Sixty years after the untimely death of Milton Steinberg, scholars have collaborated to publish an incomplete and previously unknown novel by the legendary author of As a Driven Leaf (1939).The newly released novel, The Prophet’s Wife (Behrman House, $24.95), is the story of Hosea and his wayward wife Gomer, a tale of love and betrayal that provides a compelling backdrop to one of the most unsettling biblical texts, with a surprising feminist twist.
At the beginning of the book of Hosea, God instructs the prophet to take a “wife of harlotry” and father “children of harlotry” to symbolize the troubled relationship between God and the People of Israel. Hosea accordingly marries Gomer bat Diblayim and bestows upon the children that are born to them names that reflect God’s harsh response to Israel’s unpardonable sins. This biblical account served as Steinberg’s inspiration, but most of the people and events that feature in the novel are products of the author’s own imagination. The masterful storytelling and gripping portraiture that made Steinberg’s first novel one of the most influential Jewish books of the twentieth century are again on full display.
As the title indicates, the narrative centers on the relationship between Hosea and his wife, but it is really about the making of a prophet, a story in which prophecy is defined as the insight of a sensitive and discerning individual into his own circumstances and experiences. Set in the northern kingdom of Israel during the eighth-century BCE reign of King Jeroboam, the narrative follows Hosea from boyhood to middle age and from the wonder of new love and the convictions of untested faith to a calling that is born of disloyalty, self-doubt, and despair.
The greatest license Steinberg took with the biblical text was to invert the storyline: according to the Bible, Hosea is commanded to marry a harlot, but in the novel, he freely loves and weds the chaste if willful Gomer and only later discovers her transgressions and infidelities. The inversion is a brilliant twist that offers insight into an age-old conundrum: why does God return to the people after their repeated betrayals? The intense, complicated, and very human dynamic between Steinberg’s Hosea and Gomer adds force to the biblical metaphor and suggests that God and Israel too are bound to one another in spite of it all.
Despite the highly conventional use of gender in the prophecies of Hosea, Steinberg managed to write a story with distinctly modern and even feminist overtones. To begin with, he gave Gomer the voice and the depth of personality that she lacks entirely in the biblical text, where she is more of a concept than a character. And he depicted prostitution as a societal failing rather than a moral lapse, the product of women’s particular vulnerability to poverty and misfortune. Strikingly, it is these touches that render Steinberg’s interpretation of the biblical narrative most convincing.
In the Bible, Hosea’s prophesy indicates that God will ultimately forgive the sins of Israel and end their estrangement. But Steinberg left his novel unfinished, and it is hard to know whether he intended for the fictional Hosea and Gomer to reunite. The publishers, who discovered the typewritten manuscript in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, considered hiring another author to complete the story, but ultimately decided to leave Steinberg’s work as he did. The abrupt conclusion may frustrate some readers, but it is also an invitation to craft our own endings, partnering with the author in making modern meaning of an ancient text.
Rachel Furst teaches Talmud and Jewish law and is working toward a Ph.D. in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.