On False Prophets: R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

If I claim that, due to current and immediate past human behaviour, unless we change that behaviour, climate change in the not very distant future will be so dramatic as to threaten life on earth, am I being a prophet? If I claim that predictions of global warming are lies, am I a false prophet? I am at least a prophet assuring the world that the natural world in the future will be much as it has been in the past, buffeted by nature to go this way and that. Many might argue that neither is a prophecy. The second is an outright lie. The first is a rational estimate based on the best scientific evidence. Further, it is a conditional statement – if we do not change human behaviour, if we do not reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, if we do not reduce the destruction of our tree canopy so critical to the reabsorption of carbon, then widespread disaster will result.

Is scientific prediction prophecy and is scientific denial false prophecy? Can our sages in the past help us or is this just a semantic argument over the meaning of prophecy? Marty Lockshin, Professor Emiritus and a rabbi, was a colleague of mine at York University and is an expert on the history of biblical interpretation. He wrote a commentary, “Can a false prophet perform miracles?” (https://thetorah.com/can-a-false-prophet-perform-miracles/) Though that is not my question, his discussion of prophecy is very instructive.

He took as his textual reference verses 13.2-4 of Deuteronomy.

דברים יג:ב כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵתיג:גוּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם. יג:ד לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם. 13:2 If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner—and he gives you a sign or a portent13:3and the sign or portent that he named to you comes true—saying, “Let us follow other gods—whom you have not known—and worship them,” 13:4 do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For YHWH your God is testing you to see whether you really love YHWH your God with all your heart and soul.

Note that the false prophet in this text can offer a prediction that is true. Further, in some interpretations, he can even perform the miracle that brings about that truth. For mediaeval interpreters, the issue was how could God allow someone who neither believed in God and even tried to undermine such a belief to have such super-human powers. One commentator, Rabbi Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) offered three possibilities: a) the false prophet stole the sign from a true prophet; b) even if it came true, the prophecy should be rejected since it is anti-rational, and proofs based on miracles should not be a basis for worshipping false gods; c) a false prophet cannot perform a miracle nor predict the future but can only perform a symbolic act that may tempt one to believe in him. The temptation to believe a miraculous prediction is the test.

Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1165), on the other hand, believed that false prophets were able to perform miracles and/or predict the future. “God granted powers to the forces of sorcery to be able to predict the future in order to test the Israelites and to increase their merit.” In Marty’s words, “God created a world where false prophecy is possible and actually happens.”

My opening introduction to the topic seemed to favour Ibn Ezra’s rationalist approach, namely that it is reason in the end that dictates truth and evaluates performances. Now I would suggest that both views may be true, namely that Rashbam’s interpretation may not only be closest to the meaning of the text which accepts the possibility of miracles, but is true in the sense that there are miracles, events that happen contrary to reasonable assessments insofar as we can make them. But, if so, how can Ibn Ezra’s imposition of a Greek philosophical frame also be correct?

The reconciliation begins by taking the emphasis off of whether the future unfolds as the professed prophet predicted. Since the future may unfold over time, the critical matter is to determine whether a prophecy offered in the present is or is not false. We cannot await the future to determine the validity of a prophecy. I suggest the difference between the false and the true prophet is not whether the prophecy is accurate but whether it is a) conditional or categorical; and b) whether or not it is supported by existing empirical evidence. I will offer three additional clues for determining whether an individual is a false prophet later in this blog.

A false prophet makes predictions categorically. Climate change is a fiction and we are not headed towards an apocalypse. True prophets make predictions which are conditional – disaster will be forthcoming unless we change our behaviour drastically.  It is the trajectory that must be accurate based on current knowledge, not the ultimate result. Why? Because miracles can occur. Not super-natural forces. A large asteroid can strike earth and destroy our way of life before the worst effects of climate change take effect. Scientists were not wrong for their predictions always include the condition “provided the absence of any significant intervening condition.” The intervention does not have to be catastrophic. Human ingenuity may develop a mechanism for carbon reabsorption that is both economical and can be quickly and widely put in place.

Secondly, false prophets ignore or misrepresent empirical evidence and/or depend on the above types of magic to allow their assertions and contentions to be realized. True prophets pay very close attention to what can be perceived and understood and can and do utilize the best of current methods to discern what information is reliable.

This brings into play a third factor – Popperian falsifiability. Is there any method of proving that the claims of the false prophet are false – not because they are wrong about the future, but because they misrepresent and ignore the present? If they cannot be invalidated, that is, if those who hold such beliefs cannot be proven wrong according to the evidence available, then those proffering such beliefs are certainly false prophets. In contrast, true prophets always include methods to test and possibly falsify their prediction. The test they are subjected to is that they recognize that they are being tested, that they should be tested and that they have established methods for conducting those tests.

Is a prophet who does not rely on scientific prediction a liar? Not necessarily. He or she may simply be a person who insists that, in spite of the scientific evidence, a miracle will take place that will save humans from the self-destructive trajectory. In that case, such individuals are neither liars nor false prophets. Or they may believe all the evidence of science, but also believe that the world community lacks the will to act sufficiently and in a timely fashion to save us from destruction and that, without a miracle, we are doomed.

A false prophet is a liar because he denies the evidence available, because he uses that denial to deceive others, because he will not subject his beliefs to any reasonable test. In fact, I would venture to say that one has to be a liar to be a false prophet.

There are two other indicators of a false prophet. One has to do with the use of signs and portents. The other has to do with the use of the prophecy to lure the listener into following false gods.

According to Marty, for “ibn Ezra, the words אות and מופת (signs and portents) here do not refer to anything supernatural, but to symbolic actions. Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot involved no supernatural element; it was a symbolic action. I concur. When language or behaviour is used to construct a social reality, when language is used to arouse individuals to engage in collective action, when words or images or gestures are used to generate identification and induce division, when words or images are used to represent a thing or an object or an action, then we are working in the realm of symbolic action. Words and thoughts are powerful tools that can change reality. They can be used as a form of black magic. A false prophet may mumble and stumble, may be grammatically obtuse and sometimes inarticulate, but at the same time be a great and effective communicator.

Demagoguery is the specialty of a false prophet and meme magic is his or her specialty. The symbolic action and portents and symbols of false prophets serve to create a world of alternative facts and a realm of occult politics. Reference and uses of portents are specific kinds of symbolic action that use signs to presage, forecast, forewarn and prognosticate.

There is also a belief in actual magic.

“It was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech. In fact, when I first started, I said, oh, no. The first line, I got hit by a couple of drops. And I said, oh, this is too bad, but we’ll go right through it.  But the truth is that it stopped immediately. It was amazing. And then it became really funny.  And then I walked off and it poured right after I left. It poured.”

A portent is also a person who regards him or herself as a marvellous and wondrous being. Self-aggrandizement is inherent to his character, as is bullying and prevarication. If you are offering official recognition (and benefits) to the first responders of 9/11, a false prophet will seek to identify with them and insist he was there even though he wasn’t. More than that, he helped search through the rubble. False prophets are serial exaggerators and fabricators.  

When appearing before the commemoration wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia that honours the 117 CIA officers who sacrificed their lives overseas, in his speech he denounced the media, spoke of his enormous inaugural crowds and even asked the CIA officers to, “Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”

I allow the reader to identify any false prophets they might recognize, especially when they use memes both to identify themselves and to send forth a self-image to others. A week ago, requoting what a sycophant said about him, a tweet appeared referring to himself as the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” That same day, he referred to himself as “the Chosen One” in response to a question about trade with China.  

And that meme includes the reference to the false prophet’s children. He said “Behold, I, and the children whom God has given me, are לאותות ולמופתים—for signs and for portents” (Isaiah 8:18). A false prophet embraces his children as part of his prophetic role and is intent on becoming the portent of an era.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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