I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account.Deuteronomy 18:18-22
But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet shall die.”
And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Eternal?”—
if the prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Eternal; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.
Parashat Shoftim offers us rules for prophets, rules with resonance for our own time.
We may not call them “prophets,” but there are many talking heads competing for our attention. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, there’s someone on the radio or the TV or the Internet telling us how they see things. From Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow, from Fox News to Mother Jones, they are talking, talking, talking at us, and they disagree on almost everything.
Deuteronomy offers us a way to sort them out: fact check them. It’s a little frustrating to read: “Only treat them as a prophet if what they say comes true.” At first glance, that seems too late. But looking more closely at the Hebrew, what it says is, “If the prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal and his [the prophet’s] word does not “go” (yah-VOH,) that oracle was not spoken by the Eternal.” That sounds clumsy, and I understand why the translator of the JPS translation chose “come true” – it’s much more graceful. Personally, I’d opt for the less elegant “makes sense” – do the prophet’s words stand up to scrutiny?
So whether we are listening to Fox or MSNBC, NPR or CNN, we can ask the question, “Has that been verified? By whom?” And then we have to climb out of our bubbles a bit, and look to see how the different versions of the story line up. Who is telling the truth – not just because we like what they say, but because it can be verified? Who is saying it, and what are their credentials? Are they appealing to my fears? To my prejudices?
False prophets are a curse on any civilization, and history is littered with them. They tend to prey on our prejudices and our fears, and power is their payoff. The best defense against them is the combination of an open heart and a critical mind: I should never discount someone just because they irritate me, and I should never believe someone merely because they look like a friend.
We live in a time of competing prophecies. Our job, as listeners, is to listen carefully and check the facts.