Matthew's Reviews > The Prophets

The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel
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's review
Jul 28, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: god
Read from July 28, 2011 to March 07, 2012

Feb 2012: Recently completed Book II -- also excellent, a bit less of direct argument and more historical contextualising against other faiths.


Oct 2011: This review is for Book I -- am taking a break before digging into Book II. I generally enjoyed Book I and really like how as a Jewish author he argues solely from the Old Testament and yet the message resonates very strongly with the message of the New Testament. The structure of the text is a reading of individual books, then a few thematic summaries: chiefly on God's role in history. The final chapter is on justice which I used as basis for a short public prayer, with the key points below.

1. Justice and morality are more important to God than sacrifice and even prayer

2. Justice is not — like in the Greco-Roman conception — an objective reality or set of unalterable laws that exists apart from God. Rather justice is an expression of God’s will and being. Justice in the Hebrew mind (or mishpat) is a mode of action, which stems from tsedakah, or righteousness — the former implies giving each his due, the latter implies a burning compassion, an emotive sense.

Sub-point: justice implies one party has a right, and this implies the counter-party has an obligation or responsibility. Justice is thus an inter-personal relationship, and exists only in context of community.

Implication: Justice doesn’t exist apart from God. Wherefore humanism then?

3. Why justice doesn’t exist apart from God — reason 1:

“Justice represented as a blindfolded virgin, while conveying the essential thought of the rightful caution of the mind against illusions and partiality of the heart, conceives the process of justice as a mechanical process, as if the life of man were devoid of individuality and uniqueness and could be adequately understood in terms of inexorable generalisations. There is a point at which strict justice is unjust.

“Immutable justice — the principle of fiat justicia, pereat mundus — raises justice to a position of supremacy, denying to any other principle the power to temper it, regarding it as an absolute; the world exists for the sake of maintaining justice rather than justice for the sake of maintaining the world…

“God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men…. Justice, as stated above is not an abstraction or value. It exists in relation to a person and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

“When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the words denouncing his crime did not proclaim: You have broken the law. Instead we read: And the Lord said, What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the Ground.”

4. Why justice doesn’t exist apart from God — reason 2:

The personalisation of the moral idea is the indispensable assumption of prophetic theology. Mercy, grace, repentance, forgiveness, all would be impossible if the moral principle were held to be superior to God. “If thou, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?” Psalm 312:3.

5. Human justice progresses to mercy, which progresses to humility before God

What does God require of you O man, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 8:6.

To do justly — righteousness; To love mercy — reflecting that mercy is part of the justice born of righteouness (in the sense of compassion), rather than the justice born of ideology; To walk humbly — to recognise that we ourselves are in need of mercy.

Also consider: humanism’s justice aims for the first, and to a certain extent the second. But the impossibility of universalising legal justice is why humanism fails. To some extent our judicial systems try to adjust for that by giving the judge some leeway in interpretation and administration of the law. But only to some extent, and certainly there is no forgiveness clause. Humanistic justice makes no attempt at the third — addressing the pride of a civilisation and aiming for humility.

Harking back to Amos 4:6-13: after a slew of punishments… “yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. Therefore thus I will do to you O Israel… Prepare to meet your God!” — usually interpreted to mean prepare to meet extreme disaster worse than any punishment so far — but the word ‘prepare’ in Hebrew usage means to prepare to meet someone favorably, or for a constructive achievement. So Heschel reads it here to mean: God will come to meet you, to forgive you — since the ‘justice’ approach hasn’t worked, let’s do the ‘mercy’ approach.

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