THE POETICS OF PROPHECY: MODERN AFTERLIVES OF A BIBLICAL TRADITION by Yosefa Raz, Reviewed by Karen Weisman
 


THE POETICS OF PROPHECY: MODERN AFTERLIVES OF A BIBLICAL TRADITION
By Yosefa Raz
(Cambridge, 2024) xii + 216 pp.
Reviewed by Karen Weisman on 2024-06-06.

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This brilliant book about the modern afterlives of biblical prophecy has arrived precisely when we need it most: in a politically, ecologically, and even medically perilous world, the doomsayers of old (and new) seem to be claiming a new purchase on modern consciousness. In her patiently nuanced study of prophecy in the long nineteenth century, Yosefa Raz points the way to an understanding of instability as nothing less than the ground of ultimate strength, one with the potential to contest hegemonic powers. The figure of the biblical prophet is conventionally linked to power and authority, and as such is perpetually claimed and reinvented in the image of its readers' historically specific needs. Raz surveys the "poetics of prophecy" since the mid-eighteenth century, and establishes a compelling narrative in which prophets, poets, and scholars engage the biblical figure. In studying the ways in which modern biblical scholarship and cultural production--especially Romantic poetry--were mutually constitutive, Raz moves beyond the heretofore available studies of post-Enlightenment prophecy by such scholars as Ian Balfour and Christopher Bundock.

For Raz, the perpetual reinvention and reimagination of the biblical prophet often takes place in response to political and cultural disappointment, failure, or anxiety. She illustrates that the Bible itself is inherently indeterminate, however, and that its prophets' doubts, anxieties, and anger cannot always be resolved into a teleological narrative of resolute belief or nationalist conviction. Post-enlightenment authors who confront the crises of secularism are, in fact, refracting a biblical text that is itself haunted by skepticism. Raz "is concerned with the interpretive possibilities that open up when biblical literature, as well as literature more generally, is read through its failure and weakness" (23). Insofar as instability and doubt preclude an unreflective acceptance of inherited orthodoxies, what Raz terms "weak prophecy" becomes the very ground of cultural, spiritual, and political resistance.

The first two chapters take up the aesthetic concerns of prophecy. Chapter 1, "Seraphic Choirs and Stuttering Prophets: Symmetry, Disorder, and the Invention of the Literary Bible," considers Bishop Robert Lowth's lectures on the Bible. Working in eighteenth-century England, Lowth was immensely influential in laying the foundation for what we today refer to as "the Bible as literature." His most important contribution consisted in the elucidation of "biblical parallelism," which viewed biblical verse in terms of its formal symmetries. Readers were thereby able to read the Bible not as religion but as poetry, without having to immerse themselves in what Lowth characterizes as Jewish interpretive structures. As such, the authority of the prophet could be understood in aesthetic terms, a possibility embraced enthusiastically by the Romantic poets. Raz does a superb job of scrutinizing Lowth's efforts to wrest a neat unity from prophetic texts that were sometimes resistant to it, and of observing that the very fissures in a longed-for aesthetic wholeness constitute a strength-in-weakness.

Chapter 2, "Walking through William Blake's Irregular Bible," is full of tantalizing readings not only of Blake's poetry but of the history of Blake criticism, which sought to establish a "systematic Blake," a "codebook, an orderly map of the territory of Blake's work" that would correspond to a systematic Bible (57). Raz argues persuasively for letting go of such nostalgia. Our more contemporary Blake appropriates "weak prophecy" as a way of moving beyond totalizing allegory and towards the potentialities of more open readings. Raz impressively reads Blake's Milton against the text of Isaiah, which gains power "precisely through the tension between concealment and revelation" (70). For both Blake and the Isaianic author, the incomplete revelation yields the most vital prophetic vision.

Chapter 3, "The Myth of Primordial Orality and the Disfigured Face of Written Prophecy," returns to the scene of late-nineteenth-century German critical-historical studies. This moment is typified by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), whose work was enormously influential in establishing historical-critical biblical scholarship. Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel claims to trace a "fall" from the inspired prophets of the ancient Israelites to the priestly legalism of more recent history. Here Ezekiel is the focus, viewed by Wellhausen as a scribal "priest in a prophet's mantle" marking the transition from inspired, strong prophecy to scribal priestliness, a degraded state which is associated with "imitation, deception, abstraction, and...distance from nature" (96). Raz situates Wellhausen within a (sentimentalized) Romantic milieu, one that valorizes such Romantic clichés as spontaneity and unspoiled nature. She also reads him as reflecting "the anxieties and paradoxes of German Romantic poetry: specifically, its ambivalence about written culture, and its attempt to bridge the gap between the immediacy and the impossible distance of textual address" (119).

It is views such as Wellhausen's that Asher Zvi Ginsberg (known as Ahad Ha'am, 1856-1927) passionately criticizes in his argument for the continuity of Jewish prophecy. He envisions a cultural (as opposed to political), secular Zionism, one that would infuse a renewed spirituality of Jewish identity wherever Jews live. This is the focus of Chapter 4, "Ahad Ha'am's Mask of Moses and the Secularization of Prophetic Power." The prophet most central to the vision of Ahad Ha'am is Moses, whose narrative he reinvents in the service of augmenting his arguments about Jewish cultural continuity. But Ahad Ha'am's idealized Moses is also a projection of his heroic fantasies for the healing of Jewish anxieties about exile and disempowerment. Raz reads Ahad Ha'am's idiosyncratic writing about Moses--which seeks to establish the continuity of strong prophecy--as subtly evocative of weaker counter-movements, exposing the "wobbliness" of his project of establishing Jewish cultural continuity and unity. Especially when read in context of such figures as Lowth and Wellhausen, it becomes evident that Ahad Ha'am's "strong prophecy is very much a modern construction" (154).

The most ardent of Ahad Ha'am's followers was H. N. Bialik (1873-1934), conventionally referred to as the national poet of the Jewish people. Bialik, the subject of Chapter 5, often assumed the voice of an angry poet-prophet: angry about the East European pogroms, and angry about the inadequate responses of his coreligionists. Raz offers an especially powerful reading of Bialik's famous poem "In the City of Slaughter," written in response to the Bessarabian Kishinev pogrom of 1903. The poet rages against God and against the victims who, by the poem's logic, remained passive in the face of their persecution. While Bialik knew that such a judgment was not entirely accurate, the poem did galvanize Jewish self-defense movements. The poet-prophet who occupies the center of this poem is instructed "to arise and go to the city of slaughter" to survey the massacre. Raz sees Bialik as resisting the temptation to construct biblical prophecy in the image of modernity. Instead, he "yields to the wildness of prophetic language, alchemically fusing the biblical text and European Romanticism, ancient and modern prophetic weakness, in one terrible, awesome storm" (173). This storm paradoxically gave voice to a coherent Jewish identity in the early twentieth century.

Raz's beautifully conceived Afterword evinces her sensitive eye for the afterlives of prophecy. Here, she reads a small but highly evocative selection of avant-garde poets including, among others, Anne Carson, Rob Halpern, and M. NourbeSe Philip. These poets' resistance to authoritarianism, and their refusal to disguise pain or vulnerability, defines their mobilization of weak prophecy. They make a fitting conclusion to a book that celebrates openness as it considers the stakes of prophecy in our highly vexed moment.

Some readers might find Raz's persistent reading of failure-as-triumph to be more sanguine than is absolutely necessary. This through-line is carefully argued, to be sure, and each chapter approaches it from a different perspective and historical context. And Raz really does seem to believe, as she points out in her Afterword, that "we have never stopped being prophets" (176). Like Raz, I am more inclined to celebrate the ironic reversals of failure right now than to complain about the recuperation of hope. This book is a great achievement, one that will clarify, provoke, and inspire.

Karen Weisman, FRSC is Professor of English at the University of Toronto.