At this time, as we recall the destruction of our two Temples, we read three of the most searing passages in prophetic literature, from the beginnings of Jeremiah and Isaiah.
Perhaps this is the only time of the year when we are so acutely aware of the enduring force of Israel’s great visionaries. The prophets had no power. They were not kings or members of the royal court. They were (usually) not priests or members of the religious establishment and they held no office. Often they were deeply unpopular, none more so than Jeremiah, who was arrested, flogged, abused, put on trial and only narrowly escaped with his life. Only rarely were the prophets heeded in their lifetimes: Jonah for example, and he spoke to non-Jews, the citizens of Nineveh. Yet their words were recorded for posterity and became a major feature of Tanach. They were the world’s first social critics and their message continues through the centuries. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: when a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies his influence begins.
The prophet was distinctive not because he (or she – there were seven biblical prophetesses) foretold the future. The ancient world was full of people who claimed to know the forces that govern fate and “shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Judaism has no time for such people. The Torah bans one “who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deut. 18: 10-11). It disbelieves such practices because it believes in human freedom. The future is not pre-scripted. The prophet warns – not predicts – of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways. The future depends on us and the choices we make.
Nor was the prophet distinctive in blessing or cursing the people. In Judaism, blessing comes through priests not prophets.
Several things made the prophets unique. The first was their sense of history. The prophets were the first people to see God in history. We tend to take our sense of time for granted. Time flows. As the saying goes, time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But actually there are several ways of relating to time and different civilizations have perceived it differently.
There is cyclical time: time as the slow turning of the seasons, or the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. Cyclical time is time as it occurs in nature. All that lives, dies. The species endures, individual members do not. Kohelet contains the most famous expression of cyclical time: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course … What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Then there is linear time: time as an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. As French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace said in 1814: If you “know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed,” together with all the laws of physics and chemistry, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present” before your eyes. Karl Marx applied this idea to society and history. It is known as historical inevitability, and when transferred to human affairs it amounts to a massive denial of personal freedom.
Finally, there is time as a mere sequence of events with no underlying plot or theme. This leads to the kind of writing pioneered by Herodotus and Thucydides, scholars of ancient Greece.
Each of these concepts has its place, but none was time as the prophets understood it. The prophets saw time as the arena in which God and humanity played out the great drama of life, especially in the history of Israel. If Israel was faithful to its mission, it would flourish. If it was unfaithful it would fail. It would suffer defeat and exile. That was Jeremiah’s tireless – and timeless – message.
The second prophetic insight was the unbreakable connection between monotheism and morality. Somehow the prophets sensed that idolatry was not just false but corrupting. It saw the universe as a multiplicity of oft-clashing powers. Might defeating right. The fittest surviving while the weak perish. Nietzsche believed this, as did the social Darwinists.
Their third great insight was the primacy of ethics over politics. The prophets have surprisingly little to say about politics. Yes, Samuel was wary of monarchy but we find almost nothing in Isaiah or Jeremiah about the way Israel/Judah should be governed. Instead we hear a constant insistence that the strength of the nation is not military or demographic but moral and spiritual. If the people keep faith with God and one another, no force on earth can defeat them. If they do not, no force can save them.
Jeremiah, the most passionate and tormented of all the prophets, has gone down in history as the prophet of doom. Yet this is unfair. He was also supremely a prophet of hope. He is the man who said that the people of Israel will be as eternal as the sun, moon and stars (Jer. 31). He is the man who, while the Babylonians were laying siege to Jerusalem, bought a field as a public gesture of faith that Jews would return from exile: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32).
Jeremiah’s feelings of doom and hope were not in conflict: they were two sides of the same coin. The God who sentenced His people to exile would be the God who brought them back, for though His people might forsake Him, He would never forsake them. Jeremiah may have lost faith in people; he never lost faith in God.
Prophecy ceased in the Second Temple era. But the prophetic truths are eternal. Only by being faithful to God do we stay faithful to one another. Only by understanding the deep forces that shape history can we defeat the ravages of history. Only by being open to a power greater than ourselves can we become greater than ourselves. It took a long time for biblical Israel to learn these truths. We must never forget them again.