Parashat Shoftim / The Fate of the False Prophet

Examining the biblical prohibition for those who prophesy what they never heard, and those who prophesy what was not said to them.

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Moses reminds the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion how they asked him at Mount Sinai that God speak to them through an emissary rather than directly. In the place where God reveals himself directly, he proposes, “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18).

However, the prophecy option contains a threat: “But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” (Deut. 18:20). The prophet Jeremiah is forced to contend with just such a prophet.

Jeremiah prophesizes that the Children of Israel will follow Jeconiah, king of Judah, into exile from the Land of Israel to Babylon. Israel must accept Babylon’s rule because this is God’s will, argues Jeremiah. In order to physically illustrate his prophecy, he places on his neck a wooden bar that represents the Babylonian yoke that will be placed on Israel’s neck. In chapter 28 of the Book of Jeremiah, a prophet named Hananiah, son of Azzur, rises up to challenge Jeremiah’s prophecy by prophesizing the precise opposite: “Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, saying: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring back into this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried them to Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:2-3).

Jeremiah cautiously expresses serious reservations regarding Hananiah’s optimistic prophecy. Prophets of doom, declares Jeremiah, are always true prophets; if their prophecies are not fulfilled, that is a sign that God has forgiven the nation and altered his severe decree. However, he says, “The prophet that prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him” (Jer. 28:9).

In response to this cautious challenge from Jeremiah, Hananiah performs a dramatic symbolic act: “Then Hananiah the prophet took the bar from off the prophet Jeremiah’s neck, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying: 'Thus saith the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from off the neck of all the nations within two full years.' And the prophet Jeremiah went his way” (Jer. 28:10-11).

Now Jeremiah expresses strong opposition to Hananiah’s words: “Then said the prophet Jeremiah unto Hananiah the prophet: ‘Hear now, Hananiah; the Lord hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to trust in a lie.’ Therefore thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will send thee away from off the face of the earth; this year thou shalt die, because thou hast spoken perversion against the Lord” (Jer. 28:15-16). Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding Hananiah is fulfilled: “So Hananiah the prophet died the same year in the seventh month” (Jer. 28:17). This is the false prophet’s fate, as written in this week’s Torah portion.

The biblical prohibition concerning the “prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak” is divided by the sages into two prohibitions: “Those who prophesy what they never heard, and those who prophesy what was not said to them” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, p.89a). The first category refers to individuals who invent a prophecy; the second refers to those who appropriate a prophecy that was not given to them and who pronounce the prophecy conveyed to another prophet as if it were their own.

The Talmud provides examples of each of these two categories of false prophets. Although one would have expected Hananiah, son of Azzur, to be included under the first category, the Talmud surprisingly places him under the second. This subtle shift in the meaning of the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah opens the door to a far-reaching interpretation of that confrontation: “Hananiah, son of Azzur, is an example of ‘those who prophesy what was not said to them.’ Jeremiah stands in the upper marketplace, declaring, ‘Thus saith the Lord of hosts: behold, I will break the bow of Elam, the chief of their might’ (Jer. 49:35). Using a fortiori (kal vachomer) reasoning, Hananiah concludes that, if God will destroy the bow (or might) of Elam [modern-day Iran], which only came to Babylon’s assistance, then a fortiori, God will also destroy the might of the demons themselves [the Babylonians]. Hananiah goes to the lower marketplace and proclaims, ‘Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts … saying: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, p. 89a).

According to the above talmudic passage, Hananiah’s prophecy was not false; it simply was not his. Thus, he is presented there not as Jeremiah’s rival or even as a plagiarist, but rather as a commentator on Jeremiah’s words. It could even be argued that Hananiah’s mistake was that he drew the wrong conclusion from Jeremiah’s prophecy.

This is Rabbi Pappah’s approach, as can be seen in the question he poses to his teacher, Abbayei: “Rabbi Pappah said to Abbayei: ‘But that prophecy [Hananiah’s prophecy] was also not conveyed to his colleague [Jeremiah]!’” According to a literal reading of the text in the Book of Jeremiah, Hananiah’s prophecy is not conveyed to Jeremiah and the former simply draws the wrong conclusion from the latter’s prophecy. Thus, Hananiah belongs to the category of individuals “who prophesy what they never heard” (that is, the first category of false prophet).

Abayei answered Rabbi Pappah, “Since Hananiah uses a fortiori reasoning, one can say that the prophecy was transmitted only to Jeremiah and that Hananiah thus belongs to the category of ‘those who prophesy what was not said to them’ [that is, the second category of false prophet].”

Hananiah uses the very same a fortiori method that the sages employ to expand the information contained in the biblical text. This exegetical method as used by the sages is not regarded as a manipulation of the text, but rather as a direct understanding of the text’s meaning.

According to the sages’ interpretation of Hananiah’s prophecy, it is simply an interpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom, an interpretation performed in accordance with the same a fortiori method they employ in their interpretation of biblical texts. Thus, in the sages’ view, Jeremiah and Hananiah’s prophecies are a biblical text and its interpretation. The sages create a breathtaking, reflective, ars poetica picture of their exegetical enterprise, which seeks to breathe life into biblical prophecies, although they are aware that they are providing a nonliteral reading of the biblical text.

According to this perspective, the above passages in Jeremiah represent a dialogue between two different commentators regarding a biblical text. Whereas Hananiah offers an optimistic interpretation, Jeremiah argues that there are no grounds for such optimism. In response, Hananiah smashes the wooden bar Jeremiah has placed on his neck; Hananiah’s action is a symbolic representation of what the sages do to a literal reading of a biblical text.

The tragic situation of the sages is summed up in the portrait of Hananiah. In their commentaries, the sages seek to bring God’s words to the nation; however, prophecy has ended in Israel and God does not speak directly to these commentators. Using the a fortiori method in their exegeses, the sages seek to comfort their people and to promise an optimistic future. However, this dramatic attempt lacks the theological authorization accorded to the prophecies and, therefore, the degree of the rabbinical exegetists’ faithfulness to the biblical text is suspect when their interpretation is the precise opposite of a literal reading.

Perhaps this is the reason that the rabbinical exegetists identify with Hananiah, who enrages the proponent of a literal reading of the biblical text (Jeremiah) and who dies when the power of the literal reading is directed against him.