Image: A blackboard with “Rules for Prophets” written on it. (Source: Ruth Adar.)
Parashat Shoftim contains what we might call the Rules for Prophets. First we are told what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters of ghosts. Deuteronomy 18:12 twice uses the word to’evah (abomination) to describe such people. We do not look to the prophets to “tell the future” to us. We look to them for messages from God about God’s priorities.
God promises to raise up prophets for Israel from among the people, citing our choice at Sinai to hear the word of God through Moses instead of directly. Prophets are answerable to God, but we will have to choose which prophets to heed: according to Deuteronomy 18:22, if they speak in the name of God, and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine.
This circular solution — believe them IF what they said comes true — is not entirely satisfying. In Jeremiah 28:9 Jeremiah debates Hananiah, a false prophet, and reminds him that “only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that YHVH really sent him.” In M. Sanhedrin 1.5, we get a sense of the seriousness and difficulty of determining the veracity of a prophet from the requirement that it requires a full Sanhedrin court of 71 to try a prophet. Jesus of Nazareth may have been thinking of this week’s Torah portion when he said, “Beware of false prophets… you shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7: 15-16)
The Age of Prophecy is over, but the problem of judging those who claim to predict the future is still with us. Jewish tradition encourages us to be skeptics and to require facts, to ask, “What are your results?” before we put our faith in a human being. In practical terms, that means we need to question information that comes before us. What is the source? How good a source is it? How well does it prove out, when held up against reality?