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In a previous life, as editor for a book publisher, I was routinely the butt of jokes during editorial meetings. The running joke was that, far from being a “commercial” editor who was on the lookout for the next Joel Osteen, Jim was digging out those obscure, heavily theological chestnuts.
I did. It was a character trait that I couldn’t shake. Once, coming back from a convention, several of us were loaded down with the latest bestsellers: covers with toothy, airy authors. Not me.
Rare, Charles Spurgeon sermon pamphlets were sticking out of my suitcase. I still read them for pleasure.
Which brings me to this week’s book review. Through an odd series of events, I became acquainted several years ago with acclaimed Israeli historian Benzion Netanyahu. Yes, yes, his sons are famous and all that. But Benzion is an amazing individual, the real power behind that family. Before going to visit him a couple years ago, I bought his book, “Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman & Philosopher” (Cornell University Press reprinted this book a decade ago; I got mine from Amazon).
Not exactly a summer beach read for Molly and her college buddies.
Which is exactly why you need to get it. What an amazing book!
Netanyahu, who taught at Cornell and has written extensively about Jews in the Middle Ages, has written a thoroughly absorbing profile on the famous Jewish philosopher and gadfly, Abravanel. Particularly intriguing is his analysis of Abravanel’s biblical studies. I can’t possibly convey the relevance in a column, but suffice to say that any serious Bible student – and specifically, Bible prophecy students – will find Netanyahu’s book almost overwhelming.
The history of the era he’s writing about was fascinating enough, and I appreciated the background on Abravanel’s dealings with various monarchs in Europe. But I was unprepared for the religious and philosophical musings. Clearly, Abravanel anticipated certain things that would resonate with conservative Christians.
(As an aside, this book reminds me somewhat of Eli Mizrachi’s “Two Americans Within the Gates,” a profile of American missionaries Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons, but that discussion is for another time.)
In particular, Abravanel, who was many things – including a financier – delved into the world of Bible prophecy. Of course, he would not see everything the same way a 21st–century American Bible prophecy student would. But he wasn’t far off.
Born in Lisbon in 1437, Abravanel enjoyed prestige in many careers throughout his life. Like many Jews, he was forced to choose occupations that might otherwise have been beyond his reach – this was during the days when Jews were forced by law to enter only a select few professions. Sadly, anti-Semitism is as old as the hills.
Despite being born into wealth and privilege, Abravanel could not shake a deep compassion for his fellow Jews, who were being persecuted all over Europe. At times a statesman, or perhaps a financier, Abravanel eventually grew to love the study of prophecy and specifically, he defended the Jewish concept of the coming Messiah. Actually, it wasn’t a concept at all to Abravanel, and he wrote at length about the eventual reality.
According to Netanyahu, “Thus, in the view of Abravanel, God directs the world according to a certain plan and this plan embraces all of history.”
And if the prophecies of Peter are to be believed, one would be able to see unfolding over time (and especially in our time!) that apostasy would reign:
“The spearhead of the drive against the Jews in Spain, as against those of any other medieval country in the west, was the clergy,” Netanyahu writes.
Indeed, in our world today, there is an insidious move to marginalize the Jews, and we see this coming from religious quarters; to the point, it comes from the clergy.
Abravanel saw this, and Netanyahu has also seen it. It amazes me how often Christians ask why Jews don’t accept Jesus, yet they don’t even know what the Inquisitions were about. They know literally nothing of the Christian persecution of Jews for hundreds of years.
And when Abravanel appeared before Spain’s King Ferdinand to plead with him not to expel the Jews from that country, it was Queen Isabella who learned a thing or two about Jewish history from the statesman-philosopher:
“He now spoke to the queen – the haughty, fanatic and often ferocious Isabella – not like her financial agent, not even like a cautious, diplomatic courtier,” Netanyahu writes. “He spoke to her now like a scion of the House of David and as a representative of an unconquered – and unconquerable – people. He spoke to her, moreover, like a prophet of old, in daring, castigating and threatening language.
“If Isabella thought that, by measures like expulsion, the Jews could be brought to surrender or to extinction, she was greatly mistaken. He pointed out to her the eternity of the Jewish people, that they had outlived all who had attempted to destroy them, that it was beyond human capacity to destroy the Jewish people, and that those who tried to do so only invited upon themselves divine punishment and disaster,” Netanyahu writes.
Whew. Plenty of people wouldn’t give a hoot about this book, but plenty more would, and passages like the one above should stir the hearts of pro-Israel Christians.
Netanyahu’s book is a tour de force, and gives us entry into the mind of a man who lived amidst terrible persecution of the Jews, but who looked ahead to a glorious, eternal future – which distinguished him from the various European monarchs of his day, who right up to this moment rot in the ground.