Words to Live by: Abraham J. Heschel’s, The Prophets

The Prophets, published in Germany in 1936, was Abraham Heschel’s dissertation. Heschel had the good fortune to live.  We have the good fortune that he did live.  At the end of his career he revised his dissertation, coming full circle to give us perhaps a more expanded view of The fullsizeoutput_f3bProphets. While The Prophets still maintains a certain academic format its noticeable diligence in the expansive review of the literature in the field; its voice is primarily Heschel’s later voice, the steady, fiercely gentle voice of a deeply spiritual man who wants us to know God cares about us; we are not alone; we do not come to know God, He knows us.

Heschel is meticulous and does a careful and exhaustive rule out of comparisons of the prophets with mystics or seers of any kind throughout history. It is Heschel’s argument that the prophets cannot simply be dropped into a twentieth century category, which defines and reduces them as medically disabled or psychologically impaired. The prophets point toward God, and the God they point to is not a distant God or one who enjoys toying with his people. He does not descend from the Greeks or Romans or any other form of God. He is the One God who is not an absent God, and HE is concerned about HIS creation.

While Heschel does offer readings of the major prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah to name two prominent ones, nevertheless, he does not take up the minor ones. Most of his work, in fact, centers on questions of prophecy, i.e., what makes it a prophecy rather than a revelation? What is the difference between an event and experience, why we cannot consider a prophet a mystic? Are the prophets suffering from psychosis? Heschel takes us through every conceivable argument made to discredit or explain the prophet and his message rather than give a close reading of each prophet’s work.

I read this book because I wanted to read something about the prophets.  It happened to be in the used bookstore where I get most of my books, and its title coincided with my personal reading of the Bible — from the beginning, book by book — and I was nearing the prophets.   Abraham Heschel might deepen my understanding of the prophets, I thought.  Beyond my own reading, those mysterious figures always show up in the Catholic liturgy, the first reading, most typically Isaiah and Jeremiah. What they said was echoed in the New Testament. I longed to understand the message of the men who spoke so intensely of a God whose anger at society could not be calmed by a mere sprinkling of blood from a sacrificial animal or a cereal offering or building a temple. God demanded something more, and the prophets could not help but tell us of that demand. Oddly, as with most people who people the Bible, it never occurred to me to understand exactly who these men were and what their particular economic conditions had been; I never thought they might have had a psychological problem or a medical condition.  It seemed absurd to me to read the Bible in such a way. Reading Heschel’s argument against our twentieth century knowledge added a reasoned approach to what I had intuited.

Primarily, I wanted to know how the prophets knew about God and why they seemed so intent on speaking.

Heschel, I found, does not offer explanations. In fact, in his introduction he clearly tells his reader that it is not his intention to reduce prophecy to an explanation. It is not that simple, he writes:

“Explanation, when regarded as the only goal of inquiry, becomes a substitute for understanding” (xxiii).

So I fell in love with Heschel right in his introduction. I thought about the difference between explanation and understanding and figured I did not need nor want Heschel to mansplain the prophets.

Instead of sitting back and letting someone explain the way things are and /or were, Heschel is asking for something different from us; he wants us to think and work toward an understanding. He writes in his introduction:

“Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by” (xxiv-xxv).

So much worse today than when Heschel wrote this in 1962. The images and clichés whirl around our heads like blaring sirens, making a continuous claim on our attention so that we have hardly any space or possibly none at all for new perspectives, and new thoughts. We all need to pour wax into our ears.


Heschel begins:

“The world is a proud place full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum” (pg. 3).

Most of us know or have a slight inkling of what horrified the prophets. The prophets pointed to the injustices in our society. They were not — as many like to think —predicting the future. Although, in their words the future is understood: turn away from God and you will stumble. But turning away or towards God needs some refinement in understanding. What does it actually mean to turn away from God? And here is where Heschel’s reading of the prophets offers understanding:

“To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world” (pg. 4).

The prophets are relevant today. Heschel reminds us:

“Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience” (pg. 5).

Heschel is a gentle writer, but he is as fierce as the prophets themselves when it comes to man’s obligation here on earth. And so this book, especially the title, may seem unimposing — The Prophets — What were they about? No, this is not strictly a history lesson. Heschel makes it clear, and for this reason he spends a lot of space disentangling the prophet from mystics, psychotics, epileptics or any other strange mental state that might act as an agent of delegitimization to the prophets message, the words of the prophets are alive and their message goes out into the world:

“Isolation is a fairy tail” (19)

Heschel is certain we are not alone. We are not isolated. The prophets are telling us, not that our God is watching and judging like some kind of Santa, but that there is interaction and we are responsible for our part of the relationship. Responsibility is something we all wish to ignore. But there is a downside to ignoring our responsibility. If we are not responsible for our actions then we become less human. And if we are less human then watch out because we know what our world does to those deemed less than human.

Heschel instructs us: we do not serve a distant God. Above all, our God is not a personal God made to resolve our personal issues. This is to say, meaning is not constructed from within.

“In the Bible the realness of God came first, and the task was how to live in a way compatible with His presence. Man’s coexistence with God determines the course of History” (19).

The importance of the prophets is not lost to Abraham Heschel, after all, they are not only the carrier of a message, but they are proof that God exists as a caring and involved God.  The understanding of God’s great care and concern for His people is worth remembering and preserving in a time of great nihilism. Throughout his writing, Heschel slowly pulls the prophets from the neat categories other theologians, philosophers and psychologists have placed them. The prophets are not like any other because if you dilute them; if you say they are like the seers in Greece or the Indian mystic or the Buddha, then you not only dilute and reduce them, but too you dilute everyone else. We want to be careful when we make comparisons. If we say that everyone is the same then we lose something when we are hoping to make a gain by broadening our understanding. The Indian mystic and the prophet might share some characteristics, but they are not historically the same; their traditions are different and how they come to God is unique.  Heschel is concerned with  depth.

Through the prophets Heschel asserts that we are in relationship with God; that God is here with us at this moment. The prophets tell us we must be responsive to God’s demand. Interestingly, the prophets were considered outsiders insofar as they understood

“…that religion could distort what the Lord demanded of man, that priests themselves had committed perjury by bearing false witness, condoning violence tolerating hatred, calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence” (pg. 13)

If you ignore the prophet then the root of the prophet’s message begins to die.

The God of Israel does not forget about His people. God does not forget about people. The prophets bring the message: God is with us. God does not want anything to happen to His people — each and every person. The beauty here is that the door is now open to justice.

“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” (pg.276).

The prophet is trying to get us to remember something which we seem to have forgotten, and which we always forget immediately after remembering: each person is important.

God does not concern Himself with the rules of men. By going to the slum or taking us to the slum, the prophets erase the map, the boundaries, separating the desirable from the undesirable. The prophets continually admonishes our self-conceit, drawn most conspicuously through boundaries and borders or rules that favor the most crafty and clever among us. The prophets remind men that they do not have dominion over the earth in the human sense of dominion. God does not play by the same rules as Darwin or any other so-called objective scientist, and God especially does not play by the same rules as the politicians.

“If the moral law were something absolute and final, it would represent a destiny to which God Himself would be subject. Far from being Sovereign, God would then fall into dependence on rigid, objective norms” (p. 278).

In order to understand and preserve the prophets’ critique of man, Heschel spends much of his book detailing the prophets’ worth and difference from others. Not only does he separate out the prophets from the seers or oracles, but he is careful to bring to light the idea of divine pathos.

To the prophets, the attributes of God were drives, challenges, commandments, rather than timeless notions detached from His Being. They did not offer an exposition of the nature of God, but rather an exposition of God’s insight into man and His concern for man. They disclosed attitudes of God rather than ideas about God (pg. 286)

Heschel rejects an impersonal God. There is no reason to believe in God as a distant abstraction.

“Impressive as is thought that God is too sublime to be affected by events on this insignificant planet, it stems from a line of reasoning about a God derived from abstraction. A God of abstraction is a high and mighty First Cause, which, dwelling in the lonely splendor of eternity, will never be open to human prayer; and to be affected by anything which it has itself caused to come into being would be beneath the dignity of an abstract God. This is a dogmatic sort of dignity, insisting upon pride rather than love, upon decorum rather than mercy” (pg. 333).

The prophets felt the closeness of God and His emotion.

“The prophets had no theory or ‘idea’ of God. What they had was an understanding. Their God-understanding was not the result of a theoretical inquiry, of a groping in the midst of alternatives about the being and attributes of God. To the prophets, God was overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present. They never spoke of Him as from a distance. They lived as witnesses, struck by the words of God, rather than as explorers engaged in an effort to ascertain the nature of God; their utterances were the unloading of a burden rather than glimpses obtained in the fog of groping” (285-286).

Heschel sees divine pathos as the way God elevates man. Man has within his range the power to elicit the pathos of love and  pathos of anger from God. Once man is placed in relation to God it is up to man to decide what he will do. Man knows God’s demand. Unfortunately, man thinks since he has been elevated to God’s level, made in God’s image, then he is God. And what is most unfortunate is man’s clever use of the tools he developed along the way to turn from his responsibility to God.  Rather than place fault exclusively with techno-tools, Heschel appears to be speaking of psychology and philosophy as well as the technologies and science. We use these tools to avoid responsibility. We hate and say it is not our fault. We say it is deep within us. We say we are genetically made this way. We say we come from the beasts and thus have beastly desires. We use all our good sense and intelligence to get out of one of the hardest things to do in this world: love. 

I imagine if Heschel were alive today he would be right out there fighting to secure justice for all. I imagine he would be deeply moved by some of the insights and fights we have had to love one another. I also imagine he would be deeply saddened by our name calling and retreat into adolescent name calling and narcissism.  After all the grief, however, there is still hope:

“Inspite of man’s failure, over and over, God does not abandon His hope to find righteous man” (561).


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