Why Israel could not distinguish false from real prophets

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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03 Dec. 2005

The late Professor Carroll (Glascow University, Glascow, Scotland) explored by what "mechanisms" the community of believers, Jewish and Christian, dealt with "failed prophecies." He noted that instead of acknowledging the prophets as being false, the community came up with "reinterpretations" of the prophecies claiming a "future" fulfillment. My interest in Carroll's work -however- is in his analysis of why Israel was 'ambivalent' and 'sceptical' toward prophets and their prophecies and why they were unable to distinguish a false from true prophet.


"The central problem was one of distinguishing the authentic prophet from the one with a false vision. The legislators saw the problem and in Deuteronomy provided two simple criteria for regulating the behaviour of the prophets. The first regulative principle concerned the prophet who attempted to lead the community away from Yahweh by preaching in the name of another god; such a prophet was ipso facto false and should be executed as a rebel against Yahweh (De 13:1-5). This ruling dispensed with all prophets of other cultures but hardly touched the problem of the Yahwistic prophets who all prophesied in the name of Yahweh, only the content of their oracles differed significantly.

The second regulative principle dealt with the issue of determining which prophet spoke the word of Yahweh: 'And if you say in your heart, "How may we know the word which Yahweh has not spoken?" -when a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which Yahweh has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him' (De 18:21-22). There we have it -a straightforward falsification principle allowing the community to distinguish between the prophet with the word of Yahweh and the prophet lacking that word. So the two criteria for identifying the authentic prophet were: he must speak in Yahweh's name and the word so spoken must come to pass. The two were cumulative in that if he spoke in some other god's name and the word came to pass it did not count (cf. De 13:1-2), whereas if he spoke in Yahweh's name but the word did not come to pass he had spoken presumptuously. Both kinds of prophetic action were punishable by death (De 13:5; 18:20). (p. 185. Robert P. Carroll. When Prophecy Failed, Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament. New York. A Crossroad Book. The Seabury Press. 1979, ISBN 0-8164-0441-0)

Carroll noted that this Deuteronomic formula for distinguishing a false from a true prophet was not without its "pitfalls" in that the emphasis was upon a "wait and see" attitude of the audience, which in effect, nullified any action by the community to respond to the prophet's warnings (Take actions to avoid the predicted disaster about to befall the community). They were not to believe the prophet _until_ the prophecy was fufilled:

"Reflection on the criteriology of Deuteronomy will quickly reveal serious defects in it. In the first place it was too oversimplified an approach to the complex matter of prophecy. No doubt it accurately reflected Deuteronomistic outlook because their historians produced a very lengthy account of the monarchies using such principles of prophecy as part of the construction of that history. In the second place it put a good deal of emphasis on hindsight in that only by waiting until the prophetic word had come to pass would the community have been able to ascertain a prophet's authenticity. Such a hindsight assessment factor ignored or outlawed long term predictions (cf. Ezek 12:27), yet other Deuteronomists were prepared to include in their history long term predictions (cf. I Sam 2:31-36; I Kings 13:2; II Kings 13:15-19) and their edition of Jeremiah contained a seventy year prediction (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10)! Furthermore it operated with a simplistic model of prophecy as predicting of events that could be checked off a list as they occurred.

However prophecy as it appears in the prophetic traditions was essentially a preaching for a decision type activity. To have asked for a suspension of judgement until the catastrophe had happened would have vitiated the whole prophetic endeavour. So would a 'wait and see' reaction to their preaching have outraged prophets such as Amos, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Thus the criteria of Deuteronomy were both theoretical and unrealistic and probably far removed from the reality of the working prophets. This inadequate and unrealistic criteriology was probably due to a combination of the writers' lack of experience of prophecy in action, lack of serious reflection on the subject, part of their ideological approach to the subject and the great difficulty of clearly establishing adequate criteria for determining prophetic authenticity.

The demand for short term predictions which could be assessed for truth within the memory of the audience must have been highly idealized in view of the more complex features of the prophetic traditions. It also would have falsified many of the prophets whose traditions contain fulfilled and unfulfilled expectations. Any criterion that would falsify so much was not a helpful one." (p. 186. Carroll)

Carroll on why Israel and Judah took so little heed of the prophets (They were unable to distinguish true from false prophets):

"The analysis of the criteria for distinguishing the authentic prophet from the rest has shown that they were too ambiguous to be helpful and that 'one must admit that there is no such thing as an external test by which to tell true prophecy from false, such as all reasonable persons may safely apply'. This being the case it is small wonder that the community gave little heed to the prophets except to register a complaint about their falseness (cf. Lamentations 2:14). Any social phenomenon as ambiguous and opaque as prophecy, as torn by conflict, polemic and abuse, must have been a defective vehicle for mediating effectively the divine will in ancient Israel. After the Exile the power blocks in the new community were the priesthood and the wise men whose epistemologies were based on much less subjective factors than that of prophecy. At some stage in that reconstruction of the community the prophet came to be regarded as a disreputable figure as may seen in the attacks on them in Jeremiah 23:33-40; Zechariah 13:2-6 and the satire on the prophet in the book of Jonah...The decline of prophecy brought on by many reasons, not the least the inability of the prophets to convince the community that they were reliable, contibuted to substantial changes in the movement that were to redirect its course in the direction of apocalyptic. These changes helped to transform prophecy so that it survived and maintained both visions and traditions in the subsequent centuries, but never again as the producer of individuals who challenged community and cult." (pp. 197-198. Carroll)

Carroll on Yahweh as a deceiver of his own people, sending them false prophets:

"Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Deuteronomists all recognized that Yahweh could and did deceive communities and individuals. The widespread agreement on this motif in the traditions indicates that it came to be taken very seriously as a part explanation for the Exile. Without a complex account of causality, a sophisticated psychology of human perception and behaviour or a general theory of political economy the biblical writers were forced to use a primitive transcendentalism to explain problems of prophetic conflict and the destruction of the community. The Hebrew doctrine of causality attributed to Yahweh the one effective will in creation so that he was behind everything that happened or was done. He it was who killed and made alive (cf. I Sam 2:6), created well-being (shalom) and catastrophe (ra, Isa 45:7; cf. Amos 3:6), and caused manslaughter (cf. Ex 21:13). If Israel reguarly experienced evil destruction and lived on the edge of disintegration then Yahweh was the source of such terrors...

The notion of the deity deceiving people through the medium of prophecy is given classical form in the account of Micaiah ben Imlah's prophetic conflict with the royal court prophets...(I Kings 22:19-23). A similar principle is embodied in the claims of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that Yahweh had deceived community and prophet (Jer 4:10; 15:18; 20:7; Ezek 14:9). Now if Yahweh used the false prophets or the idolaters to deceive the community and individuals, or if he tested the community by false dreamers or prophets (Deut 13:3), in what sense were Jeremiah and Ezekiel right to claim that Yahweh had not sent the prophets who proclaimed such false visions (Jer 23:21; Ezek 13:6)? For the two claims are incompatible in that prophets cannot have been sent by Yahweh with a deceitful message and at the same time have produced messages out of their own minds. The inclusion of the two motifs in the traditions illustrates the difficulties the prophets had accounting for the disaster of the Exile and the behaviour of various prophets.

The main thrust of the relevant prophetic traditions made the disaster of the Exile the result of the community's corruption and its failure to turn. Such corruption did not require assistance from prophets sent by Yahweh to deceive the community so why the motif in the traditions? Perhaps there was an attempt to answer a question raised by some in the community" 'how could a people have been so blind to all the warnings they received from the prophets if it had not been Yahweh's will all the time to destroy it?'" (p. 200. Carroll)
"The collapse of the life and history of the peopple was explained as prophetic deception caused by the deity -an aspect of the hidden god enigma (cf. Isa 8:7; 45:15; 54:7-8). This explanation for the Exile was only one of many given by different traditions...It is difficult to determine to what extent the prophets were blamed for the Exile, either as preachers of it or deceivers of the community, but their stock in the community steadily declined after the Exile. (p. 202. Carroll)

"The fact that Yahweh was believed to operate occasionally by lies and deceit to the detriment of individuals and communities constitutes the demonic in relation to prophecy...The failure of expectations could then be explained as intentional due to the deity deceiving the community...Many problems may be associated with the divine deception motif but the one that had most consequence for the prophets was the problem it caused for any community that tried to take prophecy seriously. The appearance of a prophet preaching a specific message could have been taken as a genuine message from Yahweh or a message designed to deceive. How could the community determine which it was? If the community accepted the prophet's message and it turned out to have been false then it had been deceived into destruction. If it excercised caution and did not accept the message and it turned out to be genuine then the community was destroyed because it failed to heed a prophet sent by Yahweh. Such a 'double bind' must have contributed considerably to the decline of prophecy as a significant force in the community. If very few people in the community paid much attention to prophecy it was because of this acute problem posed by the many prophets active in Judah during the period leading up to the Exile." (p. 204. Carroll)

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