Like most words, the term “prophet” has different meanings, even within the Old Testament. Abraham was called a “prophet” (Genesis 20:7), but our concern is limited to the prophetic institution that began with Moses, the first prophet of his kind (cf. Kaufmann 1972: 212, 222). For it is this kind of prophets who not only received revelation from God but they were also called to fulfill the task of prophetic ministry.
In Deuteronomy 18:9-22 Moses warned the people against imitating the Canaanites by practicing their “detestable things” such as divination and sorcery (magic). Divination, such as astrology, is the practice of discovering one’s fate through interpreting signs and omens. When the outcome is unfavorable, one can seek to manipulate supernatural forces through magic to “circumvent one’s fate” (Lawson 1994: 34). Evidently in view of the uncertainties of life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), this was, and is, an attempt to feel secure concerning the future. But uncertainties of life are designed to point people to God, for “God so works that people should fear Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). So divination-magic amounts to defying God and His purpose.
Israel was to put their complete trust in God. They were to hear from Him instead of consulting diviners and sorcerers. So God promised that He would raise up for them “a prophet like me [Moses]” from among their own people, that is, the prophet would be an Israelite (verse 15; also 18). God would speak through him and hence they must listen to whatever he said to them in God’s name (verse 19). However they were not to accept anyone who claimed to be a prophet.
God gave them two tests to identify a true prophet. The first is that whatever he says in God’s name must come true (verses 20-22). This means God would enable a prophet to make predictions so that he could be publicly confirmed as a prophet. We have enough indications in the Old Testament that this actually happened in the history of Israel. The best example is the case of Samuel: “Thus Samuel grew and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail. So all Israel … knew that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the LORD” (1 Samuel 3:19-20; see also 9:6). While in exile in Babylon Ezekiel was eventually confirmed as a prophet so that from then on his fellow Jews in exile would take him seriously (Ezekiel 33:33).
The words of a true prophet would never fail because when he spoke in God’s name he was absolutely certain that he had heard from God what he was to say. The prophet Micaiah predicted that King Ahab would die in the battle he was intent on going into. The false prophets had predicted favorably. When Ahab ordered him to be imprisoned Micaiah said with full confidence: “If you indeed return safely the LORD has not spoken by me,” and pointedly added, “Listen, all you people” (1 Kings 22:28). To thwart the fulfillment of the prophecy, Ahab disguised himself. But “a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel in a joint of the armor…. So the king died” (1 Kings 22:34-37).
The second test is given in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. It was not enough that one who claimed to be a prophet could perform a sign such as making a prediction that came true. For if he then urged the people to worship a god they had never known, which means his view of God contradicted what Moses had already taught them, he would still be a false prophet. Why then would God allow a false prophet to deceive them through a miracle? It was to test whether they truly loved Him. For one who truly loves God would not abandon Him or the truth about Him just because a false teacher could perform a miracle.
With these objective safeguards, we can have the assurance that believers of God in ancient Israel would not accept any teaching, whether oral or written, that they could not ascertain was consistent with what God had already revealed through Moses. This means writings that were included and are preserved in the Old Testament have been filtered so that it excludes false teachings. This gives us confidence in the Old Testament as divinely inspired Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
All this begs the question: How was Moses himself confirmed as a true prophet of God in the first place? Since Moses laid down the foundational teachings to evaluate all future teachings, as well as the tests to evaluate all future prophets, it was imperative that the people knew beyond a shadow of doubt that Moses was indeed a true prophet. How did they know?
Deuteronomy 18:16 spells out that God’s promise to raise up for them a prophet like Moses was in accord with their request made at Mount Sinai not to hear directly from God because that would be life-threatening. God had descended upon Mount Sinai in fire and smoke and the mountain quaked violently (Exodus 19:18-25). Then out of the fire God spoke the Ten Commandments to them as they stood at the foot of the mountain (Deuteronomy 5:22-23). So they heard the very voice of the living God and the whole experience was so awesome that they not only trembled but were also surprised that they were still alive. They were then afraid that if this were to happen again they would not survive and therefore made the request that God speak to them through Moses (Deuteronomy 5:24-27; cf. Exodus 20:18-21).
From then on God spoke to them through Moses, who thus became God’s prophet to them. So the making of the Mosaic Covenant was initiated in Exodus 19 with God speaking directly to the people, then continued in Exodus 21-23 and concluded in Exodus 24 with God speaking to them through Moses as mediator (Keil and Delitzsch 1981: 320).
Evidently “Moses’ special prerogative [as mediator] is planned from the outset and does not arise because of the subsequent fear of the people” (Childs 1974: 354). For prior to God’s coming upon Mount Sinai Moses was already acting as mediator (Exodus 19:1-15). And God informed Moses ahead of time that He would come down upon Mount Sinai and would speak with him in the hearing of the people so that they would “believe in you forever” (Exodus 19:9). So the people heard God speaking with Moses before they heard God speaking to them. Hence the whole awesome experience was to confirm Moses as God’s prophet. God allowed them to hear Him directly so that they would fear Him all the days of their life and teach their children what He said (Deuteronomy 4:10; cf. Exodus 20:20).
After this encounter with God, given the background that Moses had already performed a series of miracles before arriving at Mount Sinai, would the people have any doubt at all that Moses was indeed God’s prophet? Hence, like the subsequent prophets, Moses was confirmed as a prophet publicly. God did not expect His people to be gullible.
We have so far assumed that the Exodus account in general, and the Sinai account in particular, reflect what actually happened. Modernists will reject this assumption because their presupposed belief-system (materialism) cannot accept the supernatural elements in the account. But we have shown at the outset that the theism of Genesis 1:1 is intellectually credible, and that to understand the Bible we need to presuppose it, at least temporarily. We will then have no good reason to reject the Exodus account as historically unreliable (cf. Provan, Long and Longman 2003: 102-104; 127-37; Hoffmeier 2005: ix-xi).
In fact we have good reasons to accept in particular the Sinai account as historically reliable. First of all the Biblical belief-system (theism) was unprecedented and unique in the ancient world. And the Sinai account shows that it was in the process of making the Mosaic Covenant with Israel that God introduced this belief-system to them through the revelation of Himself and the Mosaic Law. Otherwise the belief-system would have had emerged naturally out of the culture of the time. To appreciate how unlikely this is, we now look at the uniqueness of this belief-system.
Since polytheism was the dominant and virtually the exclusive belief-system of the ancient world, for our purpose here, we label the Biblical belief-system by its alternate name—monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, as opposed to polytheism, the belief that they are many gods. But in essence the difference between the two is not in number (one versus many); they are different in kind altogether. And one can actually be a “polytheist” in practice without believing in the multiplicity of gods.
In preparing the second generation of Israelites to hear afresh the Ten Commandments and the laws that followed, Deuteronomy 4 expounds on “the nature and purpose of the law … so that the obedience that is called for will not be blind obedience, but an obedience based on understanding” (Craigie 1976: 129). Thus Moses explained to them that the unprecedented and unique event of God taking for Himself a nation (Israel) out of another nation (Egypt) through a series of miracles, and then allowing the new nation to even hear His own voice (at Mount Sinai), was to show them that “the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him” (verses 32-35). Moses then added that “He is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (verse 39). In the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43), God Himself says, “And there is no god besides Me” (verse 39). This clearly affirms monotheism (cf. Lundbom 2013: 60; for a cogent defense of monotheism in the Old Testament see Wright 2006: 80-83).
In other words, the generation of Israelites who first received the Mosaic Law received it through a first-hand and unmistakable encounter with the living God, and so when they or their descendants were to obey it, they could have the full assurance that it would not be blind obedience.
Earlier on, in this same context, Moses indirectly reminded them of the Golden Calf incident, which violated the Second Commandment. For he stressed that when they heard God speaking to them from Mount Sinai “you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice” (verse 12; also 15). So they were to be careful not to worship any idol or repeat the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, which they had intended to represent God Himself. This means even if all the polytheistic gods, which were represented by images, are reduced to just one god, this one god is still not the God of Genesis 1:1. For the Biblical God cannot be represented by any image. So the difference is not in number but in kind.
We can appreciate this difference better when we look at how the monotheistic God relates to creation in contrast to how the polytheistic gods relate to the world. The discussion of Jewish Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann on this issue, though more than seventy years old, is “still unsurpassed” and “remains compelling” (Sommer 2009: 166, 269).
Echoing Genesis 1, Kaufmann (1972: 29) summed up the Biblical belief-system as follows: “the mark of monotheism is … the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order, and not emergent from a pre-existent realm.” In other words, the monotheistic God “is supreme over all. There is no realm above or beside him to limit his absolute sovereignty” (60). In contrast, the distinguishing mark of polytheism is “the idea that there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which the gods depend, and whose decrees they must obey. Deity belongs to, and is derived from, a primordial realm … out of which the gods have emerged and within which they operate. Their actions actualize the infinite, mysterious powers that inhere in this realm” (21, 25). In other words, if all the polytheistic gods are reduced to just one god, this one god is not in control of the universe. The difference in kind cannot be made clearer.
Who, or what, then is in control of the universe in polytheism? The answer is Fate, the impersonal force behind the realm above and prior to the gods, which "apportions lots to the gods as well as to men” (22). However since Fate is impersonal it cannot think, feel or make decisions. So its “control” of the universe means that everything that happens has already been predetermined or fated from eternity.
But this does not mean polytheists accept fatalism, the pessimistic view that whatever happens is inevitable and so whatever we do or not do will not make a difference. For this belief in Fate comes with the practice of not only divination but also magic, the manipulation of impersonal forces to change one’s fate through prescribed rituals. As Jack Lawson (1994: 92) puts it:
Given that one’s fate could be prognosticated through various means of divination, the next pressing question for [one] who receives an ill omen would be “What can be done about it?” To learn of one’s fate—and particularly an ill fate—with no recourse to change it would be worse than having no foreknowledge at all…. [So] often-complex rituals evolved to ward off the evil predicted by omens.
This practice of divination-magic is an outworking of the polytheistic view of reality. Given the uncertainties of life people are tempted to know the future, which to polytheists is fated. Divination is then needed to read into Fate because Fate, being impersonal, cannot speak. In contrast, the monotheistic God, the supreme Lord of the universe, speaks. And the Biblical claim that a whole nation heard the voice of such a God, who established the prophetic institution upon this historical reality, was and is unparalleled. Biblical prophecy then is clearly the monotheistic counterpart to divination (cf. Kaufmann 1972: 93-101). The words of some of the ancient prophets were written down as Scripture so that God could continue to speak to future generations.
As for magic, which is based on the belief that rituals have intrinsic efficacy, we have stressed in our exposition on the Sacrificial System that Biblical rituals have no intrinsic efficacy. We highlighted there that under polytheism, rituals have intrinsic efficacy because they “were founded on the [polytheistic] premise that there was a material force that was superior to the gods, a force that was impersonal and could be manipulated by impersonal [magical] means” (Hartley 1992: lix, drawing on Kaufmann 1972: 23-24). Under Biblical monotheism, even prayer and fasting are useless if offered without faith in God, evident from a repentant way-of-life (Isaiah 58:1-59:15).
So the difference between the two belief-systems is distinctly expressed through actual practices as well. Another Biblical practice that demonstrates distinctly the monotheistic view of reality, in sharp contrast to the polytheistic view, is found in the Psalms (such as Psalm 44) where a God-fearing believer questions God over a gross injustice that he had suffered. Why question God? This practice makes sense only when one believes that a personal God, and not impersonal Fate, is in control of the universe. When a person who professes polytheism or even atheism questions God over an injustice, even if only in his heart, he is not behaving as a polytheist or an atheist but as a human being made in God’s image. We have seen that though often suppressed, belief in a God who is all-powerful is natural to the human mind.
Another good reason to accept as historical the Sinai account that the Mosaic Law was revealed by God, and is hence distinctly superior to other legal systems, is the claim that if the Israelites kept it, other nations would say of them, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). This claim has been confirmed to be true in modern times. For we can now confidently affirm how wise and understanding and blessed a nation will be, if and when it embodies the spirit of the Mosaic Law and thus becomes a truly covenant community with a truly constitutional government.
Hence the outworking of the difference between the two belief-systems is rather distinct as well as far-reaching and pervasive. Borrowing the words of Jewish Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna (1986: 149),
If it be further remembered that the concept of a national covenant between God and an entire people, the insistence on the exclusive worship of one God, the thoroughgoing ban on representing God in any material or corporeal form, the emergence as a national institution of the messenger-prophet … are all innovations of the same period, then the conclusion becomes inescapable that we are faced with a revolutionary religious phenomenon, a sudden and new monotheistic creation the like of which had not hitherto existed and the characteristic ingredients of which were not to be found on the contemporary religious scene.
How likely is it then for Biblical monotheism to have evolved from polytheism, or developed out of a polytheistic culture? If God did not reveal it, it would have to be a sudden human invention out of a cultural vacuum. It is thus so sensible to believe that God did reveal it, unless one’s presupposed belief-system, which can neither be proved scientifically nor philosophically, has ruled it out even before looking at the evidence.
Modern people tend to reject monotheism with the excuse that it is “pre-scientific,” as though only ancient people would have no problem with it (adapting Wright 2003: 10; for a lucid clarification that the modernist belief-system is also ancient and thus “pre-scientific” see Wright 2013: 16-20; cf. Sedley 2007: 133-66). Ancient polytheists, like modern ones, would have problems with it. Even for the Israelites, God had to speak to them audibly to convince them. And even then they strayed soon after that in the Golden Calf incident.
The dominant belief-systems of the world, whether modern or ancient, are significantly different from Biblical monotheism precisely because fallen human nature is significantly resistant to it (Romans 1:18-32). So to understand it adequately and practice it faithfully requires a consciousness and perception contrary to that of the dominant culture. To form and sustain such a consciousness and perception, we have seen, is the task of prophetic ministry (Brueggemann 2001: 3).
Last but not least, Deuteronomy concludes with these words: “Since then [the death of Moses] no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform...” (34:10-12). This remarkable comment was obviously appended to Deuteronomy towards the end of the Old Testament era to give an update that until then a prophet like Moses never came.
However it does not mean the prophets that came after Moses were not in any way a fulfillment of God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses. They certainly were, for they were like Moses in the sense that God also revealed Himself to and through them. The comment effectively says they were not like Moses in that God knew Moses “face to face” and sent him to perform the extraordinary miracles. God did clarify that Moses would be in a class of his own (Numbers 12:6-8). For God would speak to the prophets through dreams and visions, but Moses could see “the form of the LORD” and God would speak with him “mouth to mouth,” that is, converse “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
In other words, the remarkable comment recalls God’s promise of “a prophet” like Moses in Deuteronomy 18 and “makes it clear that this prophet was to be understood as a particular individual and not merely signifying the office of prophecy in a general sense, as might be argued from Deuteronomy 18 alone” (Sailhamer 2009: 49). And it affirms that as far as the Old Testament was concerned this particular individual had not yet come.
This explains why in the time of Jesus Christ the Jews were waiting for “the Prophet” (John 1:21; 7:40). And Peter identified Jesus as the awaited Prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22-23). Based on the Gospel accounts of His life in general, and His resurrection in particular, Christ certainly (more than) met the requirements to be that Prophet (see Hebrews 3:1-6). These accounts can be trusted as historically reliable (see Strobel 1998), unless our presupposed belief-system has ruled this out. In fact Christ’s resurrection has been specifically shown to be historically credible through meticulous research using methodologies acceptable to even scholars who do not believe in miracles (Wright 2003; Licona 2010; 2014).
And Christ has given not only a backward endorsement of the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-47; John 10:35), but also a forward endorsement of the New Testament, as the divinely inspired Word of God. For He promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance what He had taught them (John 14:26). This is pre-endorsement of the Gospels. Also, the Holy Spirit would teach them new truths that Christ did not reveal to them, as well as disclose to them what was to come (John 16:12-13). This is pre-endorsement of the book of Acts and the Epistles as well as the book of Revelation.