Commentary Magazine

The Prophets by Norman Podhoretz

The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are
by Norman Podhoretz
Free Press. 390 pp. $30.00

Norman Podhoretz, whose eminence as a literary, cultural, and political critic hardly needs reviewing for readers of COMMENTARY, has many feathers in his cap, but biblical scholarship is not one of them. After reading his powerfully argued new book on the prophets, one is thankful for this. No biblical scholar could have written anything so eloquently and passionately polemical, or so unclogged by the “maybe’s,” “if’s,” and “on the other hand’s” of academic discourse. This does not mean that The Prophets, which frequently cites the conclusions of scholars, never makes fine scholarly distinctions. But it is more concerned with making the big and important distinctions that should matter to us all.

Podhoretz has written this book to denounce what he regards as a basic distortion of the message of the biblical prophets—a distortion that is historically ancient and that determines how millions of people read the prophets or (since they are more talked about than read) conceive of them to this day. Four major influences have converged in this approach. In order of both their historical appearance and their historical impact they are: 1) classical Christianity; 2) modern, “liberal” Christianity; 3) Reform Judaism; and 4) 19th- and 20th-century “progressive” politics, especially in its Jewish guise. Although he tends for convenience’s sake to lump its different outlooks together and address them as a single point of view, Podhoretz has in effect penned an attack on the traditional Christian negation of Judaism, on political liberalism, and on Jewish adherence to left-wing causes, all in one. These are old targets of his; yet his criticism is now accompanied by a moral urgency and vision that—so he clearly feels—is that of the prophets themselves.



What is the nature of this distortion? In a discussion of the 8th-century B.C.E. book of Amos, who was chronologically the first of the “later prophets,” the nevi’im aharonim of Hebrew tradition, Podhoretz defines it as the belief in a

path-breaking change supposedly inaugurated [at this time] . . . from a primitive emphasis on ritual (especially animal sacrifice, but also the observance of festivals, or even the singing and playing of hymns of praise to God) to a higher and nobler stress on morality; from a narrowly tribalistic mentality to an all-embracing universalist outlook (or, in the more standard parlance, from “particularism” to “universalism”).

In this conception, prophets like Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the “First” and “Second” Isaiah represent a transition from a lower to a higher stage of Israelite monotheism, one in which God is elevated from the patron of one small people to the caring Father of all mankind and in which doing good to one’s fellow man supplants the fetishistic observance of the Mosaic commandments as God’s principal demand. Seen thus, the Hebrew Bible is an evolutionary document of which the later prophetic books are the most sublime and humanly advanced.

It is against this view of biblical religion, which is of course opposed to the traditional Jewish interpretation of Scripture, that Podhoretz has written this book. Basing himself on numerous close textual readings of both the nevi’im aharonim and the “early prophets” (a category including such figures as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha), he repeatedly hammers away at several points.

The first of these points is that, contrary to the “evolutionary” take on the Bible, the God of the early prophets is as radically monotheistic, and as concerned with the entirety of the human race, as is the God of the later prophets. Already in the case of Abraham, Podhoretz writes, we encounter

the revolutionary and previously unimaginable idea that there is only one God, not many gods; that He is invisible; that He alone created the heavens and the earth and all they contain or embrace; and that, for reasons He does not disclose, He has chosen to make the seed of Abraham . . . the instrument through which His law and His commandments will be revealed first to them and then in due course to all other peoples as well.

And already in the laws of Moses, the argument continues, the moral commandments regulating behavior between man and man are as important as the ritual commandments regulating behavior between man and God.

The common denominator joining Abraham to Moses, Podhoretz writes, is a supreme purpose that is neither strictly moral nor strictly ritual: namely, the extirpation of idolatry. Indeed, only the extirpation of idolatry, in the biblical conception of things, can subsume both religious ritual and human morality under a single rubric, since only by realizing that “all the other gods worshiped by everyone else in the world are nothing but inanimate images of wood or stone or gold fashioned by men” can men be prevented from worshiping their own handiwork and ultimately, forsaking the imperatives of both ritual and morality, their own selves.



Part Two of Podhoretz’s book, its main section, moves on to the later prophets. Devoting a separate chapter to each of the major ones, he reiterates the theme of the biblical battle against idolatry while coming at it from the opposite direction. For if, with the early prophets, he has sought to demonstrate that this battle committed its participants to a universal moral view of human relationships no less than to the ritual particulars of Mosaic law, he now seeks to show that, for the later prophets, Israel’s ritual service of God remained as important as human morality.

This is a more difficult task, because it runs up against many of the later prophets’ own declarations, which are also among their best-known. “Ye who turn judgment to wormwood and leave off righteousness in the earth,” says Amos,

I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies; though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them, neither will I regard the peace offering of your fat beasts. Take away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

And here is First Isaiah, the great visionary of swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks:

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees . . . to turn aside the needy from judgment and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey and that they may rob the fatherless.

And elsewhere:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. . . . Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when you make many prayers I will not hear.

It is upon passages like these that the early church fathers based their reading of the prophets as precursors of the Christian casting-off of Jewish “legalism” for the gospel of altruistic love. It is in them, too, that modern Jewish commentators have found the biblical justification for abandoning Judaism’s commitment to halakha, the “mere tradition of the deed” as it was called by the Reform thinker Leo Baeck, in favor of what Baeck termed “Judaism’s emphasis on moral doing.” To this day, the later prophets are commonly cited by rabbis, ministers, and college valedictorians in support of the view that—the quotation is from Micah—“What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

But, Podhoretz contends, what the later prophets insist the Lord really requires is the exact same thing required by Him according to the early prophets—that is, “the war against idolatry . . . which again, contrary to the stereotyped interpretation [of the prophetic books of the Bible], embraces both ritual and morality.” It is here that Podhoretz’s literary skills at teasing out a text are most impressive. He writes, for instance, about Micah:

Micah provides us with [a] . . . powerful piece of evidence . . . that he is fusing social sin with idolatry. . . . It comes in a verse containing the bill of indictment that God finally issues after . . . telling the people what they should have known already about justice and mercy—having, He says, been told before. In this highly significant verse, it is a Northern dynasty [of Israel] that is brought in as an epitome of everything wicked that is being imitated by the Southern Kingdom [of Judah, to which Micah was speaking]: “For the statues of Omri are kept, and all the works of the house of Ahab, and ye walk in their counsels. . . .”

Because this verse is preceded by a list of social injustices, a number of commentators (both Jewish and Christian) have interpreted it as referring not to the royal patronage of Baal worship during the reigns of Omri and his son Ahab, husband of Jezebel, but rather to “oppression and injustice” or “to the luxury of the upper classes, and social injustice.”

Yet these commentators miss a crucial element, which is that the house of Ahab embodied a perfect synthesis of idolatry and social oppression. It was during this king’s reign that, we recall, Elijah treated the two classes of sin as equally serious, first by slaughtering 450 prophets of Baal after his contest with them on Mount Carmel, and then by cursing Ahab and Jezebel with a bloody end for the murder of Naboth and the theft of his vineyard.

The underlying premise of Elijah’s twin actions, I would contend again, was that the theft and the murder flowed from the idolatry, or conversely that they were the fruits of faithlessness to the commandments of the God of Israel. In harking back to “the house of Ahab,” . . . Micah the literary artist returns to the bloody crossroads where sins against God meet and marry crimes against man, and the two classes of violation become indistinguishable from each other.

This is a subtle point. In the minds of the prophets, Podhoretz is saying, immorality cannot be divorced from idolatry because the moment one ceases to believe that morality is the absolute will of God—just as, in the Bible, are animal sacrifice and numerous other rituals—it becomes the relative judgment of men, and the transformation of “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” to “It is generally speaking in the interest of society not to kill or steal” opens the gates (since society’s interests can always be redefined) to legitimized murder and theft. Podhoretz’s Micah is the literary ancestor of Dostoevsky, whose Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment becomes a thief and a murderer as a logical consequence of losing his religious faith.

Podhoretz understands the other later prophets in the same way that he understands Micah. Although repelled by the ritual worship of God when it is insincere or polluted by idol worship, they are never opposed to it in itself. On the contrary: they cannot imagine an ideal future without it. Here is Jeremiah:

And it shall come to pass, if ye diligently hearken unto me, saith the Lord . . . then shall there . . . come [people] from the cities of Judah, and from the places about Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the plain, and from the mountains, and from the south, bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise unto the house of the Lord.

And if this is true of the later prophets’ attitude toward Mosaic ritual, it is even truer, Podhoretz maintains, of their attitude toward God’s choice of Israel, without which such ritual makes no sense. This point is made most extensively in a chapter on the Second Isaiah, generally considered the most “universalistic” of all the prophets. Repeatedly Podhoretz cites chapter and verse to show that the Second Isaiah, too, fully accepts the specialness of Israel. “Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken, ye people from afar,” Isaiah’s God calls out, reaching out to the Gentiles as the God of the Bible has never done before—yet in the same breath the prophet adds in His name: “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Podhoretz summarizes:

[T]he universalism of the Second Isaiah fells well within the bounds of the tradition of classical prophecy: it is a universalism arrived at through particularity. . . .

Each of the prophets, in his own way . . . comes . . . to elucidate over and over the ramifications of the revolutionary idea that there is only one true God ruling over the world; to remind the people of Israel that His inexplicable choice of them carries with it special demands and responsibilities; and to explain how fulfilling these demands and responsibilities will ultimately bring all other peoples to acknowledge His sovereignty over them as well. . . .

In this formulation, we see clearly how the “scandal of particularity” loses all touch of the scandalous in a proper conception of the relation between chosenness and universality. To wit: that even though God decided to reveal the Law to Israel and through Israel, He does not intend it for Israel alone. Nor is the ability to follow the Law confined to Israel alone: it is a power that resides in all human beings.



Is Podhoretz right in his main contentions? I believe he is. Do these have relevance for a contemporary society that is not a Bible-reading one? Podhoretz believes they do. This brings us to the third and last section of his book, entitled “The Prophets and Us.”

At first glance, this section, although the shortest of the book’s three, strikes one as its most diffuse. In it, Podhoretz wanders from one brief discussion to another—of biblical commentators, the mysticism of William Blake, the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, George Orwell and the nature of utopianism, the idea of the afterlife, modern Zionism, modern science, multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism, Palestinian and Muslim terror, the relativistic and ultimately “pagan” nature of our times—and pulls us engagingly after him while we wonder just where he is heading. But in the end he lets us know:

[H]aving surveyed the manifestations of pagan thought and practice in the contemporary world, I want now to peer at that world as the classical prophets did at theirs—through the lens of idolatry—in order to bring certain sectors of the picture more sharply into focus. . . .

[I wish to advance] the proposition that idolatry is rampant in America today. . . .

It would be hard to disagree that money and power and celebrity and status are of great importance to Americans. . . . But it was not the desire for, or the possession of, things of this nature that the classical prophets were excoriating when they denounced idolatry. . . . [The] astonishing idea [of the prophets was] that the makers of idols become indistinguishable from the idols they have made. . . .

My thesis, in short, is that to the classical prophets idolatry amounted to self-deification, the delusion that we humans could become “ . . . as gods” . . . and if I am right about the classical prophets, they are telling us that idolatry is the cult of self. . . . It is here that we finally and definitively come to the true idol of the American tribe: not Money or Power or Celebrity or Status, but Self. . . .

If, as the classical prophets assumed, we are all now living the only life we will ever have, there is no need to belabor the abiding and overriding importance of what they have to say about the idolatry of self and how it deprives us of the chance or the ability to live that life to the full. . . .

Now, as then, the battle will have to be fought first and foremost within ourselves and then in the world of ideas around us. And now as then, it will have to be conducted in the spirit in which the classical prophets themselves conducted it, and in which we are commanded by the book of Deuteronomy to love the Lord our God: with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.

And those among us for whom God does not exist? I presume to suggest that even, or indeed especially, they are called upon to answer the summons to battle sounded by the ancient prophetic trumpet of Israel. Because unless we all commit ourselves to the struggle for our own civilization, it will, like Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah 2,500 years ago, wind up being sapped from within by the insidious antinomian workings of the new paganism, and it will then become vulnerable to sacking from without.



This too is an “astonishing idea,” this notion that the prophets might have the most to say to those who do not believe in their or indeed in any God. It seems to contradict everything Podhoretz has been telling us so far about the prophets’ unshakable conviction that faith in the God of Israel alone can ensure right behavior in this world. To those for whom God does not exist, must not man become the measure of all things? And if he does, how is he to avoid the self-deification that is considered not only by Podhoretz but already by Dostoevsky in the 1860’s and 70’s to be the great horror of our post-religious age?

Podhoretz appears to be implying that even if one does not call it God, there is somewhere a measure beyond measure—inner voice or outer necessity—that the prophets can help teach us to obey. On top of everything else he has taught us in this vastly illuminating book, one would give much to know more about what he thinks this is.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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