The Voice of God to the Silent Agony

In The Prophets, rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907–1972) makes a compelling case that God’s prophets in the Old Testament were not merely carriers of the inspired word, they were also agents of divine passion. To the degree that “the characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God” (298). Now that’s an overstated contrast, but you get the point. The message of the prophets exceeded what matter-of-fact language alone could contain, and this is because “the prophet hears God’s voice and feels His heart” (31). Thus, the prophets carry God’s word in God’s emotion. The two are inseparable.

Building from this pathos, Heschel addresses the nature of injustice that caught the attention of the Prophets and brought forth their prophetic ire —

The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshiping ‘the Queen of Heaven’? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation? . . .

Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice — cheating in business, exploitation of the poor — is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world. . . .

The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor. (3–6)

Above all, Heschel writes, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people. Few are guilty, but all are responsible” (19).

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