Nobel Peace Prize–winner Elie Wiesel brings ancient religious leaders to literary life, framing his commentary with pressing and enduring questions as a survivor and witness to the Holocaust.
Five Biblical Portraits represents an old-new approach to Jewish textual commentary. This sequel to Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God continues the work done in that volume of bringing religious figures to life and studying their place both in the text and in our lives. Wiesel reflects on his own life as well as the tragedy of the Holocaust as he discusses each figure and adds personal framing and insight into the religious study. Through sensitive readings of the scriptures as well as the Talmudic and Hasidic sources, Wiesel illuminates Joshua, Elijah, Saul, Jeremiah, and Jonah. He seeks not simple answers but fully complex responses to the crucial questions of human suffering as he examines each religious figure in turn.
Originally published in 1981, this new edition of Five Biblical Portraits includes a new text design, cover, and an introduction by Ariel Burger, which examines how Wiesel’s post-Holocaust Midrash teaches us not only how to read the Bible but also how to read the world.
Introduction by Ariel Burger
“Deeply moving and enlightening.” —Chicago Tribune (review of a previous edition)
“This collection of biographies of prophets does a masterful job of humanizing these figures. Elie Wiesel does more than inform us about their lives and supposed thoughts. He asks today’s questions in the context of the past. . . . There is no ambiguity or vagueness in Wiesel’s writing. He promises us portraits, and there is not a wasted brushstroke, not a blurred line.” —The Christian Century (review of a previous edition)
This is the story of a journey filled with melancholy, solitude, and anguish. It is a heartbreaking story dealing with all the elements and themes that make up the fabric of life and literature: prophecy and madness, friendship and betrayal, jealousy and acceptance, military adventure and secular ambition, poetry and thirst for power; it even deals with political science and the occult.
There is drama in it, suspense, and action. On many levels, for many reasons.
It is a story filled with awe and passion, inviting compassion; its characters, in constant conflict, are unable to cut themselves away from misfortune—a misfortune that pursues them and which, in a way, they are pursuing with an intensity that ultimately can only crush them.
The isolation of a king, the first and last of a dynasty; the fall of a kingdom, the birth of another; the deterioration of a dream and a friendship: one leaves this tale overwhelmed by grief.
Three men walk quietly in the night: the king and his bodyguards, silent shadows moving breathlessly, so as not to make a sound. The enemy, powerful and bent on vengeance, has established camp nearby, at Shunem. To reach En-dor, a hamlet in the foothills of Harei-Ephraim, they must follow a narrow path bordering the Philistine encampment. The smallest carelessness, the simplest error, could be fatal.
After several hours, the three reach their destination. En-dor, huddled in darkness, is asleep, its houses blind; the village is motionless, lifeless.
Still, the three visitors manage to find their way around. Perhaps the king’s companions are familiar with the place. One of them knows the person the king wishes to meet: the local sorceress, one of the last witches to remain alive, for the king has massacred most of them.
The king wants her to put him in touch with a dead man. She asks: “What man?” Still incognito, the king answers: “Shmuel—Samuel.” She works her magic and, sure enough, here is Samuel, back from the other side, from the world of the dead.
Only now does the witch recognize the king. She is frightened, but he reassures her. Nothing will happen to her; she is safe. But he, the king, is far from being reassured. How could he be? Samuel, the prophet, speaks to him in anger: “Why did you disturb my peace?” “I need you,” says the unhappy king. “I need help. I am going to war tomorrow without knowing whether God is with me or against me. I am afraid. Help me; you can, you alone can help. Tell me God’s will—only you can do that, since God refuses to speak to me or even notice my presence. I don’t exist for Him. You, the prophet and defender of God’s first king, you must come to my aid.”
But Samuel, from beyond death, refuses, and continues speaking to him angrily: “You want my help? Now? First you deny God’s word, ridicule God’s command—and now you wish to be helped? You are lost, and it is time you realized it. Your enemies will defeat you in battle; you will perish, and worse: your kingdom will perish with you. Another man will follow you, succeed you as King of Israel—and his House will not be destroyed, ever.”
The prophet withdraws, leaving King Saul crushed by despair, unable to speak, to cry, to move, to protest, to scream, to throw his pain and anguish into the face of history, into the night which, outside, grows more and more menacing. He wants to return to his headquarters, to his home. But he feels weak. The witch feels sorry for him and offers him a meal. “Eat,” she says, “it will do you good.” Indifferent, proud, he rejects her pity.
We now leave the occult, and the scene becomes realistic, almost grotesque: his two companions join the sorceress in insisting that he eat—until he gives in. And there Saul, once a mighty and glorious king, partakes of his last meal. Then he leaves, to return to his camp, where his sons, lieutenants, and soldiers are awaiting him. He walks slowly, slower than before, lost in thought: he is living his last night and is aware of it. He will not be able to count on anyone for his ultimate battle. It will all be over for him and his allies—tomorrow. He knows it, and goes towards death alone. The king, anointed by God, is alone like God—and like Him, silent.