THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Prophets then and now

That this might have actually been the seal of one of the greatest prophets of Israel raised many thoughts about the work of the prophets in general and about the meaning of their teachings.

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE RECENT reports of the finding of an ancient seal from the days of the First Temple containing the name ‘Yeshayahu’ (Isaiah) followed by the letters nun-betyod, which are the first three letters in the Hebrew word navi (prophet) intrigued and excited me (the seal was broken off where the next letter aleph might have appeared completing the word). That this might have actually been the seal of one of the greatest prophets of Israel raised many thoughts about the work of the prophets in general and about the meaning of their teachings.
If this seal is indeed his, it certainly indicates that at least in some cases, being a prophet was actually an occupation. According to Chapters 37 and 39 in the Book of Isaiah, where Isaiah is consulted by the king and gives him God’s message, it seems clear that Isaiah was at very least the semi-official prophet of the monarchy, serving King Hezekiah. The seal might very well have been a kind of ancient calling card that identified him as “Isaiah, prophet by appointment of His Majesty King Hezekiah.”
Such indeed was the position that Nathan the prophet had in David’s time.
The history of prophecy in Judaism actually goes all the way back to Abraham, who is referred to as a prophet because he has the power to intercede with God (Genesis 20:7). Moses, of course, is the prophet, whose like will never be seen again, the prophet who was also the ruler. If interceding with God is the prophet’s task, Moses certainly fulfilled it, but he also was the conduit for conveying God’s word to others.
Miriam, too, was termed a prophetess (Exodus 15:20), although what that means is unclear. Samuel was not only a judge – a ruler – but also a prophet, similar to the position held by Moses.
When the people demand a king “to govern us like all other nations” (1 Samuel 8:6), it is clear that they are asking that there be a dynastic leader who is not a prophet. With the appointment of the first king, Saul, Samuel becomes the first prophet to serve a king. A prophet then clearly is the one who delivers the message of God. In Samuel’s case, this meant announcing who would be the king and later depriving that king of his position and anointing another in his place – all in the name of the Lord.
The Prophet Nathan was both God’s spokesman and the king’s counselor (2 Samuel 7). His position was powerful enough to allow him to accuse David of committing a terrible sin. “That man is you!” he says and David repents (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Did every king have an official prophet? The record does not tell us, but in Isaiah’s case, that seems to have been what he did, functioning very much like Nathan.
There were other prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, who were not officials of the court. Nevertheless, they followed Nathan in conveying the words of the Lord to the kings and queens and even threatened them because of their wrongdoings. (See 1 Kings 17 ff).
IN THE eighth century BCE, the prophet Amos acted as Elijah had, castigating the Kingdom of Israel for injustice and speaking in the name of the Lord: “I will pardon them no more. The shrines of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel reduced to ruins; and I will turn upon the House of Jeroboam (the King) with the sword” (Amos 7:8-9).
For any nation, such words are tantamount to treason, which is what Amos was accused of by the Priest of the Temple at Beth El, Amaziah. In his reply, Amos makes it clear that he was not a governmental official, not even a prophet by profession – he was a tender of a flock who had been instructed by God to deliver a message. “I am not a prophet and I am not a prophet’s disciple,” he says (Amos 7:14), meaning, “This is not my profession – but I say whatever God commands me to say, even if it means predicting the destruction of God’s Temple.”
Jeremiah followed in the footsteps of Amos. Living in Judah at the end of the seventh century BCE, he dared to prophesy the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and even the exile of the people of Judah and their king unless they changed their ways.
“Do not put your trust in illusions and say, ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these buildings’” (Jeremiah 7:4).
Instead of ascribing magical powers to these structures because they are sacred, Jeremiah says, “…mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow…” (7:5). That, and that alone, will make a difference.
Otherwise, you are simply making this Temple into “a den of thieves” (7:11), a place which is worthy of destruction.
Jeremiah was placed under guard because of his predictions of doom and his call for surrender to Nebuchadnezzer. At one point, he was even cast into an empty cistern and would have starved to death had he not been rescued by an Ethiopian eunuch, Evedmelekh (chapters 37-38).
When considering the way in which the prophets dared to speak against the state and its rulers, including its religious officials, it occurs to me that there is a parallel between those days and our own times. The modern State of Israel has recreated the situation that existed in the days of the monarchy prior to the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE – the existence of a Jewish state with its own indigenous government.
At that time, the people of Israel wanted a regime that would “govern us like all other nations” and that is what they got. The Zionist movement also wanted a normal Jewish state, one that would be like all other nations and that is what exists today.
In making this analogy, I am not suggesting that present-day Israel is as unjust as ancient Israel or Judah were when the prophets predicted their doom – heaven forfend – but rather that just as the prophets understood that the state was not identical with the religion of Israel, with its demands of morality and justice, so too our current state cannot be said to always represent the highest ideals of Judaism and is therefore open to criticism.
Then, as now, a “Jewish state” existed with its officials – then kings and queens; now we have prime ministers, cabinet members and others. And now, as then, there is tension between Jewish values and governmental policy, between Jewish ethics and the actions of the officials. In those days, the prophets pointed out that the ways of the Lord were not being followed, while the kings took it upon themselves to say that they represented the state and its policies.
The Priest Amaziah defended the actions of the state as if whatever the state did was holy. The prophets, on the other hand, were saying that the state and the ethics of Judaism (the word of the Lord) were not the same thing and denounced the actions of the officialdom, including its religious leadership.
AS ISRAEL has just celebrated its 70th year, perhaps it is time for us to realize that this is the case today as well. The state, after all, with all due appreciation for its importance, is just that – a political entity. Its laws are enacted by the Knesset, which is a political body elected by all the citizens of the state, Jews and non-Jews, representing many different opinions and many different interests. The leaders of the state are similarly elected through the political process, and although some of them may have aspirations to be the leaders of all of Jewry and the heads of Judaism, they are not. The state is important, indeed vital for Jews and Judaism since it is the only state in which Jews are a majority and in which the Jewish tradition plays a public role. It is also the only state in which a Jew has the automatic right to live. That is no small matter. But to identify it and all its actions with Judaism, is to create an inaccurate picture of reality.
Exactly how then is the state a Jewish state? The difficulties that the current government is having in proposing and enacting a law that will define the nature of the Jewish state is evidence of how problematic that is. It has been suggested that the best thing that could be done in this regard would be to make the Declaration of Independence into the basic law of the state. It was as good an attempt at defining the Jewish state as has ever been written. It says clearly that: The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
If Israel were to live up to those words, that would be enough. Just as there is an American dream, articulated well in the American Declaration of Independence, a dream that stands as a challenge to the reality of what the American state may be, so too there is an Israeli dream – articulated in our declaration and rooted in Jewish religious values that challenges the realities of our political system.
We may no longer have prophets, but we do have the teachings of the prophets and of the tradition that can do what the prophets did. True religion is not the handmaiden of government. It must stand above it, preaching truth to power. The prophets taught us that religion must never become a mere set of standardized rituals that blinds us to eternal truths. Rather, it must stand for morality in a way that constantly challenges governments to rise above their usual concerns.
The fact that our tradition has exalted and justified the teachings of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the other prophets, placing right above rite, made Judaism into a powerful force for justice as relevant today as it ever was. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book “The Prophets,” “The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness … Prophecy ceased; the prophets endure and can only be ignored at the risk of our own despair.”
(xix) Finding that seal that may have belonged to the prophet Isaiah should remind us of that truth.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a founder of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
His most recent book is ‘Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy’ (JPS), now available in a Hebrew edition published by Yedioth Books and the Schechter Institute