The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets
Then and Now
- ISBN: 9781626983298
- Published By: Orbis Books
- Published: May 2019
Flipping to the final pages of a book can occasionally ruin one’s reading experience. However, the appendices in The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now provide an excellent glimpse into what Nahum Ward-Lev communicates to his readers. The first appendix lists spiritual exercises “that enable us to act with wisdom, courage, and vision” (205). Here, Ward-Lev lists practices such as gratitude and prayer, but also the practice of sacred study, a practice that laid the foundation for Ward Lev’s inspiring book (cf. xxii and 210).
The twenty-three chapters only span 204 pages, which encourages the reader to engage in brief reading sessions that lead to careful reflection. This reflection is further stimulated by the second appendix, which provides ponderous and personal questions for each bite-sized chapter (213–219). Every chapter progresses from the big picture of biblical texts or philosophical themes to individual reflection, encouraging the application of key ideas to one’s own life.
Ward-Lev continuously refers to two intertwined threads throughout the book: God’s living presence and the prophetic stream. First, in the very beginning of the book, Ward-Lev clarifies his translation of YHWH as “Living Presence” (xix). This translation of the divine name is meant to signify a God that accompanies “human beings and creation throughout time” (xix). Second, the “prophetic stream” is glossed as a “divinely initiated energy that interacts with each form within creation to release its potential” (45). The prophetic stream is tied to divine creativity and concerns the possibility of human beings creating a flourishing world. According to Ward-Lev, this creative ability drives human beings forward on a continuous liberation journey, from oppressive bondage toward mutual relationships.
Developing the two threads over the course of the book, Ward-Lev utilizes the first thirteen chapters to tease out how the prophetic stream flows throughout the Hebrew Bible. In the first chapter, Ward-Lev focuses on the early prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah) and accentuates three qualities that characterize prophets in any age: engagement with a divine (or common) love, courage to condemn oppression, and imagination to envision an alternative future (5). This set of qualities is meticulously retraced in chapter 20, where the author describes the prophetic stream as a present-day love ethic that drives new social initiatives that foster human flourishing. In any age, prophets emerge in the face of oppression, speak against injustice, and envision a future of freedom.
This dynamic of liberation is exemplified in chapter 3, where Ward-Lev retraces the Israelites’ journey from Egyptian bondage through the wilderness to freedom. This journey is mostly understood as a spiritual one, and it is repeated in the yearly festivals celebrated in the Jewish tradition. The journey can thus become a liberation journey for every individual; it is an “internal liberation journey, a learning journey with God” (24) in which everyone is encouraged to “leave one’s personal Egypt” (28). According to Ward-Lev, the aim of an individual’s liberation journey is to establish mutual relationships and just societies founded on love and dialogue. As Ward-Lev explores the journeys of Abraham and the Israelites in the book's first part, he emphasizes that God is also on a journey. God makes corrections to God’s plans, making God “a God who evolves” (60).
The tenth chapter is challenging, since it questions how God’s violent treatment of the Egyptians correlates with the prophetic stream. Ward-Lev argues that “sometimes overwhelming violence is necessary for the liberation journey” (87). It is bold to argue for the necessity of external force, but Ward-Lev simultaneously notes that “[e]xternal force does not nurture internal growth” (91). This lack of internal growth is exemplified in the Hebrew Bible since the latter prophets accentuate that the exodus did not nurture a covenantal relationship with God. While external force can be necessary, it does not singlehandedly lead to just societies.
The final chapters in part 1 narrate a brief history of Ancient Israel and the literary history of the Hebrew Bible. For this presentation, Ward-Lev relies on Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (Harper Collins, 1997), which contains some slightly outdated theories on the authorship and growth of the Hebrew Bible. However, the purpose of Ward-Lev’s book is not to discuss the dwindling consensus surrounding the documentary hypothesis. Instead, the chapters reveal how the biblical narratives, even when written under the authority of kings, have kept a subversive strand that speaks against unjust power structures.
The second part (the final ten chapters) departs from the Hebrew Bible and engages contemporary questions in conversation with the prophetic stream. In this part, the reader is introduced to the words and thoughts of modern prophets, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas, who, in different ways, sailed on the prophetic stream. Ward-Lev especially explores Buber’s philosophy and laments the growing individualism in Western societies that excludes “an understanding of the essential importance of relationship, community, and communion” (130). Together with Buber, Ward-Lev thus argues that the individualism that increases loneliness is a result of abandoning the relational attitude towards the world (Buber’s I-Thou).
But how does one combat this isolated loneliness? In consecutive chapters, Ward-Lev explores practices such as listening, dialogue, and loving without demanding reciprocal actions (King Jr.’s agape-love). These practices encourage relationships and can stir a desire for just societies. Having the courage to engage people from outside one’s comfort zone and maintaining a vulnerable, respectful, and empathetic dialogue with others helps one understand that life is a continuous learning process, which can lead to societal activism. According to Ward-Lev, an activistic dialogue is especially well facilitated through art, which accentuates human imagination. Ultimately, the prophetic stream enables people to use their divine creativity and envision alternative futures.
This book is not aimed at the historical-critical reader looking for literature on the formation of the Hebrew Bible, a detailed review of the prophetic books, or the sociological and cultural backgrounds of the biblical texts. Instead, the book is a laudable attempt to bring ancient texts and narratives into conversation with modern people, who have modern problems. With this book, Ward-Lev writes himself into the line of prophetic and critical voices that tackle the significant issues of today’s world.
Søren Lorenzen is a research associate in Old Testament studies at Bonn University.Søren LorenzenDate Of Review:April 22, 2023