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Criteria of False Prophets
Notes on Deuteronomy 18:22

Dennis Bratcher

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 by dreams."

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 death.

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 God.

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 prophet.

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, proven true, 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.

It is 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.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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