Criteria of False Prophets
Notes on Deuteronomy 18:22
A biblical passage that some present as "proof" of a purely predictive
role for prophecy is Deuteronomy 18:22:
If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does
not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not
spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be
frightened by it.
The focus here is usually on the phrase "does not take place," as if
correspondence between the prediction of a specific historical event and
its happening in that precise way in history is the primary, only, and
absolute validation of a prophet. But as is usually the case, this
passage needs to be read carefully in context to see what it is
addressing, and therefore what it is really saying in this context.
In using this as a proof text for predictive prophecy as the norm for
Old Testament prophets, the assumption is made that this is a blanket
statement of the validity of all prophetic writings within the specific
confines of historical event. In other words, it takes that statement as
an absolute statement of fact but applies it only in the specific
historical context of a direct correspondence between a historical
prediction and a historical event. And yet a closer examination of the
context in which this verse occurs reveals that the issue is not about
prediction of the future.
Deuteronomy 13:1-3 begins dealing with the problem of syncretism of
worship, a major concern throughout Deuteronomy (see
The Book of Deuteronomy). That
syncretism had been encouraged by both "prophets" and "those who divine
13:1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and
promise you omens or portents, 13:2 and the omens or the portents
declared by them take place, and they say, "Let us follow other gods"
(whom you have not known) "and let us serve them," 13:3 you must not
heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the
LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD
your God with all your heart and soul.
We are used to reading about prophets in Israel, but diviners were
consistently outlawed in Israel (for example, Deut 13:5). And yet, in
that historical context, diviners were often linked with prophets as
part of the cultural context of the day, as in Jeremiah (cf. Zech 10:2):
27:9 You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your
diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who
are saying to you, 'You shall not serve the king of Babylon.'
Here, the message brought to the people by the prophets and diviners
was not the message from God for the people. Rather, it was in conflict
with what the prophets of God were saying. This problem worked out more
obviously in Jeremiah’s conflict with prophet Hananiah. He presented
himself as a prophet of God, yet his message was exactly the opposite of
Jeremiah’s (Jer 28). The question then, for the people, was how to
distinguish a diviner/prophet from an authentic prophet of God.
Note two things in the warning in Deuteronomy 13:1-3 that continue
throughout the entire chapter. First, the prophets and diviners
mentioned promise the people things that will take place in the future
that do indeed "take place." Only here, this is not prediction of the
future but the promise of "signs and portents." In other words, this is
the use of magic in some form to convince people to believe what they
say. This idea of magic associated with prediction of the future is a
strand throughout the Old Testament. It is used in more positive ways in
Isaiah, although it remains partly in the realm of magic in most cases.
Second, what they say is "Let us follow other gods . . . and let us
serve them." That is, these diviner prophets are not prophets of God but
are advocating a syncretistic worship that is in conflict with the
covenant provisions of the torah. They are encouraging the people
to follow other gods. This emerges as the primary concern in this entire
section of Deuteronomy, expressed most strongly in Deuteronomy 13.6-8:
13:6 If anyone secretly entices you--even if it is your brother,
your father's son or your mother's son, or your own son or daughter,
or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend--saying, "Let
us go worship other gods," whom neither you nor your ancestors have
known, 13:7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you,
whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to
the other, 13:8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons.
This same concern again comes to the foreground in Deuteronomy 17.
17:2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the
LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in
the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 17:3
by going to serve other gods and worshiping them--whether the sun or
the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden-- . .
. 17:5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman
who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to
This likely reflects a concern with eliminating polytheism and
syncretism from the post-exilic community. Yet, it serves to demonstrate
that this is a central concern in this section of Deuteronomy.
Again, this concern with syncretism and the worship of other gods is
addressed directly in Deuteronomy 18.
18:10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter
pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer,
or an augur, or a sorcerer, 18:11 or one who casts spells, or who
consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.
18:12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is
because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is
driving them out before you. 18:13 You must remain completely loyal
to the LORD your God. 18:14 Although these nations that you are
about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for
you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so.
Here, this syncretism is connected with diviners. In fact, there are
a variety of ways listed here by which the people could try to discern
and therefore control the future by magical means: child sacrifice,
divination, soothsaying, the use of omens (augur), sorcery, spells,
mediums, and necromancy. The emphasis here is on human initiative in
trying to control the world or the gods. That strikes at the very heart
of what syncretistic worship entailed: the rejection of Faith in God,
his grace, and his providence for the human-controlled world of
manipulation of God and the gods by magic.
Note also that the following verses turn to the idea of prophets of
18:15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me
from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. . . .
18:18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their
own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who
shall speak to them everything that I command. 18:19 Anyone who does
not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself
will hold accountable. 18:20 But any prophet who speaks in the name
of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I
have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die."
The contrast here is clearly between diviner prophets who tempt the
people to follow other gods and the world of magic, and the prophets of
God who call the people to faithfulness to the covenant with God and the
proper response to God apart from magic. The emphasis is clearly on
a prophet that God will raise up. In other words, it is not
something that the people can do. God is the one who initiates the work
of a prophet and who gives the prophet a message to speak. It cannot be
controlled by the people, or even by the prophet.
This raises the question of how to tell the difference between
diviner prophets and genuine prophets of God:
18:21 You may say to yourself, "How can we recognize a word that
the LORD has not spoken?"
Here, this is presented in negative terms, how to recognize a
false word. It is in this context that Deuteronomy 18:22 gives the
guidelines for recognizing, not just any kind of prophet, but the kind
of diviner prophets that lead the people into syncretistic magical
worship. In other words, these criteria are not generalized or absolute
rules for all prophets, nor are they guidelines for determining a true
prophet, but are negative criteria for recognizing a diviner
18:22 If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing
does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has
not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be
frightened by it.
In this context, the validity of prophets is connected to their role
as covenant mediators and what they proclaimed about God rather than
what they proclaimed about specific historical events. Here, "does not
take place" is accompanied by "or prove true." While it is easy to read
into that the idea of specific historical event, if we do not assume that the
prophets are concerned only about specific historical event, it is more
likely in this context that something much broader than specific
historical event is in view.
The emphasis here is on the "word" of God spoken through the prophet.
In Deuteronomy especially, but in other places in the OT as well, the
"word" of God is a way to talk about the purposes of God for his people
(for example, 4:10, 6:6). These words of God are the torah, the
instructions from God for living in the world as his people.
The criterion for an authentic word of God is that it proves itself
to be true in history. That is not specific historical events, which
reading only "take place" might imply, but includes the idea of "prove
true." In other words, a diviner prophet cannot bring a word of God that
will prove true in the outworking of the life of the people of God,
because the diviner prophet is not bringing the instruction of God for
how to live in God’s world. There is a conviction throughout Scripture
that false words about God cannot prove true in human experience, that
is, in human history. Because they are inherently false pictures of God,
they will of necessity fail (we might connect John Wesley’s dimension of
Experience here as a criteria of theological doctrine, that it must
prove true in life to have validity). As one writer has said, "The
criterion of true prophecy is what it should be—truth, the
correspondence between the prophetic word and the realities of history."
(Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, Interpretation Commentary, p. 153).
This suggests that even when a diviner prophet gives a specific
prediction that does come to pass within history (Deut 13:2), he
is not a prophet of God if his overall message about God does not prove
true. No matter what the diviner does or says, if his message does not
enable the people to live in the world as God’s people, if his message
does not prove true in the course of human history as the people live
out their covenant with God, that prophet is not a true prophet of God.
And while it is not directly addressed in this passage, the converse
would also be true. That is, even though a genuine prophet of God makes
specific historical predictions that do not come true, that does not
necessarily mean he is a false prophet if his larger message from God
proves true in the flow of history (see
Ezekiel and the Oracles against Tyre).
This was the situation in the conflict between Hananiah and Jeremiah
(Jer 28). During the conflict, there was no easy way to decide who was
telling the truth. Hananiah promised a short and easy two year struggle
with the Babylonians. Jeremiah promised a much longer, more difficult,
and eventually catastrophic course of events. It is not that those events must have
happened just as Jeremiah had said. He had early held out hope that the
people would respond and that history could take a different course,
although he was finally convinced that they would not. Yet eventually, the
course of history proved that Jeremiah’s interpretation of the people’s
predicament was accurate, because he had stood in the council of God and
proclaimed the word of God (Jer 23:18-22). And that word was vindicated,
by the course of events across a 40 year span.
This is the thrust of Deuteronomy 18:22. The criteria set here are
not the correspondence of specific predicted historical event to a
specific outcome in history. The criteria are whether or not the prophet
calls the people to faithfulness to God, and whether their prophetic
word proves true in history. That suggests on the one hand that there is
no immediate way to tell a magical prophet from a genuine prophet,
because it may take some time for his words to be proven to be the true
word of God, or that they are his own ideas presented as the word of God, as in the
case of Hananiah. That may mean that without caution some may be
deceived into following the words of a false prophet for a time. But it
also suggests that eventually false prophets will be proven false.
also a declaration that a sure sign of a false prophet is if he or she
advocates any syncretistic form of worship of God that does not call the
people to accountability to covenant relationship with God and a life of
torah (see Torah as Holiness).
Any prophet who advocates any "other gods" must of necessity be a false
prophet, no matter how many signs s/he can perform, or no matter how
accurate their predictions might be.