From Pyrotechnics to Prophets

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to himFor 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.” The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 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. Deuteronomy 18:15-18

What we see in this Sunday’s reading from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 is one of a number of turns that take place in the history of God’s dealings with his people. It is one way-station in the covenantal journey from Abrahm to Christ.

This section of Deuteronomy looks forward to the time when Israel will inhabit the land of promise. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, Moses commanded the people to have no dealings with religious practices of the Canaanites whose land they would possess. Among those practices were various sorts of divination, interpretation of omens, communicating with the dead and connecting with invisible spirits. Everyone from kings to farmers appealed to these magical practices for guidance. Kings needed guidance on war and peace; farmers needed guidance on when to plant their crops. Everyone needed divine guidance on something.

In the wilderness of Sinai, the people experienced divine guidance very directly, through hearing the audible voice of God and literally seeing the fire of his presence. Moses knew the people would still need divine guidance after they entered the land of promise, but it was time for the means of that guidance to change. The people could not continue to bear the glorious, unmediated presence of the almighty, and they would be tempted to fill the void with the practices of their Canaanite neighbors.

When you enter the land of promise, Moses said, God will still lead you and speak to you. God will raise up a prophet (“one who speaks for someone else”) like Moses who will speak God’s words to the people. The people should obey the prophets, just as they obey God. And prophets should only say what God tells them to say. People can bear the presence of a human prophet in their midst more easily than they can bear the glorious and holy presence of God face-to-face.

In Deuteronomy 18, then, the story of Abraham’s family is taking another turn. Instead of a thundering voice and a pillar of fire, the people will get prophets. Indeed, the Old Testament gives us a number of different kinds of prophets at various points in Israel’s history.

The story continues through many turns until it arrives at Jesus. Jesus is truly the prophet par excellence whom God raised up among his fellow Israelites (v. 18), but he is also more than a prophet. There is a qualitative difference between what Jesus did and what Isaiah and Jeremiah did. In the human Jesus, we human beings encounter something like the glorious divine presence of Sinai. To be sure, this is a different kind of glory. It is glory revealed on a cross and in an empty tomb. It is glory revealed both in acts of power and acts of humility. It is, nonetheless, the immediate presence of God in a human life. Jesus did not just speak God’s word; he embodied God’s word.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

This, to me, is how the passage fits into the gospel story. God has been speaking and making himself known in many ways. Now, he speaks to us and makes his presence known in Christ. The author of Hebrews also understood this to be true:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Hebrew 1:1-3

There is a qualitative difference between what Jesus did and what the prophets did, but Jesus’ story is rooted in God’s ancient deallings with his people Israel. Jesus brings God’s prophetic story to completion.

Continued at: Prophets Then and Now