Book Review: Heschel's, The Prophets

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, Perennial Classics edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001. Pp. vii-672. ISBN 0-06-093699-1.

Abraham J. Heschel’s The Prophets is both a voluminous and ambitious work. Heschel, now deceased, was unapologetically and avowedly Jewish in his views and lifestyle. Heschel’s daughter, Susanna, has remarked that her father’s disposition came from Israel’s prophets, who, for him, “were not simply biblical figures…but models for his life” (xiv). Indeed, Heschel, like the prophets, was a man whose heart grew heavy from all of the injustice in the world. He lived during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the Holocaust (which he escaped, though his parents did not). Clearly, Heschel’s understanding of God was colored by such events. To him, God was not absent or distant, an Unmoved Mover as Aristotle argued but rather the Most Moved Mover (xviii).

To some, Heschel’s understanding of God might be too anthropomorphic. Such persons though, Heschel argues, have not followed the theology of Israel’s prophets but rather the thinking of Greek philosophers (318ff.). Biblical theology, he asserts, declares that God “cares for His creatures, and His thoughts are about the world” (333). Strikingly similar to other theological contemporaries of his time—such as Martin Buber (It, I and Thou) and Karl Barth (The Other)—Heschel promoted the doctrine of an intensely relational God. Despite his disagreements with the tenets of Christianity, a number of Christian interpreters have seized on Heschel’s theological insights. Not least of these have been Jürgen Moltmann[1] and more recently, Clark Pinnock.[2]

Heschel’s work, though, has not gone unquestioned. Joseph Blenkinsopp, for example, has remarked that Heschel’s “type of Jewish biblical scholarship, which, while not hostile to historical-critical inquiry, [was] led by its commitments to move well beyond it.”[3] Indeed, even in The Prophets, the reader notices inattention to historical, literary and grammatical details. It could be argued that in taking such factors into consideration, many of Heschel’s arguments might have been strengthened. For example, a literary analysis of the Book of Hosea’s structure may well have enabled him to speak of the inner tension that the prophet experienced as he carried out his God-ordained task. Or, brief analyses of poetic forms, for example the prophet’s use of chiasm, may have equipped Heschel to speak of how God was (literally) at the center of the prophet’s words, thereby adding more emphasis to the poetic nature of prophecy (468ff).

Also lacking force, were some of Heschel’s interpretive claims. Take the phrase daath elohim for instance, which, when placed under the scrutinizing lens of Heschel, is defined as “sympathy for God” (73). Admittedly, Heschel jumps through a number of interpretive hoops to arrive at such a definition. Also working against his translation is the fact that it disagrees with Hebrew grammars and lexicons. Though such tools are not infallible, all of them are in consensus against such a reading.[4] In the end, Heschel’s theological conclusions do not necessitate this type of grammatical or interpretive leap. It seems that Heschel would have been on much firmer ground if he had simply suggested that an intimate knowledge of God presupposes sympathy with Him and His desires.

Outside of textual and historical-critical issues in this volume, one wonders if a reworking of the book’s tone and format might have helped it be a bit more reader-friendly. For example, throughout the work, Heschel is very repetitive and he consistently uses phrases such as “I repeat” (e.g. 587) and “as said earlier” (e.g. 568). This, coupled with his homiletical style, often results in him sounding like a repetitive preacher. Further, while the reader is left pondering the many maxims and poetic/theological aphorisms that Heschel develops, he/she is also left debating whether or not, in this work, Heschel was simply attempting to mimic the authorial style of his topic(s) of discussion—the prophets. Just as well, it could be debated that parts one and two of the book might more fully serve their purposes if they were reordered (e.g. part one taking the place of part two, visa versa). It might have made more sense, for example, for Heschel to define what he meant by pathos, “religion of sympathy” or inspiration before approaching the biblical texts.

All things considered, The Prophets does yield a crop of fruitful insights. For example, this book will challenge Jewish and Christian readers alike to come to terms with the nature of prophecy and revelation. In Heschel’s view, “The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God” (298). Though he does not rule out the futuristic aspect of prophecy altogether, Heschel maintains that the most miraculous part of the prophetic “event” (545ff.) is that in that moment “something happens” to God and prophet alike (554), namely: God is turned to humanity and humanity is turned to God (560).

From a theological standpoint, Heschel also raises interesting issues concerning inspiration. For him, inspiration is a “transpersonal fact,” an “experience” (550). This unique experience was not one of ecstasy and contra the Greek philosophers, it was not an event whereby the one who received inspiration lost control of human reason or faculties (429ff.). In addition, the inspiree did not have to prepare for inspired events (whether by rituals, sexual engagements or herbs) but rather, “Moments of inspiration [came] to the prophet without effort, preparation, or inducement. Suddenly and unexpectedly, without initiative, without aspiration, the prophet is called to hear the Voice” (457-8). According to Heschel, it was this fact that separated and still separates the prophets of ancient Israel from any and all of the other self-styled prophets throughout history.

Another illuminating topic that Heschel brings up has to do with the frequent third-to-first-person switch found in the prophetic books (396-7; 434). For instance, this phenomenon occurs in Amos 3.1. In Amos 3.1a, the term diber (He spoke) is speaking of God in the third person and a few words later the term he‘aleyiti (I brought up) is God speaking in the first person.[5] For Heschel, this ‘person shift’ connotes the “intense sympathy or emotional identification” of the prophet “with the divine pathos” (396). To bolster this argument, Heschel points out that the Hebrew term vayehi (it happened), which is often located at the beginning of prophetic books (e.g. Jnh. 1.1; Jer. 1.2; Ezk. 1.3), is a reference to the God-initiated and God-inspired, prophetic event (552).

As per theological topics, The Prophets is a literal goldmine for such subjects. For example, Heschel’s discussion pertaining to modern attempts of psychologizing the prophets and their texts is at once, deeply profound and incredibly fascinating (498ff.). Though the reader wonders if this chapter incites Heschel himself—indeed, the whole thesis of The Prophets, to some degree, rests on his own psychologizing—it does offer a stinging critique to those who have labeled Israel’s prophets as neurotic, pathological, mad and maladjusted. To cite but one example, Heschel counters the Western psychological reading of 2 Samuel 15.30, where David walks barefoot as a sign of mourning. Modern psychologists have read this passage through their scientific lenses and as such, have interpreted David as a neurotic. Heschel, though, contends that there is nothing out of the ordinary about this ancient custom and that, in fact, to this day, modern Jews still remove their shoes as a gesture of mourning (511).

Also illuminating is Heschel’s discussion of the relationship between the prophet and the state, or better yet, faith and patriotism (e.g. 606ff.). From the standpoint of application, to those of the twenty-first century, this may be one of Heschel’s most fertile and important chapters. In America, where faith and politics have become—in many quarters—intimately intermingled, Heschel reminds readers that, in their day, God’s prophets were oftentimes the ones preaching to the people that the body politic of Israel was the rule of God and God alone. For the prophets, there was an extraordinarily thin line between allegiance to an earthly king and his nation, and the sovereignty of God. It was the duty of the prophet to remind the people and the king that, “over the king’s mishpat stood the mishpat of the Lord” (612).

In conclusion, The Prophets, a Perennial Classic, is an important contribution to the field of theology more than to biblical studies or in particular, the field of prophetology. Certainly, both parts of the work are more concerned with finding and erecting a specific theological/philosophical tenet than they are with engaging in exegetical/biblical issues.[6] Reading, at times, like a Jewish sermon or apologetic that is anti-Grecian and anti-Christian in tone, this aspect of Heschel’s work may be unappealing and quite offensive to some. Yet, whatever one’s reaction to such comments, it must be pointed out that Heschel is firm and steadfast in his convictions. If one is looking for a scholarly, biblical work, this is not the book of choice. However, for the person seeking out a biblically themed tome that bridges the gap between theology/philosophy and homiletics, this work is decidedly rich.

[1] See, for instance: Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 25ff.
[2] Clark Pinnock, one of the leading proponents of the Open Theism party, draws heavily on the works of Heschel. See, for example: Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) and The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 1993).
[3] Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel, Rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1996), 25.
[4] For more on daath and daath elohim, access the following sources: BDB defines this term as: “Knowledge, with moral quality” (395). Holladay’s entries offer: “knowledge, ability, insight” (73). Gesenius reports: “Knowledge, intelligence, understanding” (205). B. Davidson in his Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon suggests: “Knowledge, intelligence, understanding” (CCXCVIII). Jenni & Westermann in TLOT conclude: “Insight, Understanding, Knowledge” (509, 521). In his grammar, The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, Kyle Yates offers: “knowledge” (168). In vol. 2 of his book Old Testament Theology, Von Rad, slightly veering from the lexical consensus, interprets the phrase as “profession of loyalty” (142-3). For other references on the term daath or the phrase daath elohim, see the following, as cited in TLOT (509): HALOT (1:228A); TODT (5:448-81); TWOT (848C); NIDOTTE (1981).
[5] On 397, Heschel gives a laundry list of instances where this shift occurs.
[6] One might point, here, to Heschel’s discussion of the Law & Prophets (296). His assumptions that the pre-exilic prophets knew the Law/Torah are widely challenged by many scholars.

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