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Weak Prophecy: Recasting Prophetic Power in the Classical Hebrew Prophets and in Their Modern Reception


This dissertation is concerned with moments of prophetic failing, weakness, and undoing both in the biblical text and in its reception in modernity. Rather than a monolithic testimony to the manifestation of divine will in history, or a grand and unified moral vision, the prophetic corpus is riddled with failure. At the same time, the destabilizing elements of prophecy can function as creative, generative forces, fashioning both literary richness and political significance and influence. My primary theoretical model for the generative power of weakness is derived from Walter Benjamin's articulation of the power of weak messianism as a way to radically reformulate the categories of weakness and strength, success and failure. The redaction of the prophetic text is often a record of anxiety, an attempt to impose a coherent, strong vision on an incoherent, difficult oracle. This secret struggle between strong and weak prophecy is replicated at key moments in biblical reception. Thus, specific moments in the reception of a prophetic text can flare up and help explain the political stakes of a biblical text both in the past and in the present.

In Chapter One, I take in the figure of the ideal prophet from a distance by considering the phantasmagoric construction of Moses in the Deuteronomistic redactions of the Book of Jeremiah. I show how the idea of a strong prophet, or a strong prophetic lineage, has been imposed by late, melancholic redactions that read and write the golden age of prophecy from the distance of national catastrophe and exile. In Chapter Two, I discuss Isaiah's call narrative, the site of both great prophetic strength and prophetic weakness. The Book of Isaiah assumes key significance for Lowth, the eighteenth century scholar, exegete, cleric, and politician. Through Isaiah's mastery of poetic forms, the Book of Isaiah becomes representative of a biblical sublime that sets the stage for the yoking of prophecy to poetry and the Romantic figure of the poet-prophet. Yet Lowth's imposition of the genius of authorship on the multi-layered biblical text comes at the expense of repressing unruly English outbreaks of prophetic enthusiasm as well as the troubling theological questions posed by the text.

Chapter Three examines nineteenth century biblical scholarship's valorization of the original oral prophets over a later written prophecy, degraded by a priestly scribalism. Oral prophecy has been characterized by a situation of social authenticity, a face-to-face conversation, whether with God, or with an audience. For scholars following Wellhausen, the prophet Ezekiel marks the moment of transformation from oral to written prophecy. I examine and critique this teleological view of prophecy by returning to Ezekiel's apostrophes. As opposed to a deadening scribal effect I show Ezekiel's apostrophe to the Mountains of Israel is a text in the process of unraveling, and paradoxically, in its weakness, creating a generative "line of flight" marked by the prophet's averted face.

Chapter Four takes up the reinscription of prophecy in the literature of Hebrew Revival, at the turn of the twentieth century and its reception in Hebrew modernism. While public intellectuals tried to create a cultural Bible that would help guide the Jews to national revival, the practice of the prophetic mode in Hebrew was an encounter in precariousness. The fragmented modern selves of the poets, assailed by secular doubt and ambivalence about aspects of Zionist nation-building, activated the destabilizing elements of the prophetic texts themselves. Rather than presenting the heroic face-to-face prophecy of Moses, the Hebrew prophet-poets, through a complex intertextuality, illuminated a biblical prophecy that stutters, fails, averts its face, addresses the disintegration of the nation rather than its formation. Seizing up this moment of prophetic weakness in the decades before Israeli statehood is a form of remembrance and a way to enable a transformation of the future.

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