Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Even God’s friend Moses did not live forever. But God swore to bless and shepherd the beloved community for all time.
How can we have a forever community without a forever [human] leader? The answer is profoundly unsexy, but nonetheless necessary: institutions.
In our denominations, we have institutions set up to preserve and gift to future generations our best practices and inherited wisdom. We count on institutions to prevent the rise of people who would abuse others or too rapidly remake the denomination in their own images.
It goes without saying that our institutions are not always up to the task. Sometimes, our inherited wisdom and practices inhibit growth and responsiveness to new situations, as I suspect we have all experienced recently. And yet, institutions like deacon, pastor, and bishop help us to ensure that the Church as the Body of Christ maintains its working in the world, even as individual humans come and go.
The prophet of Deuteronomy 18 was one such institution, designed so that the work of humans presenting the words of God to other humans would continue, even after Moses died. In setting up the institution of the prophet, God sought to counterbalance the other Israelite institutions of priests, elders, and kings by providing only one legitimate means of direct communication from God.1
The institution of the prophet was to be countercultural regarding Israelite neighbors. The context of this description of prophetic leadership in Deuteronomy 18 was not accidental. After describing how the Israelites were not to follow the divination practices of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 18:9-14), Moses described how God would raise up a prophet like him. The juxtaposing of the description of the prophet with the Canaanite practices that the Israelites also adopted is meant to be striking. Child sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, augury, consulting spirits, and seeking oracles from the dead are all human attempts to gain power and knowledge about an uncertain future. The prophet that God was to appoint would switch the prerogative from revealing what humans wanted to know, to disclosing what God wanted to reveal. The prophet was not a human Magic 8-Ball but was instead the mouthpiece of the Divine. The directionality of agency, from God to humans, was meant to be a reversal of usual practice that the Israelites observed.
Twice in this section, we read that the prophet will be like Moses (verses 15 and 18). Scholars and interpreters disagree on exactly what is meant here. Must the prophet be a Levite man of the Kohath clan raised in Egypt, but who ran away and married (a) foreigner(s)? It seems to me that we can and should interpret this as Scripture saying that faithful holders of the institution of prophet will emulate Moses’ personal example, rather than embody his gender, clan and tribe, and life-story.
Accordingly, we should expect prophets to be humble, as Moses was (Numbers 12:3). Rather than hoard power, he longed to share the Spirit and responsibility that had been placed up on him (Numbers 11:29). True, Moses had a demonstrated weakness in delegating responsibilities (Exodus 18:17-23). But eventually, Moses matured to learn that sharing leadership does not lessen the leader, but frees her up to actually spend time seeking God. Even early in Moses’ ministry, he needed others to literally support him so that he could help the people move forward (Exodus 17:12). Moses was a human with limitations—the only kind of human there is—and any prophet like him will acknowledge that leading any community is a team endeavor.
Moses, as a prophet, had a passion for reconciliation. Two of my favorite passages in Scripture speak of how Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. The first episode, in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32), tells how God wished to kill the apostatizing Israelites for their faithless creation of the golden calf idol. Moses interceded with God on behalf of the people and God relented from the evil that God planned.
The second episode, in the story of the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16), tells how God again wished to kill the rebellious Israelites; this time, the plague broke out before Moses was able to convince God otherwise. Moses sent his own brother, Aaron, to run into the midst of the assembly, minister between the living and the dead, and make atonement for the people. Moses, as prophet, did not simply bring God’s word to the people, but passionately sought to remind God of God’s mercy and desire for an ongoing covenant with the beloved community.
But even a prophet like Moses was not infallible. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his actions (Numbers 20:12). Prophets like Moses will also be imperfect. But they are not allowed to speak falsely—either in the name of other gods or to speak in God’s name when God has not spoken, on pain of death. This capital sentence for using God-language to deceive people was meant to discourage the very real temptation to use prophetic status for self-promotion or to attack others. I recently saw a tweet by @annakasirye that said, “I can’t believe I grew up thinking using God’s name in vain was saying ‘oh my God’ and not using God to manipulate people and advance your own personal agenda….” It is exactly that kind of manipulation through God-talk that the prophet must resist.
Instructions for the institution of prophet are meant to ensure that God will always be able to speak with God’s people through human voices. The prophet’s job is not to be a source of answers for pressing questions, but rather to faithfully relay God’s words. That the prophet is said to be like Moses should cause us to look for Mosaic humility and passion for reconciliation in prophets. Most of all, the true prophet does not speak on his own, but only speaks the words that God sends (John 12:49).
- Dr Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 172.