Friday, January 16, 2015

Portraying the Prophet

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Yes, this post will contain images of the Prophet, but not Muhammad. Instead, I'd like to talk about the first person ever selected by God to be a prophet, navi in Hebrew--that would be the guy on the left.
Cause I be frontispiecin, yo!
Cause I be frontispiecin, yo!
Yes, in this week's Torah portion, we witness God selecting a navi for the first time in Scripture, and it's Aaron (Exod. 7:1): "Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet."

Prophet in Greek, like navi in Hebrew, refers to a speaker. In this analogy, Moses and Aaron are God and prophet, as Moses has doubts about his own oratorical skills. This parallels what we read last week (4:15-16):
You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do. Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and he will be as a mouth for you and you will be as God to him.
So a prophet is God's spokesman, the divine mouthpiece, the heavenly press secretary. He takes the celestial communique and presents it in a way that the audience will listen to.
This concept is essential to understanding the gap we often find between our ethical standards and the words of Scripture. Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber writes about this eloquently on, in his "Marrying Your Daughter to Her Rapist: A Test Case in Dealing with Morally Problematic Biblical Laws."
The Torah contains a number of laws that fly in the face of modern ethical notions. In certain ways, this is similar to the question of science and Torah, where many admit that the Torah expresses notions of the universe that contradict modern science. Although a significant number of people in the Orthodox world have made peace with the fact that the Torah speaks in the language of its times when it comes to science, the question is all the more pressing when it comes to ethics, especially for people who find themselves inhabiting both the Torah and modern worlds.
Rabbi Farber notes that the Sages themselves reinterpreted many of the Torah laws which they found morally troubling. But that doesn't solve the issue of why God would gives us such laws in the first place. So, building on the conceptual framework of Professor Tamar Ross, he argues:
But if, as Ross and others have argued, we assume that prophecy is not meant to be understood as a verbal revelation from God to the prophet, but—to use my language—as a tapping into the divine flow, then understanding the historical and intellectual context of the author/prophet is vital. Once we admit that any divine message is refracted through a human perspective, then by definition, the divine message will be incomplete and subject to the perspectives and comprehension of the prophet.
The problem with this approach, of "tapping into the divine flow," is not only that it makes God extremely passive, but that it seems to ignore the role of the people. (Rabbi Farber brings the latter issue up parenthetically.) Consider the compulsion described by Amos (3:8): "The lion has roared-- who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken-- who can but prophesy?" The prophet does not go out into the wilderness seeking to commune with the divine, dowsing for the word of God--he is gripped by an almost autonomic need to convey his message to the nation.
Using the Amramite example, would we say Aaron was tapping Moses' flow? Moses' problem is not understanding God, but being understood by the people. Thus, if we triangulate God, prophet and people when confronting an idea that seem ethically untenable, we should not find fault with the prophet's limitations, but rather with the people.
Indeed, the role of the navi is not just to convey God's word to the people, but to advocate for them. He knows how to speak not only for God, but also to God.
This is quite evident when we go back to the first person to be referred to as a navi, Abraham. God calls him by this title not when He first reveals Himself, indeed not when speaking to Abraham at all, but rather to Abimelech (Gen. 20:7):
Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Now, how bizarre is to picture this: God is speaking to Abimelech about what he needs to do to save himself from divine wrath for the kidnapping of Sarah: 1) release Sarah; 2) ask Abraham to pray for him. So God is telling Abimelech to tell Abraham to tell God to heal Abimelech? This seems circular, until we consider the power of the prophet: he alone can put a message in the proper words, shaping it for his audience--even if that audience is Omnipotent and Omniscient.
The role of the prophet is an integral one. But ultimately, prophecy was taken from us, and it is now we people who must do our best, using the revelations of long ago, the facts of today, and the compass of our conscience to figure out what God wants.
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