The Hebrew Prophets as Philosophers

Last year I noticed that by the time I got to November, many of my Hebrew Bible students needed a hermeneutical change of pace. So, when I got to the Prophetic Literature, I decided to approach these texts through a philosophical lens. It revived the attention spans of many of my students. This year I planned ahead for this part of the semester and I think last year’s experiment was a success.

While discussions on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant or Daniel’s Son of Man may interest religion majors and seminarians, I didn’t get much back from my students when I covered these topics. Instead, I’ve shifted to using the Prophets as a springboard into moral philosophy.

I was inspired by Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture where he sets divine revelation aside to ask what philosophical underpinning can be found in the message of the Hebrew Bible. I took the same approach with the Prophets specifically. My students have discussed:

  • Utopianism in the Book of Isaiah: can we create a world where the wolf grazes with the lamb? do we want to try or does the pursuit of utopia turn into the creation of dystopia?
  • Divine Command Theory in the Book of Hosea: Was Hosea right to marry who he married, and treat her how he treated her, and name his kids what he named them, just because God said (I teased out this idea with the Akedah earlier in the semester)?
  • Deontology in the Book of Daniel: While Divine Command Theory fits better, if we evaluate the stories of the ‘Three Hebrews and the Fiery Furnace’ or ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den’ then we can ask whether one’s moral commitments should be static, like categorical imperatives, or should we be less dogmatic with our ethics?
  • Consequentialism and the Book of Esther: It could be argued that Queen Vashti was the deontologist. She wasn’t going to be objectified by the king and his friends no matter the consequence. Esther seems a bit more relativistic. She hides her identity. She does what it takes to please the king. It isn’t until the end that she takes a great risk but that risk wouldn’t be possible without her previous, calculated actions. It isn’t until the existence of her people is threatened that she becomes a little more like Vashti.

I use the Crash Course Philosophy videos linked above to explain the paradigm within moral philosophy that I want to discuss and then use the Prophetic Literature to illustrate. Maybe it’s a stretch to connect deontology to Daniel and his friends? Maybe. But if we bracket divine revelation (not saying reject…just bracket) then we must ask what makes this text valuable to students across religious traditions and for non-religious students. I think this sort of philosophical reading is a step in a useful direction.

4 thoughts on “The Hebrew Prophets as Philosophers

  1. I wonder if some of your students came to see how it is really possible to create a world where the wolf grazes with the lamb. The world projected in the book of Isaiah is one which can and shall come.

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    1. Interestingly, most of my students have resisted the idea. They come to the conclusion that attempts to create a utopia result in dystopia. Most of them seems to have held to some form of utilitarianism where they hoped the best for the most people possible but not for everyone.

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      1. I would agree that the utopian world shall not be for everyone. Those who got stuck by their greediness and egoism shall fail to be partakers of a world where everybody shows respect for the other.

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  2. Pingback: Utopism has not ended | Marcus Ampe's Space

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