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Applying truth to the Bible

The Prophets: Norman Podhoretz, The Free Press: 390 pp., $30

May 11, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Much is written nowadays about the literary and historical origins of the Bible but much less about its moral and ethical teachings. The authors of the great biblical narratives, known by such monikers as "the Yahwist," "the Elohist" and "the Court Historian," are more compelling to contemporary historians than the cranky sermonizers whom we know as "the Prophets." And yet the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible are its heart and soul and, arguably, its raison d'etre.

"[S]ome of the most disturbing people who have ever lived" is how rabbinical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the prophets, "the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being." So we can approach "The Prophets" by Norman Podhoretz as a corrective and a counterweight to what the author regards as a misreading of the prophetic writings. Then, too, Podhoretz seems to feel a kinship with the men he describes as "turbulent and troublesome and tormented." As the longtime editor of Commentary and one of the great public intellectuals of the last half century, Podhoretz is a famous controversialist who identifies with their sense of mission.

"[T]heir story is, at bottom, the story of a war," he points out. "[T]heir weapons were words: words that in their own way could bring death as surely as swords and lances, but that could also do something beyond the power of swords and lances, which was to bring life and balm and healing, often to the wounds they themselves had made."

A prophet is not necessarily someone who can predict the future, good or ill, but anyone who is understood to be "sent by God," as Podhoretz explains, "to reprove and instruct and comfort the children of Israel." Podhoretz expertly surveys the tradition of biblical prophecy from its earliest stirrings, but he focuses on the "classical" prophets, from Amos to Zechariah, a body of work he dates from the mid-8th century to the late 6th century BC.

Podhoretz approaches his subject as a critic and commentator rather than a biographer or historian. He reads the texts closely and discerningly, bringing to his reading a mastery of classical and contemporary Bible scholarship. In his interpretation, Podhoretz sets himself apart from those who have tried to "universalize" the moral content of the Bible, including Heschel, whose work on the prophets was so influential. Heschel, he complains, "sets forth the standard 'liberological' view of them as 'iconoclasts' and disturbers of the peace, but gives that view a rhapsodically mystical twist." Indeed, he is uncomfortable with any effort to read meanings into the biblical text or to extract meanings from the biblical text, both of which have been favorite pastimes of exegetes for at least 20 centuries.

A highly selective reading of the prophetic writings, for example, allows us to extract a few nuggets of bland moral instruction that seem kind and gentle or committed to the struggle for social justice. But Podhoretz, like the prophets he is writing about, is a truth-teller, and he confronts us with the fact that the prophets were religious fundamentalists, not social activists.

"[I]t is not through political analysis that they see what they see," he writes. "To them, it is always the relation of the people to God that constitutes the decisive factor in the national fate. Being unfaithful to God by apostasy (putting other gods before Him) or syncretism (putting other gods beside Him) will doom them to subjugation and exile from which the only hope of escape is to repent of these terrible sins and to turn back and walk in His ways."

To read modern meanings into the writings of the prophets, Podhoretz argues, is "downright fallacious or drastically simplified, or both." The war that the prophets fought, as Podhoretz is intellectually honest enough to admit, was a holy war -- "the spiritual war against idolatry that God has chosen this people wage." And he condemns those "ex-believers" who seek "to extract and preserve the moral core that to the 'modern mind' remained valid even if no God existed to command and enforce it." He suggests that we cannot begin to understand the prophets unless we understand that they were less concerned with ethics and morality than with, in the words of Bible scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp, "[t]he power of divine reality at work in the world." "To which," adds Podhoretz, "I can only shout a very loud Amen."

Podhoretz strikes a strict and uncompromising stance in "The Prophets" -- he refuses to sanction the study of the prophetic writings as a source of moral instruction or inspiration separate from the specific theological assumptions of the men who wrote them and the specific historical context in which they worked. At best, he allows only that we might come away with the lesson that "the highest spiritual and moral states to which human beings are capable of attaining can best -- or possibly even only -- be reached through engagement with the affairs of the world around one.... "

And so, at the end of "The Prophets," Podhoretz undercuts his considerable enterprise with his own relentless truth-telling. "[T]he possibility must be squarely faced that the classical prophets may have nothing, or nothing much, to say to us at all," he concludes. "[T]he more closely one studies the classical prophets ... , the more likely one is to wonder how much of it has any connection with or relation to the span between the cradle and the grave that is allotted to us today."

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From The Prophets

In writing this book, then, my deepest purpose, and my most fervent prayer, is that reading it will help others, as writing it has helped me, to recapture some idea of what we are losing when we turn our backs on the prophets. They spoke words of fire that could set the evils of their own time ablaze, and those words can do the same for the time we ourselves live in, if we can but cultivate the ability, and develop the willingness, to open our ears to them.

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