The Prophets of Israel

by Edith Hamilton
[Norton, $£..50]
MISS HAMILTON has taken the most obscure and difficult portion of the Bible, and given an exposition of it that is remarkably clear, sound, interesting, and above all, attractive. The chief merit of her treatment is its freedom from prepossession. She looks at the prophetical books as if they were a brand-new find that no one else had ever discovered; and thus she manages to keep up a constant undertone of surprise throughout her work, which in its naturalness, almost amounting to naïveté, is quite captivating. She evidently knows most of the official interpretations of Hebrew prophecy, but while showing that she knows them she yet somehow contrives to give the impression that they do not exist. One cannot too much admire this achievement.
In the view of this book, the prophets were in the best sense secularists. They were concerned with their own times and circumstances; their feet were always on the ground. They were not magicians, miracle workers, ritualists, or prognosticators, nor were they theologians; they built no schemes of dogmatic theology, and propounded no metaphysical creeds. It would be fair to say that they occupied the position now held by the publicist, except that while the modern publicist is interested in systems, political, economic, financial or what not, the Hebrew prophet was interested in conduct, and in conduct only. For him, conduct was not three fourths of life, or any fraction of life; it was the whole of it, and he shaped his message by this conception.
Therefore, since conduct still remains at least three fourths of life, the Hebrew prophet is as distinctly a man of our time as of his own. In his day, dogmatism and ritualism were theological, and in ours they are economic and political; and they are as ineffectual now as they were then. The message of the prophet was a simple statement that the only thing that would save civilization was the raising up of a set of people who had learned how to behave themselves, and to whom behaving themselves was a matter not only of honor, but of religious pride and joy. Nothing else, positively nothing else, would fill the bill. Miss Hamilton’s book makes one see how uncommonly well such a message would go at the present time if our publicists should devote themselves to delivering it with anything like the zeal and force of their Jewish exemplars.
There are a few statements in the book that one wishes might be qualified a little. I shall mention only the one on the first page, where Miss Hamilton expresses her ‘conviction that the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament does not matter at all to us to-day.’ Is her conviction really quite as absolute and forthright as that? I hope not. One may at least speak for oneself, and I am sure that the Hebrew text matters a great deal to me, not only in establishing just the view of the prophetical books that Miss Hamilton would have us all take, but also in making the task of establishing it as Congenial as she wishes it to be. The book is so good that I should like to see it cleared from the least suspicion of a blemish; so if Miss Hamilton could bring herself to shade this observation a trifle, and perhaps one or two others that will occur to her at once, I would read the next edition of her work with even greater pleasure than the first edition has given me. But indeed, whether she does this or not, I shall read it again with pleasure and profound respect, not once, but many times.