The Test of the False Prophet

Rather in the place that Hashem will select in (the portion of) one of your tribes, there you shall offer your Olah sacrifices and there you shall do all that I command you. (Sefer Devarim 12:14)

The Torah requires that we obey the prophets. A prophet establishes his credibility by either performing a wonder or by consistently predicting future events. Once the prophet has established himself we are required to obey his instructions. However, the authority of the prophet is not absolute. He cannot decide questions of halachic practice based upon prophecy. He is not permitted to revise or alter the commandments of the Torah.

This last limitation does not preclude the prophet’s temporary suspension of a specific law. The Books of the Prophets provide examples of prophets temporarily suspending a specific law. The best known example involves the prophet Eliyahu. Eliyahu challenged the priests of the Ba’al to a contest. He suggested that he and they each prepare a sacrifice but not set fire to the fuel underneath the offering. Each would pray to their respective deity to send forth a flame and consume their offering. The challenge was accepted and first the priests of Ba’al called upon their god to take their offering. As they ever-more desperately pleaded with the Ba’al to respond Eliyahu ridiculed and humiliated the priests. After their mortifying failure, Eliyahu prepared his offering. He thoroughly doused it with water and then called upon Hashem to take His offering. A flame descended from heaven and the offering was consumed. Eliyahu emphatically, and dramatically proved the authenticity of Hashem and the deceit of the priests of the Ba’al.[1]

The Sages note that Eliyahu violated the Torah in his challenge. He defeated the priests of the Ba’al by offering a sacrifice outside of the Holy Temple – the Bait HaMikdash. This violates the mitzvah described in the above passage. The pasuk explains that once the Bait HaMikdash is built all sacrifices must be offered upon the altar of the Temple. The first Bait HaMikdash was built by King Shlomo and was not destroyed until long after the time of Eliyahu. Therefore, in offering his sacrifice on an altar outside of the Bait HaMikdash, Eliyahu violated the mitzvah described in the passage.

The Sages explain that this incident demonstrates that a prophet has the authority to temporarily suspend a mitzvah in order to preserve the Torah’s overall observance. Eliyahu suspended the mitzvah prohibiting offering sacrifices outside of the Bait HaMikdash in order to discredit the worship of the Ba’al and to return the nation to observance of the Torah.[2]

However, some commandments cannot be suspended even temporarily. Theses mitzvot are those directly prohibiting idolatry. This exclusion is easily explained. The temporary suspension of a commandment is only permitted in order to strengthen observance of the Torah. The prohibition against idolatry is central to the Torah. Therefore, suspension of the prohibition against idolatry in order to preserve the Torah is an oxymoron.[3]

You should not listen to that prophet or that dreamer of dreams for Hashem your G-d tests you to know whether you love Hashem your G-d with your entire hearts and your entire souls. (Sefer Devarim 13:4)

The passage above discusses the false prophet. This person has established his credibility as a prophet through either performing a wonder or through consistently, successfully predicting future events. The prophet exposes himself as a charlatan by directing the people to adopt idolatrous practices. As explained, it is completely inconceivable that a true prophet under any circumstances would issue such instructions. Therefore, any claimant to prophecy who does direct the people to adopt idolatrous practices is immediately known to be a fraud.

The above passage focuses on a theological issue related to the false prophet. How does Hashem allow this provocateur to perform wonders or predict the future? In other words, why does Hashem not protect His true believers from such confusing tests? The passage responds that Hashem is testing our commitment to His service. He allows the provocateur to achieve recognition and even acclaim as a prophet in order to test whether we can be fooled by this impostor.

And it was after these things and Hashem tested Avraham and said to him, “Avraham” and he responded, “Here I am.” And He said: Take your son, your only one, (the one) that you love, Yitzchak and go to the Land of Moriah and offer him as an Olah sacrifice on one of the mountains that I will announce to you. (Sefer Beresheit 23:1-2)

The proposition that Hashem “tests” His followers appears a number of times in the Torah. The first instance in which this proposition is explicitly expressed is in regard to Avraham. The above passages introduce the agonizing test to which Avraham was forced to submit. He was directed by Hashem to offer his beloved son, Yitzchak, as a sacrifice. Avraham demonstrated his willingness to make even this terrible sacrifice. After preparing his son for offering, Hashem called out to Avraham and commanded him to spare Yitzchak.

The commentaries are disturbed by the idea of Hashem testing Avraham. After all, Hashem is omniscient. He knows our thoughts. He does not require a test in order to uncover our true character. Why was it necessary to test Avraham? Various answers are suggested. Nachmanides suggests that Avraham’s test was not designed to discover Avraham’s true character. Instead, it was designed to give expression to Avraham’s character. Nachmanides’ contention is that a higher level of human excellence is achieved when potential is given expression through action and deed. Hashem only tests those who He recognizes have the capacity to “pass” the test. The test is designed to lead the person to this higher degree of personal excellence expressed in actual deeds.[4]

Rashi understands Avraham’s experience not as a test but as a demonstration. Avraham demonstrated that although Yitzchak was beloved, his love of Hashem exceeded his love for his son.[5] Rashbam understands the experience as an affliction. He explains that it was designed as a punishment for previous errors committed by Avraham.[6],[7]

Nachmanides extends his interpretation of Hashem testing His followers to our parasha. He explains that the false prophet is another instance in which Hashem subjects His followers to a test which forces them to give expression through deed to internal attitudes. Through rejecting the false prophet who instructs the people to adopt idolatrous practices, the nation gives physical expression to its dedication to Hashem.[8]

Rashi does not comment on the “test” in the parasha. However, Rashbam offers an explanation that is very different from his understanding of Avraham’s experience. He explains that the false prophet does pose a real test for the people and the outcome of the test is not known in advance. In other words, Hashem poses this test as a real challenge.[9]

Of course, this leaves unexplained the purpose of this challenge. It seems that according to Rashbam, the purpose of this challenge is to actually provide the people with a growth opportunity. Challenges are often scary and cause us anxiety. However, challenges are an essential catalyst for personal growth. Most individuals do not grow through developing and implementing a strategy for personal growth and spiritual development. Instead, the greatest strides in personal development occur through the process of confronting and coping with intimidating challenges. It is overcoming these challenges that we develop new strengths, define and our values, and make enduring commitments.

The false prophet presents this type of catalyst-challenge. This prophet makes his pronouncements with the full force of enormous authority. He has performed wonders; he has seen into the future. By virtue of his stature, he is regarded as a sacred religious figure. His direction to engage in idolatrous practices carries with it his full authority. Immense courage, confidence in one’s convictions, and clarity are required to resist and oppose such an imposing figure. Mounting this resistance and denouncing this established religious icon as a charlatan can only occur through a process of painful soul-searching, value clarification and an iron-willed commitment to Torah-true ideals even in the face of certain condemnation from an established religious leader. However, one who passes through the gauntlet of this challenge will emerge a giant.[10]

1. Melachim 1, chapter 18.

2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 9:3.

3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 9:5.

4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:1.

5. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:1.

6. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:1.

7. Each of these commentators adjusts his translation of the key term nisa in the passage in order to accommodate his interpretation of the incident. Nachmanides accepts the traditional translation and renders the term to mean “test”. Rashi does not provide a specific translation. Rashbam translates the term to mean that Hashem afflicted Avraham.

8. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 13:4.

9. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Devarim 13:4.

10. Rashbam’s interpretation of the passage provides a response to a common question. Hashem no longer performs open miracles. Many doubters rationalize their confusion by contending that they have not been provided with the overpowering evidence of Hashem’s existence and omnipotence that is provided by an overt and magnificent miracle. Their argument in defense of their skepticism is that if indeed Hashem exists, then their confusion is a consequence of His own passive conduct. They are eager and willing to lay their doubts to rest but G-d has not provided the evidence of His existence.

Rashbam’s analysis of the test of the false prophet suggests that he would be completely dismissive of such an argument. The evidence of Hashem’s existence and omnipotence is provided through the historical miracles that He performed before masses of people. However, the skeptic must balance this evidence against his own desire to avoid the implications of the existence of Hashem. The skeptic realizes that such an acknowledgement will require that he submit himself to the will of the Creator. This is a test that Hashem has put in place. One who passes the test has chosen to be guided by the evidence and to abandon his own willful existence. This requires a careful process of value clarification and the courage to face one’s own desires and impulses. However, passing the test – meeting this challenge – results in a truly committed religious personality and lifestyle.

Were Hashem to provide each generation with its own overwhelming miraculous demonstrations of His existence and omnipotence, this test would be undermined and cease to be meaningful. Adoption of religious values would be a consequence of the overpowering intimidating impact of these demonstrations and not a result of a painstaking process of value clarification. Religious practice and devotion to Hashem would be an expression of submission to intimidation and not an expression of personal spiritual stature and achievement.