Jewish mystics believe that the Almighty revealed the events of the future to many of his chosen ones. To the forefather of the Jewish people Abraham, according to the midrashim, He showed the entire history of the people that would issue forth from his loins, when Abraham prayed for a son. A picture of the future of humanity until the end of time was presented in symbol form to Abraham’s son Jacob in the famous vision of the ladder connecting Heaven and Earth. Jacob (again according to oral tradition), when lying on his deathbed, wished to tell his sons of this, but the Creator at this moment “sealed his lips” (although a skeptic may simply explain this by a stroke).
The picture of the future until the “end of time” was – once again according to Jewish religious authorities – revealed to Moshe Rabein (Moses), and people who have read the Pentateuch attentively must be surprised that many of the prophecies of this great book have come true with incredible accuracy, some of them quite recently.
Finally, from the standpoint of Judaism, there have always been prophets with whom God made contact in one way or another, in order to warn Jews of coming events and their possible development – in order to help them make the right choice and warn them of the possible consequences of making the wrong one.
If we believe the TANAKH (known to Christians as the “Old Testament”), there have been a great many true prophets among the Jews, but most of their names have simply not been preserved in history, as their predictions were of a specific and topical nature. In the TANAKH, Jewish wise men only included the books of the greatest prophets – those to whom the future was revealed for centuries or even millennia in advance. But at the same time, we should remember that any prophet was the son of his time and interpreted the visions that were revealed to him in the language of concepts of his time. For example, even if one of the ancient prophets really was shown tanks and planes, he could not have used these words – for him they were iron or flying chariots. And of course, he used the geographical concepts, symbols, metaphors etc. of his time. In addition to all of this – if we take the phenomenon of prophecy on faith – many pages of the books of the great prophets were simply “dictated” to them from on high, and they were often unable to understand what exactly was said or shown to them.
But let us still try to fathom the meaning of the books of the Jewish prophets and to understand to what extent they correspond to what is happening in our world today, and whether we can look into the future with their help.
We will start with Isaiah, or rather Yeshayahu ben Amotsa. If only because his book comes after the “Book of Kings” in the TANAKH, and is followed by the books of all the other prophets. And additionally, the prophecies of Isaiah and many of the images of his book are much more familiar to the Russian-speaking reader, and the European reader in general, than the books of the other prophets.
For example, the famous prophecy that at the end of history nations will “beat their swords into plowshare, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nations, neither shall they learn war any more”, .i.e. there will be a complete conversion of weapons – this is the prophecy of Isaiah (2:4-5). So is the prophecy that after the coming of the Messiah the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and we will all become vegetarians (11, 5-10).
It should be noted immediately that neither religious authorities nor historians have any doubt that Isaiah was a real historical figure living in the late 8th century – early 7th century BCE.
The debate is whether he really was the author of the entire text of the “Book of Isaiah” or whether some of its parts were added later, which makes the predictions which have already come true seem unusually precise.
According to Jewish commentators, the Book of Isaiah includes three types of fragments.
The first group is his moralizing sentiments, where he criticizes the Jewish people for its deviation from the Torah, curses the ruling elite and accurately describes the moral and spiritual condition of the Jewish people in his time.
The second group predicts events of the relatively near future – several decades and centuries ahead. A considerable number of these predictions, as we said, have already come true, and this is acknowledged by both mystics and rationalists, although they naturally explain the accuracy of Isaiah’s prophecies in different ways.
Finally, the third group of fragments consists of visions concerning the remote future of humanity – after millennia, and mystics relate them directly to our times.
The problem is that all of these fragments are intentionally mixed up, and so we can only scratch our heads over what group each of them belonged to.
For example, the “Prophecy of Bavel”, as Jews have long called Israel (and today emigrants from this country call themselves “olei Bavel” – repatriates from Babylon). “Lift ye a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand, that they may go into the gates of the nobles… And it shall be as the chased roe, and as a sheep that no man taketh up; they shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land… Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished…”(13:1-22).
What is this about? The rout of Babylon by Assyria? Perhaps. But let us recall what the “Islamic State” is doing today in Iraq, its genocide of the Yazidi and Christian population, the executions and violence towards woman – and you will understand that this excerpt can well be related to our town time, when Iraq is perishing and collapsing literally before our eyes.
Or “The Burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap. The cities of Aroer (Syria – P.L.) are forsaken; they shall be flocks…” (17:1-2).
Neither in the time of Isaiah, nor later, in spite of all the wars, was Syria subjected to the devastation that it suffered as a result of the civil war that is raging there today.
“Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters!... they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountain before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.” (17:12-13).
What lies behind this vision of the prophet? Is it not the millions of refugees from Syria, who initially flooded into Turkey and Jordan, and are now flooding Europe?!
After this we only have to follow the map.
Egypt: “The Burden of Egypt… And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom…”
There is in fact a civil war going on in Egypt at present. But Isaiah predicts that it will be followed by a great drought, a change in the climate, which will considerably worsen the county’s problems. “The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away and be no more…” (19:7-8).
Lebanon and the sea coast of Syria: “The burden of Tyre. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish, for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in…” (23:1). In fact, Tyre and other flourishing coastal cities of Syria and Lebanon had already been laid waste a number of times. Is Isaiah discussing the past or the future? Who knows…
One thing is clear: in the picture presented by Isaiah, Israel does not remain on the sidelines in all these disasters: sooner or later, the wars and chaos that grip the Middle East and Central Asia will reach it. And this, Isaiah emphasizes, will be a punishment that Israel fully deserves for deviating from the letter and spirit of the Torah.
How is it that – at least in the Middle East – the books of the prophets are read as if they had been written today? It is because history here repeats itself again and again, or even stands still, and from century to century the same nations confront each other, and the geopolitical situation barely changes? Or because these “great messengers” who lived over two and a half thousand years ago really did address their prophecies to us – the children of the 20th, 21st and perhaps the 22nd centuries?
Everyone will have their own answer to this question, of course. But if we accept that we are being given a peek into the future, then on the basis of the book of one prophet we cannot recreate a picture of future events up until the moment when people beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. We must look at the books of other great prophets and put together a picture from them, like a jigsaw puzzle. And many mysteries will still remain – for example, we can only guess who Ezekiel means by Gog and Magog in his book.
But it is worth trying to decipher these mysteries and put this “puzzle” together. At least to make an attempt…
(To be continued)