Neo-conservative thinker and author Norman Podhoretz has written topics as diverse as politics, patriotism, and literature for decades, most famously during his 35-year tenure as editor of Commentary magazine. His most recent book, "The Prophets" (Free Press, 2002), combines literary criticism with biblical exegesis to provide new interpretations of the oft-ignored prophetic canon. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about the mission of the prophets, the failures of modern-day attempts at prophecy, and what the ancient prophets can teach us today.
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What sparked your interest in the prophets?
I first studied the prophets over 50 years ago as a student in Hebrew. I fell in love with some of them. But in the last few decades, like almost everybody else in this culture, I neglected them. This is a heritage of inestimable value that has simply been lost.
A few years ago I was invited to give a lecture on the book of Isaiah. I revisited it and got hooked. I found as I went along that the prophets were not at all what I remembered and not at all what most people think they know about them. So I decided to write this book for two reasons: so that I could do what I could to rekindle interest in this great treasure that we've inherited, and to reinterpret these books in a way that seemed to me truer to the text than the standard stereotypes and the conventional interpretations. And finally, I thought that I should try to explore the question of what the prophets might still have to say to us, living in radically different circumstances. I concluded that what they had to say is centrally relevant to our situation today.
What was the primary mission of the prophets?
The primary mission was to conduct a war that had begun in the days of Abraham, roughly 4,000 years ago in 2000 B.C.E., a war against idolatry. A war to establish the truth of the great revelation, namely that there was only one god, not many gods, which is what everyone, including Abraham's own father believed. That you couldn't see him, you couldn't make a picture of him, you couldn't make a statue of him to which you would then bow down. That he was the creator of all things in heaven and earth and the one true God of all human beings.
There was a positive mission as well, which was to explain why obedience to the law of God is good, and that despite all appearances to the contrary, the life of infidelity, of idolatry, brings a curse to those who follow it. Over the course of about 1500 years, when this war against idolatry was being conducted, the children of Israel were constantly backsliding and submitting to the temptations of idolatry, which were rampant in the world around them. They were constantly forgetting what was required of them, sometimes in good conscience. They imagined that what they were doing was all right in the eyes of God, and it was to correct those errors of understanding and also spiritual regressions that the prophets were sent by God. They did this both by trying to depict the evils associated with idolatry and the glories associated with fidelity to God, including the ultimate triumph of God over the whole world, which would be brought about only when the children of Israel finally expunged all the idolatrous temptations from their own souls.
Were the prophets only talking to the Israelites?
Yes and no. They weren't just talking to Israel, but they were talking primarily to Israel. Their view is that the universal can be reached only through the particular. The children of Israel--to whom the prophet Amos said, 'You only of all nations have I known, therefore I shall visit upon you all your iniquities'--were not only privileged to be given God's law, but they also had a special responsibility, and they would be more heavily punished than other nations to whom the revelation was not granted. This is why Jews in later centuries would sometimes say, "Dear God, please choose someone else for a change."