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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 21

Inspiration and Prophecy.

If we carefully examine the biblical records, we shall discover that prophets were not alone found amongst the Israelites, but also amongst other nations, previous to Moses, and during his lifetime. We find two mentioned, namely, Job and Balaam, who were sent as messengers, at least in so far, as to make the will of God known to those who were immediately about them; and others, as Abimelech and Laban, who received prophecy for their own guidance. (See Gen. chap. 20. v.3, and ibid. chap. 31. v.24.)

Not all the prophets received their mission in the same manner, nor had they all an equal degree of knowledge of divine things and of sanctity, if the frequency of inspiration be taken as the test. — We generally find that when the spirit of prophecy came over a man, he could not remain standing, but fell involuntarily down, as Abraham, Ezekiel, and Balaam. Most of the prophets prophesied only once, or when there was any urgent necessity of making something known to the people, leader, judge, or king; of the first, we can cite as a remarkable instance the seventy elders in Numbers, chap. xi., and of the second, the many prophets mentioned in Kings will serve as an illustration. — Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have left us accounts of their first appointment to the dignity of prophets, and from their histories we can learn what kind of men were thus honored by their Maker; they were all, namely, men of unimpeachable morality and virtue, and ready to fulfill the object of their mission at whatever personal risk to themselves; with the exception of Balaam, who, though probably not virtuous, was yet gifted with prophecy, and this must teach us, as well as many other acts of the Deity, that our reason is not capable of understanding all.

In investigating the prophetic histories, or what is the same, all the books of the Jewish canon, it will be discovered that inspiration was of two different kinds: the one was inspiration proper, and the other prophecy. The inspired man, or one endowed with the holy spirit רוח הקודש whilst speaking or writing, was he, who wrote or spoke by himself (but not to others) what he felt within himself to be the will and word of God; or one who wrote down what had happened before him, or was to happen after him, as it was made known to him by a knowledge superior to that with which he was generally endowed. Inspired writers of this kind are David, Solomon, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. All these men, as will be seen, were never sent out to communicate to others what had been imparted to them; but they wrote down or spoke as to themselves what they felt convinced to be that wisdom and that knowledge, which their God had revealed to them. Thus David said: "The spirit of the Lord spoke within me, and his word was upon my tongue." (See 2 Sam. chap. xxiii. v.2.) If we now wish to determine what is holy spirit or inspiration, we must say: It is the endowment of superior knowledge proceeding from God as a special gift to the person so gifted, which inspiration compels him to write and speak only what is, was, or will be true, and prevents him from committing any error in the facts he relates as happening, past, or coming, because his knowledge ranged over events and circumstances, and the nature of both, as if they pass in review before him; or, in other words, a man truly inspired can commit no error, but must speak the truth.

A man endowed with prophecy, on the contrary, was a messenger sent to tell to others the will of God; he was therefore not permitted to keep any thing imparted to him a secret, but he was to go forth to the nation and communicate to them either the good or the evil message, which had been entrusted to him. (See also, 1 Sam. chap. iii. v.17, where we read, that Samuel concealed nothing that God had told him from Eli, who had even required his frankness from the young prophet.) We must, according to this definition, call Moses, Isaiah, Joel and others, prophets, since they were messengers sent to speak. The prophet, like the inspired writer, could not err, for it is impossible to think that God, who sent him to speak a particular message in his name, should not have imparted to him the truth.

Some of the prophets had power to work miracles, these were chiefly Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, who were the most favored of mortals, even so far, that Elijah never tasted the cup of death, but was translated by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings, chap. ii.) But let no man think that any undue partiality was shown to these men, for they were the most virtuous that ever lived, and as such they were entitled to, and did receive the highest favors. — The miracles wrought by them demonstrated also, that no matter how great the miracle is, it entitles not the man, through whose agency it is performed, to receive adoration or reverence, other than should be shown to a man noted for his virtue and favor with God. For what could be more extraordinary than Moses drawing water out of a hard rock, or Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel reviving the dead? But neither they, nor the people before whom these miracles were exhibited, ever thought that they proceeded from any inherent power in those prophets; and when Elijah had been answered with fire from heaven, (1 Kings chap. xviii. v.39,) all the people cried out: "The Eternal is the God! The Eternal is the God!" Thus we see, that the miracles of the prophets were only considered as a confirmation of their prophecy, and it was well understood, that the performer of miracles was only the instrument in the hand of God, and therefore the three aforementioned prophets could not claim any merit in bringing the dead to life again, for any other man might have done the same, if he had received the commission to do so.

Properly speaking, we had no oracles, but all the predictions amongst us were the word of God, only made known in different ways. The nature of inspiration and prophecy has been already explained, and I shall now give an account of the Urim and Thummim, which served as a guide to our ancestors. According to the generally received opinion among us, the Urim and Thummim was a holy name written by Moses and placed by him between the folds of the breastplate, one of the robes of the high priest. All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were engraved upon the stones of this plate, and when any question was to be answered, (upon the requisition of the chief judge or the leader of the people,) the priest looked upon the breastplate, and which ever letter he saw shining forth he bore in mind, and did so with every other one as it shone, and when no other reflected light, he was convinced that the answer was complete. To make this obscure description more intelligible, I will introduce an example from the commencement of the book of Judges. It there says, that the Israelites, after the death of Joshua, enquired which of the tribes should go out first to attack the enemy; to which question they received a reply: "Judah shall go," Heb. יהודה יעלה: the priest saw the י shining, then ה, and so on, till he had seen in succession the nine letters composing these two words, which combined in the order they appeared, made out the reply asked for. Though this reply was very brief, it was nevertheless all that was necessary, it being concise and explicit; there was no room left for a doubt or to put a double construction upon this reply, as was invariably the case with oracles invented and conducted by men. Let us for instance take the celebrated answer the Athenians received, when they were threatened with an invasion by the Persian Xerxes. They were told to defend themselves behind wooden walls. This oracle, as it stood, had certainly no other meaning, than that the Athenians were lost, as apparently there was no more safety for them, than for a man who would endeavor to shelter himself behind a wooden wall, when attacked by an immense host well provided with instruments of attack. But Themistocles advised his townsmen to seek safety on board of their fleet, and do thus what the oracle demanded of them to do. They did so, and the victory of Salamis was the fruit of this wise counsel. — But can any man imagine, that in case the Athenians had been defeated, the priests of Delphi had no door by which to escape; or to speak more plainly, that they would not have been able to interpret their prediction so as to suit the event?

A similar duplicity in oracle-reply we find in the book of Judges. The notorious Micah had made himself an image and oracle, and appointed a young Levite to be his priest. Some men of the tribe of Dan came by accident to the house, and when they asked the priest: "If the oracle could tell them if their journey would be prosperous," he answered them: "Go in peace, the way you go is נכח the Eternal." The word נכח means here ostensible — agreeable to; but it also means before, known, laid open, and the phrase therefore, may mean, "Go in peace, the way you go is known to the Lord," and by implication not to this idol; true, the men were successful, but if they had been otherwise, he could not with propriety have been called a liar, since he had said nothing positive, and in fact he could not have chosen any word so well adapted to his purpose of mystifying, as this נכח, he so adroitly used.

This may seem to some an unnecessary digression, but in fact it is not. Attempts have been often made to call the Urim and Thummim oracles, and some go even so far as to give this name to the altars or other monuments, on which particular passages of Scripture had been inscribed. — I should have no particular objection to the word oraculum itself, which means — first, a place where divine answers were obtained, and secondly, the divine answer itself, though even this would not exactly express the nature of the Urim and Thummim, as we have explained it above. But no Jew, who is alive to his national honor, can suffer an idea to be entertained, that our mode of obtaining the decision and the knowledge of the will of God had any thing in common with the oracles of the Greeks and Romans; one was by the positive command of God — the others were by the jugglery of priests and madmen; — one was always clear and decisive, and the event never belied the prediction — the others were always ambiguous and uncertain, and no more dependence could be placed upon them, than upon the divinations of gypsies and fortune tellers of the present time.

It will be evident from the foregoing definitions, that inspiration, prophecy, and decision through the Urim and Thummim, were equally infallible, or whatever was announced in either of the three modes was of necessity true. But if it should have been discovered, that any prediction did not correspond with the event, it must have been clear, that this prediction was not made by inspiration, but was an invention of the pretended prophet.

In Deuteronomy, chap. xviii. will be found a prohibition of all superstitious enquiries into futurity; we should, namely, not consider one time more propitious or lucky than the other; should not consult the dead; nor make use of conjuration, or any other species of fraud and deception, which was resorted to in ancient or modern times. If the power of witchcraft be real or pretended is unnecessary to be determined here; for if it be real, its practice is no less contrary to our law, than if it be but pretended. It is also quite immaterial, whether this power was practiced, or even possessed only, at any time since the creation; it is enough for us to know, that it was prohibited, and the pretender to witchcraft, necromancy, or the like practices was punishable with death. The object of our law in interdicting all superstitious customs, which were current amongst all the nations of antiquity, and are yet practiced amongst most of the barbarous communities of the present day, was, as Moses says: "That we should be perfect with the Eternal our God." The word rendered "perfect" is in Hebrew תמים, which is used to express any thing entire, complete, without blemish, simple; its meaning in this place is therefore: our confidence in God should be entire, we should simply put our trust in His protection, and always hope, that as He directs our destinies as we deserve, that only will happen which is good and redounding to our advantage; we are, for this reason, forbidden to dive any further in futurity than God himself chooses to reveal to us. — Moses therefore proceeds in his discourse (Deut. chap. xviii. v.14,):

"For these nations, which thou shalt drive out, are accustomed to listen to observers of time and diviners, but thou hast not received the like for thyself from the Lord thy God. A prophet, from amongst thee, from thy brethren, like myself, the Lord thy God will raise up unto thee, to him you shall hearken." (Pay attention to his words.) "Just as thou hast asked of the Lord thy God in Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when thou spokest, 'I wish not further to hear the voice of the Lord my God, nor see any more the great fire, that I may not die;' and the Lord then said unto me, 'They have acted properly in what they said; I will raise up unto them a prophet from amongst their brethren, like thyself, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all which I shall command him. And it shall happen, that I will punish every man, who will not hearken to my words, which he' (the prophet) 'shall speak in my name. But that prophet who shall be wicked enough to speak any thing in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who shall speak in the name of false gods, shall die.' And if thou shouldst say in thy heart: 'How can we know the word, which the Lord has not spoken?' That, which the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and it happen not, nor come to pass, this is what the Lord has not spoken, wickedly has the prophet spoken it, thou shalt not be afraid of him." (Meaning: do not think that you will do the least wrong in removing him from amongst you by killing him, for he richly deserves his fate, for attempting to deceive his brethren.)

We have here before us the method by which the truth of prophecy can be tested. As from a negative we generally can infer the positive, we may conclude in what true prophecy consists from the foregoing extract. It is necessary: first, that the prophet announce his prophecy, or what is the same, his mission, as proceeding from the Eternal Lord our God, who revealed himself to Moses; and secondly, that the event correspond exactly with the prediction. But if a man pretending to inspiration should presume to speak in the name of idols, as for instance, he come with a message from Jupiter or any other personage or thing, existing or not existing, which received, or is intended to receive, honors due only to God; or if he say such a thing shall happen at such a time, and it does not happen at the time specified; or if he speak against any one commandment of the Mosaic law, (this being once laid down as the irrevocable will of God): such a man must be considered as a false prophet; that, which he gives out as prophecy, is an invention of his own, and it is wickedness in him to presume to palm upon the world his own ideas as the will and word of God.

If we take this passage in connection with what is commanded concerning any one, who should advise the people or individuals to act contrary to the law (Deut. chap. xiii. v.1-12): it will appear that no miracle or sign can be taken as evidence of the truth of any prophecy, which should be contradictory in any one particular to the laws given us through Moses. For in the first verse we are directed to observe every commandment laid down by Moses, and are forbidden to add or take any away, and in the fifth verse we read: "After the Lord your God you shall walk, and Him you shall fear, and his commandments you shall observe, and to his voice you shall hearken, and Him you shall serve, and to Him you shall adhere." These commandments speak too plainly to be misunderstood; that every precept of the law is binding and will be ever binding; and it must follow of course, that not one of them will be abrogated, nor any other thing substituted, for any, even the smallest, precept contained in the Pentateuch. We are therefore told, that if any man should even perform a miracle, as an evidence of his mission, when this mission contains aught in opposition to the letter and spirit of the law, he must be considered as a false prophet, or in other words, that which he tells us must be looked upon as an invention of his own, and that therefore the miracle performed, or the sign given, is no proof of the truth of his assertion. For if it were possible that any commandment could be abrogated at any time, it must follow, that what is right today, can be wrong tomorrow — or, that God did not know, when He gave the first commandments, what was right — or, that He is changeable in his disposition, and alters the law to suit his caprice — all such hypotheses are rank blasphemy, and can not be entertained by any man, who is duly impressed with the wisdom and grandeur of God; for, as the Psalmist and Balaam say: "God is not a man, that He should speak falsely!"

Prophecy now, to be true, must be in every respect agreeable to the precepts of the Mosaic law; if, therefore, a man comes forward and proclaims his mission, produces proof of its truth, and speaks altogether in confirmation of and according to the Pentateuch, he must be believed, and to disbelieve him would be sin; but for which the person refusing to believe is not to be punished, on any account, by an earthly tribunal, being accountable to God alone. And since we are once upon the subject, I will just remark, that no man could be punished by a court of justice for opinions which he held, till he had proved these, his sinful opinions, by an overt act; for instance, the worship of idols, disobedience to the decision of the Sanhedrin, or any one other willful transgression of the precepts of the law; and the maxim of our law is: for opinions we are answerable to God alone — for our actions to men also. If, however, a man should be convicted of having spoken as a prophet contrary to the law, he has committed a crime against the will-being of society, and he is punishable with death by a court of justice, although he has performed miracles, for miracles are no evidence whatever of the truth of any man's mission, if no other proof of his being a prophet be produced.

"In what manner is prophecy to be verified, if miracles are no confirmation?" To answer this question it is only necessary to consult three out of the many passages on this subject in the Bible: namely, Numbers, chap. xvi. v.28; 1 Kings, chap. xxii. v.28, and Jeremiah, chap. xxviii. v.16. From these passages it clearly follows, that the accomplishment of the predictions is the only proof of their truth; and it matters not if the accomplishment be a miracle or a mere natural event, provided it take place at the time and in the manner specified, and the prophecy be in confirmation (as we have seen it must be) of the precepts contained in our law.

1. We read in Numbers, chap. xvi. v.28: "And Moses said, by this you shall know that the Eternal has sent me to do all these things, and that they proceeded not from my own mind. If these men die a death similar to that of all men, and the fate of all mortals overtake them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord create a new thing, and the earth open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive to their graves, then you will know that these men have incensed the Lord." Here Moses proposed a test of his mission, by saying, that the destruction, nay, the instantaneous destruction of the rebels should be a confirmation of his course being dictated by God; but that if, on the contrary, they should die a natural death, every one should judge him to have acted without authority, and that his whole course had been a series of frauds and deceptions. — Mark the confidence of the prophet! He could not, in a natural way, have known that the earth would be rent asunder the moment he left off speaking; for though such a thing happens now and then during an earthquake, I do not remember to have read any instance, where a chasm was produced, at a moment's warning, upon the requisition of any man, and closed again in a few moments after, when it had effected the purpose of its formation. — But no sooner had Moses proposed the test than the men, whose names are mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of Numbers, were swallowed up, the chasm closed over them, and they were lost from among the midst of the assembly, and no other man was injured, save those designated by the prophet. Although Moses himself is the narrator of this event, there is yet every reason to believe his account; for just before he died we find him reminding the people of what had been done to Dathan and Abiram, and again detailing the event in a few but forcible words. (Deut. chap. xi. v.6.) Does now any man believe that Moses could have been audacious enough to remind the people of any event said to have occurred before their eyes, if really such an event had never taken place? Is it reasonable to suppose that all would not have exclaimed: "We know of no such thing!"? — But we have other evidence to prove that this event was believed and generally accredited long after Moses's death; for we find in the 106th psalm, verse 16th and 17th: "And they envied Moses in the camp, also Aaron, who was consecrated to the Eternal; the earth opened and swallowed Dathan and covered Abiram's band." The other events enumerated in the psalm were then and are even now too well known to be doubted; and could the Psalmist have inserted a fabulous account amongst historical facts?

2. In the twenty-second chapter of the first book of Kings we find an account of the expedition of the kings of Judah and Israel against Ramoth, then occupied by the Syrians. Previous to their leaving Shomron (Samaria) we read that many false prophets encouraged Ahab to go, promising him success and a prosperous return. Yehoshaphat, however, the king of Judah, although he was found in company with the most inveterate idolater, was sincerely pious; and hearing four hundred men all using the same language, he could not believe them inspired, for there is no example to be found where two prophets ever used precisely the same words, although they announced the same message; for inspiration taught them only to speak nothing but what was true, but never compelled them to use language different from what they were accustomed to; — hence the difference in the style of the prophets. Yehoshaphat for this reason asked: "If there were no prophet of the Eternal (in opposition to the four hundred of Baal) of whom they might enquire?" And there was one — one who braved the idolater Ahab, despite of his being king and capable of injuring him; but he was in prison by the commands of Ahab; as Yehoshaphat, however, desired to see him, he was brought in the presence of the two kings. It is unnecessary to transcribe the whole account of Michaiah's prophecy, as every one, who may wish to know it, can find it in the chapter referred to. — Ahab was very angry when he heard the prophet predicting his death in battle; he ordered him, therefore, to be kept in close confinement, and at hard diet, until he should come back in peace; whereupon the prophet said (v.28.): "If thou return at all in peace, the Eternal has not spoken through me;" and he added: "Hear it, all nations!" thus calling upon the whole world to bear witness, that in case Ahab should be killed in battle, (which in fact did happen,) that then, and then only, would he be considered a true prophet; but if the king should return unhurt, then would he willingly forfeit all his claim to that name. — Michaiah, in all probability, was not the author of his own history; and of course it must have been recorded by some other person, that he predicted the death of Ahab in the manner related above; and if it had been untrue, it could never have been admitted into our historical writings, since such a remarkable event, as the death of a king in battle, must have been a matter well known to all the Israelites; the more so, as chronicles were kept, in which every occurrence of importance was immediately recorded; and could any man have palmed upon the people a fictitious narrative, the falsity of which might have been proven by a mere reference to the records of state?

3. In Jeremiah, chap, xxviii. we read, that a man by the name of Hananiah, pretending to have been inspired, limited the time of seventy years, foretold by Jeremiah, as the duration of the Babylonian captivity, falsely to two years only. In an address of Jeremiah to the people and Hananiah he said: "When the word of the prophet who prophesies peace comes to pass, then it will be known what prophet the Eternal has sent in truth. " (v.9th.) To prove further the fallacy of Hananiah's prophecy, Jeremiah announced to him: "That he should die in the course of the year, as a punishment for the deception he practiced by his pretended mission;" and Hananiah did die before the expiration of the year. (v.17.) — It is utterly impossible to suppose that the prophecy of Jeremiah was written after Hananiah's death, and that in consequence the pretended prophecy was indicted after the event, or what is the same, that the prophecy was never given. Let us but reflect that the whole affair took place before a large concourse of people, some of whom must have been alive in Ezra's time, and able to decide if Jeremiah's account was true or not; but since his book was universally received as canonical by those who returned from the Babylonian captivity, we are compelled to come to the conclusion that every thing happened as Jeremiah himself relates it. If any other proof were wanting, it could be drawn from the duration of the captivity. Jeremiah himself did not live to see the restoration, for he died in Egypt long before that time. Now it appears clearly from Ezra, that just at the expiration of the seventy years Cyrus, king of Persia, granted the Jews permission to return to their own land; and in consequence, what had been prediction in the time of Jeremiah, became certainty and fulfillment in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah; and that further the prophecy of Jeremiah bears the marks of true revelation and inspiration, which have been given in this chapter, as the doctrines proclaimed by him are also in conformity with the Pentateuch.

We have thus incontestable proof that miracles were never appealed to by our prophets to attest their divine mission; but reference was always had on this point to the fulfillment of conditions previously stated, that is to say, the accomplishment of the predictions. A similar test was proposed by Elijah to the prophets of Baal on mount Carmel, to prove who was God; — if the Eternal Lord whom he adored, or what they pretended to call god. He made a condition with those around him, that the God who should send fire to consume the sacrifices should be acknowledged as the true God. The false prophets were obliged to think this test so liberal, that they immediately consented. It need not be told that their efforts were fruitless (see 1 Kings, chap. xviii.), though they dreadfully cut themselves with swords and lances, as was their custom, till the blood ran down. Not so acted the prophet of the Eternal Lord of heaven: calmly but with firmness did he call the people to him, and thereupon repaired the altar of his God, which had been destroyed. When the altar was finished, and the sacrifice was laid in proper order upon it, Elijah addressed a fervent prayer to God, whose messenger he was: "To prove on that day to the people that the Eternal is God, and that he himself was the prophet chosen to do all he had done!" — And behold — the fire descended from heaven, and consumed the sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, yea even the water in the trench round the altar! It was then that the eyes of the people were opened, and they beheld clearly that the God whom Elijah proclaimed is God, and that Elijah was the chosen messenger of this their God. — The prophet stood alone, unaided, amid a people addicted to idolatry but a few moments before — but now they were convinced of their error, they fell on their knees and said: "The Eternal is the God! The Eternal is the God!" The film was removed from their eyes, and but three words were all they were able to utter, and to this day the words ה' הוא האלהים are the motto of our nation; when the Day of Atonement is closing they announce that a day entirely devoted to our God is past; when our brother is dying they are repeated, that he may be reminded, at the moment of his departure hence, of the God of nature, and be admonished to dedicate to Him his last thoughts; for He is kind, merciful, and ever ready to pardon the returning child, though this return has been long deferred. On both occasions, at the close of the Day of Atonement and of our earthly career, we should be free from sin, ready to meet that God who has so kindly sustained, and so mercifully protected us. Has our life been devoted to his service — have not our sins formed a division between Him and us: — then our prayer on the Day of Atonement cannot have been in vain, for our sins have been forgiven. If every Kippur-day (Day of Atonement) has been thus through life — if every year has found us better and more prefect: why need we tremble when death comes near? Can we not say with composure: "The Lord shall reign for ever!" Yes, for ever shall his kingdom endure, — like ourselves all mankind, shall acknowledge Him — shall seek protection under His almighty power; and when all nations have been united in His service, all will join us in exclaiming: "Hear, O Israel, the Eternal our God is the only Eternal Being!" He alone is everlasting — no other being exists to share His power — to Him, therefore, we will submit our destinies; and He will surely assist us. Whilst living we will pay adoration to His name; and when dying let our last thought be: His UNITY! His power! His protection! And His willingness to forgive the crimes of the returning sinner!

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