The Challenge of Prophecy

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challengeby R. Gil Student

I. Conditional Prophecy

When Avram entered the land of Israel for the first time, he “passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, the place of Moreh” (Gen. 12:6). The seemingly unnecessary travel prompts Ramban to offer an explanation of great theological importance, one that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently invoked to surprising effect. Ramban (ad loc.) explains that any prophecy, whether for good or for bad, can be revoked based on a change in behavior. It is implicitly conditional. However, a prophecy that is accompanied by a po’el dimyon, a symbolic act that serves to represent the prophesied occurence, must always come true.1 Avram’s passage throughout the land serves to concretize the prophecy, guaranteeing its fulfillment.

Ramban’s seemingly surprising suggestion — that prophecies need not come true — is actually itself a prophetic statement. Yirmiyahu says (Jer. 18:7-10):

At one moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be uprooted and pulled down and destroyed; but if that nation against which I made the decree turns back from its wickedness, I change My mind concerning the punishment I planned to bring on it. At another moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be built and planted; but if it does what is displeasing to Me and does not obey Me, then I change My mind concerning the good I planned to bestow upon it.

God reserves the right to change His mind, to revoke His statements, based on changed behavior. Ramban’s exception to this rule is not unanimously accepted.

II. Good Prophecies

Rambam (Introduction to Mishnah, ed. Kafach, p. 6) explains that there are three types of prophecy about the future — a public prophecy of bad things, a public prophecy of good things, and a private prophecy. The definition here of public and private regards whether this prophecy is given for the prophet’s own private benefit or with the intention that he publicize it. If the prophecy is public, then a bad prophecy may not come true if those intended to be punished repent. God will relent from the punishment due to their change. If the public prophecy is of a good future event, then it will definitely come true. A private prophecy may or may not come true. If the person intended to be punished repents or the person intended to be rewarded sins then God may relent. However, a public good prophecy must always come true.

Rambam says this based on the passage in the Talmud (Berachos 7a) that any prophecy that emitted from God, even on condition, will not be changed. This, the Rambam claims, is referring to a public good prophecy.

Based on the above statement of Yirmiyahu, Rav Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem 2:4:2) disagrees with Rambam’s claim that a public good prophecy must always come true. The prophet clearly says that a public good prophecy, “that a nation or a kingdom shall be built and planted,” can be revoked if the intended recipient of the reward sins.

Abarbanel (Deut. 18:14, pp. 177-178) also objects that it seems unjust for God to reward someone who no longer deserves it. Doing so, rewarding someone undeserving, seems to undermine the system of reward and punishment. However, one could respond to this objection with the general concept that while God is generally exactly fair, He is sometimes overly generous, even to those undeserving.

Additionally, Rambam’s claim that God can relent on a private good prophecy and not a public good prophecy troubles Abarbanel. Does God really have differing standards between a private and public communication? Is God really that inconsistent? Rambam could respond that two concepts should not be conflated. Regarding the prophecies, God is consistent and will alter His plan when necessary. However, for the sake of public confidence in true prophets, God is willing to reward those undeserving. Public confidence has no place in a private prophecy.

III. Changing Prophecies

Rav Chasdai Crescas (ibid.) contends that Yirmiyahu’s statement is the general rule. Any prophecy is subject to repeal based on a change in behavior. This is because the general equation of reward and punishment is an underlying, albeit unstated condition to the prophecy. The condition that a good prophecy will only come true if the intended recipient does not sin and a bad prophecy if the intended recipient does not repent is a given. However, when a prophet specifically prophesies as part of a test of his status, a determination whether he is a true or false prophet, the condition is inapplicable and the prophecy cannot be revoked. Since the prophecy is not part of reward and punishment but part of testing a prophet, there is no underlying condition.

Therefore, while Rambam would insist that a prophet can only be tested on a good prophecy, Crescas would allow him to be tested on a bad prophecy as well since any prophecy by which he is tested is guaranteed to come true.

However, Crescas has trouble with the above passage from the Talmud that good prophecies must come true. Crescas explains that this passage must be referring to a prophecy that does not discuss reward and punishment and therefore does not have this underlying condition. Understandably, this is a difficult reading.

Crescas also offers another solution. He suggests that Yirmiyahu was not discussing prophecies at all. Rather, he was talking about decisions by God that are not relayed via prophecy. If God decides to punish a nation who then repents, God will not punish them. And if He decides to reward a nation who then sins, He will no longer reward them.

In other words, Yirmiyahu was referring to heavenly decisions while the talmudic passage was discussing good prophecies, whether public or private. Since, by definition, a private prophecy is unknown to others, a prophet can only be tested on public good prophecies, similar to the Rambam’s opinion.

Abarbanel (ibid.) argues that a prophecy can serve as both a test for the prophet and information about reward and/or punishment. Who said that a prophet must give a meaningless prophecy for his test? God can use the opportunity to prophesy the reward of someone righteous. In that case, the condition is understood and the prophecy can be revoked if the intended recipient sins.

Also, if justice demands that a decision to reward be revoked, it should be irrelevant whether the decision was publicized via prophecy or kept in the heavenly domain. Either way, justice should be consistent.

Additionally, the word Yirmiyahu uses for “decree” literally means “speak.” It is a bit difficult to attribute that to Divine thought.

IV. Miraculous Prophecies

Abarbanel distinguishes between three types of prophecies — the miraculous, which is an action that goes contrary to nature; telling of the past or future with neither good nor bad implications (e.g. 1 Sam. 9:19-20, 10:2-8); and telling of good and bad events to come. The first two are not affected by repentance and sin, and will therefore always be true. The last, however, is Yirmiyahu’s topic and is subject to change if the intended recipient repents or sins. A prophet is tested by either of the first two types of prophecies — either producing a miraculous sign or predicting a future event that is not dependent on reward or punishment.

As to the talmudic passage, Abarbanel suggests that this is a minority opinion among talmudic sages with which we need not agree.

V. The Challenge of Prophecy

This entire discussion is somewhat bewildering. While we have seen different opinions on the details, all agree that not all prophecies must come true. If so, what good are they? If a prophet can only offer possible outcomes, he serves the same function as an economist or political pundit.

The November 2015 issue of Commentary is the magazine’s 70th anniversary issue, consisting mainly of a symposium answering the question: “What Will Be the Condition of the Jewish Community 50 Years from Now?” Many of the respondents note that such predictions are difficult. R. Jonathan Sacks goes further. He writes (p. 61):

Jews make prophecies, not predictions. The difference is that if a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true, it has failed. We don’t predict the future; we make the future. Ours is the world’s most compelling faith in free will.

R. Sacks’ dramatic declaration that we do not want prophecies to come true presumably refers to bad prophecies, upcoming calamities, which trends and demographics imply lie in our future. However, while he neglects good prophecies, he makes an important point about why prophecies do not necessarily come true. Free will trumps prophecy.

Prophecies are challenges. Bad prophecies tell us what will befall us if we fail to improve; good prophecies teach us our reward if we maintain our standards. They challenge us to act right, to do better and to hold strong. A prediction attempts to see the future. A prophecy tries to make the future.

The ancients believed that oracles foretold the future. Fate was unavoidable, as the Greek tragedies described vividly. Judaism broke from this pattern by placing the future in human hands. Prophecy is not oracle. It is an exercise in free will, an exhortation to people to take charge of their future by following God’s will.


  1. Cf. Tzelach, Berachos 7a sv. vamr”y. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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