By Israel Drazin
Maimonides’ Important Idea about Prophecy
The following essay is a shortened version from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets
Maimonides wrote his philosophical work Guide of the Perplexed in 1190 to disseminate truths as he saw them to fellow Jews who lacked his knowledge. He was particularly interested in demonstrating that the biblical and rabbinical writings are consistent with the rationalistic philosophy of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.). M. Friedlander, in his introduction to his translation to the Guide, writes that Maimonides’ “Guide delighted many, but it also met with much adverse criticism on account of the peculiar views held by Maimonides concerning angels, prophecy, and miracles.”
Maimonides Informs His Readers of His Method
Maimonides’ Guide is not an easy book to read, but it can be understood.
In the introduction to the Guide, Maimonides recognizes that most people are unable to deal with the truth, so he hides it. He alerts his readers that (1) he will not disclose his thoughts in their entirety; (2) he will make contradictory remarks, often one that reflects the popular notion of the masses and a second that is unlike it; and (3) he will occasionally put parts of a concept in one chapter and other parts in another chapter far removed from the first. He states that he is doing these things to conceal his views from the general populace. He writes: “It is sometimes necessary to introduce such metaphysical matter as may partly be disclosed, but must partly be concealed…. The author must endeavor, by concealing the fact as much as possible, to prevent the uneducated reader from perceiving the contradiction.”
Maimonides stresses that his reader must read his entire book to uncover his teaching: “Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually; for you will find the solution of those important problems of religion, which are the source of anxiety to all intelligent men.”
It should be clear from Maimonides’ statement that if one tries to prove a point by plucking a particular passage from the Guide, as people frequently do, there is a good chance that the cursory reading will cite an isolated statement that Maimonides actually rejects because he explains it differently in another section of the Guide.
Maimonides’ View on Prophecy
Maimonides reveals his view of prophecy in Book Two of his Guide in chapters 32–48. He states that there are three approaches to prophecy.
1. The uneducated masses believe that God selects any person He desires as long as that person is Jewish (with rare exceptions), instills within him a prophecy while he is located in the land of Israel, and sends him on a mission to reveal the instilled prophecy. This messenger may be wise or simple, as long as he is morally good.
2. The philosophers believe that prophecy is not a divine communication. It is a higher level of intellectual perfection enhanced by study and proper behavior, a natural but elevated faculty in all people of all races.
3. The scriptural view, according to Maimonides, is the same as the philosophical, except for one element: “For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may happen that he does not prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way.”
Problems with Maimonides’ Statement
There are two problems with this statement. First, Maimonides generally prefers and accepts the view of the philosophers, yet here he rejects the philosophical view. He seems to be accepting what he calls the “scriptural view.” Second, this “scriptural view” is inconsistent with several of Maimonides’ opinions. Elsewhere, Maimonides contends that God is not involved in human affairs (such as his view of divine providence) and implies that he does not believe in miracles. Thus the second approach, the one outlined by the philosophers, is the only one that is consistent with his general views. Why, then, does he say that God can withhold prophecy from a person? Did he make this statement to appease the masses? How should we interpret this statement to make it fit with his general view?
Maimonides’ True View of Prophecy
Actually, as we would expect, Maimonides was convinced that the philosophical view of prophecy was correct. The statement about God withholding prophecy was inserted to make his view palatable to the less educated. The troubling assertion can be understood by looking at two other Maimonidean statements: 2:36 and 2:48. In Guide 2:36 and other places, Maimonides states that even though a person studies and develops his intellect and should therefore be intellectually capable of being a prophet, he is unable to prophesy if his body or mind is affected by something that depresses or distracts or weakens his ability to think, such as when he is overwrought with worry or fear. This is what Maimonides was referring to when he stated that God can withhold prophecy. He is saying that a person may not be able to prophesy because of the laws of nature that God created.
Joseph ibn Caspi (a fervent and enthusiastic Maimonidean) understood this. In his commentary on the Guide, Caspi explains that in Guide 2:48, the last chapter on prophecy, Maimonides supplies the clue to clarify his statement. Maimonides states that when the Bible says that God did something, it does not mean to imply that God actually performed the act, that He is the immediate cause of the event. Rather, the meaning is that the act occurred according to the rules of nature that God set in place when He created the world. The Bible uses figurative language when it states that God performed an act. It does so to remind its readers that God, who created the laws of nature under which everything in this world functions, is the “ultimate cause” of everything.
Thus, for example, when Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 45:7, “God sent me [from Canaan to Egypt] before you,” the meaning is not that God interfered in the lives of Jacob’s children, took over control of their actions, and compelled them to sell Joseph to merchants. It also does not indicate that God took control over the lives of the merchants and forced them to bring Joseph to Egypt. Both the brothers and the merchants had free will and made their own decisions. The statement about God, Maimonides explains, reminds the reader that God is the “ultimate cause.” He gave the brothers and the merchants the free will to make their own decisions.
This biblical methodology is the same one that Maimonides employs when he discusses philosophy. A close reading of the entire Guide reveals that Maimonides feels that God does not take over control of human lives and does not interfere, performing miracles in order to help people. God is all-knowing and all-powerful. At the time of creation, He foresaw all that would occur in the world that He created and took care of all human needs within the laws of nature. There is no need for God to change what He created. Thus God does not become involved in prophecy. Prophecy, according to Maimonides, is, as the philosophers state, a natural higher level of intelligence.
Maimonides only writes that God can stop a person from prophesying in order to appease the masses whom he knew would not accept his view. Many read his statement and thought that he was saying that (1) not only can God stop prophecy, (2) He can also control when it begins. Yet, Maimonides never makes this second claim, and when he makes the first statement, he is actually saying that a person’s ability to prophesy can be weakened and even stopped if his body and mind are not functioning properly. This is in keeping with the laws of nature.
The Modern Scholarly View of Prophecy
It is both interesting and informative to note that the conception of prophecy as a natural phenomenon expressed by rational philosophers such as Maimonides, ibn Caspi, and many others, is congruent with that of modern scholars. Scholars who examined ancient cultures found, in essence, that other ancient nations had “prophets” whose role was to advise their kings. They saw that the Israelite prophets differed in that they also had an ethical role. Yet, both the Israelite and non-Israelite prophets were humans using their human intelligence to advise their leaders.
For example, J.L. Kugel writes that other ancient people, even those living earlier than the time of Moses, had prophets called “answerers,” “ecstatics,” “proclaimers,” and other titles. Even the biblical term navi was used by the Canaanites. Yet biblical prophets had unique characteristics. The non-Israelite prophets advised the king, but the biblical prophets also reproached him. The prophets were sometimes even the enemies of the king: Elijah calls Ahab “you troublemaker.” In Kugel’s words, they were unlike the non-Israelite prophets in that: “there is nothing reported of them [the non-Israelites] that might correspond to ‘Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24).”
Kugel concludes that Israelite prophets served as a kind of check and balance to the king, making sure that “kingship might, in Israel, be less of an absolute dictatorship than it was elsewhere in the ancient Near East.”
Highly intelligent Jewish thinkers, as could be expected, understood Judaism differently than did their less educated coreligionists. The general population based their view of Judaism on mistaken notions about how God and the world function. Their religious ideas were generally based on fears, on their reliance on other misinformed people, on myths and superstition, as well as on mistaken notions taken from neighboring nations, notions that seemed to be correct simply because there were so many people who subscribed to them. When they heard the ideas of intelligent thinkers they perceived the rational concepts as attacks on the foundations of their knowledge and threatening to all that they believed. Thus, when the educated thinkers wanted to communicate their teachings to other thinkers, they had to hide the truths from the masses who might read their books.
Maimonides had his own method of disclosing yet hiding the truths that he wanted to impart. Therefore a reader who wants to understand him must not pluck statements out of context, for one or even several comments may not express his true opinion. The reader must read the Guide as a whole.
Maimonides was convinced that prophecy is a natural phenomenon, the use of intelligence by highly educated people. Although he says that God can stop a prophet from prophesying, a close reading of the entire Guide reveals that he means that the laws of nature that control a person’s emotions can affect a person’s ability to think and stop him from being able to prophesy.