Contemporary readers of the Hebrew Bible are bound to be disoriented when encountering the actual tales of the Prophets. After all, religion today is so often bound up in triumphal national hubris, and the stories of the classical Hebrew Prophets are often filled with anxiety and failure.
A case in point is the dramatic confrontation between the Israelite King Ahab and his nemesis, the Prophet Elijah.
Ahab, in the line of hated Omride kings, has married the pagan Jezebel who instills in the Israelite people the worship of Ba'al, the dynamic fertility god of nature. Ba'al is a mighty god who has enchanted the Israelites. Elijah, scion of YHWH, the national deity of the Israelites, is forced by Ahab to participate in a contest on Mount Carmel which will "prove" whether Ba'al or YHWH is the greater power.
Amazingly, after Elijah triumphs over the priests of Ba'al and slaughters the lot of them, he is forced to flee like a common criminal. Ahab is not much impressed by Elijah and continues to harass and persecute him. At a critical moment in the story, Elijah runs away and finds himself on Mount Horeb -- a place with its own historic importance in Israel's story -- despondent and suicidal: "It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors" (1 Kings 19:4).
Rather than crush the neo-pagan Ahab after his great triumph over Ba'al, Elijah runs to the hills depressed and frightened. The Biblical author impresses upon the reader the great paradox of an all-powerful God who comes to meet His messenger in the wilderness, where He is characterized by the text in the following manner: "Now there was a strong wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This is indeed a strange progression of images the text presents to the reader.
The final expression, a translation of the well-known Hebrew phrase Qol Demamah Daqqah -- can more literally be rendered as that "still, small voice." Even better, the Hebrew demamah has a secondary meaning signifying "wailing" and "tearful."
For the Hebrew Prophet God is not in the obvious places of nature's great fury in the manner of Ba'al: YHWH is found in the weak cry of the oppressed.
This is not an inconsequential detail in the Hebrew Bible. The aim of the Hebrew Prophet is to preserve God's integrity; which means defending the poor and the persecuted.
This detail is accentuated in Abraham Joshua Heschel's classic 1962 work The Prophets:
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 plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words.
What should we make of King Ahab in his battle against Prophet Elijah?
The answer to that question is very interesting, given the distance that contemporary Judaism has moved from its prophetic Biblical antecedents.
Seeing Judaism as fully embodied in the state of Israel and its Zionist ideology of a return to the land as the determinative factor in Jewish existence, we may rightly point to the demotion of sacred reading as the foundation of Jewish life. Sacred reading has been replaced by the science of archaeology and the unearthing of a more "authentic" Jewish history that has become the new "religion" of the Jews.
Archaeology in an Israeli key has led to some very interesting developments. The most cutting-edge archaeologists have undermined the history of most of the ancient portions of the Hebrew Bible and completely reframed our understanding of the Israelite kingdoms.
Most interesting is the way in which Ahab and the Omrides are seen by the new Israeli historians. It should come as little surprise that Ahab is characterized from a modern, secular point of view as a great success.
In their startling 2001 book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman state:
The true character of Israel under the Omrides involves an extraordinary story of military might, architectural achievement, and (as far as can be determined) administrative sophistication. Omri and his successors earned the hatred of the Bible precisely because they were so strong, precisely because they succeeded in transforming the northern kingdom into an important regional power that completely overshadowed the poor, marginal, rural-pastoral kingdom of Judah to the south.
King Ahab's Israel was materially prosperous and militarily strong. Israel under Ahab could be conventionally characterized in precisely the same way as today's Israel: a mighty military power that towered over its neighbors and provided a blanket of protection to its people, whatever the cost.
In chapter 20, directly after Elijah has his meeting with YHWH on Mount Horeb, Ahab defeats the mighty Arameans. Not only does Elijah remain a figure of questionable national import from the standpoint of Israel's security and physical well-being, but his constant defense of YHWH serves to obscure the very things that modern Zionism sees as the major factors in Jewish life.
Returning to Heschel's The Prophets we see that the messengers of God often acted in ways contrary to the political interests of the nation:
Sheer attachment to the people does not make a person a prophet. What motivates the prophet is God's attachment to Israel, and Israel's failure to reciprocate. To save the country was the aim of their mission, but the mission itself was to re-establish the relationship between Israel and God. Naïve or vulgar patriotism pandering to the natural instincts of the masses, the attitude of "My country right or wrong" was precisely what the prophets condemned.
The Hebrew Prophet engaged in what today would be considered acts of sedition. That sedition was meant to affirm the Covenant with YHWH, the very Covenant that allowed the Jewish people to survive over the course of millennia while their enemies fell into the dustbin of history. It is little wonder that Heschel's moralizing books have no currency in the fanatical Orthodox Jewish world and have had no real impact in modern-day Israel.
Today's Jews largely emulate the national values of Ahab. They are first concerned with the military power of Israel and are obsessed with its enemies and with the historic role of anti-Semitism as a decisive causal factor in Jewish existence.
It should be remembered that the Hebrew Prophets saw their main role as criticizing the powerful and mighty in Israel. They did not focus on the powerful and mighty among the Gentiles, of which there were certainly many.
The common appeal to Jewish solidarity that we hear repeated in pro-Israel and Zionist circles, brutally reinforced by what the socialist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called "Zionist anti-Semitism," was rejected by the Hebrew Prophets, who saw as their task the moral purification and social activism that became characteristic of the Jewish people in their long exile.
Prophetic self-criticism is the engine which has allowed Judaism to survive and flourish over the course of time.
As we begin the period of the High Holy Days, it would behoove us to open our Bibles and re-read the stories of the great Hebrew Prophets -- rebels all -- who spoke truth to power in the name of God and would not relent even in the face of death and personal destruction.
Their powerful faith in God has served us with a shining example of personal responsibility and integrity. Over the many generations of Jewish life, this faith demands social justice through fidelity to the Sinai Covenant, which teaches us who we are as Jews. It is a faith that demands the dignity of every single human being to live unmolested and free of oppression.
Those who have chosen the ways of Ahab have found worldly success and power. They have crushed their enemies and silenced the voices of those who dare to oppose their wicked guardianship of the earth. They belittle and humiliate those who look to the "still, small voice" of God that Elijah heard so many centuries ago. But we must not forget that security in the Jewish mind is to be found in the good works of humanity and not in the cruel depredations of the rich and powerful.
Time was always on the side of the Prophet in spite of the bleakness of the immediate present.
Adrift in a stormy sea of Ahabs, some of us remain alienated as we continue to battle injustice and prejudice while remaining on the losing end of persecution and humiliation.