Why we should count our prophets

Isaiah, Jeremiah and other biblical heroes have been ignored for far too long

By Clive Lawton, October 27, 2013
The whale swallows Jonah, from the Bible of Joseph Assarfati, Cervera, Spain, 1299, Spain (Getty Images)

The whale swallows Jonah, from the Bible of Joseph Assarfati, Cervera, Spain, 1299, Spain (Getty Images)

In the 19th century, the early leaders of Reform Judaism detected the longstanding bias of the Jewish tradition towards the Torah section of the Bible and away from the remainder, in particular the prophets. The ancient tradition of reading a section of the Prophets as the haftarah each Shabbat hardly alleviated this, since each haftarah was torn from its context and only the most assiduous reader would be able to develop a coherent understanding of what this or that prophet wanted to say in toto.

There were, of course, a few exceptions to this incoherent encounter. Sephardim read the whole book of Obadiah as a haftarah — there’s not much of it — everyone reads the whole book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, those who turn up — a small minority — will read Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations (Eichah) on the Fast of Tishah b’Av and the character of Elijah has strongly entered Jewish folklore and pops up all over the place in Jewish ideas and practices.

Given, too, that Christianity had adopted some of the prophets as underpinnings for their theology and religion, it was not surprising that for many centuries, and in many sections of the Jewish community, one would be much more likely to have found a Christian teacher talking of what Isaiah had to say than a rabbi.
While the Torah tells an important tale of a specific ethnic group and its early history and is redolent with rules and laws for this group, it has to be read pretty hard to find its grand ideas and universal features. Christians, therefore, preferred the large general values and ethics of the great prophetic challenges, sometimes even explicitly universalistic, and so too did those early Reform thinkers.

That has changed radically in recent years and Reform rabbis are easily as likely to take their ideas from the Torah as from the Prophets, so that we’ve probably all returned to where we once were. Torah comes out top and the Prophets trail behind.

As a symptom of this, most Jews might be hard put to name more than few of the prophets and many will be unclear as to what qualifies someone as a prophet at all. Put simply, what does a prophet do? Some may be surprised to discover that rabbinic tradition identifies seven female prophets, among them Queen Esther of the Purim story.

Moses was clearly a prophet but isn’t in the books of Prophets and the stories of David and Solomon are to be found in that section of the Bible which Jews call Nevi’im, Prophets — as opposed to Torah and Ketuvim (the scriptures or writings.) On the other hand, Daniel, whom some evangelical Christians take very seriously indeed, and Ezra, who was clearly a towering figure in Jewish history, fall in this later section and not in the books of Prophets at all.

In simple terms, a prophet, according to our tradition, is one to whom God speaks and who is then charged to deliver their message. The Muslim definition of a prophet doesn’t even require that second feature, the delivery of a message, allowing them to identify Adam and Noah as prophets too.

Jewish prophets are not so much predictors of the future — though they may deliver warnings or inspiring visions of what could happen — as analysts of the present. As has been said, prophets not so much had foresight as insight.

At different times in Jewish history, the different prophetic voices recorded in our Bible have resonated with more or less intensity. Jeremiah’s messages of comfort are easily as powerful as his thundering warnings and expressions of impending doom. Elijah, that cuddly, almost Father Christmassy, character of later Jewish folklore is actually an irascible and impulsive man, sometimes of superhuman powers, always with an eye to the dramatic and prone to depression.

Jonah, easily digested on Yom Kippur as a tale of repentance, presents us with truly challenging questions of obedience, mission and to what extent Jews and non-Jews can consider themselves either God’s concern or God’s exempla.

When invited by the BBC to make a radio series about the prophets (aired this summer), I was faced with the challenge of choosing only five, at least one of whom, I was told, had to be a woman.

In the event, I chose Miriam, Samuel, Elijah, Jonah and Isaiah, whom I selected to accentuate the deep differences both of function and style of each of them. Samuel’s active involvement with the actual political dynamics of the early kingdom is strikingly different to the guerrilla incursions of Elijah. Miriam’s highly complex role as one of the triumvirate at the head of the Israelites in their exodus is completely different to the high poetry and far- ranging cosmic visions of Isaiah — or the school of Isaiah — that produced such sublime and reverberative visions for all of humanity even today. And out there on a limb is the strange grumpy tin-eared Jonah, almost representing us all if ever we were to get a strange message and mission from God.

Jews mostly still don’t know their prophets and perhaps it’s truer to our tradition to accentuate the Torah. But our rabbis of old would have been appalled that so many of us have left this extremely rich territory to Christian preachers and Handel’s oratorios.

Clive Lawton is scholar-in-residence at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. His lecture series on the prophets continues on Wednesday mornings at JW3

Last updated: 4:45pm, October 27 2013