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The Prophets

Who They Were, What They Are

About The Book

A radical reinterpretation of the biblical prophets by one of America's most provocative critics reveals the eternal beauty of their language and the enduring resonance of their message.

Long before Norman Podhoretz became one of the intellectual leaders of American neoconservatism, he was a student of Hebrew literature and a passionate reader of the prophets of the Old Testament. Returning to them after fifty years, he has produced something remarkable: an entirely new perspective on some of the world's best-known works.

Or, rather, three new perspectives. The first is a fascinating account of the golden age of biblical prophecy, from the eighth to the fifth century B.C.E., and its roots in earlier ages of the ancient Israelite saga. Thus, like large parts of the Bible itself, The Prophets is a history of the Near East from the point of view of a single nation, covering not only what is known about the prophets themselves -- including Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel -- but also the stories of King David, King Saul, and how the ancient Israelites were affected by the great Near Eastern empires that surrounded them. Layered into this work of history is a piece of extraordinary literary criticism. Podhoretz's very close reading of the verse and imagery used by the biblical prophets restores them to the top reaches of the poetic pantheon, for these books contain, unequivocally, some of the greatest poetry ever written.

The historical chronicle and the literary criticism will transport readers to a time that is both exotic and familiar and, like any fine work of history or literature, will evoke a distinct and original world. But the third perspective of The Prophets is that of moral philosophy, and it serves to bring the prophets' message into the twenty-first century. For to Norman Podhoretz, the real relevance of the prophets today is more than the excitement of their history or the beauty of their poetry: it is their message. Podhoretz sees, in the words of the biblical prophets, a war being waged, a war against the sin of revering anything made by the hands of man -- in short, idolatry. In their relentless battle against idolatry, Podhoretz finds the prophets' most meaningful and enduring message: a stern warning against the all-consuming worship of self that is at least as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was three thousand years ago.

The Prophets will earn the respect of biblical scholars and the fascinated attention of general readers; its observations will be equally valued by believers and nonbelievers, by anyone with spiritual yearnings. Learned, provocative, and beautifully written, The Prophets is a deeply felt, deeply satisfying work that is at once history, literary criticism, and moral philosophy -- a tour de force.


Introduction: The Biblical Context

Roughly 2,750 years ago -- around the time Homer was probably singing and/or writing the Iliad and the Odyssey in far-off Greece -- a man named Amos, who described himself in the Bible as " herdsman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit..." left the village near Jerusalem where he lived and traveled up to Samaria in the northern part of the Land of Israel. Immediately he erupted like a volcano, denouncing its people in the name of God for their sins and calling upon them to repent.

Thus did the first of the so-called classical prophets suddenly and mysteriously stride onto the historical scene, to be followed by, among many others, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Micah. They were some of the greatest men ever to walk the earth, and most of them, like Homer himself, were also, and not so incidentally, among the greatest poets who ever lived. Then, three centuries after Amos started this astonishing parade (and just when Socrates and Plato were active in Athens), it ground to a halt as suddenly and mysteriously as it had begun.

In the pages that follow I propose to tell the story of these blazing human giants. Without quixotically attempting to dispel the entire mystery of the phenomenon they represented, I will try to shed a bit of light on it by examining their roots in the history of ancient Israel as recounted so fascinatingly and with such incomparable artistry in the Bible; by looking at how they reacted to the conditions surrounding them at home, as well as to the bloody conflicts impinging upon their people from abroad; and by speculating on how and why they faded away when they did.

In telling this story, I will also try to correct certain stubborn misconceptions about the classical prophets. A trivial example is the popular notion that these turbulent and troublesome and tormented figures were saintly old characters with long beards wandering about in loin cloths and issuing otherworldly moral pronouncements in abstractly universal terms. Yet few of them were what nowadays passes for saintly; and far from dealing in abstractions floating above the concrete details of daily life, all of them were always plunging down and dirty into the world around them.

For their story is, at bottom, the story of a war -- among the most consequential in all of human history, and to my mind one of the most exciting. These men were the heroes of that war, but in waging it, the lethal instruments they wielded were not swords or lances. No, their 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. I will be quoting many of those 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. Yet I will conclude by arguing that this enemy keeps coming back under different names and in mutated forms that are not always easy to recognize as his. And I will ask, finally, whether the weapons that defeated him over two thousand years ago, and that are ready to hand in the Bible, may still be sharp enough to cut him down again today.

The Bible: it is probably the most widely circulated book in the history of the world (or at least the Western world). Once upon a time it was so constantly and intensively read that it often blotted out all other books, provoking the great Victorian literary and social critic Matthew Arnold to protest in exasperation that "No man, who knows nothing else, knows even his Bible." Well, that may have been so in 1869, and even into more recent times. But no longer. As I have discovered from innumerable conversations, most people nowadays have only the most general acquaintance with the Bible. Unless they happen to be students or regular devotional readers, they are usually familiar only with some of the more famous stories the Bible tells. Turning Matthew Arnold upside down, one could say that even people who know everything else, do not know their Bible.

Indeed, I have also learned from those innumerable conversations that many such people do not even know what the Bible contains. They vaguely remember that it is divided into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and perhaps they recall that in some English translations there is also a section called the Apocrypha. But few are able to remember the names of more than a small number of the books in either of the two Testaments, and fewer still have more than the vaguest notion of what the Apocrypha is.

I have also run into Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who are unaware, or have forgotten, that the original language of the Old Testament is Hebrew and that the New Testament was first written in Greek hundreds of years later. On the other hand, in my experience, virtually all Jews, no matter how secularized, know that the New Testament is not part of their Bible (or, to be more precise, the Bible of their forebears, for whom there was nothing old about the "Old Testament" except its age, and nothing in the "New Testament" that was true). Conversely, almost all Christians, even if they too are "lapsed," know that both Testaments are sacred to Christianity. Still, it can come as a surprise even to religious Christians that the Protestant and Catholic versions of the Bible are not precisely the same.

There has, then, been a general loss of intimate familiarity with the Bible throughout our culture. And yet, a Gallup survey taken in the year 2000 reported that more than eight out of ten Americans believed the Bible still spoke to us today and could even solve "most or all" of life's problems. At the same time, they admitted to finding the Bible as a whole "confusing" and often hard to understand.

This is not in the least surprising. In addition to containing many difficult passages, the Bible is not a book as that word is customarily used: it is, as the author of a popular work on it has correctly remarked, "a library" that took many centuries to compile and that features everything from "poetry, genealogy, prophecy, legal codes, parables, proverbs, theology, and history." From which it follows that "You can't read one portion the same as another," and most people who try to read it that way invariably run into trouble.

So far as strictly Orthodox Jews are concerned, God is the author of the Hebrew Bible, which He revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Among fundamentalist Protestants, similarly, the Bible, from beginning to end, is the "inerrant" word of God. Gone are the days when vast numbers of American Protestants were in this camp. And yet, again according to Gallup, as late as about fifty years ago, two-thirds of the American people described themselves as fundamentalists, and even as of the year 2000, a full one-third of American adults still did.

But if strict fundamentalism suffered heavy losses during the past half-century, those who held on to the looser idea that everything in the Bible was in some undefined sense written under divine "inspiration and authority" remained steady at 80 percent. Eighty percent! This statistic is hard to reconcile with the results of my own highly informal and unscientific survey showing a dismal lack of knowledge of the Bible. But perhaps Gallup and I are both right -- perhaps one can believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and still hardly bother to read it.

Probably the major cause of the drop in strict fundamentalism is the corrosive effect of the sciences -- from cosmology to biology -- on a literal understanding of the biblical text, beginning with "In the beginning": its very first words, which introduce an account of the creation of the world. But another major cause, coming from a very different direction, is the influence of the hordes of highly learned scholars (some of them pious Christians and Jews themselves) who, since the mid-nineteenth century, have steadily been undermining the assumptions of the strict fundamentalists. These scholars have asked, and labored mightily to answer, questions -- especially about the Old Testament -- that to some fundamentalists border on, if they do not actually cross over into, sheer blasphemy. Such as:

When was this or that book of the Bible originally written? Or was it first transmitted by word of mouth and then inscribed on parchment or stone tablets? If so, over how long a period did this process occur and how many authors were involved? When and by whom was the text as we now have it finally edited and established as "canonical" or authoritative? Is this text closer to the lost original than others that still exist, either in fragments on scraps of papyrus (like the Dead Sea Scrolls), or (like the Greek Septuagint) full translations into other languages from versions that have also been lost?

I would suppose that, unlike the strict fundamentalists, few members of Gallup's 80 percent would have any serious problems with the view that those who wrote and/or edited the books of the Bible were fallible human beings. Nor would they likely resist accepting that errors could easily have crept into the texts of these books through centuries of copying (as well as through translations containing errors of their own). Nor, finally, would they feel obliged to doubt that these errors -- or some of them, anyway -- can be corrected on the basis of philological, archaeological, and historical data deriving both from the Bible itself and from sources outside it.

It is on the basis of those assumptions about the part of the Bible that to Christians is the "Old Testament" and to Jews like myself simply the Bible, or the Hebrew Bible, that I have undertaken to tell the story of prophecy in ancient Israel. Though a Jew (with -- as will become evident -- rather idiosyncratic religious beliefs), I am addressing myself here as far as possible to everyone. "Everyone" embraces Jewish and Christian believers who may or may not be as soaked in the Bible as they (and particularly the Protestants among them) would have been in the not so distant past; non-believers to whom the Bible is one of the greatest treasures of world literature we possess and who take a keen interest in it as such; and even (I would hope) other non-believers who have hardly, if ever, encountered the Bible before.

Yet because the level of biblical literacy among us is no longer what it was in the past, it might be helpful if, before delving into the prophets themselves, I were to get some background information out of the way that might otherwise clog up the narrative and analysis to follow. Let me start, then, with a number of basic facts that are necessary for avoiding possible confusions and gratuitously distracting considerations up ahead.

For openers, since this is the story of prophecy in ancient Israel, I concern myself almost entirely with the Hebrew Bible, concentrating most heavily on one section of it, and rarely venturing into the New Testament except when I think it sheds light on a point I am working to clarify.

The (relatively) modern term in Hebrew for the Hebrew Bible is TaNaKh, an acronym composed of the titles of the three sections into which it is divided. The first, Torah (literally, "instruction" or "law"), is made up of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; together these are called in English the First Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch (a Latinized Greek word that can be translated as "a volume of five books"). The second of the three sections is N'vi-im (or the Prophets -- about whose contents more in a moment). The third is K'tuvim (Writings, or Hagiographa -- another Latinized Greek word, this one meaning "sacred writings"), consisting of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, First Chronicles, and Second Chronicles.

But a complication arises from the title of the second section, which is that N'vi-im has two subsections of its own: the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. In the Former Prophets are the Books of Joshua, Judges, First Samuel, Second Samuel, First Kings, and Second Kings. To complicate matters even further, these six books are not collections of prophecies. Rather, they constitute an account of the history of the people of Israel from the invasion and conquest of the Promised Land (then Canaan, later Palestine) in about 1250 B.C.E. up to the expulsion of most of their descendants to Babylon nearly seven hundred years later. Prophets abound throughout this history, some of whom, like Samuel and Elijah, are among the most noteworthy. When they appear, however, it is as characters whose doings are recounted and a number of whose sayings are quoted; they are not the authors (or the putative authors) of the books themselves. The two volumes bearing the name of Samuel, for instance, do not claim to have been written by him (and, in fact, he dies before the second even begins).

It is very different with the Latter Prophets, on whom I concentrate after surveying all the named prophets in the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets. With the exception of Jonah, the books of the Latter Prophets are all attributed in the introductory "superscriptions" to the men whose names are attached to them. Furthermore -- and again with the exception of Jonah -- these books are not stories about those men, but almost entirely collections of the prophecies they delivered (or supposedly delivered), interspersed here and there with narrative bridges.

Thus the Book of Isaiah begins: "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." From there, with no further ado, we are launched directly into the first of his prophetic utterances ("Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken...").

This is why the Latter Prophets came to be dubbed the "writing" prophets, though most modern scholars (not all) agree that they themselves went around pronouncing "oracles" and preaching sermons that were transcribed by others. Nowadays, therefore, the standard term is the "canonical" prophets, or (in my own preferred designation) the "classical" prophets.

There are fifteen such books in the Hebrew Bible, and they in turn are divided into two sections, major and minor. The "major" prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the other twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) are "minor." Theoretically, the word minor signifies not lesser moral or religious or literary stature but only lesser length. In practice, however, among the "minor" prophets only three (Amos, Hosea, and Micah) have over the centuries come to rank in importance, both intrinsic and in terms of influence, with their three "major" counterparts.

But we are not yet free of the complications in this picture. Modern scholars have demonstrated -- if not without much debate among themselves as to crucial elements and details -- that more than one hand is at work in every one of the fifteen Latter Prophets. To cite the least controversial case, the last twenty-six of the sixty-six chapters of the Book of Isaiah are without a doubt about events that took place about 150 years after those of the first thirty-nine. To strict fundamentalists, there is nothing strange about this: Isaiah, being a prophet, simply foresaw the future. But predicting the specifics of the future was something the classical prophets rarely did. In fact -- as we shall see -- whenever they tried doing it, they frequently turned out to be wrong.

And so, many years ago, the world was introduced to "Deutero" (or the Second) Isaiah, an anonymous prophet to whom chapters 40-66 were assigned. Still later, other scholars decided to take the last eleven chapters away from Deutero-Isaiah and give them to "Trito" (or the Third) Isaiah. Nor, as we shall also see, has it ended there.

Among the minor prophets, too -- or so we are in addition assured by the scholars -- there were a Deutero-Hosea and a Deutero-Zechariah. And besides these larger divisions, scattered passages in all fifteen of the classical prophets have been attributed to "schools" of their disciples, and others to later editors or "redactors" who may have added material of their own. For instance, in the relatively short Book of Amos alone (only nine chapters long), one twentieth-century scholar distinguishes seven different divisions, each one further divided into another seven parts deriving from what he posits to have been a long and complicated process of oral and written transmission. But the most extreme example -- or what seems to me the reductio ad absurdum of this kind of textual analysis -- is the Book of Obadiah, the shortest in the Hebrew Bible, consisting wholly of a single chapter of only twenty-one verses. Yet there are well-respected scholars who contend that these twenty-one verses represent either six or eight unrelated fragments that may have originated with as many different prophets.

Fifteen books, then, but at the very least seventeen or eighteen -- or even possibly up to fifty or more -- different authors and/or editors.

As to the Former Prophets, one theory is that these books were so classified because, to the rabbis of later generations, they showed how earlier prophecies had been fulfilled. In the Roman Catholic version of the "Old Testament," however, this entire corpus was not unreasonably placed among "The Historical Books."

The Book of Daniel came along after the section of the Hebrew Bible reserved for the Prophets had been closed, but it got into the still-open division of Writings. To Christians (first Catholics and then Protestants), however, Daniel belonged and was placed among the Prophets. So, too, with the Book of Lamentations. While Jewish tradition attributed it to one of the major prophets, Jeremiah, this book found a spot within the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible rather than being grouped with the Prophets. Still another Jewish composition connected with Jeremiah that became part of the Roman Catholic canon was the Book of Baruch. As the secretary and amanuensis of Jeremiah, Baruch figures prominently within the Hebrew Bible, but he has no book of his own there.

After their break with the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century C.E., the Protestants developed a canon of their own. In their version, the "Old Testament" section tracked the Hebrew Bible more closely than the Roman Catholic canon did. But both Christian Bibles arranged certain of the books of the Old Testament in a different sequence from that of the TaNaKh (and from each other).

Another difference emerged in the treatment of a number of books or parts of books written by Jews roughly between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek (or translated into Greek from Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts lost to us). There are -- depending on how they are divided and/or combined in different editions -- either thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen such books. Not deemed by the rabbinical Jewish authorities to be divinely inspired, these books were not admitted into the Hebrew Bible. Among them were Tobit, Judith, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon (or The Book of Wisdom), and Ecclesiasticus (or The Wisdom of Ben Sirach -- and not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, which did get into the Hebrew Bible as one of the Writings). Though all were denied entry into the TaNaKh, they were (with some exceptions) eventually given full canonical status by the Roman Catholic Church. Among Protestants, on the other hand, the status of these books was in constant dispute. In many Protestant editions of the Bible, they were gathered into a section of their own, the one called the Apocrypha, and usually placed between the "Old" and the "New" Testaments; in others, they were omitted.

The Hebrew Bible was fixed by the first century C.E., but variant readings and versions remained in circulation. Hence it took nearly another thousand years before a definitive text was established to the satisfaction of the rabbis who devoted themselves to studying it and the scribes who had the awesome responsibility of copying it accurately over the centuries. This version, which then acquired total authority among pious Jews, is the Masoretic text (MT), from a Hebrew word, m'sorah ("tradition" or "handing down"). Today most biblical scholars, whatever their religious affiliation may be, agree that the Masoretic text is on the whole the most reliable one we have. Hence in consulting the Hebrew, its readings are the ones to which I defer.

To paraphrase Amos, I am neither a scholar nor the son of a scholarY but rather an amateur. Yet I am using the word "amateur" in its radical meaning as "lover" -- much as an eminent literary critic of the mid-twentieth century, R. P. Blackmur, did when he defined the art he practiced as "the formal discourse of an amateur." It is, then, as a non-specialist, and a lover of the prophets, that I approach them. This is precisely how non-specialists have always read the prophetic literature, and it is what several relatively new scholarly methods of studying the Hebrew Bible in general have begun to do as well.

These newer methods have in varying degrees grown out of a rebellion against the enormously influential school of "Higher Criticism" of the Hebrew Bible that came before them. The designation Higher Criticism was invented to distinguish this approach from the "lower" criticism of the past, which consisted mainly of exegesis and interpretation of the text as given. But the Higher Criticism did not take the text as given. According to this school's "Newer Documentary Thesis," which was most closely associated with Julius Wellhausen, a German scholar of the late nineteenth century, there were four distinct sources or documents -- J, E, D, and P -- each deriving from a different period, that were stitched together by later editors to form the Pentateuch. Analogous techniques were then applied by this school and its spin-offs -- and with even greater disintegrative results to other books of the Hebrew Bible.

This entire line of analysis was at first resisted fiercely by believers. But in time it won over many of them who managed in one way or another to reconcile it with their own religiously based view of Scripture. By now, however, Wellhausen no longer bestrides the field of biblical criticism like a colossus. Even among his followers, "refinements" have been proposed and hotly debated in their turn, as has the issue of which passages belong to which of the four strands and the dating of each.

Furthermore, even allowing for a certain amount of overlapping, twelve -- yes, twelve -- other rival approaches to the interpretation of the Bible have entered the fray and are contending energetically and ambitiously with Wellhausen's school of Source (or Documentary) Criticism.

What bothers many members of these newer schools is that, having broken the Bible apart, the Wellhausen approach never puts it back together, and leaves us -- as one scholar has strikingly described it -- with an unscrambled omelet. This is also the complaint of Brevard S. Childs, a leading exponent of the "canonical" school. Though he dislikes being classified as a canonical critic, Childs still insists (as do others who go by the name) that the final forms of each of the biblical books, as they have come down to us, are what really matter.

But there is an additional point to be made. It is connected with the widely held assumption that versions of a particular text that may be more ancient than those in the canon are more "authoritative" or genuine by virtue of their greater age. Canonical critics reject this assumption. In their opinion, it a hopeless task entirely to disentangle the "original" author from later "accretions." Furthermore, they say, the texts as we have them are, after all is said and done, the ones that have served to guide the thinking and practice of "communities of faith" throughout the centuries.

I am struck by a modern analogy, drawn from an area about as distant from the Bible as we can conceivably get: namely, policy proposals by government officials. There are "revisionist" American historians who, finding papers in the archives of the State Department containing proposals that were rejected, offer these as more revealing of the government's true intentions than the proposals that were actually acted upon. The analogy is not exact, but it does suggest that there is something perverse about treating a lost or discarded alternative as more genuine than the one that has survived as a living force.

Another form of complaint against the unscrambled omelet -- framed largely in secular rather than religious terms -- comes from the literary critics Robert Alter and Frank Kermode in a jointly edited anthology covering both the "Old" and "New" Testaments. The aim of Alter and Kermode is to stimulate "a revival of interest in the literary quality of these texts, in the virtues by which they continue to live as something other than archaeology" or sacred teaching. Not that Alter and Kermode ignore or sweep away discoveries or interpretations on which a considerable degree of consensus now exists, and that are the legacy of other schools of biblical criticism. "It would be absurd," they stipulate, "to prohibit the use of insights deriving from comparative religion, anthropology, philology, and so forth" in the course of subjecting the Bible to a primarily literary analysis.

From his standpoint as a scholar and a Protestant, Childs agrees, and so -- speaking from yet another posture -- do I. Where the story I am telling is concerned, this involves, first, acknowledging that two or more different hands are at work in some, or perhaps even all, the books of the classical prophets (though as it happens, I am not persuaded that there were two Hoseas). It also entails recognizing that in certain places the texts as we have them are "corrupt" as a result of mistakes of transmission and transcription. And it requires us, finally, to accept that a number of familiar phrases in English are mistranslations from the Hebrew based on either faulty understanding or tendentious theological interpretation.

Even though this is true of the King James Version of 1611, or KJV (sometimes also referred to as the Authorized Version, or AV), I have decided to use it almost every time I quote. After all, the King James Version is the Bible for most English readers. (An amusing example comes from G. B. Shaw's play Pygmalion, in which the linguist Henry Higgins, expressing his disgust with how the flower girl Eliza pronounces their native tongue when he first meets her, exclaims in exasperation, "English is the language of Shakespeare and the Bible.")

But the main reason for my decision is that of the various English translations I have consulted, the King James Version comes closest in syntax, cadence, locution, and spirit to the original Hebrew. Indeed, as has rightly been observed, it translates Hebrew idioms in such a way that they seem entirely native to English.

It has often been pointed out, and cannot be denied, that the King James Version tends to make books written in different styles sound alike; nor (in this, aping the look of the original Hebrew) does it distinguish between prose and poetry. Yet in my judgment Gerald Hammond is on the mark when, in his essay, "English Translations of the Bible," he summarizes the case for the King James translators as against all other versions in English:

Through its transparency the reader of the Authorized Version not only sees the original but also learns how to read it. Patterns of repetition, the way one clause is linked to another, the effect of unexpected inversions of word order, the readiness of biblical writers to vary tone and register from the highly formal to the scatological, and the different kinds and uses of imagery, are all, like so much open to them in the Authorized Version.

Still, where there are egregious errors, I attempt to correct them.

A famous example is the voice crying from the wilderness, which has become a cliché in English. But in the Hebrew of the Book of Isaiah, no voice cries in the wilderness. The King James translators got the punctuation wrong here by failing to recognize that repeating the same idea in different words (parallelism), which is at the heart of biblical poetry, was being used by the prophet. What the verse actually says (in the much less elegant but more accurate translation of the New Jewish Publication Society) is: "A voice rings out:/'Clear in the desert/A road for the LORD!/Level in the wilderness/A highway for our God.'"

Which brings me to the difficult issue I have been struggling with ever since I started working on this book: how to arrange the prose of the King James Version typographically when the passage in question is poetry, as the prophetic literature mostly is. After many long hours of making decisions and revisions that a minute has reversed, I have come down on the side of letting the King James Version be. Ancient Hebrew versification is another field of study that has become vastly more technical than it used to be, with the result that translators do not always agree about where lines set as though they were in prose should be broken up to look like the poetry they in reality are. (Sometimes the experts cannot even agree as to whether a particular passage is in prose or poetry.) For a while I tried sticking to one or another contemporary model in which the lines were broken up, and then applying it to the King James Version. But I repeatedly became entangled in the problem of what to do whenever the translation I was following constructed a sentence in a form that barely resembled the English of the same sentence in the King James Version. In the end, throwing up my hands in despair, I reached the conclusion that the cadenced prose of the King James Version is itself so "poetic" that I might as well not tamper with it at all.

From my perspective, the King James Version has yet another advantage over the modern translations, which is that it eschews the so-called Tetragrammaton "YHVH" (or its variants, "YHWH" and "Yahweh") in putting one of the many biblical names of God into English. The Hebrew letters of which YHVH is made up (yod, hay, vav, hay) used to be pronounced as "Jehovah," but pious Jews have never pronounced it at all because there is a prohibition against doing so. Anyhow, no one has ever known what the name is really supposed to sound like since the days when there was a High Priest entrusted with the secret. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), did he proclaim it before the people. But the people were forbidden to speak it aloud themselves, and the secret was lost after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Whenever these letters appear, therefore, they are mouthed by Jews as "Adonai," the Hebrew for "our Lord," and this is the usage adopted by the King James Version, but always in capital letters as "LORD."

I prefer LORD because YHVH in English willy-nilly makes God seem a tribal deity (which is in fact what some scholars -- wrongly, I believe -- think He was to the earliest of His Israelite devotees). Hence I allow it into this book only when I am quoting someone else.

Another item of nomenclature that may seem strange to some readers is that I usually avoid the terms "Hebrews" or "Jews." In the Bible itself, the people in question are almost always "Israel" or "the children of Israel" or the "house of Israel"; once in a while they are "Jacob" or (as shorthand for the "Ten Lost Tribes" of the North) "Ephraim" or "Joseph"; but only very rarely are they "Hebrews." Not until the late fifth or early fourth century B.C.E. -- at the very tail end of the prophetic period -- did "Jews" begin entering into common currency as a synonym or substitute for "Israel."

Another term that is missing from this book is "Judaism." Obviously, Judaism as a religion is rooted in and grew out of the Hebrew Bible. But what we today recognize as Judaism was the creation of rabbis whose interpretations of every jot and tittle of the Bible were adumbrated first in the Land of Israel, beginning at some point in the second century B.C.E., and continuing in Babylon over the first five centuries or so of the common era. All this was then set down (mostly in Aramaic, not Hebrew) in the gigantic compendium known as the Talmud, from which the laws and practices of Judaism came to be drawn; these laws and practices were in still later centuries organized into codes that could more easily be consulted and followed, and were elaborated upon by further rabbinical interpretation. Therefore, to call the religion of the prophets "Judaism" smacks of anachronism.

In general, and before anything else, my intention is to figure out as best I can what the prophets were saying to their own contemporaries. And here again I agree with Childs when he remarks of the prophet Micah: "In spite of many good insights and interesting observations of detail, the growing confusion over conflicting theories of composition has increasingly buried the book in academic debris." I would extend the same observation to all the other prophets as well. Hence I make every effort in the pages ahead to dig the ones to whom I pay the most attention out of this debris.

At the same time, like Alter and Kermode, I lean heavily on the scholars for help in making sense of obscure and difficult passages. Moreover, because I chose to structure this book as the story of prophecy in ancient Israel, it became essential to determine the chronological sequence in which the prophets appeared. Unfortunately, this cannot be done simply by following the order of the prophetic books in the Masoretic Text itself: on that point, there is no disputing the evidence piled up by the scholars.

The trouble is that the scholars do not (putting it gently) always agree among themselves on the right chronology; in the estimating of dates, discrepancies can span centuries. Still, there is also a fair degree of consensus, and wherever it is to be found, I go along with it. No one, for example, disputes that Amos was the first of the classical prophets, even though his book is preceded by five others in the section of the Hebrew Bible devoted to those prophets.

On the other hand, no such consensus exists as to who was the last of the classical line. To go by the Hebrew Bible (and here the Catholic and Protestant Bibles are in accord with the Hebrew and with each other), it was Malachi. Having been convinced, however, that there was a Second Zechariah and that he showed up about fifty years after Malachi, I end with him.

But why pile yet another volume onto the thousands of books already written about the prophets? Being an amateur, I have nothing to contribute to the scholarly debates. Nor is it my aim to add to the inspirational literature on the prophets (not, at any rate, in the usual sense). What, then, am I up to?

I am not a very good Jew as measured by the very limited extent to which I observe the commandments of Judaism. Nor do I think that the world was created about six thousand years ago in only six days. Nor do I deny that elements of legend and the like crept into some or even many of the stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. I do, however, believe that in general the Hebrew Bible is a reasonably reliable historical source for most of the period it covers.

A generation or so ago, archaeologists like William Fox Albright were telling us that their findings tended to confirm the Hebrew Bible's historicity. Now, inevitably, revisionists have noisily been asserting the opposite. But it is in the nature of things academic that these revisionists will themselves inevitably be revised by yet another generation of archaeologists. We will then be back again to giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt as to whether or not there was an exodus from Egypt, whether the Israelites were indigenous to the Land or Canaan or conquered it by force of arms, beginning with the city of Jericho around 1200 B.C.E., under the leadership of Joshua the son of Nun. (Not that the archaeologists or anyone else will ever be able to prove -- or, in the eyes of believers, disprove -- that those walls were toppled by the trumpets of the seven priests who accompanied Joshua.)

But what I believe or do not believe about its historicity is far less important than my conviction that the Hebrew Bible in general, and the prophets in particular, give awesome utterance to fundamental truths about the nature of human life. These are the truths I wish to explore in telling the story of prophecy in ancient Israel. And the reason I wish to do so is that, in my judgment, they have been obscured by commentators and clerics, as have the prophets themselves.

The most objectionable misuse of the prophets is the way selective quotation or outright misrepresentation has been employed to appropriate their backing for certain ideas that have to my mind done and are still doing great harm. I will accordingly make an effort to set the record straight by ferreting out what the prophets themselves seem in fact to have believed. Then, after pinning down as best I can what the prophets were saying to their own contemporaries, I want to explore the question of what they may still have to say to us today.

Yet, the worst thing of all that has been done to the prophets has not been to caricature or misrepresent but to ignore them. Even leaving the religious consequences aside, this is an immense intellectual and cultural tragedy. For so deeply rooted is Western civilization in the Hebrew Bible, and in the prophets who are among its greatest glories, that to forget them is to forget who we are and where we come from and where we ought to be going. To let them slip away is wantonly to scatter an inherited spiritual, intellectual, and literary fortune to the winds.

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.


As I said above, all but a very few of the quotations from the Hebrew Bible in this book have been taken from the King James Version. But as I also pointed out, the King James Version is not always accurate. Therefore I have continually checked it against my own reading of the Hebrew originals, as well as against six twentieth-century translations, which were based on knowledge about the Hebrew language that was unavailable in the seventeenth century.

One of these, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), was done by a committee of mostly Protestant scholars updating an earlier updated version of the King James Version, and another (the Jerusalem Bible, or JB) by a team of Roman Catholic experts. A third (Soncino) was produced by various Orthodox Jewish scholars, and a fourth (the New Jewish Publication Society -- NJPS) by a group associated with the less traditionalist Conservative branch of American Judaism. I also consulted the even newer translations in the interdenominational Anchor Bible series (AB). Finally, in my chapter on the Pentateuch, I made use of the Schocken edition of The First Five Books of Moses, with translation and commentary by Everett Fox.

Whenever undeniable mistakes in KJV were corrected by these translations, or significant deviations from it occurred (as opposed to differences in phraseology that did not affect the essential meaning), I have so indicated in the footnotes.

Here is a list of the abbreviations by which these translations are cited in the footnotes:

KJV: King James Version

NRSV: New Revised Standard Version

Son: Soncino

NJPS: New Jewish Publication Society

JB: Jerusalem Bible

AB: Anchor Bible

Sch: Schocken

One more point: in quoting Hebrew words, I have eschewed the standard scholarly systems of transliteration, which are very hard for the lay reader to vocalize. Instead, I have adopted a system of my own, designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone who does not know the language to get a reasonably clear notion of what the Hebrew sounds like.

Copyright © 2002 by Norman Podhoretz

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (September 15, 2010)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451612936

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