Can Prophets Make Mistakes?

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We are taught that God communicates with true prophets. Then it is natural to ask two questions: Can prophets make mistakes? Are prophets infallible?

Let’s define what these terms mean and then try to answer the questions.


According to my favorite dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th Edition), infallible means “incapable of error: UNERRING.”

There are two other definitions, but they are not relevant to our discussion.

The noun mistake has two relevant definitions:

  1. a wrong judgment: MISUNDERSTANDING
  2. a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention.

From these definitions we can conclude: If prophets can or do make mistakes, then they are not infallible.

It could be argued that prophets may make mistakes in their non-prophetic / personal lives, but are infallible in their prophetic lives. Therefore, in this article I will explore both aspects of a prophet’s life.

The Book of Genesis answers some fundamental questions of human existence: Who are we? Why are we here? What does God want from us? Genesis: From Creation To Covenant

One Clarification

I am about to examine the lives and actions of several prophets. We will see that they made various errors.

My intention is not to denigrate or belittle them. These are men whose lives and deeds merited to be recorded for all time for us to learn from them.

On the one hand, the authors of the Jewish Bible were not afraid to mention the mistakes and sins of great people.

However, we must never consider that the prophets were ordinary men and women. They reached extremely high levels of spiritual growth that we can barely comprehend.

I explain some of what they achieved in my article “How to Become a Prophet or Prophetess.”

Prophets Making Mistakes

In this section I will look at 3 instances when prophets made mistakes in their personal lives.

The “I Won’t Hit You” Prophet

This incident involves 2 unidentified men who were prophets. The phrase “sons of the prophets” indicates that they were part of a group who studied the ways of prophecy.

1 Kings Chapter 20

35. And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his neighbor, “By the word of the Lord, strike me, I beg you.” And the man refused to strike him.
36. Then said he to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, behold, as soon as you are departed from me, a lion shall kill you.” And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and killed him.

The prophet who asked to be hit was preparing to deliver a message to King Ahab. He wanted to appear to the king as a wounded soldier.

The second man, who refused to hit him, was also a prophet. But, he made a mistake and thought that it was always forbidden to strike another person.

King David

We may not often think of David as a prophet, but both David and his son Solomon were prophets.

The incident of King David and Bat Sheva is well known. Here are a few of the verses that outline what happened:

2 Samuel Chapter 11

2. And it came to pass one evening, that David arose from his bed, and walked on the roof of the king’s house; and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
3. And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bat Sheva, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” …

2 Samuel Chapter 12
1. And the Lord sent Nathan to David. …

13. And David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

There are many attempts to explain David’s behavior and minimize what happened. Be that as it may, both Nathan and David recognized that his behavior was not proper. In fact, the son that Bat Sheva gave birth to died (2 Samuel Chapter 12:18).

King Solomon

King Solomon reigned over the Jewish people for 40 years of great prosperity.

1 Kings Chapter 11

1. And King Solomon loved many foreign women, the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. …

4. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. …

11. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, Since this is your mind, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant.

As with David, there are many discussions about exactly what King Solomon did wrong. Here is the explanation from the Gemara:

Gemara Sanhedrin 21b

R. Isaac also said: Why were the reasons of [some] Biblical laws not revealed? Because in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world [Solomon] to stumble. Thus it is written: “He shall not multiply wives to himself [that his heart not turn away]” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Whereon Solomon said, “I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted.” Yet we read, “When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart.”

Can Prophet Make Mistakes

The Book of Genesis answers some fundamental questions of human existence: Who are we? Why are we here? What does God want from us? Genesis: From Creation To Covenant

Prophets Misunderstanding Their Prophecy

It is natural to expect that God would keep His prophets from making mistakes. In fact, we see a hint of this in the life of Samuel.

God Keeps a Prophet From Error

The prophetic career of Samuel began when he was very young.

1 Samuel Chapter 3

19. And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground.
20. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord.
21. And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh; for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Verse 19 says that God did not let “his words fall to the ground.” God had a special mission for Samuel and granted him a high level of protection.

In fact, many commentators understand that God protected ALL of Samuel’s words, not just the ones that were said prophetically.

However, it does not seem that this level of protection applied to all prophets at all times.

Moses Hits the Rock

After nearly 40 years in the wilderness, the Jewish people were close to entering the Land of Israel.

It looked like Moses and Aaron would be the ones to lead them into the Land.

But, here’s what happened instead:

Numbers Chapter 20

7. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
8. “Take the rod, and gather the assembly together, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink.”
9. And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
10. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?”
11. And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
12. And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe me to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”

The commentators offer many explanations trying to understand exactly what sin Moses committed.

What is clear is that Moses (slightly) misunderstood what he was required to do.

The Prophet Returns and Eats

This incident involves an unnamed prophet, called in the text “man of God.” Because other people also have this title, this prophet is often identified as “Jeroboam’s Prophet.”

Jerobam lead the rebellion against Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Jerobam did not want his followers going to Jerusalem to worship God. So he set up an altar in Beit El.

1 Kings Chapter 13

1. And, behold, there came a man of God from Judah by the word of the Lord to Beit El; and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. …

8. And the man of God said to the king, “If you will give me half your house, I will not go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water in this place;
9. For so was it charged me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Eat no bread, nor drink water, nor turn back by the same way that you came.'”

God sent a prophet to rebuke Jerobam. Part of his instructions were to not stay in Beit El but to return home immediately following a different route.

However, another man, claiming to be a prophet, convinced him (Jeroboam’s Prophet) to have a meal in his home (see 13:11 – 19).

Apparently, Jeroboam’s Prophet thought that a message received by another prophet could supersede the message he received directly from God.

Granted, the man who deceived Jeroboam’s Prophet was a false prophet. Even if the other man was a true prophet, it was still the responsibility of Jeroboam’s Prophet to verify that God was changing His instructions.

After leaving the false prophet’s home, Jeroboam’s Prophet was killed by a lion.

Here is how the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto) explains this incident and the lesson we can learn from it:

Derech Hashem – The Way of God 3:4:6

It is sometimes possible, however, that a prophet should be sent with a message to others. He may be a recognized prophet, who is well-versed and totally knowledgeable in the ways of prophecy. Nevertheless, one who is not so well-versed and knowledgeable may also be given such a task.

Because of this, it is possible for a prophet to be in error [when he delivers his message]. This is not the result of his prophecy itself, but a consequence of the manner in which, on his own, he carries it out. When this happens and a prophet does not fulfill his mission properly, he might also be punished.

This is what happened in the case Jeroboam’s prophet. He was punished for not abiding by his own prophecy, as explained by our sages. The reason for this was that he was not sufficiently careful in the ways of prophecy.

Jonah and Nineveh

The Bible narrative of Jonah is well-known and filled with interesting questions. In this article I will look at only one aspect of the story.

Jonah Chapter 1

1. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

Jonah Chapter 3

1. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying:
2. “Arise! Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I bid you.” …

4. And Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, “Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overturned.”

At first Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and “cry against it.” When God renews His message to Jonah he is told to “proclaim to it the message that I bid you.”

Jonah walks into the city and declares “Nineveh shall be overturned.”

The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s message, they repent, and God spares the city.

Jonah is angry.

Jonah Chapter 4

1. And this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
2. And he prayed to the Lord, and said, I pray You, O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I hastened to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and that You repent of the evil.
3. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I pray You, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
4. Then says the Lord, Do you do well to be so angry?

Why was Jonah angry?

The Ramchal explains:

Derech Hashem – The Way of God 3:4:7

It is also possible that a truth be revealed to a prophet and he not ascertain its full meaning. This, for example, was what happened in the case of Jonah. In his prophecy, he was told (Jonah 3:4), “Nineveh will be overturned.” This phrase, however, was subject to two possible interpretations. It could mean that the city would be [“overturned” and] destroyed because of its inhabitants’ sins. On the other hand,it could also mean that they would be “overturned” from evil to good, as God indeed knew would be the case. …

Jonah, however, did not realize that this phrase had more than one interpretation…


From what I’ve written above, we are forced to conclude that a prophet may make a mistake. The mistake could be in his personal life or in misunderstanding his prophecy.

Therefore, the conclusion is that even a true prophet is not infallible.

Further Reading

This article is part of a series on the subject of prophecy. A good place to start is with the article What is Prophecy – A Jewish Perspective.

At the end of that article you will links to all of the other articles.

A Note on the Translations

The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.

The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.

The Book of Genesis answers some fundamental questions of human existence: Who are we? Why are we here? What does God want from us? Genesis: From Creation To Covenant