A resonant voice from the past

Milton Steinberg’s posthumously published novel about Hosea and his unfaithful wife focuses on man’s acts or omissions, making it a modern examination of timeless questions.

58_The Prophet's Wife (photo credit: Courtesy)
58_The Prophet's Wife
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To the acclaim of scholars and writers, there has just appeared, 60 years after the author’s death, a new work by Milton Steinberg – a historical novel, The Prophet’s Wife. The novel is set in Israel of the mid-eighth century BCE and Hosea, the biblical prophet, is its main character.
Steinberg, a scholar and leader who died in 1950, aged 46, had earlier written a literary masterpiece, As A Driven Leaf, on the first/second century CE heretical sage Elisha ben Abuya, a work that has been regarded as the most important Jewish novel of its time and a major influence on contemporary Jewish life and thought. On his death, Steinberg had been working on this novel on Hosea, which, though unfinished, has been praised for its content and style, the power of its imagery, its passion and humanity.
The biblical book of Hosea opens with God’s harsh instruction to the prophet, “Go, take unto thee a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry; for the land doth commit great harlotry, departing from the Lord” (Hosea, 1: 2). Thus, at its outset, Hosea’s prophetic work is bound up with his own life. Hosea’s message reverberates around the theme of love and unfaithfulness, of God’s relationship with Israel in terms of a marriage. This analogy, of God’s relationship with Israel and Hosea’s wife’s unfaithfulness, is well conveyed in the novel.
As Hosea seeks to divorce his wife, he perceives the outer environment in terms of his own life: the sin of uncleanness engulfs all of Israel, “the whole land was a harlot against its God.” But it is upon the human part of the analogy that the novel focuses, upon man’s acts or omissions, making it, despite the historical context, a modern examination of timeless questions. Our own times seem removed from Israel’s past when God spoke through prophets and took part in historical events, such as the bringing about, by means of the Assyrians, of the end of the Northern Kingdom for its moral shortcomings. Intriguingly, perhaps corresponding to such a modern outlook, God seems to be a hidden presence. After divorcing his wife for her unfaithfulness, Hosea wonders “why He, who for so much less cause had brought a flood on the world, should now be so patient.” It is God’s withdrawal from history, rather, as the novel intimates that is so much part of our perspective in the post-Holocaust era.
It is not Gomer the harlot – as in the biblical text – that Steinberg depicts but Gomer the passionate and free-spirited woman, of a deprived background. Though Hosea loved her, she was from the outset attracted to Iddo, his brother. The story of Hosea’s childhood and the wild behavior of his brothers is vividly described as is the pleasure seeking, idol-worshiping society of Samaria that Hosea perceives to be corrupt. The young Hosea learns to be a scribe and, employed in the king’s service, he is required to assist the chief scribe and counselor on various missions. In the priests, the Beth El Temple, its altar and sacrificial service, the images of heifers and the great bullock, Hosea sees an impure and flawed religion to which he cannot subscribe.
Unlike the biblical text, Hosea meets the prophet Amos, incarcerated for his troubling statements as to the impending doom of the north, and is inspired by his integrity and unflinching moral judgment. In the novel, however, Hosea has yet to develop into a prophet in his own right. Hosea, after his divorce, visits the community of prophets and prepares for them copies of Amos’s sayings. In describing this community, Steinberg mentions that the prophets did not necessarily agree among themselves as to the nature of prophecy. In this, one can see the author’s own working out of ideas and concepts – whether prophecy, as the word of God, is induced “without,” by various means, such that the prophet be possessed, or, otherwise, “within,” as “a still voice” whereby a man might keep his senses and hear God’s word with clarity. Here, too, there is a modern perspective where the focus is upon man and his inner voice.
The novel is unfinished, not merely as to its truncated plot but also conceptually. Its weighty themes are only initially broached. The characters, though well conveyed, do not, other than Hosea, have sufficient depth. Towards its close, the novel depicts harsh, dramatic scenes in close succession – Hosea’s discovery of his wife’s infidelity with his brother Iddo and Iddo’s escape, which relieves the distraught Hosea, who is incapable of invoking the law against the adulterous couple; his divorce from Gomer; the daughter Lo-Ruhamma’s birth and Hosea’s acceptance of her, when Gomer leaves to live among the prostitutes; Gomer’s becoming Iddo’s concubine, making the crime and Hosea’s shame publicly known.
The novel ends by describing an attempted coup against Jeroboam, the king, in which the brothers are on opposing sides – Iddo, a rebel, while Hosea is a loyal defender of the king – and they face each other with bow and arrow.
Yet, why Hosea is ready to risk his life for such a corrupt regime is unexamined.
These concentrated dramatic episodes highlight the novel’s lack of completion. What characterizes them are powerful images and incidents – which lack biblical support. It seems the author, drawn into these episodes, found himself with a Hosea who had developed as a character on his own. Gomer, too, as portrayed, is different from the Gomer of the Bible. Clearly, adultery with a brother differs from the unfaithfulness told of in the sources and though Gomer lives among prostitutes for a while in the novel, this is underplayed. Similarly, violent conflict, with brother against brother, is only to be found in the novel. The freely imaginative building upon a biblical figure may have held up the completion of Steinberg’s work, no less than the not fully explored philosophical questions regarding God’s role in history, the nature of prophecy, justice and compassion, and man’s inner moral compass. Perhaps, too, there was a concern as to the depiction of adultery and the portrayal of the Northern Kingdom and its corrupt society that merited its destruction. With a shocked awareness of the enormity of Jewry’s recent destruction and a concern as to the trials facing the nascent State of Israel, perhaps a critique of ancient Israel prior to its end, or actually depicting its end, was felt to be a sensitive topic that might be misconstrued. It is thus not surprising that the task of completing this novel, suggested to various scholars and authors, including Chaim Potok, was found to be too daunting.
Steinberg’s posthumous novel has been acclaimed by such writers as Cynthia Ozick and Elie Wiesel, yet the timeless issues it seeks to address, its powerful message and style are the mark of great historical novels. Other historical novels on Hosea share much of the passion and poignancy that can be found in The Prophet’s Wife. Steinberg’s novel is vivid, dramatic, and well-written. The enthusiastic response to The Prophet’s Wife is due to the excitement of encountering a posthumous work of so talented an author- yet it is the historical novel genre and its rediscovery that is deserving of this enthusiasm, no less.

The writer is currently compiling an annotated bibliography of Jewish historical novels.