The Prophets

By Hanson, Richard Simon | Shofar, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Prophets


Hanson, Richard Simon, Shofar


The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, and Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962.

As I worked my way afresh through The Prophets I realized again why this was such a popular textbook in seminary curricula for several decades of the twentieth century. Heschel's thorough treatment of the subject recommends it as a basic interpretation of classical prophecy. His conservative appreciation of the biblical material as it stands is a comfort to cautious minds, and his keen insights stretch readers to understanding beyond familiar points of view. As a textbook it proved to be both safe and exciting for those training to be either pastors or rabbis.

I think of the book as two series of lectures. The first is composed of compact studies of seven prophets from the classical era and is prefaced by a chapter titled "What Manner of Man is the Prophet." The second and larger series seeks to understand the phenomenon of prophecy in general but with particular emphasis on the Israelite Biblical tradition.

Heschel holds a special reverence for the prophets. In treating their message as the heart of the Bible's witness, he plants himself solidly in Reform Judaism's legacy of considering the prophets to be the core of Judaism's contribution to the world, in contrast to the Orthodox position that puts the Torah at the center. In "What Manner of Man is the Prophet' he says, "The significance of Israel's prophets lies not only in what they said but in what they were" and writes that the prophet "is a person, not a microphone" and also a "poet, preacher, patriot, statesman, social critic, moralist."

The seven prophets Heschel focuses on in his first series are Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and the Second Isaiah, In each chapter he discusses the life and message of the prophet in the context of his historical and political circumstances. Aiming for nothing less than "an understanding of what it means to think, feel, respond and act as a prophet." Heschel brilliantly recreates the ancient world of these great men.

One of the distinctive features of Heschel's approach to the prophets is the way he sees the prophets as a singular, unified phenomenon. From his analysis of the prophets, he abstracts a composite type whom he calls "the prophet." While his descriptions of "the prophet" tend to elevate the role into a Platonic, universal ideal, Heschel never loses sight of the historical relevance of the classical prophets' work. Heschel sees them as the "first men in history to regard a nation's reliance on force as evil":

Why were so few voices raised in the ancient world to protest against the ruthlessness of man? Why are human beings so obsequious, ready to kill and ready to die at the call of kings and chieftains? Perhaps it is because they worship might, venerate those who command might, and are convinced that it is by force that man prevails. The splendor and pride of kings blind the people. The Mesopotamian, for example, felt convinced that authorities were always right. . . . The prophets repudiated the work as well as the power of man as an object of supreme adoration. They denounced "arrogant boasting" and"haughty pride" (Isa. 10:12), the kings who ruled the nations in anger, the oppressors (Isa. 14:4-6), the destroyers of nations, who went forth to inflict waste, ruin, and death (Jer. 4:7), the "guilty men, whose own might is their god" (Hab. 1:11) (p.167)

When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares.

And their spears into pruning hooks;

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

Heschel also gives them credit for having a historically progressive view of social justice:

The threat of punishment is one of the most prominent themes of the prophetic orations. …

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