The Authority of a Biblical Prophet (Bible Study)

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Antonio Balestra

Have you ever heard of an orbuculum? That is the technical word for a “crystal ball.” How many times have you heard someone say, “If I had a crystal ball . . .” Considering the fact that folk as diverse as Diane Wood, Bob Kahn, and Michael Jordan have famous quotes citing the idiom, probably a bunch of times! As far as we know crystal balls were first utilized by the Celtic Druids, but gained so much influence over the centuries that during the Elizabethan period they were used to advise kings. Their function? To divine the future. To move human sight beyond its own finite limitations to see the other side. Hmmm . . . no wonder so many people seem to want one.

Into the Book

Today’s study takes us into the book of Deuteronomy. Here we find the nation of Israel’s legislation regarding the office of the prophet. And here we will find Yahweh’s answer to the human desire for a crystal ball.

9 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.
14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. 15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”
17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”
21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
(Deuteronomy 18:9–22 NIV)

  • Read verse 9 in several different versions if possible. How are the practices of the other nations described?
  • In verses 10–14, underline the practices that the Israelites are not to imitate. (If you don’t know what these words mean, take a quick look on Google.)
  • In verses 15–20, whose words will be in the mouth of the prophet?
  • Who do you think “me” is in verse 15?
  • What will happen to those who do not pay attention to the words that the prophet speaks? Why is Yahweh so harsh about this command?

Real People, Real Places, Real Faith

Divine intermediaries, or mediators between the gods and humans, were well-known throughout the ancient Near East. People desperate to hear from the gods sought to communicate by means of omens (anything utilized to foreshadow the future). Omens could be observed in random events or actively solicited. A random event that may portend a future event could be something like an abnormal birth in the flock (a two-headed lamb, for instance). A solicited omen might be communication sought by means of “incubation” (sleeping in a holy site to obtain a holy dream) or extispicy (analyzing the entrails of a sacrificed animal), or astrology (observing the paths of the stars).

In the ancient world, kings would consult divine intermediaries regarding important decisions such as military campaigns, building projects, appointing civil servants, et cetera. The prophet Ezekiel alludes to this regarding the king of Babylon: “For the king of Babylon [Nebuchadnezzar] stands at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the household idols, he looks at the liver” (21:21 NASB). The story of the king of Moab hiring the local soothsayer Balaam to read entrails on four mountains for a divination fee communicates similar methodology (see Numbers 22–23).

So obviously, seeking to hear from the gods by means of a dead animal’s lungs and liver, shaking arrows, or reading the stars probably sounds very silly to us. But imagine you are one of those desperate souls needing a word from the gods and this is the only way you know how to get your god to speak. All of a sudden, rather than sounding silly, it now sounds very, very sad.

Our People, Our Places, Our Faith

In my many years of teaching and ministry, I have observed firsthand how desperately God’s people want to hear from him. Over the years I’ve met hundreds at altars in camps and conferences, in my office or at a table in a café, who were asking for prayer, guidance, a word from their God. In today’s study God promises Israel that he has no intention of concealing his will or requiring his people to pay someone else to find it for them. Instead, God promises that he will speak clearly to his people through his prophet. And the community of faith made sure that the most important of these words would be written down for subsequent generations. You and I are that subsequent generation, and our Bibles have preserved the words of the prophets for our guidance and our aid. As a result, there is always guidance for the believer in the Book. But there is also guidance for us through prayer.

In this new covenant of ours, God has announced the impossible: that he has actually come to live within every believer (see Acts 2:1–4; Ephesians 2:19–22). And he has appointed leaders in this new covenant who can speak to us on his behalf (see 1 Corinthians 12:28–29). Moreover, we are told that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), and Jesus himself has become our advocate such that we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). In sum, in this new covenant, God actually speaks to the average, everyday believer and we can speak to him. So what is it you (the average, everyday believer) need to hear from God today? Why don’t you pause now and tell him?

This entry is an excerpt from The Epic of Eden: Jonah. Are you interested in a Bible study on the book of Jonah? In the book of Jonah we find a professional holy man, a lifer in the faith who is about to have the God he thinks he understands challenge him with an assignment that he can hardly get his brain around. In The Epic of Eden: Jonah, Dr. Sandra Richter takes us on a journey through Jonah’s life that leads us all to the place where we realize that our God is way bigger than we thought. Not only will we learn everything we ever wanted to know about the brutal Assyrians of Nineveh, ancient seafaring ships, and large aquatic creatures, but we will also be challenged with the same message that confronted Jonah. Are we willing to let God be God, to move us out of our comfort zones, and embrace a calling that might just take us to the edges of the world we know? Get Epic of Eden: Jonah from our store here.

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Sandra Richter (PhD) is author of The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament and Stewards of Eden: What the Scripture has to Say about the Environment and Why It Matters as well as the Seedbed "Epic of Eden" studies in Jonah, Ruth, and Isaiah. Currently the Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, Richter has served as a Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Wesley Seminary, and Asbury Theological Seminary. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell and Harvard University, Sandy specializes in bringing the real people and real places of the Old Testament to life for both the academic and the lay person. Often to be found excavating in Israel, or hiking the back country, she has a number of technical pieces out integrating Syro-Palestinian archaeology and Bible. Dr. Richter is an amazing communicator, and extremely popular as an international speaker and teacher in both lay and academic contexts.

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