicted by the public or by state authorities (usually the king).
How did the prophets know?
Well, nobody desires to be told, morning and evening, how bad their conduct was and how to correct it, hearing all the while of the devastating consequence for failure to do that. But that was the essence of the message that the prophets were required to deliver to their brethren Israelites, family or non-family; and they knew exactly what the personal consequences may be, reacting by escape, anxiety and often by expressing a personal sense of injustice for suffering for implementing the Divine assignment.
Here are some examples of escape from mission and suffering (physically, psychologically or spiritually), finally resignation.
Moses: “And he said, O Lord, I pray thee, send by the hand of whoever you will send” (Exodus 4:13);
Jeremiah: “And I said, Ah Jehovah God! Behold, I cannot speak for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6);
Jonah: “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from Jehovah…” (Jonah 1:3).
3.2 Suffering physically
Jeremiah: “..and Jeremiah the prophet was imprisoned in the courtyard of the guard , which was in the royal palace of Judah, for Zedekiah king of Judah has imprisoned him there, saying, why do you prophesy, saying, Thus says Jehovah I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon…” (Jeremiah 32:2-3).
Micaiah: “The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah and send him back… and put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely”; And Micaiah said, if you ever return safely, Jehovah had not spoken through me…” (1King 22: 26-28).
The City of Nob (city of the priests): “The king then ordered Doeg “You turn and strike down the priests.”; So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep” (1 Samuel 22:18-19; Note that these verses refer to a related vulnerable group, the priests).
3.3 Suffering psychologically
Jeremiah: “O Lord, correct me but only with justice, not in your anger lest you reduce me to nothing” (Jeremiah 10:24);
Elijah: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree and sat down under it and he wished to die and said: “I have had enough, O Lord, take my soul for I am no better than my ancestors”” (1 Kings 19:3-4; Reminder: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and the dreadful day of Jehovah”, Malachi 3:23).
3.4 Suffering spiritually
Abraham: “…Should not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25);
Jeremiah: “Righteous would thou be, O Lord, that I bring a case before thee, yet I will reason justice with you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper, at peace are all that deal treacherously?” (Jeremiah 12:1).
3.5 Resignation (after experiencing the “wrath” of God)
Isaiah: “On that day you shall say: “I praise thee, O Lord, for being angry with me; Your anger has turned away and you have comforted me” (Isaiah 12:1);
Jeremiah: “You know, O Lord,… how I suffer reproach for your sake; when your words came, I ate them, and they were for me joy and my heart’s delight for I am called by thy name, O Lord, God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:15-16).
Clearly, unlike claims of an egoistic nature articulated by false prophets (past and present), biblical Jewish prophets were reluctant to fulfill their mission, to comply with their assignment. They were aware of the personal hardship expecting them for antagonizing the public, for telling listeners to their prophecy to change their behavior or else…prophecy realized.
4. Sophistication (content-wise and linguistic-wise; as revealed in Jewish biblical-Hebrew prophecies)
Reading prophecies in their original biblical Hebrew is a hard task, even for a layman like me, born in Israel and brough up by the essentially secular Israeli education system. The reason that prophecies in the Bible are hard to understand is their high level of sophistication, both in content and in language. This renders understanding prophecies an extremely arduous task, demanding, throughout generations of Jewish scholarship, numerous Bible interpreters that would lend some sense to the often incomprehensible text (from the Mishna, initiated and edited mainly by Judah the Prince (135-217), to well-known interpreters, like Rashi (1040-1105) and Malbim (1809-1879), up to present day).
“The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation; I am Jehovah, in its time will I hasten it” (Isaiah 60:22)
This verse, addressing end-time scenario, obviously contains a logical contradiction: Will this occur on its assigned time (“in its time”), or will God expedite it? The interpretation, commonly accepted in Jewish scholarship: If the Israelites at the time be non-deserving (in terms of adhering to the Covenant between God and its people) — “in its time”; Otherwise (Israelites deserving, Covenant preserved) —”I will hasten it”.
And the whole traditional interpretation relying on two biblical Hebrew words: “Be-Ita Achishenah“. Two words‼
One may not expect a disturbed person, claiming to hear and deliver the Word of God, to conceive of such a sophisticated articulation of a Divine message‼
“Son of Adam, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem “Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper” (Ezekiel 26:2).
However, the last sentence above is expressed in the original Hebrew by two words only: Imalah Ha-Chareva (literally, “I will be filled by the ruined one”).
What does that mean?
The Gemarah (part of the Talmud) often addresses the relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Edom (represented in Jewish tradition by the Roman Empire and its derivatives). Tyre is the ancient Tzor (nowadays a Lebanese city), and it appears in the Bible with the letter Vav (the sixth in the Hebrew alphabet) or without (as in the above verse from Ezekiel). A common interpretation in Jewish tradition is that Tzor (with Vav missing), represents the Roman Empire. Therefore, this verse implies that the two, the pagan Roman Empire culture and the Israelite culture, cannot both prosper at the same time. Again, an interpretation accompanying Jewish scholarship over many generations, based on only two words in Ezekiel.
The length of time prophesizing existed within the Israelite nation (nine centuries); the core values of the Jewish culture (with the Ten Commandments and the Covenant at its core); the essence of the prophecies (preaching moral values); prophets’ testimonials of their dis-pleasure with the assignment imposed on them by God (even before birth, Jeremiah 1:4), or testimonials of their suffering for executing the mission; and finally, the sophistication of the prophecies (both in content and in language);
All these have given me a high degree of confidence in the validity and truth of the words of the Israelite biblical prophets; as they have given trust and much faith to my Jewish ancestors, for over two millennia.