Path of the Prophets (Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz) -- A Review

PATH OF THE PROPHETS:The Ethics-Driven Life. By Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018. Lxiii + 286 pages.

When I read the Hebrew Bible, as I do regularly, I do so with a particular lens in mind. That lens is Jesus. That might be expected of me, as I am a Christian. Most of the commentators I read to help me interpret the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh are Christians as well. While they seek to be fair to what Christians historically call the Old Testament, they too have a Christian-informed lens. Of course, if the publisher is a Christian publisher, then it would be expected that these biblical scholars would keep the Christian audience in mind. While all of this is understandable, it would be wise to approach these texts, at least occasionally, in conversation with Jewish interpreters. Such conversations might shed new and different light on the subjects at hand. With that in mind, I offer these thoughts on Rabbi Barry Schwartz’s book The Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life.  

Rabbi Schwartz, who serves as the director for the The Jewish Publication Society and is the rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, has written an enjoyable, thought-provoking, and revelatory book. While the intended audience might be Jewish, I can say, as a Christian pastor, this book will speak important truths to Christians as well. This wonderfully written book explores the ethical implications of the spiritual life in conversation with eighteen persons found in the Hebrew Bible. The sub-title of the book would seem to be a play on Rick Warren's best-seller—The Purpose Driven Life—but I think is a much better book. It is theologically rich and spiritually inviting. The point revealed by the subtitle is that we are called as the people of God to live an ethical life in partnership with God.

Schwartz centers the message of this book in the covenant relationship between God and God's people. With that as the center, he points to the prophets as a guide to how one might live in covenant relationship by walking with God in an ethical manner. As for why the prophets, Schwartz notes that "the prophets are people driven by a higher calling. At crucial moments they act on their ideas for the common good, often with disregard for their own security." (p. xvii). These prophets "criticize, cajole, and comfort." While he reflects on the lives and teachings of persons we generally identify as prophets, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Elijah, his definition of prophet, at least in this book, is much broader than what we usually consider a prophet to be. So, in this book Schwartz speaks of persons like Ruth, Hannah, and Judah, persons we might normally consider to be prophets, as offering a prophetic life and witness. They are prophets because even if only for a moment, they exhibited Spirit-filled behavior. He points, for instance, to Caleb, who “never formally communicates God’s message,” but “his words and actions certainly do: He is willing to defy his fellow scouts and urge the Israelites to move forward to the Promised Land” (pp. xviii-xix). He can point as well to the Hebrew mid-wives Shiprah and Puah, “who risk their lives to deliver Hebrew babies in the face of Pharaoh’s decrees” (p. xix). In essence, they are examples of the prophetic life, which is distinctly ethical. Judaism is, in his estimation, an expression of “Ethical Monotheism,” which is to be expressed in a life of holiness.

The book is divided into three parts. Each section expresses one of the three qualities described in Micah 6:8 as being pleasing to God: Justice, Mercy, Humility. Each of these sections has six chapters, each focusing on a single person. The first chapter, under the heading of justice, focuses on Abraham, who exemplifies the path of protest. The story that expresses this path is Abraham’s argument with God concerning Sodom and Gomorrah.  Schwartz notes that God reveals the plan of destruction to Abraham, which invites the response, because of the covenant relationship. Abraham’s protest is rooted in his moral code, which, “should apply to all, even God, who apparently seems willing to violate that code in wholesale destruction of a city” (p. 8). Each chapter focuses on a specific prophetic pathway and begins with a semi-fictional first-person statement offered by the “prophet” under consideration, expressing in a personal way the theme of the chapter. This is followed by texts of Scripture upon which Schwartz will base his reflection upon. Then, he moves from there to the final two sections of the chapters. The first section is titled the "prophetic moment," where he introduces the theme (such as Abraham’s encounter with God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah.” The next section begins with the words "walking with . . .," which offers a word of wisdom for the reader.  Thus, in chapter 11, titled "Jeremiah's Scroll: The Path of Hope," the prophetic moment is the call for the people to buy land, with the promise that God will restore the fortunes of the people. This is followed by the section "Walking with Jeremiah: The Path of Hope," where he contrasts optimism with hope. Regarding this hope, Schwartz writes: "The gift of the Jews has always been the ability, time and again, to overcome fear with the belief that the future will be better" (p. 144). 

The Path of the Prophets is written for a general audience. It is designed to be used in the study of the scriptures and the pursuit of the "ethics-driven life." It is not meant to be a scholarly commentary. In fact, Schwartz encourages the reader to consult the commentaries for further insight. One should not go to the book looking for a complete introduction to the life and the thinking of the person under review. There is a specific attribute that is being explored in the chapter, which the person exemplifies.  For instance, with Hannah, Schwartz points to here as being an exemplar of the "path of prayer." Of this path, Schwartz concludes: "The path of prayer responds to our most basic emotional and spiritual needs: the mind yearning for understanding, the heart yearning for healing, and the soul yearning for transcendence" (p. 189). With this in mind, Schwartz includes at the close of the book a rather extensive study guide for group use.

In closing the review, I am certainly glad that I contacted the publisher of this book—The Jewish Publication Society—for the journal I edit. I had approached the publicist about making books available to the journal and our annual book of the year program. As we talked, she mentioned this book as perhaps being of interest not only to a Jewish audience, but a Christian audience as well (I should note that the audience of the journal is primarily Christian). I believe she is correct, not only did I find the book a thoroughly enjoyable read, I have already drawn insights from it for my own preaching. I expect to keep it close at hand in the years ahead, and therefore I heartily recommend it to any person seeking to live an ethically-driven life that is pleasing to God. That is, a life marked by justice, mercy, and humility.


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