- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

THE PROPHETS: WHO THEY WERE, WHAT THEY ARE
By Norman Podhoretz
Free Press, $30, 390 pages
REVIEWED BY ROBERT ROYAL

Around the time that Homer was composing the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" in ancient Greece, an even more momentous 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. Or as he sums up in the concluding chapter, "the classical prophets did not invent monotheism or carry it to a higher level than it had reached among their ancestors; they did not elevate morality over ritual; they did not constitute a part 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 discussions of this issue) between 'universalism' and 'particularism.'"
For Mr. Podhoretz, there is a great deal more continuity with the past in the prophets, and by extension there should be a great deal more continuity with them and with the Jewish tradition among modern Jews. Mr. Podhoretz writes with sensitivity and candor about the seeming inconsistencies and puzzling behavior of God in the Bible, which has always been a part of Jewish tradition. He even points out the mistaken "prophecies" of certain major prophets.
And noting what he sees as the Christian misinterpretation of a passage claimed by the early Church as predicting the coming of Christ, he explains that, nonetheless, it is no part of his intention to disturb the faith of believing Christians.
It is only fair that a Christian, such as the present reviewer, looking at these readings of those passages and Christian dependence on the Jewish scriptures should make a distinction with equal respect and candor.
Mr. Podhoretz is certainly right that no one prior to the rise of Christianity read the prophets as predicting the coming of a figure such as Jesus. The early apostles themselves had a hard time understanding that. But it is equally true that it is difficult to believe that some of the extraordinary language in Isaiah and other prophets is only describing the son of some obscure Hebrew king. So Christian and Jewish views of these passages will continue to diverge, but the difference does not hinge on original intention. The prophets themselves may not have even knew what they were saying; but that has not stopped the application of their words to unforeseen situations by both Jews and Christians.
It is unfortunate that Mr. Podhoretz also accepts the now rather musty thesis that Paul "invented" Christianity, even inverting Jesus' own pronouncement that he had come to "fulfill the Law." That thesis arose as a result of some of the same currents that Mr. Podhoretz deplores in recent scholarly interpretations of the prophets, abetted at times by extreme Reformation positions.
A number of more recent scholars have demonstrated that Paul does not set up an absolute antithesis between the Gospel and the Law, but is in large continuity with the whole Jewish tradiion in thinking that morality and belief are closely bound up together precisely in opposition to "idolatry" like the Hebrew prophets. The Christian/Jewish dialogue, along with the scholarly community, has moved the debate forward from that old reading.
But the fact that Mr. Podhoretz invites us into discussions like these, even across denominational lines, is one measure of his achievement. Some of the early reaction to this volume has accused him of wanting to read texts nearly 3000 years old as precursors to modern neoconservatism. That is unfair: To begin with, he keeps his reading of the prophets themselves distinct from the modern lessons he draws from them, which only appear in a concluding chapter.
But it would probably be truer to say that, like the prophets themselves, he is trying to remain faithful to an overarching vision of belief and moral principle, amidst the sharp twists and turns of the postmodern West. In that sense, Norman Podhoretz is not only a fitting commentator but a faithful modern disciple of the old Hebrew prophets.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.


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