Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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The numbered chapter divisions do not originate with Jewish tradition, but rather are associated with the history of the Christian Bible. In this scheme, the first five verses of Parashat Shoftim, 16:18-22, are combined with the previous week's reading, Parashat Re'eh, which dealt with the Festivals (16:1-17). The chapter divisions clearly took no account of the division into parshiyot and possibly were altogether oblivious of them. As in other places as well, this chapter division lacks sense.
In the Jewish tradition, contiguous parshiyot sometimes have similarities not only in content but also in language. One parasha might begin with the same words as the previous one ended, as in the present case: parashat Re'eh concludes, "according to the blessing that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you," and parashat Shoftim begins, "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your G-d is giving you," the Hebrew verb for "bestowed" and "giving," natan, being the same in both verses.
The pattern of language here joins separate links into a single chain. Indeed, this phrase, "that the Lord your G-d is giving you," introduces many of the passages that follow (17:2, 17:14, 19:1, 19:14, and elsewhere). It is a leitmotif for the laws in Deuteronomy that were delivered to the Israelites shortly before they entered the land, so that they would uphold them and organize the life of the people accordingly. It is repeatedly stressed that the Lord, G-d of Israel, is the one who gave the land to His people Israel, and therefore the people of Israel must live in the land according to the laws that the Lord gave them.
So far as the content of our reading, Parashat Shoftim deals with four bodies whose roles are to provide governance and guidance: magistrates and officials (Deut. 16:18), the king (17:14ff.), levitical priests (18:1ff), and the prophet (18:15ff). This structure clearly marks the prophet as part of the social organization of the nation.
There were surely prophets in Israel who devoted themselves entirely to spiritual matters alone, but most of the prophets in Scriptures frequently intervened in political and social affairs and were even thought of as part of the governing establishment, although often they belonged to a vocal opposition. The existence of prophecy was considered one of the preconditions for a proper society, as evidenced by the saying in Proverbs, "For lack of vision a people lose restraint [heb. yipar'a am], but happy is he who heeds instruction" (Prov. 19:18). "Vision" (hazon) here means the words of G-d in the mouth of the prophet, as evidenced by the following: "In those days the word of the Lord was rare; prophecy (hazon) was not widespread" (I Samuel 3:1).
The idea of the people losing restraint when not directed by prophets calls to mind what the Torah said about the Israelites during the sin of the golden calf: "Moses saw that the people were out of control [heb. p-r-‘]." Perhaps this saying in Proverbs was prompted by the situation depicted in Exodus: Moses had disappeared, and there was no one to relay the "vision" of the Lord's message to the people. The proverb says that this is a frequently recurring pattern; when the people have no words of prophecy, no words of guidance from G-d, the structure of society goes bad.
Prophecy is perceived as essential; this can be learned from our weekly reading which sets prophecy in Israel in contrast to magic and sorcery among the other nations (18:10-18). It is worth noting the connection and contrast between what Scripture says about a king and about prophecy. The people's initiative to appoint themselves a king arises, according to Scripture, out of their desire to imitate the ways of other nations: "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me" (17:14). The Torah, while clearly not pleased with this demand, nevertheless makes a concession to the people: "You shall be free to set a king over yourself" (17:15). Now the kings of other nations employed sorcerers in their courts to advise them, reveal hidden secrets, and to foretell what the future held in store. In this context the Torah warns the Israelites that although they may set a king over themselves as do other nations, under no circumstances are they to engage in sorcery or magic as do the other nations: "you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations" (18:9). Hence the connection between these laws (18:9-14) and the stated subjects of the parasha.
The Israelites, and especially the king of Israel, need to know the future and have hidden secrets revealed. In other nations, however, this need is answered by sorcerers, whereas in Israel it is answered by prophets. The king as well is not supposed to employ sorcerers from among the nations, and just as the king is to be an Israelite and not a foreigner ("one of your own people," 17:15), so too the prophet must only come from amongst the people of Israel: "a prophet from among your own people" (18:15). In certain respects the status of the prophet in Israel parallels that of the sorcerer in other nations: "Those nations … resort to soothsayers and augurs [Heb. yishma'u]" (18:14), but Israel is to have "a prophet from among your own people, … him you shall heed [Heb. tishme'un]" (18:15).
The story about Saul consulting the necromancer provides a concrete example of prophecy and prohibited means standing in opposition to one another, but with a common purpose: to inform the king of his chances of victory in battle (I Sam. 28). King Saul had been loyal to the Lord and His commandments and "had forbidden [recourse to] ghosts and familiar spirits in the land" (I Sam. 28:3); but he wanted to know what outcome was fated for him in the battle that he faced. First he turned to three permissible means: dreams, the Urim, and the prophets. This indicates that "inquiring about a dream" (as this came to be known in later generations) was considered permissible and even reliable.
It turns out that these three methods - dreams, Urim, and the prophets - are listed in ascending order according to their degree of importance and reliability. Dreams are the domain of all human beings, even Saul himself, who seek to discover there fate through a dream. The Urim belong to the priests. Saul killed the priests, slaying "eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod" (I Sam. 22:18), but in his hour of need he turned to them. Finally, at the highest level of advice, we have the prophets to whom he turned. The answer given by each of these three was supposedly from G-d, "but the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets" (I Sam. 28:6). Saul ought to have concluded from this resounding silence that he was doomed, nevertheless, perhaps out of depression, he sought to force an answer out of the prophets. He could not force the prophets who lived in his day to answer him, but he could force the dead prophet Samuel through a necromancer.
Note the point, which seems to have been largely overlooked, that here, too, Saul was essentially consulting a prophet in accordance with the commands of the Torah; the necromancer was only an intermediary to reach a hearing with the prophet and extract an answer from his mouth. Even so, this was clearly considered sinful of him, but to make our point in this overview we need not elaborate further.
Another story that has a bearing on this week's reading is that of the prophecy by Micaiah son of Imlah (I Kings 22). There, too, prophets were consulted before going to war, and all four hundred prophets serving the king of Israel predicted a dazzling victory. As the narrative unfolds it turns out that the prophecy of victory was not perceived as an objective prediction of the future, rather as a means of attaining victory through a "self-fulfilling prophecy." King Jehoshaphat of Judah was not satisfied by these prophets and decided to inquire of a prophet who was not among those serving in the court of the king of Israel. The king of Israel answered, "There isone more man through whom we can inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune" (I Kings 22:8). The king of Israel did not accuse Micaiah of false prophecy, but of a negative attitude towards him.
Herein lies an important point in understanding the nature of prophecy (at least as it was perceived by those who spoke through Scriptures). In one respect the prophecy in the mouth of the prophet is the word of G-d, but in another respect it is influenced by the inclinations of the prophet. Therefore the messenger who summoned Micaiah son of Imlah could ask him to adjust his prophecy to that of the other prophets, making it favorable for the king. But Micaiah son of Imlah flatly rejected this suggestion, using the same words as Balaam: "As the Lord lives, I will speak only what the Lord tells me" (I Kings 22:14; compare Numbers 22:18, 38, and 23:12, 26). Nevertheless, when Micaiah son of Imlah appeared before the king of Israel, first he said to him what all the other prophets had said: "March and triumph! The Lord will deliver [it] into your Majesty's hands" (I Kings 22:15), except that his facial expression and tone of voice indicated that he was mocking. Therefore the king made him swear to say what he truly felt. In response Micaiah delivered his prophecy of defeat and death in battle.
Here, too, is an important point: Micaiah did not accuse the other prophets whose prophecy was favorable to the king of being false prophets or of not having received a vision from G-d. He affirmed that the spirit of the Lord had indeed spoken through these prophets, but that the Lord had put a "lying spirit" in their mouth. We reject the apologetic interpretation according to which the Lord, who is the prime Mover, caused them to be false prophets and to lie. The plain sense of the text, which is in accord with the Sages' interpretations, is that the spirit of the Lord was indeed put in the mouth of these prophets, but nevertheless what they said did not come true.
Micaiah was subsequently put in prison until it became clear whether his unfavorable prophecy would come to pass, in line with the Torah's commands in this week's reading (Deut. 18:21-22):
And should you ask yourselves, "How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?" - if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord.
As with all laws, this law cannot suit every single circumstance. Even in the example at hand, in the case of Micaiah son of Imlah, we encounter two difficulties: first, what does the law say is to be done with those prophets in whose mouth the Lord put a "lying spirit"? Second, we know from the story of the prophet Jonah and from other sources that prophecies of misfortune do not always come to pass because the Lord is "a compassionate and gracious G-d, … renouncing punishment" (Jonah 4:2). Accordingly, even if Micaiah's dire prediction did not come to pass, that would not seal his fate as a false prophet; rather, we would say that the Lord's compassionate nature prevailed and the evil decree was averted.
Nevertheless, the law of the false prophet still contains a general principle whose actual implementation might be very complicated; the predictions of the future that are made by a true prophet come to pass precisely, as is said of the prophet Samuel: "Samuel grew up and the Lord was with him. He did not leave any of Samuel's predictions unfulfilled. All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet of the Lord" (I Sam. 3:19-20). Likewise, Saul's servant attests of Samuel: "There is a man of G-d in that town, … everything that he says comes true" (I Sam. 9:6).
 The "linen ephod" turns out to be related to the Urim, through which the priests could disclose the unknown.
 We know from the above account that such people existed. Also cf. I Sam. 19:20ff.
 Of course we realize that Maimonides' Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah offers solutions to the questions we raised here regarding prophecies of the future which may or may not come true. We wished, however, to limit our discussion to the plain sense of Scripture, whereas a discussion of Maimonides' interpretation would require an extensive analysis of his entire view on prophecy, far exceeding the scope of this paper.