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Appendix I: The Prophet and the Prophets

By Anthony Rogers

The Prophets

In its grammatical-historical context, Deuteronomy 18 doesn’t directly predict the coming of one specific individual, at least not in the way that many people surmise.1

Whereas Deuteronomy 18 speaks of a “prophet”, singular, the grammatical-contextual usage, in full harmony with the exigencies of Israel’s historical situation, indicates that the word is being used in a collective or distributive rather than in a simple sense, and therefore points not to just one person but to many prophets or an entire order of prophets. In other words, the prophecy/promise of Deuteronomy 18 is about the prophetic office, and is, at least initially, as will be shown, fulfilled in the case of Joshua, Moses’ immediate successor, as well as the long train of Hebrew prophets that God would raise up after him, from Samuel to John the Baptist.

The Modern Consensus

As Driver and Kaiser, both quoted later, point out, this view is held by the overwhelming number of modern commentators, whether Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. The following quotes are some representative examples of this:

According to the Jewish Study Bible:

A prophet, while grammatically singular, is distributive in its meaning: “I will repeatedly raise up for you a prophet.” More than one prophet is clearly intended.2 (Italics in original)

Christian scholar Tremper Longman III (Ph.D.), professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, said:

Deuteronomy 18:15-22 announces that God will raise up a prophet like Moses for the people of Israel. While the expectation is expressed in terms of a singular prophet, this singular is rightly understood as a collective singular since the people’s request for a mediating spokesperson that leads to this promise is a constant need. In other words, Deuteronomy 18 understood within its ancient context may be perfectly explainable in terms of the rise of the prophetic movement and prophets like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and so on.3

Scholar Gerhard von Rad, a prominent twentieth century advocate of the “tradition-historical” approach to the Old Testament, said:

[9-22] The comprehensive law concerning the prophets is quite clearly arranged: it deals first in verses 9-14 with mantic practices, which were not permissible, then positively with the office of a prophet itself, actually founded at Sinai (vv. 15-18), and finally with disobedience to the prophet’s word and with possible corruption of the prophet’s office itself (vv. 19-22).4 (Italics mine)

The Textual and Historical Evidence

This understanding is confirmed by the historical context, which is the impending death of Moses, something that naturally raised the question of how Israel was going to hear from God, since Moses was God’s chosen mouth-piece. The death of Moses would create a prophetic vacuum, and this would be of immediate concern to God’s people, not simply to a generation of Jews who would be living two-thousand years in the future, when Jesus came, or five centuries after that in Arabia, when Muhammad is believed to have existed.

As the verses preceding the promise indicate, rather than leave Israel to the sort of devices seized upon by pagans in their futile efforts to discern the divine will, God instituted the prophetic order:

When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. For those nations which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do so. The LORD your God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him… (Deuteronomy 18:9-15)

The following commentary catches the drift of this:

The insertion of this promise [i.e. “The Lord thy God shall raise up unto thee a prophet], in connection with the preceding prohibition, might warrant the application which some make of it, to that order of true prophets whom God commissioned in unbroken succession to instruct, to direct, and warn His people; and in this view the purport of it is, “There is no need to consult with diviners and soothsayers, as I shall afford you the benefit of divinely-appointed prophets, for judging of whose credentials a sure criterion is given” (vs. 20-22).5

The verses immediately following the promise point up the collective nature of this as well, for they speak of the need to test and reject “a prophet” if he speaks presumptuously, i.e. without divine authority:

But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ ‘When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)

This test, along with the one provided in Deuteronomy 13, was obviously given to ferret out any and all false prophets, not just one special or particular false prophet.

Finally, it is evident from Deuteronomy itself that the promise was already being fulfilled in at least an initial sense in the raising up of another prophet to replace Moses as the leader of the people of Israel. This comes acutely to the fore in Deuteronomy 31 and 34 and also can be seen in Joshua chapter 1.

So Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, "I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go, and the LORD has said to me, 'You shall not cross this Jordan.' It is the LORD your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the LORD has spoken. "The LORD will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when He destroyed them." The LORD will deliver them up before you, and you shall do to them according to all the commandments which I have commanded you. "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you He will not fail you or forsake you." Then Moses called to Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall give it to them as an inheritance." The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." ….Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, the time for you to die is near; call Joshua, and present yourselves at the tent of meeting, that I may commission him." So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves at the tent of meeting. The LORD appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the doorway of the tent….Then He commissioned Joshua the son of Nun, and said, "Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the sons of Israel into the land which I swore to them, and I will be with you." (Deuteronomy 31:1-8, 14-15, 23)

Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there." So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day. Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end. Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:1-9)

Now it came about after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' servant, saying, "Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and as far as the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun will be your territory. No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:1-9)

The leading facts demonstrating Joshua to be a prophet “like Moses” are:

  • God Himself chose Joshua to replace Moses
  • God commissioned Joshua as Moses’ successor
  • Moses laid his hands on Joshua, which is an act of identification and transfer of authority
  • The same promises originally made to Moses are given to Joshua
  • The work initiated by Moses is to be completed by Joshua

Several other facts serve to identify Joshua in this regard as well. For example,

Even as Moses’ mission begins with a theophany, an appearance of the Malakh Yahweh, who tells Moses to take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3), so Joshua’s mission also begins with a theophany, and he is likewise told to remove the sandals from his feet (Joshua 5).

Even as Moses spear-headed the deliverance of Israel from Egypt attended by signs and wonders, so Joshua successfully led the people to take possession of the land of Canaan attended by signs and wonders similar in some cases to those performed under Moses.

For an example of one such sign/wonder, at Joshua’s behest the people of Israel cross the Jordan River on dry ground, it having been stopped up by the Lord, a fact that is reminiscent of the Red-Sea crossing under Moses:

“For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24).

Other points of correspondence between Moses and Joshua can be found at almost every turn, just as many points of correspondence can be found between Moses and all the other prophets who came after him. All of this serves to show that Moses was the exemplar of an entire order of prophets, and that this is part and parcel of what is being spoken of in Deuteronomy 18.


The Prophet

The Modern Witness

Yet, as many have rightly pointed out, the foregoing does not mean that there is no indication in Deuteronomy 18 of the coming of a particular prophet who would be uniquely like Moses. This, too, has been recognized by many modern commentators.

And so, for example, Samuel Rolles Driver, after saying,

The exclusively Messianic reference of v. 15-18, adopted by many of the older expositors (cf. Acts 3:22ff, 7:37), is inconsistent with the context; and has been deservedly abandoned by the great majority of modern commentators and theologians… The promised prophet is to meet a continuous and permanent need of the people, after they are settled in Canaan (v. 9): he is to supersede the necessity either of God’s addressing Israel directly Himself (v. 16-18), or of Israel’s having recourse, like their neighbors, to the arts of divination (v. 14f.); and a criterion is even added enabling the Israelites to distinguish the true prophet from the false (v. 21f). The argument of the passage shows that the “prophet” contemplated is not a single individual, belonging to a distant future, but Moses' representative for the time being, whose office it would be to supply Israel, whenever in its history occasion should arise, with needful guidance and advice: in other words, that the reference is not to an individual prophet, but to a prophetical order. The existence of such an order in Israel, forming a permanent channel of revelation, was, of course, a signal mark of distinction between Israel and other nations of antiquity.

Goes on to say,

At the same time the terms of the description are such that it may be reasonably understood as including a reference to the ideal prophet, Who should be “like” Moses in a preeminent degree, in whom the line of individual prophets should culminate, and Who should exhibit the characteristics of the prophet in their fullest perfection (so Hengst., Keil, Espin, al.).6 (Emphasis in original)

As well, F. C. Cook said:

In fact, in the words before us, Moses gives promise both of a prophetic order, and of the Messiah in particular as its chief; of a line of prophets culminating in one eminent individual. And in proportion as we see in our Lord the characteristics of the Prophet most perfectly exhibited, so must we regard the promise of Moses as in Him most completely accomplished.7

The Textual and Historical Evidence

The fact that the prophecy is to be understood in a collective sense does not rule out reference to a particular prophet, especially for those who hold the Messianic interpretation, for the very sufficient reason that many of the Messianic predictions of the Old Testament, e.g. those pertaining to the promised seed, i.e. Genesis 3:15, 22:18, etc. (cf. Galatians 3:16), do so in this very way. As Walter Kaiser said:

The key interpretive crux, however, is whether the term nabi, "prophet," is a collective singular or a simple singular. Does it refer to the institution of the prophetic order, or to an individual prophet? Jewish and most recent commentators regard the term "prophet" in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as a collective and generic term. This, of course, must be admitted, for the context of Deuteronomy 17-18 speaks of classes or groups of leaders such as the priests and Levites. However, most of the previous Old Testament messianic prophecies are generic and collective in nature. And the context definitely favors an individual prophet in that the prophet is not only represented as coming out of Israel, but is compared to the individual Moses. Presumably, therefore, he too will be an individual. Therefore, this passage at once provides for a whole order, or institution of prophets, while it incorporates within that same seminal thought the provision for one who would be the representative of all of [sic] prophets par excellence....8

Furthermore, the very fact that the passage uses the singular, collective though it may be, is surely significant; for whereas a plural form would rule out reference to an individual altogether, the use of the singular at least allows for it. As O. Palmer Robertson said:

The use of singular “prophet,” while not in itself sufficient for expecting one prophetic figure uniquely like Moses, allows this possibility much more than would a plural form, in which it would be difficult to suppose a reference to a singular prophetic figure that God would raise up in the future.9

With these considerations out of the way, the following are among the many reasons why the collective use of the noun in Deuteronomy 18 is rightly understood to include within it a reference to a specific prophet.

1) Although the noun is being used collectively, it does so in an otherwise peculiar way. The use of collective nouns usually alternate back and forth between both singular and plural forms, but the word prophet, used here in Deuteronomy 18, always takes a singular form. The Semitic philologist and Biblical expositor E. W. Hengstenberg points this out in the following words:

“… the Hebrew word employed is always used in the singular, and with singular suffixes, whereas in the case of collective nouns, it is usual to interchange the singular and the plural … the word does not occur elsewhere as a collective noun, nor are the prophets anywhere spoken of in the manner alleged [in Deuteronomy 18].”10

If the divine intention was at once to point to the prophetic order and also to a specific prophet, then the above oddity goes away.

2) The fact that the word “prophet”, in both instances where it occurs (vs. 15 and 18), is put in the emphatic position, before the verb in Hebrew, would seem to indicate that more is afoot than just referring to many prophets, and that a preeminent, individual prophet may also be in view.

3) According to the inspired, prophetic-redactor of Deuteronomy 34, probably Joshua or Samuel, no prophet ever exhausted or filled up the measure of Mosaic-likeness, not even Joshua himself, directly commissioned though he was by Moses.

One of the same passages quoted earlier, about the death of Moses, and Joshua succeeding him as the prophet-leader of God’s people, concludes in this wise:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

This passage highlights two of the ways in which Moses was utterly unique from all other prophets: first, that he knew God “face to face”, a figure that is explained in greater detail in Numbers 12; and second, that he publicly displayed the mighty power of God as no other, as may be seen by reading the entire book of Exodus.

And so, for as much as Joshua and the prophets who came after him may be seen as fulfilling in some way the prediction of Deuteronomy 18, none of them can claim to fill up the full measure of what is in view, each of them being more like the shadow of what God promised then the reality itself.

4) Whether or not the collective sense was always understood, the relevance of the passage to a specific, archetypical prophetic figure was readily understood by both Jews and Christians in antiquity, as is borne out by the New Testament (e.g. John 1:19-21, 6:14-15, 7:40; Acts 322-26: and 7:35-37), as well as early rabbinic and patristic sources.

5) The case for recognizing Jesus as the fulfillment of this prediction, as part two of this series contends, also argues in favor of viewing the passage as a reference to a specific individual.


So, the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18 clearly indicates that God would send many prophets to the Jewish nation, and also that he would send one specific prophet to be the culmination of them all.

[But this means, in so far as this was a uniquely Israelite institution and office, that not only would each prophet necessarily be of Jewish stock – as indeed we also know to be the case from other lines of evidence that derive from Deuteronomy 18, not to mention from a survey of Israel’s history – but so would the prophet, as the head and culmination of the institution itself, the archetype and end to which all the prophets pointed, be of Jewish stock as well. The same parameters that circumscribe the passage in its collective reference to the prophetic order also circumscribe the passage when it comes to pointing to an individual who will fulfill the prophecy to the hilt. If the prophets were to be Israelites – and, again, we know on independent grounds, both exegetically and in hindsight, that they were – then so necessarily would the prophet be an Israelite.]



1 This is especially true of Muslim apologists, who, in their haste to make Deuteronomy 18 a prophecy about Muhammad, neglect the duty of careful exegesis.

2 This source is available online: here.

3 Stanley E. Porter, ed., “The Messiah: Exploration in the Law and Writings,” The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), p. 28. This source is available online, see here.

4 Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1966), p. 122-123. Available online: here.

5 A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Vol. 1 (Hartford: The S. S. Scranton Company, n.d.), p. 133

6 Rev. Samuel Rolles Driver, The International Critical Commentary: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), p. 228-229; for online source, see here.

7 F. C. Cook, gen. ed., The Bible Commentary, Exodus – Ruth, abridged and edited by J. M. Fuller (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, [1953], 1980) p. 307

8 The source of this citation is from the following: here. For Kaiser’s fuller treatment, consult his Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 57ff., which is part of the Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology series.

9 O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004), p. 59

10 E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, [1847], 1970), p. 54-55. Incidentally, the reader may be interested to know that Hengstenberg’s dissertation for the Doctor of Laws degree, which demonstrated his competence as a Semitic philologist, and also showed that his competence in this area ranged well beyond Hebrew, was a Latin translation of the Arabic Moallakat (or Mu'allaqat) of Amrulkeisi/Amrulkais (alt., Amru’lQais or Imru'l Qais). For more on Imru'l Qais, see here.

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