From his Guide to the Perplexed (II, XXXII):
THERE are as many different opinions concerning Prophecy as concerning the Eternity or Non-Eternity of the Universe. For we have shown that those who assume the existence of God as proved may be divided into three classes, according to the view they take of the question, whether the Universe is eternal or not. Similarly there are three different opinions on Prophecy. I will not notice the view of the Atheist; he does not believe in the Existence of God, much less in Prophecy; but I will content myself with discussing the various opinions [on Prophecy] held by those who believe in God.
- Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways.
- The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class: and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it , just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like.
- The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually 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. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii. 4), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). As for the principle which I laid down, that preparation and perfection of moral and rational faculties are the sine quâ non, our Sages say exactly the same: “The spirit of prophecy only rests upon persons who are wise, strong, and rich.” We have explained these words in our Commentary on the Mishnah, and in our large work. We stated there that the Sons of the Prophets were constantly engaged in preparation. That those who have prepared themselves may still be prevented from being prophets, may be inferred from the history of Baruch, the son of Nerijah; for he followed Jeremiah, who prepared and instructed him; and yet he hoped in vain for prophecy; comp., “I am weary with my sighing, and rest have I not found.” He was then told through Jeremiah, “Thus saith the Lord, Thus shalt thou say to him, Thou seekest for thee great things, do not seek” (Jer. xlv. 5). It may perhaps be assumed that prophecy is here described as a thing “too great” for Baruch. So also the fact that “her prophets did not find visions from the Lord” (Lam. ii. 4), may be considered as the result of the exile of her prophets, as will be explained (chap. xxxvi.). There are, however, numerous passages in Scripture as well as in the writings of our Sages, which support the principle that it depends chiefly on the will of God who is to prophesy, and at what time; and that He only selects the best and the wisest. We hold that fools and ignorant people are unfit for this distinction. It is as impossible for any one of these to prophesy as it is for an ass or a frog; for prophecy is impossible without study and training; when these have created the possibility, then it depends on the will of God whether the possibility is to be turned into reality. We must not be misled by the words of Jeremiah (i. 5), “Before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee, and before thou camest forth from the womb I have sanctified thee”; for this is the case with all prophets: there must be a physical preparation from the beginning of their existence, as will be explained. As to the words, “For I am young” (ibid. ver. 6), it is well known that the pious Joseph, when he was thirty years old, is called by the Hebrew “young” (na‘ar); also Joshua, when he was nearly sixty years old. For the statement, “and his minister Joshua, the son of Nun, was young,” occurs in the account of the Golden Calf (Exod. xxxiii. 11). Moses was then eighty-one years old, he lived one hundred and twenty years; Joshua, who survived him fourteen years, lived one hundred and ten years and must consequently have been at least fifty-seven years old at the time when the Golden Calf was made, and yet he is called na‘ar, “young.” Nor must we be misled by prophecies like the following: “I will pour out my spirit over an flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”; since it is distinctly stated what is meant by “prophesy” in this place, viz., “Your old men will dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” For we call also prophets all those who reveal something unknown by surmises, or conjectures, or correct inferences. Thus “prophets of Baal” and “of Asherah” are mentioned in Scripture. And God says, “If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams,” etc. (Deut. xiii. 1). As to the revelation on Mount Sinai, all saw the great fire, and heard the fearful thunderings, that caused such an extraordinary terror; but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities. Therefore it is said, “Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu.” Moses rose to the highest degree of prophecy, according to the words, “And Moses alone shall come near the Lord.” Aaron was below him, Nadab and Abihu below Aaron, and the seventy elders below Nadab and Abihu, and the rest below the latter, each one according to his degree of perfection. Similarly our Sages wrote: Moses had his own place and Aaron his own. Since we have touched upon the revelation on Mount Sinai, we will point out in a separate chapter what may be inferred as regards the nature of that event, both from the Scriptural text, in accordance with reasonable interpretation, and from the words of our Sages.