Continuing to put forward the development of divine revelation, the Catechism turns to three agents of Israelite history: the prophets, the poor and humble, and women. Having elongated successive paragraphs from Genesis and Exodus on the patriarchs and Moses, para. 64 brings together the entire cast of characters of established Israel. Pedagogically speaking, this summary does present some challenges and it reflects some arbitrary arrangements that might raise an eyebrow here or there.
Given the text as it stands, the first emphasis is placed upon the prophets. The subject of the prophets is probably among the least emphasized and understood in Catholic catechetics, which in turn undercuts our understanding of the Gospels. One of the chronic misuses of the prophetic literature has been the popular tendency to look for messianic predictions at the expense of capturing the broader horizon. In truth, the classical prophets of Israel are unique in history in terms of mission, style, and thought. Some historians credit the prophets with developing the sense of linear time; that is, prophets conceived of the idea that time was purposeful, moving in a set direction, a leap forward from the prevalent sense that time was cyclic. This is how the use of the term prophet has come to mean “forecasting the future.” In truth, the Biblical prophets were the first thinkers super attenuated to the idea that there was a future.
I was pleased to discover that the classic treatment, The Prophets (1961), remains an Amazon best seller. No one in my lifetime has better captured the prophetic mind than the Jewish scholar and philosopher Abraham Heschel, who was invited as a Jewish observer of Vatican II and assisted Catholic bishops in refining liturgical language in speaking of the Jewish faith and tradition.
The age of the Classical or Biblical prophets runs roughly from the eighth century through the fifth century before Christ, give or take. Para. 64 correctly describes the prophets as revealers of hope in expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all; prophets were indeed forward looking. However, the root of their message goes back to Sinai, when the nation was freshly redeemed by God and the Law was entrusted Israel. Prophets routinely contrasted the new enthusiasm of the desert (or the “honeymoon phase”) with the corruption and indifference of Israel’s growth, its growing dependence upon foreign trade, military ventures, and a city-oriented economy with all the attendant vices and the neglect of true worship.
Of note is the prophetic message of justice. I would be hard pressed to think of a single prophet for whom sins against justice are not a major component. A cursory reading of the Prophet Amos (c. 745 B.C.) reveals a corrupt system where indigent Israelites could not receive fair hearings from bribed judges. Amos’ outline is followed by most of the prophets: a decrying of contemporary evils, a warning to return to the purity of the Sinai Covenant, and a prediction of dire consequences. In Amos’ preaching, this dire consequence was deportation by a strong foreign force, something that did happen in the Exile of 589 B.C.
Israel, in retrospect, believed that the prophets had been filled by the Spirit of God. While most prophets were persecuted in their lifetimes because of their disconcerting message, after the probably last prophet Malachi in 450 B.C., there was a sense of general gloom that there were no more prophets. By Jesus’ day people spoke of God’s Spirit as “quenched.” In fact, the Book of Jonah is a late satire of the prophetic age. Consequently, with the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus, there was a renewed enthusiasm that the Spirit of God had returned, and nothing in Jesus’ preaching contradicted this hope. “I have come not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.”
Para. 64 goes on to describe the poor as the primary bearers of prophetic hope in future deliverance. This sentence is revolutionary; as it stands, the Catechism asserts that the poorer or more destitute one is, the better able he is to bear hope in God. The theological question here is the meaning of “poor,” particularly in light of Jesus’ later teaching that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Our catechetics and Sunday sermons tend to fudge this teaching, and not surprisingly. None of the prophets fared well after preaching this same message, as we respond with guilt or more likely, anger that our hard work to support ourselves is supposedly being diminished.
For the moment, I would say that a healthy adult spirituality is built upon vulnerability. We did not have to be born. Our existences are a tribute to nature, unique psychosocial realities, and the intervention of God, who “knew you in your mother’s womb.” In adult life, we tend to expect that with spit and hard work we will always have three hot meals a day. Up until a few years ago, I suspect the middle class in Syria thought the same thing. The Book of Job in the Hebrew Canon is a paradigm of the fragile nature of human existence, and the more intensely we come to appreciate this, our dependence upon God and our ultimate hope in God will increase accordingly.
Finally, we have a cavalcade of famous women from the Hebrew Scripture. Para. 64 does not state that these women are the poor and humble of the previous sentence, though some were. Five of these women enjoy place in the Scriptures as mothers of famous sons. Miriam is the sister of Moses. Deborah is the sole woman judge or leader in the Book of Judges, the period prior to Israel’s reign of kings. Esther and Judith are figures from late Judaism and significant players in the struggles with Israel’s powerful neighbors. Judith of course is remembered for beheading King Holofernes in his bed. Is this assorted citation something of a recognition of the importance of women in the minds of the Catechism’s editors? It is hard to arrive at another conclusion, though the intent is worthy as the Hebrew Scriptures are the product of a patriarchal culture.
Para. 64 concludes with an encomium to Mary, who is described as “the purest” among them [i.e., the noteworthy women of Israel.] Mary’s placement here is interesting, and I believe that she serves as a bridge figure to the New Testament, as Paragraph 65 will take us to the New Testament era. The historical and theological placement of Mary in the divine plan has always been something of a challenge to the Church, from the Council of Ephesus in 432 A.D. on down to Vatican II. If you remember our old friend Xavier Rynne, the Council was uncertain where to place a treatment of Mary in its documentary sequence. Some fathers wanted Mary to have her own treatment, decree, or constitution; but the Council majority voted to include Mary in the Constitution on the Church. Para. 64 has included Mary among the feminine heroines of the Hebrew Scripture, portraying her as “the purest of them.”