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After Strange Gods

1.

On the right bank of the Euphrates, near the Syrian border with Iraq, was once the ancient kingdom of Mari. From the immensely rich archive in the king’s palace, found by archaeologists in the 1930s, we learn that prophets and prophecy were already known before 2000 BC. At that time divination, sorcery, augury, soothsaying, and the like were practiced in ancient Mesopotamia. But there was nothing parallel to the kinds of prophecy presented in Mari. The prophets there had a strong sense of divine mission. Through ecstatic visions, they told the king what the fertility god Dagan wanted them to tell him. Indeed the term used by the Mari to describe a prophet is akin to the word “madman,” which is also one of the terms used by the Bible to describe a prophet: “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad” (Hosea 9:7). All of this took place hundreds of years before prophets who believed they were responding to the call of God emerged among the Israelites.*

Abraham is presented as a prophet in Genesis 20:7, “for he is a prophet…,” and Abraham, according to Norman Podhoretz, was a contemporary of the Mari prophets. “If we cast our lot, as I do, with the theory that Abraham actually existed, we can reasonably guess that he was born in Mesopotamia around the year 2000 BCE.” As for Moses, of whom the Bible says, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10), Podhoretz writes, “It is Moses who is appointed by God to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt somewhere around the year 1300 BCE.”

Podhoretz is taking the Bible’s account of history at face value, believing that the Hebrew Bible is “a reasonably reliable historical source for most of the period it covers.” But biblical archaeology of recent years raises large questions about taking the Bible as historically accurate. Thus, for example, we find no trace of the grandiose, imperial, united kingdom of David and Solomon anywhere in the Judean hills around the tenth century BC. Archaeological finds suggest that about 40,000 people lived in Judea at this time in rather primitive conditions. So even if we take David and Solomon as historical figures, and I don’t see why we should not, they were not as grand as the Bible makes them. The relation is not unlike that between the splendor of the Homeric Troy and the shabby Troy Schliemann found. There are of course radical skeptics who deny even the historical reality of David and Solomon, arguing that there is no independent evidence for their existence, apart from a shard of pottery found recently in Tel Dan, in which the “house of David” is mentioned. Between the two poles of uncritical acceptance of the historical truth of the Bible and unreasonable skepticism, Podhoretz, I believe, keeps bumping into the first.

It is widely accepted that the written sources about the prophets date about 1,200 years after the written sources of Mari. The question then is: What, if anything, distinguishes biblical prophecy from the kind of prophecy presented in Mari? There are Mari-like prophets in the Bible. The prophet Gad, who is described by the Bible as “David’s seer” (2 Samuel 24:11), is a case in point. He was a court prophet who, like the prophets in Mari, was supposed to address the king and only the king. But Gad is not a typical prophet in the Bible: Amos and Hosea are. What then makes the biblical prophets so very different from the Mari prophets? What is distinctly biblical about them?

There are roughly two competing answers. The first is that the prophets advocated a higher form of morality. The second is that they were principally concerned to fight for the rejection of idolatry by the people of Israel. These two themes recur in the written prophecies we have and they are not to be found anywhere else in Near Eastern ancient practices. Morality is, roughly, what human beings owe to one another. I dolatry is a violation of what human beings owe to God. Podhoretz deplores the use of the word “tension,” but we find a tension in the Bible between morality in the restricted sense of what the people of Israel owe to one another and morality in the unrestricted sense of what human beings owe to one another. The same tension occurs between what the people of Israel owe to their god, and what people in general owe to God. What blurs the distinction between morality and religion in the Bible is, of course, the idea that what we owe to one another is grounded in what we owe to God. It is expressed by the famous words “Love thy neighbors as thyself. I am the Lord” in Leviticus 19:18. But Podhoretz’s reading of the prophets sees them as writing within the restricted sphere of the people of Israel; he tends to minimize the message of the prophets to the world at large.

Podhoretz believes that the distinctive feature of the biblical prophecies is their rejection of idolatry. According to him, what the prophets were really doing was

fighting with all their might against idolatry in order to keep their people faithful to God because they believed with all their hearts and all their souls that He had, out of an inscrutable love, chosen the children of Israel as the instrument through which His Law would be revealed and ultimately accepted by every other people as well.

At the same time the prophets

did not elevate morality over ritual; they did not constitute a party of the “spirit” in opposition to a rigidly legalistic priestly “establishment”; and they did not feel or give expression to a “tension” (a word that has become popular in modern-day discussion of this issue) between “universalism” and “particularism.”

Podhoretz is fighting here an old battle against a nineteenth-century Protestant picture of prophecy, one advocated, for example, by the formidable Bible scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844– 1918), who started his career as a Protestant theologian. According to Wellhausen the Bible progresses toward higher degrees of spirituality and higher degrees of elaboration of the concept of God. One can, he argued, see a clear movement upward from the “animism” of the patriarchal period to the refinement of the concept of God by the prophets, who created the idea of “ethical monotheism.” After the prophets, the only way to go up the ladder to heaven is to climb it with Jesus.

But according to Wellhausen it is important to see that Judaism stopped developing after the prophets. After the return from the Babylonian exile in 537 BC, and especially in the days of Ezra in the fifth century BC, Judaism lay frozen under a thick layer of legalism. Law and ritual became the ultimate aims of the religion of Israel, enabling the monopoly of the temple over religious life to become total and making rituals the substitute for the living faith of the prophets. The prophet, in this view, is the antithesis of the priest as much as he is the antithesis of the legalistic Pharisees who later took hold of Judaism.

In this account there was evidently much criticism of Judaism, which many Jewish scholars identified as anti-Semitic. But Wellhausen was not just a Protestant ideologue viewing the Old Testament as a mere prolegomena to the real thing, the spirituality advanced by the New Testament. He was also a prodigious scholar and the founder of the school associated with his name which explored the historical predecessors and sources of the Hebrew Bible. True, Wellhausen did not initiate the idea that the Bible is based on preexisting, original—ur—sources, which the later editors of the Bible used in composing their texts. Earlier, in 1753, a doctor from Montpellier, Jean Astruc, speculated on the diverse sources of the Bible in a book he published, although not under his name. Yet Wellhausen was the one who articulated and substantiated this interpretation.

Wellhausen claimed to have identified four such early sources, thus stirring up much scholarly controversy and polemics that were not always free from ideological bias. One of his most astute critics was Yehezkel Kaufmann, who, while basically accepting his view of ursources as the basis of the Bible, rejected Wellhausen’s idea of the development of monotheism. Podhoretz is quick to point out in his bibliographical note that Kaufmann’s History of the Religion of Israel was especially useful to him. (He is admirably honest in admitting that he has not read all the eight volumes of the original Hebrew edition but rather the abridgment of the first three volumes, translated into English by Moshe Greenberg.) I share Podhoretz’s admiration for Kaufmann, although for different reasons.

Kaufmann was born in the Ukraine in 1889, and from 1949 taught biblical studies at the Hebrew University after years of teaching in a high school in Haifa. He died in 1963, still far from being sufficiently recognized for his erudition and depth of thought. Kaufmann rejected the idea that the prophets were responsible for the Hebrews’ belief not only in monotheism but in “moral monotheism,” namely the belief in one God whose sole concern is with morality and who is utterly indifferent to the cult and rituals devoted to him. This monotheistic belief, according to Kaufmann, was the creation of the people of Israel, who conceived it not as an abstract idea but intuitively. Monotheism, he argued, was an expression of the genius of the people of Israel, and not a product of an elite prophetic caste. More importantly, the belief in one God was not an outcome of a long evolutionary process but rather a sudden mutation in the world history of religion.

Podhoretz holds some of the same views. But Kaufmann also maintained what Podhoretz tries to challenge: that the principal new contribution of the scriptural prophets (foremost among them being Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Hosea) is the primacy of morality. For them and for Kaufmann the historical destiny of the Jewish nation hinges on the rule of justice. More disturbingly, Kaufmann believed that the Bible does not have a true sense of paganism, apart from recognizing the crude fetishistic form of worshiping trees and stones as endowed with supernatural powers. According to him the prophets were not driven by the struggle against idolatry; they hardly knew about it. Instead, their prime dedication was to morality. Kaufmann’s ambition, like that of Wellhausen, was to give an account of the history of the Israelite faith, and he believed, after many years of study, that the biblical text reflected actual history: one should take the biblical account to be true, he argued, unless there were very strong reasons to doubt it.

I believe that Kaufmann misconceived what he was doing, although he was doing something of great importance. He did not, as he thought, describe what the historical Israelites actually believed. Instead he gave an impressive account of the beliefs of those who wrote or edited the Bible, wherever and whenever this occurred. (Analogously, one could give an impressive account of the beliefs expressed in War and Peace, yet also be mistaken in maintaining that it is an account of the actual beliefs of the Russian people during the Napoleonic Wars.)

Podhoretz’s The Prophets is a didactic book that tells the story of the prophets in the traditional chronological order. He is mainly concerned to tell the story of the prophets to people who know little about them and he tells the story well. I agree with him that some of the writings of the prophets are amazingly powerful, especially when they are read in Hebrew. And to his credit, Podhoretz also asks what it is that we find impressive in the prophets. But this question, I believe, is a very different one from the historical question of the origin and development of prophecy in ancient Israel.

There is no question that much of what the classical prophets say may, as Podhoretz writes, be interpreted as a vehement attack on idolatry. But is that enough to establish idolatry as their main concern or as the subject of their most impressive writings? When you drink whiskey and water it is correct to say that you are drinking whiskey and misleading to say that you are drinking water, even though your drink has a small amount of whiskey and a large amount of water. The dominant element is determined not by quantity but by potency; in understanding the prophetic writings we can compare whiskey to morality and water to the “broken cistern” of idolatry.

In the entire prophetic literature only a few verses address the theme of universal peace. We have all heard that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3) or “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). Such “universalist” verses are precisely the ones that capture the imagination. Whose imagination? Podhoretz might ask. After all, we remember that Moshe Dayan, who certainly knew the Bible, said, “I don’t mind the wolf dwelling with the lamb as long as I am the wolf.” I suspect that Dayan’s quip would be very much to Podhoretz’s liking, a sardonic lesson to those who try to draw universalist morals from the Bible.

In considering the prophets one has to distinguish two kinds of concern. One is a concern with the history of prophecy and prophets, and much of Podhoretz’s book deals with that biblical history. Another is why we find the sayings of the prophets so impressive and so powerful. And here it seems to me, contrary to Podhoretz, that what is impressive is not so much the content of their prophecies and their detailed castigation of idolatry and other practices as their fearlessness in the face of temporal power and the remarkable force and vividness of their language.

2.

To explain such a view requires a brief description of the Bible and of the part of the prophets in it. The Hebrew Bible consists of thirty-nine books written in Hebrew, except for the book of Daniel, which is mainly in Aramaic (the language Jesus most likely spoke). It is divided into three sections: first the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses (which include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Second the Prophets, in turn divided into the Former (or “ancient”) Prophets, including Moses and Samuel, and the Later (or “classical”) Prophets. The third section is called the Writings, which includes, among other texts, the Psalms, the book of Job, and the Song of Songs. The section consisting of the classical Prophets includes the books of those who wrote during the roughly three hundred years between the middle of the eighth century BC and the fifth century BC. It includes the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as twelve “lesser” prophets—lesser in the size of their books but not necessarily their expressive power. Among “The Twelve,” as they are known, are Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Jonah.

The narrative of the history of the Jews is to be found mainly in the books of the Torah and the Former Prophets. The parts concerning Jewish law are to be found mainly in four of the Five Books of Moses. In the Writings we find the literature of wisdom, history, and religious poetry. The Former Prophets include not only Moses and Samuel but Elijah and Elisa, who, besides being ferociously militant opponents of idolatry, were also healers, diviners, and conjurers of miracles with considerable mantic ability. (Jesus is in some ways modeled on both Elijah and Elisa, as well as on the classic scriptural prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.) What, then, of the two competing themes of biblical prophecy, namely anti-idolatry and morality?

Though Podhoretz makes much of idolatry, he does little to give an explicit account of what idolatry consists of. He believes Isaiah had deep insight into idolatry when he defined it as the worship by man of things he has made with his own hands. For man to worship his own products is not an expression of humility, but rather of pride and haughtiness. It is, in Isaiah’s account, man worshiping himself. It is these passages in Isaiah that led Kaufmann to conclude that the Bible was ignorant of paganism. But I don’t believe there is either deep insight or ignorance in Isaiah’s account; what he wrote instead was a polemical parody of attitudes of the idolaters. An account of idolatry itself remains missing.

There are two senses of idolatry. One is worshiping the right God in a wrong, or in “a strange,” way. The second is worshiping the wrong god (“a strange god,” as the Bible has it). The Bible can be ambiguous about these two senses of idolatry. The most notorious case of idolatry is the worship of the golden calf. But was worshiping the golden calf a sin of worshiping a strange god—an Egyptian god—or was it a case of worshiping the true God in the wrong way? For the medieval Jewish poet and theologian Yehuda Halevi, as well for Martin Luther, the sin of worshiping the golden calf is that of worshiping the right God in the wrong way.

The prohibition of idolatry has a clear purpose: to maintain the uniqueness, the exclusivity of the one God. The primary way of expressing such exclusivity is through worshiping only God, making sacrifices only to Him. The second way is to avoid ascribing to other forces in the world attributes that belong to God alone. The prophets, for example, condemned Israel’s defense treaties with Egypt and Assyria, both superpowers at the time, by which the Jews, in effect, bought defense in return for accepting political subjugation and paying taxes. For the prophets, such treaties sinfully violated the true exclusivity of God, who must be the sole source of providing protection to Israel. They believed that in making such treaties the Israelite leaders were worshiping a wrong god. “Ha! Those who go down to Egypt for help and rely upon horses! They have put their trust in the abundance of chariots, in vast numbers of riders, and they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, they have not sought the Lord” (Isaiah 31:1).

And Jeremiah said,

See, that is the price you have paid for forsaking the Lord your God while he led you the way. What then is the Good of your going to Egypt to drink the water of the Nile? And your going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? (Jeremiah 2:17–18)

For the prophets, idolatry is betrayal of God. In the prophets’ metaphor God, the husband, is betrayed by Israel, the adulterous wife, whose lover is the strange god. The lover has no part in the history of Israel; he is an utter stranger. The prophets evoked two other metaphorical situations in which they see betrayal. One is the relationship between God the father and Israel his son, and the other is between God the king and Israel his vassal. The prophets are remarkably eloquent in working out variations of these three metaphors.

One way of understanding the hold the prophets have on us is through their sheer eloquence in conveying the idea of idolatry, even for those to whom the idea of the rivalry between God and other gods does not make much sense. But the struggle against idolatry in the Bible has a wider significance. It is a way for the community to define itself by excluding what it perceives as the seductive “other,” with its illusory promises of a better life. There is in the Bible no clear, positive sense of what God is, although there is a very strong sense of which gods do not deserve to be worshiped. The Bible’s notion of God is far from clear. Is it that of henotheism—believing that God is the greatest god while not denying the power of other gods? Is it monolatry—admitting the existence of other gods but prohibiting their worship? Or is it, as Podhoretz believes, chiefly strict monotheism—namely that only God exists and the idols are merely phantoms of the imagination and useless?

To infer the doctrine of strict monotheism from what the Bible in general, and the prophets in particular, are saying is like inferring from the lover’s gushy insistence that “you are the only woman in the world” that there are no women in the world apart from his loved one. The force of the struggle against idolatry is not in promoting a positive idea of God but in the negative idea of rejecting false gods. Central to the biblical struggle against idolatry is the idea that there are sinful illusions that make us take the wrong attitude toward the world and cause us to lead lives that are deeply wrong. Worship is an indication of an attitude toward the world; it singles out what deserves our veneration and what does not.

The biblical criticism of idolatry can be seen as a forerunner of the criticism in modern times of ideology as based on illusions that cause great damage to our lives. Whether in the form of idolatry or ideology, the error is one of ascribing absolute value to what has only very limited value or no value at all. If the critic of idolatry is the precursor of the critic of ideology, it is no accident that a famous collection of essays expressing disillusionment with communism by former believers was entitled “The God That Failed.”

3.

What of morality, the other candidate for being the dominant message of the prophets? The issue of the “morality of the prophets” has become so controversial ideologically that it is hard to sort out with any clarity what the singular contribution of the prophets to morality really is.

European Jews, in seeking emancipation in the nineteenth century, promoted the idea that Jews are entitled to full-fledged human and civic rights not just for being human beings but because their religion originally provided humanity with morality. According to this view, modern Jews are the legitimate heirs to the morality of the prophets. As members of an aristocracy of the mind, they are entitled to full recognition as worthy citizens.

But the idea of the morality of the prophets as the foundation of Western morality was not confined to Jewish liberals. It was more of a theme among Jewish socialists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nachman Syrkin, an ideologist and a leader of socialist Zionism, tried to create a synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism. In 1900 he said that the writings of the Jews, like those of the prophets, are nothing if not major statements about class struggle. “It was this people,” he writes in 1902, “that thousands of years ago said that ‘there shall be no poor among you.’” It is true that the Bible says this in Deuteronomy 15:4, but Syrkin conveniently overlooks the fact that in the very same chapter it says, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (15:11).

Making the Bible morally attractive by means of selective quotations has long been a pervasive practice of Jewish apologetics. But this does not justify a denial of the moral and social insights of the prophets. It is a question of how those insights are used. Clearly, it was a mistake for Jews to argue that they were entitled to citizenship because they were especially moral; this turned out to be a double-edged sword which was used against them, in that they were required to meet higher moral standards to justify their very existence. It is not necessarily anti-Semitism and hypocrisy that makes gentiles demand that Jews in general, and Israel in particular, should be accountable to higher moral standards. Gentiles may take at face value the claim of some Jews to the higher morality of the prophets. My suspicion is that, in playing down the moral message of the prophets, Podhoretz’s hidden purpose is, among other things, to lower the standards by which the Jews, and especially Israel, should be judged.

The prophets of Mari conveyed their divine message only to the king because the gods of Mesopotamia cared only about the sins of kings and were utterly indifferent to what ordinary people did. The prophets of Israel, in contrast, address themselves both to the people of Israel and to their kings, as well as “to the nations.” Thus Jonah was sent by God on a mission to Mesopotamia. The God of the prophets cares most intensely about his people, and about their whoring after false gods. But the main concern of God is justice, not sacrifices. He is, psychologically, a “needy” God, who depends on the love of his people. Unlike the Babylonian gods, he does not need to be fed. The love he needs from his people is to be expressed by their doing justice, which amounts to doing his will and thus to being loyal to him. Justice is grounded in gratitude: the gratitude of human beings in general to the God that created them, and, in the case of the Israelites, gratitude for delivering them from Egypt. So, although Podhoretz tends to deny it, Israel, in the prophetic tradition, has a special moral obligation to act justly.

But Podhoretz has another axe to grind. If the prophets see idol worship “under every green tree” (Ezekiel 6:13, Jeremiah 2:20), Podhoretz sees Chamberlain’s black umbrella of shameful appeasement everywhere. His main lesson from the prophets is not to be tempted by the seductive allure of “peace in our time.” He sees Jeremiah as condemning

the pursuit of peace when the reality is that peace is not at hand, and when the conditions for it are not present. It was a warning that would be ignored by his [Jeremiah’s] descendants in the modern state of Israel who—misunderstanding the nature of prophetic utopianism subliminally egging on their conscious calculations—tried prematurely and unilaterally to make peace with an enemy who had not the slightest desire to make peace with them.

Here an underlying theme of Podhoretz’s book comes into the open: the prophets are to be seen in the service of the right wing in Israel. A Jeremiah of the right, we gather, would have injected a robust sense of realism into the lofty hopes of Yitzhak Rabin for peace had Rabin only understood him. There are many ways to trivialize the prophets, but to use them as guides to foreign policy in this way is one of the less appealing among them. At least in the socialist reading of the prophets, tendentious as it was, there was an element of moral grandeur. For the right-wing reading one needs Isaiah’s strong words: “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores” (1:6).

There is true greatness, I believe, in the prophets. Their writings should not be treated as relevant “lessons” for our times, whether the lesson is for the left, the right, or the center. (Still, anyone who reads Jeremiah, for me the most powerful of the prophets, will recognize that Norman Podhoretz would be hard put to recruit him for Commentary, whereas Michael Walzer would have a somewhat easier time persuading him to write for Dissent.)

What is so impressive about the prophets is not only their fearless stand in the face of power but the matchless force of their language. The true prophets are free of any trace of flattery, either of those in power or of the people. The life of a prophet was in consequence one of great risk, consumed by an overwhelming sense of mission to say what must be said, sometimes almost against his own better judgment. “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones…” (Jeremiah 20:9).

The biblical prophets had to contend not only with temporal power but also with pseudo-prophets. The Bible draws a distinction between the true prophet, who speaks what God tells him to speak, and the false prophet, who pretends to speak in the name of God but without his authorization. Thus Jeremiah: “I have heard what the [false] prophets said, that prophecy [tells] lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed” (23:25). The question, Hobbes’s question, is how can one tell a prophet to whom God speaks in a dream from the one who merely dreams it all up.

The biblical way of telling true prophets from false ones is to wait to see if their prophecies come true. Not a practical method, since the predictions of the classical prophets were about the very distant future. Moreover, they allowed for the possibility that their predictions would be falsified if the people whom they criticized are repentant. The difference between the false and the true, then, should be detected not in the future but in the present. The false prophets are flatterers who say what their audiences wish to hear. The false prophets do not express disapproval of the Israelites of their day; the genuine prophets do. True, some comforting prophesies were made by genuine prophets, but their soothing messages—“for I will turn mourning into joy” (Jeremiah)—always refer to the distant future. By contrast, the genuine prophets made predictions of doom and punishment in times of great distress brought about by war, famine, destruction, and exile. There was vehement resistance to hearing them, let alone abiding by them.

The prophets were meant to be passive instruments of God, messengers who would transmit his message, serve as his voice. But the prophets were also remarkable men with tremendously strong personalities; they were capable not only of facing hostile people with the harshest of words but of appealing to God on behalf of His people. Jeremiah is even warned by God to stop pleading Israel’s case. “Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee” (Jeremiah 7:16).

If it is the fierce independence of the prophets in confronting power with great courage and nobility of expression that leaves such a strong impression on us, we are still left without an explanation of the inner consciousness that enabled them to do so. I think it was the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz who said that if you talk to God we say that you are praying, but if you say that God talks to you, we will declare that you are mad. But that God talked to them is exactly what the prophets said literally happened to them. Reading Isaiah you have the impression of encountering not just a great man but someone who is entirely sane and sober. Yet he said, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (6:8).

How are we to account for Isaiah’s state of mind? I find this infinitely puzzling. We are constantly told today—not least in Podhoretz’s book—that, in effect, “You have to look at the context.” But in answering the question I have posed, the context explains nothing at all, apart from suggesting to us that the state of mind of the prophets is something we do not really understand. This does not hinder us from being deeply affected by their personal qualities and their words.

  1. *

    I use the vague expression “hundreds of years” advisedly in order not to get bogged down in the controversy of just when the early prophets can be said to have lived.

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