Fun with the Bible: The Many Interpretations of Deuteronomy 18:15

How We Arrived at This Topic

Last week, on Quran Read-A-Long Kay asked, What do the passages of Deuteronomy 18: 15-18 refer to? (there are different English versions of this passage and not all versions use the term “brother”). She also wrote, “There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18 (NIV) 15 to 18-15 says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” I don’t know what this passage means to Christians or Jews but the use of the words “from among your brothers” is interesting as from the Muslim perspective—the brotherhood of the sons of Prophet Abraham could possibly give these passages significance.”

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates this verse as, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Now usually I rely heavily upon the NRSV. It’s an excellent, scholarly translation that takes account of the most ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and even sometimes Latin (the Vulgate) texts of the Bible in order to render the most accurate translation possible. It eschews translations that are misleadingly theological in nature; where discrepancies in the ancient texts exist, it footnotes those differences.

Kay has raised the issue of what exactly this verse means, and more importantly, to whom it means such things. Briefly, I’d like to say what it means to each religion and then comment on the interpretation itself.

Christians and Jews: Different Interpretations – How Strange!

For Christians, the meaning here is abundantly clear: this prophet raised up from among your own people is Jesus. How could it be anyone else? A prophet comparable to Moses, an Israelite, etc. Definitely the J-Man.

For the Jews, this isn’t anyone in particular. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that this is a reference to the future messiah, but no such word is used and it certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. For the Jews, this could be any of the prophets that came in a long line of prophets after Moses. “Like me” doesn’t necessarily mean in extreme quality, as one who speaks face to face with God, but only “a prophet, like me.” This is simply, ‘be prepared for more prophets because you said that you wanted prophecy to know what God wants so be on the lookout.’ This coincides perfectly with the fact that the verse can also be translated acceptably with all of the references to “prophet” in the plural, as in “The Lord your God will raise up prophets for you like me from among your own people; you shall heed such prophets.”

At the same time, it warns that such prophets will only come from among your own people, that is, the Israelites. This would have been quite a warning for Jews when it came to Mohammed. He was not from among their people. He was an Arab, a notably different people, though Semitic, that exists in the Bible. So, in some sense, for the Israelites/Jews, this verse is cautionary against someone like Mohammed bringing revelation from God because he couldn’t possibly be a prophet.

From A Muslim Perspective

And that, of course, brings us to a Muslim perspective on this verse and the translation of the verse itself. The word used for “your own people” is achichah, which is a plural possessive of the Hebrew word, ach, whose most immediate and obvious translation is “brother.” It’s a curious place to use the word. Of course, ach can also be translated as “kinsman” or “friend,” hence the natural leap to “your own people.” Few would question the reach. However, rather than use a word like am (nation), in which case the meaning would be pretty blatant (though, notably, still not exclude Jesus), the text uses the word ach which even when translated otherwise, still has the connotation of brother.

It is this that makes Kay’s translation from the NIV so valid and the subsequent Muslim outlook on this verse so viable. She has pointed out, quite rightly, that Isaac and Ishmael were brothers. Thus, with the Israelites/Jews descending from Isaac and the Arabs descending from Ishmael, these two tribes are in fact, brother-tribes, or in a sense, kinsman. Thus, a line in the Bible that could acceptably be translated as foreshadowing the rise of a prophet like Moses (a big-time prophet) that comes from among your brothers, could quite easily be seen as a reference to Mohammed for Muslims.

The Historical-Critical Take

Where do I stand? I think that all of these interpretations, from a religious perspective, take into account the possible and appropriate translations of this verse, and therefore are equally viable depending on the perspective of where you’re sitting. I study these things because of the many fascinating and possible interpretations, what they reveal about each religion individually and the ways that they theologically interact with one another.

However, I also know that the book of Deuteronomy was written in the middle of the seventh century BCE and that this line has been written retrospectively. What this line is really doing is letting the future readers of this book know that Moses knew that there would be more prophets to come. Seeing as how the last five hundred years of Israelite history had been littered with prophets, this was a good way of showing Moses’ knowledge and verifying the legitimacy of prophecy.

It is possible that this line also ensured the exclusion of certain people who had been coming around Judea in these tough times claiming to be prophets (remember that the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were taking over the known world at this time and people were claiming prophetic powers all over the place and there needed to be a way to discern who was legit and who was full of it – similar to what happened in Jesus’ time with the Romans). In this way, the writer of these lines used a word that would intentionally exclude all non-Judeans from possibly offering true prophecies so that his readers would have some criteria by which to discern legitimacy.

Later on, Christians and Muslims and Jews in their own ways, could look back at this line and see it as a way of foreseeing Jesus or Mohammed or whomever else – which, religiously, is fine – but reading it in the context of its historical circumstances can also help us understand what it’s doing here.

Summary

I would like to point out that interpreting this verse as Jews and Arabs being brother-tribes and kinsman, as long as no proselytizing efforts accompany the gesture, is an awesome way to look at this verse from a modern perspective. It’s a shame that more people aren’t focusing on this relationship, like Kay is. A brotherhood, kinsman perspective can sometimes help to reduce tensions and make people think a little harder about why the hatred is necessary.

What do you think? Anything to add? Questions?

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6 Responses

  1. It is very interesting to see 3 different perspectives at the same time. The explanation of achichah was also enlightening. I like the idea of a “brotherhood” relationship between Jew and Muslim. However, there seems to be enough similarity between the two religions to make Judeo-Islam a religious brotherhood as well.
    Generally, I think it is best to go with the accepted understanding of the people whose book it is, so I prefer the view that the passage refers to a long line of Prophets. But then, that is also a view that the Quran itself holds—Surah 40, verse 78, (partial) We sent messengers before you—there are some that we have mentioned to you and there are others whom we have not mentioned to you. It was not possible for any messenger to bring a sign except by the leave of God ……. ” and Surah 16, verse 36, (partial) For we assuredly sent amongst every people a messenger ………”

    Legitimate Prophets—Considering the times, this would have been a wise caution. (Deuteronomy 18—19-22)—but does not the last line mean not to be afraid of false Prophets? —-presumably because people will know a false prophet and will not be swayed? —or is this interpretation way off? I also wanted to ask about Horeb—is it Mt Sinai of the 10 commandments? and what is the reference to “let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire”.

  2. Also—regarding “prophesy/prophethood” It is my understanding that after the Bar Kochba revolt–and its consequences— the “doors to prophesy” were closed and the priests declared there would be no more Prophets? —-This no doubt wouldalso have influenced perceptions of anyone bringing a “message” such as Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)?

  3. It is true that the last line gives people a hint (which seems obvious, right?) about how to identify a false prophet, but that’s hardly foolproof. First, what about all those prophets coming who aren’t predicting the future but just bringing revelation. I think the best example here is Mohammed! Correct me if I’m wrong but Mohammed wasn’t a predict the future kind of guy (more than general stuff, of course). He brought God’s new revelation to earth. Alternatively are prophets who are right but whose message works and a crisis that has been predicted for the future is averted. Think, for example, of Jonah, who went to Nineveh to tell them God was pissed and bringing destruction but when the people repented, nothing happened.

    People were swayed by false prophets all the time, probably because they were in such abundance (still are!).

    Jews still consider Jesus a false prophet, and whether or not you believe that he was a prophet, the Messiah, the Son of God or just an awesome dude, he lived at a time when everyone claimed to be these kinds of figures and most people couldn’t tell.

    The Horeb-Mt. Sinai question is a fascinating one and I would love to talk about that. However, you’ll have to let me know if you’re referring to any specific location (particularly with the following quote) or just the 10 commandments. But here’s a teaser: they are two different places that have been muddled into one for a fascinating reason.

    I’m guessing that when you say the priests during the Bar Kochba revolt you mean rabbis? The priestly class had been pretty much destroyed with the Temple in 70 CE. With nothing to administer they pitterred out (though there’s discussion that they later become prayer leaders…). In any case, the doors to potential prophecy were closed by the time of Bar Kochba’s Revolt (132-135 CE), but the rabbis actually said that it was with the coming of Alexander the Great to Judea in 332 BCE (500 years earlier!) that prophecy had stopped.

    Why would they say this? Many Jews understood their religion and what was important to it as constantly struggling with Hellenism, the Greek culture that permeated Judea with Alexander’s arrival. In a certain sense this was pure propaganda: stay away from all things Greek because they’re bad and after we started acting Greek God shut us off from prophecy. In another, this is actually a slight against Christianity which, during its early centuries of development, drew its strength from the Greek speaking world, and the rabbis wanted to insist that this world could not possibly have stemmed from legitimate prophecy (i.e. Jesus).

  4. Jay
    Thanks for the very interesting post—you bring up a lot of stuff that is going to make me spend hours on the net in research!!!

    Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)—Yes you are correct compared to maybe OT,NT. The Quran is not much into predictions except those warnings concerning Judgement. I am not familiar with the Hadith and personally, I have some doubts regarding authenticity, –but there might be a few predicitions there. Regardless, it is true that generally, miracles or predicitons are not associated with Prophet Muhammed(pbuh).

    Concept of Prophet/false Prophet.—- The Quran has about 3 catagories of “wisdom teacher/messenger”—“Rasul” means messenger (not angel) and they come with a “divine law” or Book. “Nabi” is a Prophet who reminds of the message/revelation but does not bring a new book and “Imam” is religious leader/teacher who continues with the message of the rasul/nabi —or prophet. If we assume that (a compassionate and merciful)God would send guidance to all people, then there would be many Prophets. Thus, to determine legitimacy of a prophet with regards to a particular religion would mean that the Prophet would have to bring the message/revelation with regards to that religion—For example—If God sent Siddartha Gautama to the Indians—he would be a “false” prophet only to the Jewish people in the sense that he was not sent to them —Buddha’s message would have been meant primarily for the Indians for whom he would have been a legitimate Prophet. Likewise, although the Quran does invite Jews and Christians to its message, The Quran was a message meant particularly for the arabs (descendents of Ishmael) which is why it is in arabic and not hebrew or aramaic.(Although today—80% of muslims are non-arabs!)

    “…People are swayed by false prophets all the time…” —an interesting point—one I will have to think on further.

    Horeb, Bar Kochba—- My knowledge of Judaism (and christianity—as well as other religions) has lots of holes in it primarily as I tend to do the research as it relates to the Quran rather than the religions as a whole. So–I am very open to whatever nuggets of knowledge you want to drop my way—feel free.

    Jesus—I have found the Torah on the internet (with the hebrew as well as the transliteration and the english translation). I am beginning to understand the dilemma the Jewish Rabbi’s may have faced regarding Jesus/false Prophet.(particularly as regards to your point about Judaisms struggle with Hellenism)
    Muslims have a different picture of this whole episode.—That is, Prophet Jesus/Masih Isa (pbuh) is portrayed differently from the Christian Jesus. Thus, when taken into consideration with the deuteronomy passage, it could provide a different story.
    (In this regard—your point about Jonah is interesting because I have wondered why the Quran refers to Prophet Jesus(pbuh) as Masih Isa…..most translators simply translate the “Masih” into “Christ” –as in “annointed”….and I am fine with that…..but maybe there is more to the word?)

    I had the impression that Bar Kochba was considered a Messiah?—are Prophet and Messiah different things in Judaism? —-that is—Messiah need not be a prophet? (There is another term “Mossiach Nagid” which is used to refer to the Persian king who helped build the 2nd temple –Cyrus the great)

    By the way—Thankyou for your offer regarding questions. I hope you don’t regret it!

  5. I’m sure I won’t regret it – I’m delighted to discuss these things, though I probably will make a habit of extracting some of your Bible related questions from comments when they are elaborate enough and making them Fun with the Bible Monday posts.
    …just like I’m about to do with this one about the word “mashiach.” So, for more on that, check out the post for Monday, November 24th.

    And thank you for the help differentiating between the kinds of people and the messages they can carry, and the Islamic notion of “false prophet.”

  6. Looking forward to the post!!

    Just wanted to mention—-
    Islamic notions—These are very diverse—from the mystics to the moderates, to the conservatives. —I place myself in the “middle-of-the-way” moderate camp—but I am influenced by the works of scholars/writers who have understood the classical (9th century to about 12/13th century)scholars. These scholars were what we might call “progressive” in their outlook.

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