In the Beginning, the Prophet Was Poet

Long before the academics, Jewish prophets knew all about 'intertextuality'


What academics heralded not too long ago as "intertextuality"--an author's practice of alluding to older texts by engaging their original meaning, then placing them within a new context and endowing them with a renewed significance--has been the linchpin of Jewish literature since the writings of the prophets.

Consider, first, one of many modern examples. After World War II, Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein composed a poem, "Without Jews" ("On yidn"), where the intertextuality consists of nothing less than brazenly refashioning the voice of an ancient biblical prophet. The flashes of familiarity that Glatstein's poem allows--language and images of the Bible--train our attention on how revolutionary his prophecy is.

Here is a translation of parts of "Without Jews":

Without Jews, there will be no Jewish God.

If, heaven forbid, we should quit

This world, your poor tent's light

Would be stamped out.

Since Abraham knew you in a cloud

You have burned on all Jewish faces

And streamed from all Jewish eyes

And we formed you in our likeness:

And in every land, and every city,

You too were a stranger alongside us,

Oh, Jewish God. ...

Soon your reign will close.

Where Jews sowed,

A scorched waste. ...

Whole congregations sleep,

The babies, the women,

The young, old,

Even your pillars. Your rocks,

The tribe of your saints,

Sleep their dead

Eternal sleep.

Who will dream you?

Remember you?

Deny you?

Yearn after you? ...

Your tent void of light.

Flicker of the Jews' last hour.

Soon, Jewish God,

Your eclipse.

Glatstein turns the traditional prophetic rebuke of God's people on God. With chilling logic, he explains that the relationship between "Creator" and "created" is one of such mutual dependence that their roles are actually identical ("and we formed you in our likeness"). To emphasize this, the prophet's anger is lightly masked beneath a casual comportment (in the original Yiddish, he addresses God with the less formal


rather than


), and with an air of matter-of-factness he outlines God's doom.

The poem's central motif is the eternal flame of the Tent of Meeting (taken from the Book of Exodus), which was meant to symbolize God's enduring presence among the people, His enduring protection. Here, the poet/prophet throws God's words back in his face, reminding Him that the Jews' destruction means His own demise as well.

Poets throughout the centuries have adopted the voice of the prophet, seizing upon its authority and providing the reader with an instant frame of reference that assigns layers of meaning to their words. But in the beginning--before the poet was prophet--the prophet was poet. Ezekiel, whom we read this Sabbath, was perhaps the quintessential poetic prophet. He provides in his prophecy his own take on the history of the Jewish nation: It begins with the exile, to which he bears witness, and culminates in the people's restored glory in the Land of Israel. In this way, the Book of Ezekiel is generally understood as comprising two parts: God's rebuke, followed by God's consolation.

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