Book review: “The Prophets” by Abraham Heschel

I originally found Heschel’s The Prophets in the references on the Wikipedia site for the prophet Jeremiah. I had been reading the book of Jeremiah for my scripture study, and hand found some of the particulars difficult to understand. I knew Jeremiah was a bit of a downer, but his constant calls of destruction, his apparent self-hatred were a bit confusing (at one point, he cries, “cursed be the day my mother bore me.”) I didn’t want a verse-by-verse explanation, but a little context was appreciated.

I got more than I bargained for in The Prophets! But Heschel writes with amazing clarity. There is indeed a chapter dedicated to Jeremiah. But the book is a treatise on prophets and prophecy in the Old Testament. It includes more than just an explanation and backstory of the prophets; it gives a theory and theology of prophecy and how it fits into God’s plan.



As a Mormon, I came at the book with a theory of prophecy and prophets of my own. With the prophetic succession of President Russell M. Nelson happening this past month, it is at the forefront of my people’s mind. I taught about the centrality of prophets on my mission. Prophets are called to preach God’s word to the people, and hold the necessary authority to perform sacred ordinances to return to live in God’s presence. When people reject the prophets, that authority is lost, and man loses his connection to God. After a long period of apostasy, God has again called a prophet in this dispensation with all the keys necessary to salvation.

The two central principles to Heschel’s theory of prophecy are twofold: divine pathos and divine sympathy. Divine pathos is defined as God’s concern for man. Central to God’s being is not his omniscience, omnipresence, or omnipotence; it is his pathos, his concern for man. God is not indifferent to man’s plight. His love and compassion as well as his anger and wrath are elements of that pathos. The central defining attribute of a prophet is divine sympathy, or identification with the will of God. Thus, prophets experience the divine pathos, and carry the message of God’s concern to man.

I would divide the book into three sections: (1) an in-depth look at the literary prophets of the Old Testament e.g. Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah (2) a development of the theology of prophecy, and (3) a compare/contrast with different ideas of prophecy in different times and cultures. Part one is particularly informative. I have read some of these books in the Old Testament with no idea for context. You get an idea of when the prophets were prophesying, to whole they were addressing, and the problems of their day and age. Very helpful to someone who gets lost in the Old Testament.

The second portion develops the theology of pathos and sympathy, going in depth into side concepts such as justice and wrath. This is a very interesting discussion, because it changes your view of the role of prophets as well as the God of the Old Testament. For instance, I never thought of the prophets as “social justice warriors.” But their concern for justice was paramount:

Justice is not important for its own sake; the validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lies in the blessings it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry… if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

You also begin to get an idea of the importance of divine wrath, and how we often misconceive it due to the prejudice’s of modern society:

To our mind the terrible threats of castigation bespeak a lack of moderation. Is it not because we are only dimly aware of the full gravity of human failure, of the sufferings inflicted by those who revile God’s demand for justice? There is a cruelty which pardons, just as there is a pity which punishes. Severity must tame whom love cannot win.

Finally, the compare/contrast section gets into some technical definitions of things similar to biblical prophecy, but are actually radically different including ecstasy (the separation of body and spirit), possession or enthusiasm, divination, etc. Heschel highlights the uniqueness of the Hebrew understanding of prophecy. Prophecy is a dialigue. Prophecy isn’t an end in itself. And the prophet maintains his wits about him during the experience.

There was a particular portion where he compares prophecy with some aspects found in Christianity without explicitly mentioning Christianity (e.g. prophecy is not passion, like the passion of Christ. Prophecy is also not imitatio, or the imitating of Christ). I found the discussion interesting, and I appreciated the clear distinctions in definitions Heschel provided.

Also of particular interest to me coming from my faith tradition was his contrast of the prophet and the priest. The prophetic role is to receive and declare revelation from God, while the role of the priest is worship and sacred ritual. In Mormonism, these two roles are fused into one. Can this effectively happen? Or is the role of prophet downplayed when constrained to a hierarchical structure?

Just as the prophet is the supreme example of anthropotropism (turning to man), so is the priest the outstanding exponent of theotropism (turning to God). The difference between them must be understood in terms of the different experiences they represent. The prophet, speaking for God to the people must disclose; the priest, acting for people before God, must carry out the will of God. The prophet speaks and acts by virtue of divine inspiration, the priest performs the ritual by virtue of his official status.

There is a warning when the role of the priest becomes dominant:

Whereas theotropic moments determine the ultimate image of existence, directedness of the mind upon the divine may become, in extreme cases, the exclusive standard and principle of judgment. Focused upon the Beyond, the mind begins to disregard the demands and values of here and now; sliding into resignation and withdrawal from action, moral indifferentism, and world denial.

A fascinating read. It will enrich your reading of the Old Testament, and give you a greater appreciation and understanding of the Jewish tradition. Sometimes I think we cheapen the faith and experience of the Jews. Historically, Christians have scorned the harsh God of the Old Testament in contrast to the loving God of the new, without realizing that the Jews very much believed in a God of love as well. We just have a very superficial idea of love.

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