REV. ROGER KARBAN
This Sunday's passage from Deuteronomy (18:15-20) is almost meaningless to two groups of people: those who think God speaks solely through the administrators of a predetermined authority structure, and those who believe God communicates only through a fixed set of writings.
All who follow God long to know what God wants of them, but they often take different paths to find out. It can be as simple as closing our eyes, opening the Bible at random, and pointing to a specific verse; or as complicated as carefully studying every known religion, and looking for God to speak to us through some founder's words or an inspired writer's insight. The people who composed the Hebrew Scriptures had one principal way of coming into contact with God's word: prophets.
Accustomed as Christians are to thinking of a prophet only as a predictor of Jesus' birth, suffering, death and resurrection, we forget how the Israelites originally viewed these individuals. They reckoned such a person to be Yahweh's mouthpiece: someone who told them what God expected them to do. Or, as the late Rev. Bruce Vawter expressed it, "Prophets were the `conscience' of Israel." Prophets delivered Yahweh's word to Yahweh's people. That's why Moses' promise is so important.
The book of Deuteronomy is set against the background of Moses' impending death. The Chosen People are terrified. Not only are they about to lose the person who's been successfully leading them through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, they're also going to lose someone who's been keeping them informed of Yahweh's will. No matter Moses' other titles, people basically looked at him as a prophet. When he died, how would they find out what God wanted of them?
An ironic twist to this situation is that Deuteronomy was the first book of the Bible to be regarded as 'Bible' by the ancient Israelites. Though not the oldest writing in the Hebrew Scripture, it was the first to be looked at as having been inspired by Yahweh; the first writing to be considered a norm of faith. Our concept of 'sacred Scripture' started with this book.
The dying Moses can't say, "Don't worry. I'll write a book for you that will contain all God's words." Such an idea wouldn't even nibble at the fringes of Judaism until more than half a millennium after Moses' death. Moses simply promises, "A prophet like me will Yahweh, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen."
Scholars unanimously teach that Moses isn't using the term 'prophet' in the sense of one, specific individual; he's employing it collectively. In other words, "Yahweh will send you prophets as needed." The Chosen People believed different situations demanded different prophets.
We often forget that all the founders of our faith were Jewish: people rooted in and sustained by those Hebrew Scriptures we so conveniently ignore. They not only had a deep sense of prophecy, but many of their own words and actions can be correctly understood only against a prophetic backgrounds. When, for instance, Paul encourages certain members of his Corinthian community not to marry, he's giving God's word at a time when everyone's expecting Jesus' immediate Parousia, a Parousia we're still awaiting 2,000 years later.
What would the prophetic Paul advise today? As a good Jew, Paul presumed a different set of circumstances always demands a different prophet with a different word. That seems to be why he mentions that he's not attempting to place restrictions on anyone (1 Cor 7:32-25).
Looking at Jesus against a prophetic background helps us discover another dimension in Sunday's exorcism narrative (Mark 1:21-28). Prophets not only spoke God's word, but also often acted it out in prophetic signs, as in Hosea's marriage to Gomer or Isaiah's nudity. Remember, this is Jesus' first miracle in the very first written Gospel.
Mark seems to be telling his community that Jesus' life, death and resurrection revolve around eradicating evil -- the kind of evil symbolized in this demonic possession, the kind of evil all Christians both face and are called to eradicate day after day. If prophecy was so important for our ancestors in the faith, why is it so unimportant for us today?