In Jewish religious literature a true prophet is a spiritually elevated person who is commanded by God to convey His message to the people that they should obey His commandments and seek forgiveness of their sins through repentance. Thus, the Prophet helps the people in getting them closer to God and promises them prosperity and peace. Also, he warns them that disobedience to God would bring His wrath upon them and they would be punished. On the other hand, a ‘false prophet’ may have the gift of making prophecy or showing other signs that come true, or perform miracles thus appearing to possess some supernatural powers. But as he is not chosen by God as a Prophet, he does not lead the people to Him. In the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy, it is written:
“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (1)
In the same book, further details are given concerning false prophets, and the Israelites are asked not to follow or imitate them:
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist, or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” (2)
The punishment for a false prophet is severe. The Lord God says:
“But a prophet who presumes to speak in My name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.” (3)
False prophets had appeared from within Israelites as well as from outside. One of the non-Israelite Prophets mentioned in the Torah is Ba’laam son of Beor whose story is very interesting as his attitude towards Israelites is a mixture of good and evil. Towards the end of forty years in the wilderness, under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites defeated the kings of Amorites and of Bashan, and they reached close to the Moab territory. The king of Moab named Balak became worried, and fearing his defeat at the hands of advancing Israelites, he sent a message to a sage by the name of Ba’laam, offering him rewards, and asking him to come to Moab to put a curse on the Israelite forces that were on their way to fight with him. Ba’laam’s reply to the King Balak was that he could not curse the Israelites unless God commanded him to do so, and that in a dream God had told him not to go to Moab. On receiving this response from Ba’laam, King Balak once again dispatched a higher-ranking delegation to Ba’laam, offering him great honors and more material rewards. This time, out of greed, Ba’laam kept on praying to God for allowing him to go to Moab. God gave him permission to go to Moab but with clear instructions not to utter anything other than what God commanded him to say.
So, Ba’laam went to Moab, and after meeting with King Balak he made some ritual offerings and then prayed. This time he told the king that God had asked him to bless the Israelites instead of sending any curse on them. But the king continued to press Ba’laam to keep on trying and seek God’s permission to curse the oncoming forces of Moses. To solve this dilemma, Ba’laam thought of a sinful idea, and told the king that although God had controlled his tongue to say any words against the Israelites, still there was a way that the Israelites could incur God’s curse upon themselves. He suggested that beautiful prostitutes and unclean food that was sacrificed to idols should be offered to the Israelites. King Balak used this ploy as proposed by Ba’laam, and the Israelites fell for that. They committed adultery with the women, and ate the forbidden food. Thus, due to trespassing God’s Law, they incurred God’s curse and were punished by God for their sins. A plague came upon them, killing 24,000 of them. God also punished Ba’laam, and he was killed by the sword in a battle. (4)
This is the story of Ba’laam the false prophet in the Torah who was initially a sage but then due to his greed for worldly rewards turned to be a wicked man. A reference to this story is also in the Holy Qur’an without mentioning Ba’laam’s name:
“Relate to them the story of him to whom We gave Our messages, but he stepped away from them; so Satan followed him up, and he became one of those who go astray. Had We wished, We could have elevated him through our Signs, but he clung to the earth and followed his evil desires. In likeness he was like a dog: if you drive it away, he pants with a lolling tongue, and if you leave it alone, it still pants hanging out its tongue. Such is the case of the people who disbelieve in Our Signs.” (5)
It appears that the number of prophets – true and false – tremendously increased with passage of time in the lands held by Jewish tribes. For example, during the era of King Ahab who ruled the northern kingdom during the 9th century B.C.E., there were hundreds of prophets under his protection. Ahab had married a princess of Tyre named Jezebel who was not Jewish. She worshipped the storm-god named Baal. To please his wife, Ahab built a temple and alters for Baal, and also made a grove for orgies of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Jezebel brought a great number of prophets of Baal from Phoenicia. It is written in the Torah that Elijah, a great prophet of God YAHWIH, challenged them all. He called upon the King Ahab in these words:
“You have abandoned the Lord’s commandments and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (6)
On Mount Carmel, he made the prophets pray to their god Baal for a fire to miraculously fall on the sacrifice they had made. The prophets prayed the whole day long, but nothing happened. When Elijah prayed to his Lord God,
“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burnt the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” (7)
On seeing this miracle at the hands of Elijah, the people seized the false prophets and slaughtered them all. (8)
Belief in coming of a Messiah is fundamental in Jewish faith. In the Old Testament the term “Messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) means “anointed one”. In antiquity, Hebrew High Priests and prophets were occasionally “anointed” to their offices, and the Israelite kings who were heads of a new dynasty were ritually anointed at the ceremony of being enthroned. The expected Messiah was, therefore, supposed to play all the three roles — of a priest, a prophet and a king. “The Anointed of Israel” was to be a royal figure in the line of King David. He was to establish Kingdom of God on the earth, and help the Jews to observe the Law of God. He was expected to appear at a time of great predicament for Jews when they would be scattered all over the earth. He was to re-establish political sovereignty of Jews in the land of Israel, and bring all of the lost tribes back to his kingdom.
There have been several claimants to the title of Messiah, but all of them are considered to be false prophets in Jewish religious literature. When Jesus of Nazareth appeared, the majority of the Jews rejected him as a false Messiah because he did not bring the earthly kingdom back to Israel, nor did he gather the lost tribes together.
He was considered a rebellious priest gone astray who was crucified by the Romans. Despite rejection by the majority, Jesus of Nazareth was recognized as “Christ” – “the anointed one of God” by some Jews of his time who initiated Christianity. Islam also recognizes Jesus son of Mary (as) as the true Messiah of the Jews who fulfilled the Biblical prophecies, but was not acknowledged by the majority.
Two other Jewish claimants who attained the fame of being the Messiahs in their times are Shimon Bar-Kokhba and Sabbatai Zevi. Shimon Bar-Kokhba was a military leader who rebelled against the Romans in 132 C.E., and recaptured Jerusalem, taking more than 50 Roman strongholds. He claimed to be the Messiah and changed his original name Shimon Bar Kasivah to the messianic name Simon Bar-Kokhba which meant “Son of the Star”. The Roman army, under the command of General Julius Severus, who was appointed by Emperor Hadrian, counter attacked and took Jerusalem back from the Jewish rebels. They completely destroyed Jewish communities, tortured the Rabbis, enslaved many Israelites, and even changed the name of the city to Aelius Hardrianus. Simon Bar-Kokhba and his army took refuge in the Judean Hills, but they were all killed by the Romans in 135 C.E. Simon Bar-Kokhba was a ruthless army leader, therefore, in the Jewish literature, such as Talmud and Midrash, he is mentioned not in favorable terms, and is called a “blood-thirsty bandit.” (9)
Another false messiah for the Jews was Sabbatai Zevi (Shabbatai Zvi). He was born in Smyrus (Izmir), a city of West Turkey, in 1626 A.D. He had a charismatic personality, well-versed in Talmud and Kabbalah, practiced ascetic ways and claimed to have mystical experiences. In 1663 he moved to Jerusalem where he was recog- nized as the Messiah by thousands of Jews who claimed that he would liberate them from the Turkish rule. Nathan Benjamin Levi (also known as Nathan of Gaza), who had claimed to be the risen Elijah, endorsed Sabbatai Zevi as the Messiah and publicized his advent to all parts of the world where Jews were living. Nathan of Gaza gave Sabbatai Zevi a kind of international fame and thus his following spread in many faraway places like Venice and Livorno in Italy, and Amsterdam in Netherlands. Observing his rebellious popularity as the Messiah of the Jews, the Sultan of Turkey, Mehmed IV, first imprisoned him and then asked him to either accept Islam as his faith or be ready to be tortured and killed. At that time Sabbatai Zevi was only forty years old, and did not want to die. So, he became Muslim and changed his name to Aziz Mehemet Effendi. This unexpected decision on his part created a great reaction among his followers, and they started detesting him, calling him a false messiah. After that, many Jewish communities discarded the idea of any miraculous redemption through a Messiah figure, and the Reform movements started to evolve in some European countries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and that changed the course of Jewish history. (10)
- Deuteronomy 13:1-3
- Deut. 18: 9-12
- Deut. 18:20
- Unger’s Bible Dictionary: ‘Ba’laam’
- Sura 7, Al-A’raf: Ayat 176-177
- 1 Kings 18:19
- 1 Kings 18:38
- 1 Kings 18:40
- Encyclopedia of Judaism by Sara E. Karesh and Mitchell M. Hurvitz
This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Muslim Sunrise.
Last modified: April 2019