By Israel Drazin
Biblical prophecy does not predict what will be
The view of traditional thinkers
Most people read the Bible literally without much thought. When the Bible has a prophet say that something will occur, they understand this as a vision from God of what will occur. However, the rabbis, or at least some of them, examined the Bible more carefully and found that virtually all biblical predictions, if not all, never occurred. Therefore the highly respected Tosaphot wrote: “A prophet does not prophesy what will be but what should be.”
For example: God promised/prophesied to Abraham that he would inherit all of Canaan, but he never did. God did the same to Joshua with the identical result. Isaac’s blessing/prophecy to his son Jacob, who stole it from Esau, never occurred. Jeremiah prophesied that the Judeans would return from the Babylonian exile after seventy years; they returned in fifty years. Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, which did not happen.
This insight prompts Bible readers to read the Bible in a totally different way than usual.
Jewish philosophers came to the same conclusion from another direction. Maimonides (1138-1204) describes God as being transcendental in his Guide of the Perplexed, a deity that does not speak to people. He defined prophecy as a higher level of intelligence in Guide 32-48. Prophets are intelligent people of high moral integrity, with imaginative skills that give them the ability to communicate, who understand events, and share their understanding with others because they realize that this is their moral duty. Thus, many scholars contend that the three would say that the pagan Aristotle, who had these qualities, was a prophet.
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) disagreed, in his commentary to Genesis 27:13, with those who claim that Jacob could not have lied to his father Isaac when he disguised himself as Esau to secure a blessing from his father. Jacob, they say, was a prophet, and a prophet never lies. Ibn Ezra shows us that prophets do lie and gives examples from David,[i] Elisha,[ii] Micah,[iii] Daniel,[iv] and Abraham.[v] In each instance, the circumstances of the time demanded the lie.[vi] How could they lie? Because everything they said was not from God; it was based on their view, their intelligence.
Moses ibn Chiquitilla (eleventh century)[vii] explained that the biblical prophets spoke of events occurring only during the first Temple period. Joseph ibn Kaspi, who extolled Maimonides, states that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides accepted this doctrine and did not believe that the prophets were speaking of anything other than their personal ideas about events in the near future. It is for this reason, although not only so, that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides agree that there is no rational basis for interpreting the Hebrew Bible to refer to the messiahship of Mohammed[viii] or Jesus.[ix]
Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides (1288-1344), as well as many others, were convinced that God doesn’t know details about people; God only knows the general rules of the laws of nature, what could possibly occur, but people can subvert the laws of nature. Needless to say, since God does not know the details of human activities, the idea that God punishes people for their misdeeds and rewards them for proper acts, is impossible. Therefore they reject this common conception of reward and punishment and contend that people should use their intellect and act properly because it is better for them and society.
Since God has no specific idea of what is happening, it would be illogical to say that God speaks to people and sends them messages how to behave. This is another reason why the three define prophecy as a higher level of intelligence, not a divine communication.
Whether one accepts the ideas of the rational philosophers or not, it is clear that the Tosaphot, who do not express these philosophical ideas, did not think that prophecies predict actual events. And even far-right Jewish thinkers accept the views of Tosaphot.
 Tosaphot on Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 50b, s.v. teda. The Tosaphot were scholars who wrote commentaries on the Talmud and Bible. The early Tosaphot were the grandchildren of the famed Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105).
[i] I Samuel 21:6.
[ii] II Kings 8:10.
[iii] I Kings 22:15.
[iv] Daniel 4:16.
[v] Genesis 20:12 and 22:5.
[vi] For example Abraham said in 20:12 that Sarah was his sister to save his life. He deceived his attendants in 22:5, when he took Isaac to be a burnt offering by telling them that he and Isaac would return; so that they would not stop him from fulfilling what he thought was God’s command.
[vii] S. Poznanski, Moses Ibn Samuel HaKohen Ibn Chiquitilla, Leipzig, 1895, pp. 27-31.
[viii] Maimonides Epistles, ed. M D. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1959, p. 144.
[ix] Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah.