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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Book Recommendation: The Book (yes, that’s right – the Bible)

This is our first Saturday together and I thought, I could start with something easy like a nice movie. Maybe the South Park movie, Bigger, Longer and Uncut, would be a cute first recommendation. Even a simpler book like one of my favorite fiction books, Lolita, by Vladimir Nobokov perhaps. But despite the fact that both of those items come highly recommended (and can be found for purchase on Amazon.com under South Park Merchandise at http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com), I still think that today, on this first of recommendation days, I am going to recommend the Bible. Now, not the whole thing, though the whole thing is quite spectacular. I’m just going to say the first five books, known as The Five Books of Moses, the Torah or more precisely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

It is certainly not with religious conviction that I offer up this recommendation. Indeed, as you’ll learn, I am not a religious man. A scholar of religion, some might say (my mother thinks pretty highly of me), but a religious practitioner – absolutely not. However, as I decided to sleep through the religious ceremony of a family member today, I realized that the Bible would be the right recommendation. For you see, my new step-brother will be getting married in July, and in Jewish tradition, before the wedding, he is called up during the reading of the Torah to say a special prayer. It’s an honor – really.

So, all that being the case, and recognizing how important it is to read the Bible for a general understanding of our society and culture’s roots, because it is a book that has shaped our history for thousands of years, and because it’s one which so many people claim they understand so well (though they actually understand so little), I’ve decided to recommend the Bible. Chapter 4 of The Zen of South Park is called “The Bible: Not Just a Really Old Book,” and it’s true. The Bible is much more than a really old book, and I think it’s important for everyone to read.

However, the Bible, as a book, often intimidates the unprepared. So, I want to provide you with a few preliminary thoughts just to warm the water as you dip your toes in. First, the Bible is just a book. Whether or not you think it was written by God, by Moses, by Prophets, by Jesus, by Joe Pesci – it doesn’t matter. It’s still, in it’s completed form, just a book: words in a particular order on a series of pages that say things, sometimes coherent and sometimes slightly less so. That said, read it like a book. Start at page one and read a little bit like a critical reader enjoying a Stephen King or a Grisham novel. That’s what it is – mystery, intrigue, murder, character development, plot, etc. Don’t get hung up on archaic terms or ‘whether or not something really happened.’ When you encounter sentences that don’t make any sense logically, just note them, understand that there is a way to rectify those problems (I’ll explain later if you want – and that way is NOT because people in the ancient world didn’t use logic or that God wrote indiscernably), and then move on and continue enjoying the story. Remember, the authors of the Bible (generally speaking) were not trying to be mysterious. When they tell you something, like an eye for an eye or that God walked through the Garden of Eden (yes, walked), they really do mean it. So take them seriously and try to imagine what the original audience did – exactly what the words of the Bible are telling you. Want to know more? Start reading and post your questions.

So why is it important to read the Bible? Well, do you know anyone who has read the Bible? Has anyone ever mentioned it around you? Have you ever thought, I don’t know what they’re talking about but it doesn’t sound right? Well, all of these are only starters. The Bible is the foundational work of Western Civilization (among a few others – Aristotle’s oeuvre for instance), but in America, it is the most printed book, the most read book, the most popular book and the one that everyone claims to know all about. But again, they don’t. Most people don’t really understand the Bible because they just try to interpret it to fit into their own religious schema. Well, anyone can do that and by the time everyone has we don’t really have the Bible anymore: just an over-interpreted and now contradictory (from all the opposing interpretations) book that was once wonderful and full of knowledge. So be a part of fixing that problem. Read the Bible for yourself, like a novel, like a history book (though of course all of the things it says historically are not necessarily true), like a regular old book that deserves your attention, and enjoy it. Plus know that I will always be here, happy to answer your questions about anything that doesn’t make sense, any historical question of the era, any linguistic issue, or anything else that is bothering you or that you’d like my opinion on. I’ve spent years studying the Bible in top academic programs and while I respect both religion and faith, I think it’s important to read the Bible without either and see how much there is to be learned and understood from this amazing book.

The New Revised Standard Version is the edition I recommend because of it’s accurate translation of the Biblical Hebrew as well as its incorporation of Aramaic, Greek and Latin versions into a readable and enjoyable Bible experience. The annotated version will answer a lot of your questions as you go along. If you go to http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com and click on Suggested Bibliography, I have provided links to a variety of editions of the Bible that I recommend. Let me know if you have any questions.

I hope you enjoy and don’t hesitate to post your questions and thoughts about the Bible, or if you’re shy about your questions then just send me an email at JaySolomon@thezenofsouthpark.com.

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