Prophetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction


Prophetic Autonomy?

How much autonomy do prophets have?  Must they consult with Hashem regarding their every deed lest they veer from the Divine will, or may they act even without Divine sanction?  Can a prophet declare a miracle on his own, and expect that nature will be overturned at his word?  These questions are raised by the many instances where prophets seem to act, and even declare supernatural phenomena, without having previously received a Divine directive to do so:

  • Moshe and the plagues – In Shemot 8, Moshe tells Paroh to set a time for the plague of frogs to end, promising that it will terminate as requested.1 Nowhere, though, does the text share that Hashem directed him to make such a promise. How, then, could Moshe be certain that Hashem really wanted the plague to end, and that He would agree to do so?
  • Moshe and meat – In Shemot 16, in the aftermath of the nation's complaints of hunger, Hashem promises to provide them with bread. When speaking to the people, however, Moshe adds that Hashem will provide them, not only with bread, but also with meat.
  • Moshe and Korach – During Korach's rebellion, Moshe appears to independently devise an "incense test" to prove whom God has chosen (Bemidbar 16:1-7), and later declares that the rebellion's leaders will die an unnatural death (Bemidbar 16:23-31). How could Moshe trust that Hashem would agree to his test and enact a miracle on Moshe's demand, especially considering that both were to cause death?
  • Moshe and the petition of Reuven and Gad – When Reuven and Gad negotiate to settle the land east of the Jordan (Bemidbar 32), Moshe grants them permission to do so without first consulting with Hashem. How did he know that this was Hashem's desire?
  • Yehoshua and the sun – In Yehoshua 10, Yehoshua makes the famous declaration "שֶׁמֶשׁ בְּגִבְעוֹן דּוֹם", resulting in the sun standing still.  The narrative concludes "וְלֹא הָיָה כַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לְפָנָיו וְאַחֲרָיו לִשְׁמֹעַ י"י בְּקוֹל אִישׁ".  This suggests that Hashem really did change nature only due to the bidding of Yehoshua, but also that this was a unique case and not replicated elsewhere.
  • Shemuel bringing rain – When Shemuel rebukes the people for requesting a king in Shemuel I 12, he tells them that as a sign of their sinful behavior, he will cry out to Hashem and He will bring a storm in the dry season. Here, too, the declaration is not preceded by a Divine command.
  • Natan and David – In Shemuel II 7, when David expresses a desire to build the Mikdash, Natan tells him to do as his heart wishes  Not only does Natan say this on his own, but Natan is in fact proven wrong.  Did Natan sin in expressing his erroneous opinion independently? Can a prophet make a mistake?
  • Eliyahu's miracles – The vast majority of Eliyahu's actions appear to be initiated by him rather than Hashem.2  He declares drought (Melakhim I 17:1), miraculously brings food to the widow of Tzarefat (Melakhim I 17:10-15), sets up the contest on Mt. Carmel (Melakhim I 18), and kills the officers of fifty with heavenly fire (Melakhim II 1:9-15), all seemingly without seeking Divine approval beforehand. He even acts against the Torah to build a private altar in a period when doing so was prohibited!
  • Elisha's miracles – Like his mentor, Elisha, too, appears to bring miracles of his own accord, without prior Divine consultation. Thus, he cures bitter waters (Melakhim II 2:19-22) and poisoned food (Melakhim II 4:40-41), miraculously provides for the בני הנביאים (Melakhim II 4:1-6 and 42-44),  promises the Shunamite a son (Melakhim II 4:16), and both cures and brings tzara'at (Melakhim II 5:1-14) .

How should all of these cases be understood? Should we assume that, despite the textual silence, the prophets must nonetheless be operating according to a received Divine directive? Or, does silence imply that really there was no Divine communication? If the latter, as Abarbanel asks, "what enabled these prophets... to work miracles without Divine commands"?  Moreover, how could they be certain that their decisions aligned with Hashem's desires?

How Complete a Record?

The flip side of the above issue is the question of what and how much the Torah chooses to record for posterity.  Is there a need to mention both Hashem's instructions to a prophet and the prophet's execution of those directions, or can one statement suffice?  In many instances, both the command and fulfillment are found in the text.3  In rarer cases, only Hashem's words are mentioned, while the fulfillment is simply assumed.4  In the above cases, the inverse is true, and it is Hashem's words which are absent.  Why does the text sometimes employ one method and other times another?  If everything is happening at Hashem's behest, why are His words not always recorded? 

Why the Need for Prayer?

In several of the above incidents the prophet feels the need to pray that Hashem bring the desired miracle:

  • Moshe prays that plagues be removed from Paroh at the set time, and he petitions Hashem to refuse the offerings of the 250 men during Korach's rebellion.
  • Shemuel prays for rain.
  • Eliyahu requests of Hashem that fire consume the offering on Mt. Carmel.5

If the prophets are acting via Divine command, why would they need to pray that His will be fulfilled?  If, on the other hand, they have powers to bring miracles on their own, why not simply do so?  Moreover, if a prophet is not sure that Hashem will acquiesce to change nature at his request (as implied by the need to pray), how can he declare publicly that a miracle is to occur?  If his words do not come true, does he not risk being labelled a false prophet?

"Fulfilling the Words of His Prophets"

Yeshayahu 44 speaks of Hashem's attitude towards both true and false prophets:


(כה) מֵפֵר אֹתוֹת בַּדִּים וְקֹסְמִים יְהוֹלֵל מֵשִׁיב חֲכָמִים אָחוֹר וְדַעְתָּם יְסַכֵּל. (כו) מֵקִים דְּבַר עַבְדּוֹ וַעֲצַת מַלְאָכָיו יַשְׁלִים הָאֹמֵר לִירוּשָׁלַ‍ִם תּוּשָׁב וּלְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה תִּבָּנֶינָה וְחׇרְבוֹתֶיהָ אֲקוֹמֵם.

(25) That frustrateth the tokens of the imposters, And maketh diviners mad; That turneth wise men backward, And maketh their knowledge foolish; (26) That confirmeth the word of His servant, And performeth the counsel of His messengers; That saith of Jerusalem: 'She shall be inhabited'; And of the cities of Judah: 'They shall be built, And I will raise up the waste places thereof';

Iyyov 22:28 similarly declares, "וְתִגְזַר אֹמֶר וְיָקׇם לָךְ."  In these verses, Hashem promises to fulfill the words of his loyal prophets and messengers, implying that, at times, a prophet might speak without Hashem's prior command, and that nonetheless Hashem will make sure that his declaration is fulfilled.  Is this true for all prophets?  Under which circumstances?  Do the verses imply that a prophet can even "force Hashem's Hand" to do something He otherwise had not intended?

Other Theological Issues

  • Prophetic fallibility – The possibility that a prophet might act on his own raises the question of whether in so doing, it is possible for him to err, misrepresent Hashem's will, or even act against it.  If prophets can make mistakes, how can they be trusted?
  • Acting against the Torah – Eliyahu is singular in the above cases in transgressing a Torah law in order to bring the people back to faith.  Even if in general a prophet can act on his own, does transgressing a law require Divine sanction, or might this, too, be left to the discretion of the prophet?
  • Invoking Hashem's name – In several cases, prophets not only seem to speak or act on their own initiative, but do so in God's name, invoking Divine authority for their message or action.  Is a prophet allowed to attribute his personal decisions to Hashem?  For a full discussion of this issue, see Invoking Hashem's Name Without Explicit Divine Sanction.