The Magazine

Prophets with Honor

Norman Podhoretz's illuminating reading of the Bible.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By GARY A. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Prophets
Who They Were; What They Are
by Norman Podhoretz
Free Press, 400 pp., $30

ONE FALL DAY, while I was in San Francisco, a friend took me to his favorite spot of pilgrimage--the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. The design is impressive. A narrow path leads past a wall filled with quotations from the writings of Dr. King, while the visitor hears the crushing sound of water cascading to the ground on the other side of the path.

As we walked, I read the various quotations from King. Many sound contemporary, concerned with social justice, the over-reliance on technology and science, and so forth. And yet, as my secular friend's enthusiasm soared, mine flagged.

The Reverend King had the impact he did partly because of his theological convictions. Yet this monument depicted his achievements in secular tones. Even this was not without irony. Many times I had to ask my friend to repeat what he was saying. The crashing thunder of the waterfall was so loud that it was difficult to hear.

But behind that sound, I could sense the legacy of the prophet Amos and one of King's favorite lines: "Let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream." Though this biblical text, inscribed on the monument, informed the design of the waterfall, no citation of the prophet's name or King's biblical inspiration was to be found. Liberal secularism had risen up and erased the sense of religious truth.

It may be a similar experience that prompted Norman Podhoretz to write "The Prophets: Who They Were; What They Are." In this powerful rereading of Israel's prophetic legacy, Podhoretz attempts to set the record straight about Israel's prophets. Liberals have long claimed that they alone bear the mantle of these courageous warriors from the biblical past; Podhoretz will have none of it. The prophets, in his reading, are not to be reduced to a "liberalogical" construal. Rather, they are to be understood as highly committed religious persons who were "fighting with all their might against idolatry in order to keep their people faithful to God because they believed with all their hearts and all their souls that He had, out of an inscrutable love, chosen the children of Israel as the instrument through which His Law would be revealed and ultimately accepted by every other people as well."

Podhoretz's corrective is useful, precisely because the religious sense has been lost on an entire generation of Bible readers. For those reared in the wake of the cultural turbulence of the late 1960s, the writings of the prophets are best known as a weapon brandished by various activists seeking to overturn assorted injustices. Common to most of these usages is the absence of any consideration of the particular religious framework from which the prophets sprang.

Consider the harshly critical words of Amos directed to the northern Kingdom of Israel in the mid-eighth century B.C.:

Thus saith the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not turn away the punishment thereof;
because they sold the righteous for silver,
and the poor for a pair of shoes;
That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,
and turn aside the way of the meek:
and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid,
to profane my holy name;
And they lay themselves down upon clothes
laid to pledge by every altar,
and they drink the wine of the condemned
in the house of their god.

This ringing piece of social criticism does not spring fully formed from the tip of Amos' caustic pen. Rather, as Podhoretz illustrates, much of it is drawn from the specific covenantal norms of Mosaic law. Moreover, besides striking parallelism between the demands of the Law and the words of the prophet, the diatribe weaves together the ritual and moral violations of the chosen people. If there is some fundamental difference between ritual and morality, the prophet does not seem to know it. Without the religious tenor, there is no prophetic critique of social injustice.