Fifteen Books of Bible's Prophets Well Interpreted, Spark Discussion

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Around the time that Homer was composing the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" in ancient Greece, an even more mo-

mentous set of texts was beginning to come into existence in the Middle East. By the time that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle began their philosophical labors, that contemporaneous current had come to end. But in the span of those three centuries, the future cultural and religious course of the West and, by its extension, large swaths of the rest of the world had been altered forever by the 15 or so books of the Bible that we call the Hebrew prophets.

The prophets, of course, convey deep spiritual truths about God, man, nature, and life in the world. But several of them also wrote breathtaking poetry, stern moral exhortation, and trenchant political and social commentaries, which are interrelated in their unified vision of reality. In fact, we owe to them much of our Western sense that time is more than a meaningless passage or series of natural cycles. The prophets make it clear that our temporal ups and downs are not distinct from our relationship to God, and that the trajectory of history - appearances at times to the contrary - is part of the divine plan of Creation.

Norman Podhoretz, the well known editor of Commentary magazine for 35 years and a distinguished political commentator and literary critic, may seem a somewhat unexpected commentator on the ancient prophets. But along with study at Columbia and Cambridge, he earned a Bachelor's degree in Hebrew literature at the Seminary College of Jewish Studies in New York. The present volume, "The Prophets," is clearly a labor of longstanding love and, even more than that, a lively and thought-provoking interpretation of some very complicated Biblical material.

Whatever agreements or disagreement you might have with Mr. Podhoretz at any number of points, there is no denying his mastery of the material and gifts as a writer. He has command of a wide array of views and of learning - differing critical methodologies and approaches to the text, archeological and literary criticism, and current interpretations. On the whole, he resists scholarly tendencies to attribute prophetic texts to multiple authors or amorphous schools. But he imposes no simple thesis on the materials. He can dive deep among the scholars, but also knows how to come up for air and discuss the prophets not as inert material for scholarly detective work, but as the common possession of Jews and others.

His main point will not go down easily for many people: The prophets spoke words whose "incandescent beauty and awful power ultimately vanquished an enemy as insidious and seductive as he was cruel and evil: the enemy they knew as idolatry." For Mr. Podhoretz, idolatry in open and veiled forms recurs perpetually. And he is at some pains to deny the widespread evolutionary view of Judaism, which he attributes partly to the vogue of Darwinism as some of the great modern scholars were beginning their work at the beginning of the 20th century.

In that perspective, for example, the first of the "classical" prophets, Amos, was often thought of as inaugurating the rise of a purer, more moralistic faith as opposed to the allegedly tribal and ritualistic religion of the earlier Israelites. But the opposition of ritual to morality, says Mr. Podhoretz, is a false modern dichotomy; Amos and all the classical prophets clearly believe that right action is a necessity that mere piety cannot replace. But neither can ritual piety be ignored. The two are related, and neglecting one almost always means departure from the other - with an inevitable slippage towards idolatrous cults or behavior.

He also denies that the prophets show a passage from a particularist tribal God to universalist cosmic deity. The God of Israel is the creator and lord of the universe from the earliest words of the Bible, and the classical prophets, whatever their innovations, are all "trailing clouds of glory" from a long tradition. …