The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlike­ly Jour­ney to the Promised Land

  • Review
By – November 7, 2022

A right­eous man falls down sev­en times and gets up,” says the book of Proverbs, and those words apt­ly describe the remark­able life of Segun­do Vil­lanue­va, the sub­ject of The Prophet of the Andes by Gra­ciela Mochkofsky.

Born in Peru to a Catholic fam­i­ly, Vil­lanue­va by chance dis­cov­ers a Bible writ­ten in Span­ish — as opposed to the usu­al, incom­pre­hen­si­ble Latin that was the norm at the time. From that moment, Vil­lanue­va becomes pas­sion­ate about learn­ing direct­ly from scrip­ture what God says and how he is to inter­pret and live by His commandments.

Mochkof­sky skill­ful­ly sets Villanueva’s quest for spir­i­tu­al truth against Peru’s his­tor­i­cal back­drop, recount­ing the Incas’ encounter with the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor Pizarro in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry and the vio­lent clash that result­ed in their sub­ju­ga­tion, impov­er­ish­ment, and reli­gion con­ver­sion. Until 1836, it was pun­ish­able by prison to adhere to any faith oth­er than Catholi­cism in Peru. Thus, in 1948, when the twen­ty-one-year-old Vil­lanue­va reads the Bible for him­self, he is dis­turbed to dis­cov­er that the Sab­bath is to be observed on the sev­enth day, Sat­ur­day, not Sun­day. Vil­lanue­va shares his new under­stand­ing of the Bible with fam­i­ly and friends, and they begin attend­ing the Sev­enth Day Adven­tist church, which, along with oth­er Protes­tant faiths, has gained a small foothold in the country.

When Vil­lanue­va argues with the church about some of its teach­ings, he is expelled from the con­gre­ga­tion, falls down, gets up, and estab­lish­es his own church in the Ama­zon jun­gle, in a place he names Hebron.

The purist that he is, Vil­lanue­va wants to learn Hebrew so that he can read the Bible in its orig­i­nal lan­guage. In a book­store in Lima, in search of a Hebrew-Span­ish dic­tio­nary, he dis­cov­ers a sec­u­lar book, Jew­ish Tra­di­tions and Cus­toms. Upn read­ing it, he deter­mines that he and his fol­low­ers are Jew­ish, for they are fol­low­ing those tra­di­tions exactly.

In a poignant scene, after read­ing yet anoth­er book, this one about Judaism and ancient Chris­tian­i­ty, Vil­lanue­va real­izes that the Mes­si­ah has not yet come. He needs to revise his Bibles. One by one,” Mochkof­sky writes, Segun­do took the trea­sured Bibles from his library and pro­ceed­ed to rip from them the false, Chris­t­ian por­tion.” And so he falls once more, then gets back up again.

Through­out these pages, Mochkof­sky com­piles quite a bit of his­to­ry, cov­er­ing the Catholic/​Lutheran divide, colo­nial­ism, class dis­tinc­tions, the dif­fer­ence between Ortho­dox and Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism, the Palestinian/​Israeli con­flict, ille­gal West Bank set­tle­ments, and, of course, conversion.

But at the heart is a quixot­ic man whose tena­cious dri­ve to uncov­er the authen­tic truth leads him and his many fol­low­ers to con­vert to Judaism and move to the West Bank — where, once again, he begins to won­der. And wan­der away. This time to the Karaites, a Jew­ish sect that doesn’t accept the Tal­mud or Oral Law as binding.

Mochkof­sky met Vil­lanue­va only once, when he was in the advanced stages of Alzheimers; but based on inter­views with his fam­i­ly, friends, fol­low­ers, and oth­ers who knew him, she has pieced togeth­er his entire­ly unusu­al life and his search for the ulti­mate truth with enor­mous empa­thy, human­i­ty, and respect.

Angela Himsel’s writ­ing has appeared in The New York Times, the Jew­ish Week, the For­ward and else­where. Her mem­oir is list­ed in the 23 Best New Mem­oirs at bookau​thor​i​ty​.org. She is pas­sion­ate about her chil­dren, Israel, the Canaan­ites and chocolate.

Discussion Questions