While the Bible almost exclusively names men as prophets, Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz celebrates heroic, largely unknown biblical women such as Shiphrah, Tirzah, and Hannah. He also deepens readers’ interpretations of more familiar biblical figures not generally thought of as prophets, such as Joseph, Judah, and Caleb.
Schwartz introduces the prophets with creative, first-person retellings of their decisive experiences, followed by key biblical narratives, context, and analysis. He weighs our heroes’ and heroines’ legacies—their obstacles and triumphs—and considers how their ethical examples live on; he guides us on how to integrate biblical-ethical values into our lives; and he challenges each of us to walk the prophetic path today.
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The path of protest
I Am Abraham
The three men who came to visit us bore an extraordinary message. Sarah and I had despaired of ever having a child. I was sad and perplexed and almost without hope. I did not understand the voice of God that had repeatedly told me that I would be the father of a great nation, yet we had no children. I had listened to that commanding voice from the time I was told to leave my home and homeland. I heeded that voice when I sealed a covenant with the Lord, promising me a new land, and descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. I had attended to that voice when a son was born to me by Hagar, only to be told he would not bear the covenant.
You will excuse Sarah for laughing when the men said that she would give birth in one year. I too had laughed when God first spoke of it. We had done so much and waited so long for this to happen, and it didn't. I don't want to say that I had lost faith in God, but I just did not understand the plan. It was in this state of confusion and perplexity that I reacted so strongly to what happened next, when the men took leave and God revealed to me what was about to happen to Sodom. Not only was Sodom a big city, but it is where my nephew Lot and his family lived. The thought that it could be wiped out in one fell swoop hit me like a thunderbolt.
I hurled the question to my Maker: "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" I shouted, "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"
There was no turning back from my challenge. "What if there should be fifty innocent within the city, will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?" Each time God responded, I pressed my case. What if there are forty, thirty, twenty, ten? And then, just like that, the argument was over, the debate unresolved.
I was shaking, but I knew in my heart I had done the right thing. If God didn't want me to respond, then why had God told me? In fact, in thinking about it I realized that perhaps this was a test, yet another in a series from my inscrutable Creator. Did I pass this text? When God first spoke to me I was led to understand that the people that would issue from my loins would not only be great in number, but great in character. Had not my Lord said, "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you." If that is our destiny, then I, Abraham, must set the example. In every instance of injustice I must speak out, even if it comes from the Almighty himself!
There is much I do not understand of the Eternal One. I know I am but flesh and blood. But my God has given me the ability to know right from wrong. I will speak out. I have challenged the Almighty and lived to tell the story.
Abraham's Argument: From the Bible
The call to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3):
1 The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.
2 I will make of you a great nation,
Abraham's argument with God (Gen. 18:16–33):
16 The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off. 17 Now the Lord had said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? 19 For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him." 20 Then the Lord said, "The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! 21 I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note."
22 The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Abraham came forward and said, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? 24 What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? 25 Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" 26 And the Lord answered, "If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." 27 Abraham spoke up, saying, "Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: 28 What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?" And He answered, "I will not destroy if I find forty-five there." 29 But he spoke to Him again, and said, "What if forty should be found there?" And He answered, "I will not do it, for the sake of the forty." 30 And he said, "Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?" And He answered, "I will not do it if I find thirty there." 31 And he said, "I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?" And He answered, "I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty." 32 And he said, "Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?" And He answered, "I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten."
33 When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.
Abraham's Argument: The Prophetic Moment
Abraham came forward and said, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with guilty? ... Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:23, 25)
Abraham's argument with God is altogether remarkable. Abraham is otherwise portrayed as a man of utter obedience. In response to the call to uproot himself and his family, to journey further and further, to establish a covenant, to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, and even to sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham always submits to God's commands. With nary a word of comment or objection he does what he is told. That the patriarch of unquestioning faith steps forward to question God's actions comes as a shock.
Abraham's argument — how could God, the ultimate Judge, act unjustly by countenancing the killing of potentially innocent people? — is nothing less than a moral challenge to God.
Once the debate begins, Abraham does not let go. While unfailingly polite, he continues to press his point, down to the question of whether God will destroy an entire city if ten innocents be found there. Then Abraham's argument comes to an abrupt and truncated end. "When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place" (Gen. 18:33).
Abraham is a champion of justice because he insists on righteousness even from God. In doing so he initiates the venerable Jewish tradition of disputation and debate in service of a higher purpose. Because God's action weighs heavily on Abraham, he feels compelled to do something about it — to protest, to argue, even with God. He will do so respectfully; the biblical text shows much deference. But Abraham will not back down.
It is imperative to remember on what basis Abraham challenges God. To miss this point is to miss the essence of the patriarch and his signal contribution to Western monotheism. Abraham initiates the prophetic path of protest, but he does so from a place of faith. He protests because he has a relationship with God, an agreement with God, and an expectation of God. That agreement, the brit (covenant), is central to both God and Abraham.
Note how and why God feels compelled to disclose to Abraham: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him" (Gen. 17–19). If not for the covenant, there would be no compelling reason for God to disclose the intended destruction of the city, for Abraham to object, or for God to respond in dialogue.
Nobel Peace Prize–winner and writer Elie Wiesel maintains that this Abrahamic dialectic of protest and faith is at the core of Jewish identity. In his book A Jew Today he writes: "To be a Jew means to serve God by espousing man's cause, to plead for man while recognizing his need of God. And to opt for the Creator and His creation, refusing to pit one against the other. Of course man must interrogate God, as did Abraham. ... But only the Jew opts for Abraham — who questions and for God-who-is-questioned. ... Only the Jew knows that he may oppose God so long as he does so in defense of His creation." Abraham wants God to adhere to the same standard that the Torah will later command us: "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deut. 16:20).
Abraham's prophetic moment can be appreciated not only against the backdrop of his faith but also his life circumstances and his conscience. The patriarch's life of late has been ... tumultuous. Abraham has journeyed far, far from home. No sooner does he arrive in Canaan then a famine forces him to journey farther to Egypt. There he endures a crisis with his wife. Upon his return, he has to deal with two emergencies regarding his nephew Lot, not to mention hostile neighbors. Moreover, there is no peace in his home. Sarah cannot conceive. When she gives Abraham her maidservant Hagar, and Hagar becomes pregnant, the enmity between the two women intensifies to the point that Abraham heeds Sarah's demand to banish Hagar. She returns, gives birth to Ishmael, and the tensions rise again. Abraham has enough on his plate. The last thing he needs is a run-in with God. But he cannot remain silent.
The reason he can't is because something is bothering him. Today we employ Freudian psychology to say that Abraham is troubled by his conscience. He has an innate sense that the innocent should not be punished with the guilty. Abraham has a moral code. He believes the code should apply to all, even God, who apparently seems willing to violate that code in wholesale destruction of a city.
In ethical theory, the term for the problem that sparks Abraham's indignation is "collective punishment." It is familiar to us each time our son or daughter complains "it's not fair" that their whole class is punished for the mistakes of the few. On a larger scale, it haunts societies that wrestle with issues of noncombatant immunity and proportionality during times of war.
Abraham's prophetic moment of protest ends inconclusively and enigmatically. At first God appears to accept Abraham's argument, but the argument halts at the consideration of ten innocent people. The Torah records that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were indeed destroyed. Did God uphold the terms of the debate? Were there fewer than ten innocent people to be found? If Abraham's intention was to save the cities from destruction, he failed (though his nephew was saved). If his intention was to give God pause, to make God rethink before taking action, he may have succeeded. Torah teacher and psychotherapist Naomi Rosenblatt understands the lesson of Abraham's prophetic moment as the "power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world."
Walking with Abraham: The Path of Protest
Abraham establishes the extraordinary precedent that, for the sake of justice, even God can be questioned. The Talmud has a unique expression that describes just this attitude: chutzpah k'lapei shamaya — boldness, or nerviness, toward heaven (or, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once called it, "holy chutzpah!")
Abraham is the first, but certainly not the last, to display such chutzpah. In his company is none other than Moses, the other paragon of God's faithful servant. While the majority of the time Moses is an advocate for God to his stiff-necked people, at several junctures he feels compelled to side with his stubborn and wayward compatriots (sometimes disparagingly called "riffraff" or "mixed multitude.")
The Torah does not shy away from portraying what appears to be a vengeful God who is not beyond wiping out the people ... if not for the protest of Moses. The most striking example occurs after the Children of Israel hear the bleak report of the twelve spies (Joshua and Caleb excepted) and break out into a near riot. God is so exasperated and angry — "How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs I have performed in their midst?" — that God threatens their annihilation: "I will strike them with pestilence and disown them" (Num. 14:11–12).
Alarmed, fearing for the Israelites' very existence, Moses immediately takes up his people's defense. Like a lawyer, he tries several lines of argument. First, he appeals to God's reputation: God's ego (to again borrow from Freud). He poses the question, "What will the Egyptians think if you do such a thing?" Then he answers his own question to drive his point home: "If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 'It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land which He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.'" Then Moses reminds God of the qualities of mercy and kindness that the Lord has previously self-described: "slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression." Finally, the prophet goes for a direct appeal that references God's past record: "Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt" (Num. 14:13–19).
Job also follows in Abraham's legacy of protest — and his dissent before God is as powerful as Abraham's or Moses'. Indeed, "The Book of Job sanctifies defiance of unjust authority," writes author William Safire in The First Dissident, his book about Job. "It enshrines dissent and demands moral self-reliance." In his introduction Safire maintains:
The moral excitement in the Book of Job is the sufferer's outrage at God's refusal to do justice. ... Job reaches across the millennia to express modern Man's outrage at today's inequities.
Job cries out: Why does He give light to the sufferer, and life to the bitter in spirit? (3:20) On my part, I will not speak with restraint; I will give voice to the anguish of my spirit. (7:11) Indeed I know that it is so: Man cannot win a suit against God ... Who can say to Him, "What are You doing?" (9:2, 12)
I say to God, "Do not condemn me; Let me know what You charge me with. Does it benefit You to defraud, to despise the toil of Your hands, while smiling on the counsel of the wicked?" (10:2–3)
I insist on arguing with God ... I will have my day, come what may upon me. (13:3, 13) Why do You hide Your face, and treat me like an enemy? (13:24)
Why do the wicked live on, prosper and grow wealthy? (21:7)
By God who has deprived me of justice ... my lips will speak no wrong, nor my tongue utter deceit. Far be it from me to say you are right; until I die I will maintain my integrity. (27:2, 4–5).
Excerpted from "Path of the Prophets"
Copyright © 2018 Barry L. Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments About This Book Preface: Why the Prophets? Introduction: The Ethics-Driven Life Part 1. To Do Justly 1. Abraham’s Argument: The Path of Protest 2. Shiphrah’s Defiance: The Path of Civil Disobedience 3. Moses’ Encounter: The Path of Freedom 4. Tirzah’s Challenge: The Path of Equality 5. Samuel’s Warning: The Path of Rebuke 6. Nathan’s Parable: The Path of Righteousness Part 2. To Love Mercy 7. Judah’s Step Forward: The Path of Repentance 8. Joseph’s Cry: The Path of Forgiveness 9. Ruth’s Vow: The Path of Kindness 10. Elisha’s Invitation: The Path of Healing 11. Jeremiah’s Scroll: The Path of Hope 12. Jonah’s Lesson: The Path of Compassion Part 3. To Walk Humbly 13. Miriam’s Celebration: The Path of Joy 14. Caleb’s Spirit: The Path of Faith 15. Hannah’s Prayer: The Path of Prayer 16. Elijah’s Voice: The Path of Humility 17. Isaiah’s Vision: The Path of Peace 18. Ezra’s Torah: The Path of Wisdom A Prophetic Glossary Study Guide: Living the Bible Notes Bibliography