Editor’s Note: See the first three parts in Susan L.M. Goldberg’s series exploring ABC’s Scandal through the lens of Biblical feminism: “What’s Evil Got to Do with It?,” ”Women and the Scandal of Doing It All Alone,” and “The Key to a Woman’s Sexual Power.” Also check out an introduction to her work and collection of 194 articles and blog posts here.
The idea of Olivia Pope is one of a woman who trusts her gut instinct so implicitly that she bases her every decision on it. As a result she unwittingly justifies a range of crimes, puts her life and the lives of her employees and friends at risk, and helps terrorists escape the country. Sometimes listening to your gut just isn’t good enough. Which is probably why God provides a wise alternative in Torah: the prophet.
Biblical culture believes that God speaks to human beings. Sometimes this is done in a group setting, like when the Israelites entered into a covenant with God on Mount Sinai. Other times this is done on an individual level, as when God called out Abraham, spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and when God speaks to His prophets. Given that God spoke to His priests through the long-ago destroyed Temple, Rabbinic Judaism tends to view prophets as the stuff of biblical history, despite the prophecy of Joel:
And afterward [after the restoration of Israel], I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
The Spirit of God in prophecy, known in Rabbinic Judaism as the “bat kol,” is highly regulated by Rabbinic law and culture:
In any event, the consensus in Jewish thought is that no appeal to a heavenly voice can be made to decide matters of halakhah where human reasoning on the meaning of the Torah rules is alone determinative. In non-legal matters, however, a Bat Kol is to be heeded. …In modern Jewish thought, even among the Orthodox, claims to have heard a Bat Kol would be treated with extreme suspicion and dismissed as chicanery or hallucination.
But is it really wise to always trust your gut?
Pope’s gut instinct makes her a “professional fixer.” This isn’t something you can earn a degree in or a job title for which one can apply. It is a concept role with qualifying factors that include the right academic pedigree and professional connections. More than that, it requires an almost omniscient sense of human nature that makes it appear as if The Fixer can predict the future, even if the ones they are closest to don’t quite see them that way, or take their advice seriously. Compare that to the role of prophet:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”
The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”
You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
One of Israel’s most famous prophets was the judge Deborah:
Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment. One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”
Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”
“Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the LORD’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.”
Similar to Deborah, Olivia’s role as “fixer” eventually turns into a habit of ordering around very powerful men based on her trusted gut instinct. However, unlike a biblical prophet, Pope’s lectures come in the form of personal threats instead of warnings from a third party observer with a direct connection to God’s wisdom. That is because Olivia pursues her own instinct instead of the wisdom of God.
Because Olivia trusts her own instinct above all else, she has become a goddess to her staff and to those around her. This is perhaps why the number one requirement of a prophet is humility. Ezekiel ate Torah scrolls, Isaiah strolled around naked, Jeremiah strapped himself to a cattle yoke and Hosea was required to marry a whore all in pursuit of communicating the message God had given them to tell the people of Israel. A humble awareness of the power inherent in the role God has given them to play is essential. Giving all glory to God, not self, is how a prophet maintains their own sense of humanity, their love for God and their compassion for their audience. Without that, a prophet becomes a “fixer” taking the responsibility for situations and lives into their own hands. Instead of speaking the will and warnings of God, the prophets become gods in their own minds and the eyes of those around them.
These “fixers” transition from the role of prophet to that of king, bending to the will of the very people they were meant to warn, causing them more harm than good. Why? Because they fear the people more than they fear God.
Then the LORD said to [the prophet] Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.”
… [In speaking to Saul] Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. So because you have rejected the command of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.”
Not unlike the failed King Saul, Olivia the Fixer has wound up getting caught in a web of intrigue and lies. She became the scandal that has contributed to an all-consuming spiral of destruction. So, which is better: God or gut? Following Olivia Pope’s example, the only logical conclusion is to believe that bat kols aren’t such a crazy idea after all. In fact, clear and direct communication with God on an individual level as described in Torah is the primary way to guarantee success. The secondary way? Pursue prophets, humble individuals who fear God more than the crowd, instead of Fixers who inadvertently enthrone themselves as gods among men.