Review of M. van der Meer et al, Isaiah in Context

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Meer, Michaël van der, Percy van Keulen, Wido van Peursen, and Bas ter Haar Romeny (eds.), Isaiah in Context: Studies in Honour of Arie van der Kooij on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (VTSup, 138; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010). Pp. xx + 468. Hardcover. $216.00. ISBN 978-90-04-18657-6.

This collection celebrates the career of Arie van der Kooij with essays by his former students, institutional colleagues, and scholarly collaborators, including several prominent Isaiah and Septuagint scholars. To a greater degree than usual in Festschriften, many of the chapters directly engage his own work, which is a testimony to his significant contributions to the field. The collection is divided into two sections; part one deals with Isaiah in the context of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature, while part two explores the reception of Isaiah in its various Greek and Syriac versions and later Dutch interpretation. It also includes a list of van der Kooij's publications, including works in progress as of 2010.

In the first essay, “‘As Straw is Trodden Down in the Water of a Dung-Pit’: Remarks on a Simile in Isaiah 25:10” (pp. 3–13), Bob Becking argues for the superiority of the ketiv in Isa 25:10b (bĕmê madmēnâ, “in the waters of a dung-pit”), which better anticipates the imagery of swimming in the next verse. He suggests that the same image underlies the well-known aphorism in the Mari letters, “Beneath straw, water runs.” While Becking's proposal results in a coherent reading of the passage, one should note that abrupt shifts in imagery occur frequently in Isaiah (e.g., Isa 5:29–30; 14:29–30; 30:13–14; etc.).

Pancratius C. Beentjes considers the impact of Isaiah on a later biblical text in “Isaiah in the Book of Chronicles” (pp. 15–24). He discusses the diminished role of Isaiah in the Hezekiah narratives in 2 Chronicles, which allows for greater emphasis on Hezekiah's own prophetic status. He then considers the allusion to Isa 7:9 in 2 Chr 20:20, which highlights the importance of prophets in the Chronicler's worldview even as it anachronistically attributes a saying of Isaiah to Jehoshaphat.

Willem A. M. Beuken (“Woe to the Powers in Israel that Vie to Replace YHWH's Rule on Mount Zion! Isaiah Chapters 28–31 from the Perspective of Isaiah Chapters 24–27,” pp. 25–43) identifies a number of connections between two consecutive sections of Isaiah. His approach is almost entirely synchronic, with little attention to the possible compositional or redactional intention behind these connections. Beuken concludes that “Isaiah 28–31 applies the judgment on the earth as it has been announced in Isaiah 24–27 to the concrete situation of Jerusalem” (p. 43). While some of the precise verbal similarities are striking (e.g., Isa 24:5–6 and 28:2–3; p. 28), other proposed connections are so general that they could hold for any number of texts (e.g., Isa 25:2–4 and 29:19–20; p. 35).

Robert P. Gordon, in “The Gods Must Die: A Theme in Isaiah and Beyond” (pp. 45–61), explores a recurring motif in Isaiah in which powerful humans or deities challenge yhwh's position and are consequently sentenced to death. Obvious examples are the Babylonian monarch in Isa 14 and Sennacherib in Isa 36–37; Gordon suggests that Isa 26:13–15 also fits this category if the reference to “other lords” denotes gods. Outside of Isaiah, the motif occurs in Ps 82; Ezek 28; Gen 6:1–4; and Gen 2–3.

In his chapter, “So-Called Poʿel-Forms in Isaiah and Elsewhere” (pp. 63–81), Holger Gzella argues against the view that the Hebrew poʿel has a comparable meaning to the morphologically similar Arabic third stem. Instead, the few textually certain occurrences of this stem are biforms coined de novo for poetic purposes or marking a novel sense of the verb. He concludes that the multiple poʿel forms in Isaiah (10:14; 40:24) reflect the sophisticated literary style of the book. Along those lines, given the likely morphological connections between the poʿel and polel stems, Gzella might also have mentioned the relatively frequent occurrence of reduplicated verbs in Isaiah more generally (e.g., 9:10; 22:17; 29:9; etc.)

Matthijs J. de Jong discusses the preexilic development of the book of Isaiah in “A Window on the Isaiah Tradition in the Assyrian Period: Isaiah 10:24–27” (pp. 83–107). He interprets Isa 10:24–25, which is typically dated late, as an oracle of consolation in response to an Assyrian incursion against Judah in 720 b.c.e. He convincingly argues that derek miṣrayim in v. 25 is a reference to the Via Maris (“the road to Egypt”), rather than an allusion to Egyptian oppression of Israel (“the manner of Egypt”). Verses 26a and 27a are a later commentary on the oracle that belong to the Josianic revision of Isaiah. Isaiah 10:5–15 and 27b–32 likewise consist of eighth-century oracles against Assyria supplemented by seventh-century commentary. The lack of direct evidence for a campaign by Sargon against Judah is one weakness in his argument.

The contribution by Percy van Keulen, “On the Identity of the Anonymous Ruler in Isaiah 14:4b-21” (pp. 109–23), tackles a frequently discussed question and helpfully summarizes a wealth of previous scholarship. He suggests that Isa 14:19a describes “the looting of the royal tomb” (p. 111), rather than the lack of burial of the tyrant; the verse thus presupposes the conquest of the city containing the royal necropolis. Instead of identifying the ruler with a particular Neo-Assyrian king, van Keulen proposes that the figure represents the empire as a whole, and the poem celebrates the fall of Assyria in 614–12 b.c.e. The proposal is attractive, but it would be more convincing if van Keulen had provided other examples of a kingdom personified as an anonymous ruler.

André Lemaire discusses a recurring divine epithet in Isaiah in his chapter, “Yhwh ebaʾot dans Isaïe à la lumière de l'épigraphie hébraïque et araméenne” (pp. 125–30). He argues that the occurrence of yhwh ṣbʾt in a graffiti from the antiquities market, published in 2001, confirms its popularity in the eighth century b.c.e. Unfortunately, his reliance upon an unprovenanced inscription undermines the persuasiveness of his claim. More convincingly, he notes that the title also occurs in ostraca from Elephantine. Because ṣbʾ is otherwise unknown in Aramaic, these attestations provide early evidence for the phenomenon of transcribing rather than translating the epithet into another language, subsequently attested in Greek Isaiah.

Johan Lust explores a similar topic in “The Divine Title האדדון and אדני in Proto-Isaiah and Ezekiel” (pp. 131–49). Both Ezekiel and Proto-Isaiah use ʾădōnāy (originally ʾădōnî, “my Lord”), albeit typically in different contexts, to emphasize the prophet's relationship with God. The distinctive use of hāʾādôn (“the Lord”) in Proto-Isaiah emphasizes divine power. Lust suggests that both terms appear in early material from Isa 1–39 but never in the same speech, although the latter assertion requires him to divide Isa 3:1–15 and 10:5–34 into multiple units. He also notes that later scribes clearly distinguished hāʾādôn and yhwh but not ʾădōnî and yhwh. The essay judiciously organizes a wide array of textual data, and Lust's conclusions deserve consideration in future study of both books.

Karel Vriezen (“‘Ruins’ in Text and Archaeology: A Note on the Wording of ‘Destruction’ in the Latter Prophets,” pp. 151–59) discusses a terminological shift between the Former and Latter Prophets. The conquest narratives in Joshua typically use terms like ḥrm (“utterly destroy”), yrš (“dispossess”), or nkh (“strike”) with humans as the object, which need not imply the destruction of cities. Such language conforms with the scant archaeological evidence for the destruction of Late Bronze Age cities. By contrast, the Latter Prophets use the roots ḥrb (“destroy”), šmm (“desolate”), ḥrs (“tear down”), etc., which seldom occur in the Former Prophets, to refer to the destruction of cities. These choices may reflect the authors' own experiences of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests.

In “Patterns of Mutual Influence in the Textual Transmission of the Oracles Concerning Moab in Isaiah and Jeremiah” (pp. 161–84), Richard D. Weis argues that Isa 15–16 and Jer 48 have been extensively assimilated to one another in the transmission of the two books. Assimilation is usually seen in the versions, particularly the later ones, but in a few cases MT Jeremiah has been adapted to Isaiah, which suggests the significance of Isaiah in the proto-Masoretic tradition. When scholars emend either text to level the differences between them, they are following the assimilatory method of the versions rather than objectively evaluating their readings. It would have been helpful for Weis to articulate precise criteria for determining when assimilation has occurred; in several of his examples, it seems possible that the versions were simply smoothing difficult readings in ways that naturally resembled each other. Nonetheless, the number of potential cases makes a convincing cumulative case for the phenomenon.

The final essay in the first section is by H. G. M. Williamson, “Isaiah 30:1” (pp. 185–96). Williamson argues, against most interpreters, that the noun massēkâ in the second line of Isa 30:1 has its usual meaning, “(cast) idol,” and does not refer to a ritual for making a treaty. Likewise, ʿēṣâ in the third line denotes a wooden idol (cf. Hos 10:6) instead of its more common meaning, “counsel.” As suggested by syntactical difficulties in the verse, these two lines are a later, anti-idol gloss from the same source as Isa 2:19; 30:22; 31:7.

Part Two of the volume opens with a contribution by Johann Cook, “The Relationship Between the Septuagint Versions of Isaiah and Proverbs” (pp. 199–214). He justifies comparing the two texts because of their similarly free translation styles. First, he examines proposed cases of intertextual connections between them, only two of which he finds convincing. Second, he argues that the Greek version of Proverbs, like that of Isaiah, is contextualized, with an emphasis on the Mosaic Law that suggests an anti-Hellenistic agenda; however, it does not allude to contemporary events, as van der Kooij has argued in the case of Isaiah, perhaps as a result of differences in genre. Third, he notes that the translator of Isaiah did not rearrange the text, as the translator of Proverbs did. Finally, Cook proposes that Proverbs was translated in Palestine shortly after the reign of Antiochus IV.

Kristin de Troyer (“An Exploration of the Wisdom of Solomon as the Missing Link Between Isaiah and Matthew,” pp. 215–27) examines the biblical sources for Matt 27:43, which incorporates language from Wis 2:18. She demonstrates that the verse from Wisdom is itself dependent on the Old Greek of Isa 42:1–4, which had already been quoted in Matt 12:17–21, and she suggests that Matthew was drawn to its reinterpretation of Isaiah's servant with an emphasis on righteousness.

In “L'indépendance du traducteur grec d'Isaïe par rapport au dodekapropheton” (pp. 229–46), Cécile Dogniez explores the parallels between the Septuagint of Isaiah and the Minor Prophets, on the basis of which Seeligmann had concluded that the former was dependent on the latter. Dogniez argues instead that other, equally compelling explanations are possible (coincidence, later harmonization, common exegetical tradition, etc.). She examines thirteen rare Hebrew words or phrases that appear in similar contexts in Isaiah and the Minor Prophets but are rendered differently in the Greek translations, along with six terms consistently handled differently in the two translations. She concludes that there is little evidence that the translator of Isaiah used the Greek Minor Prophets. This essay has notable points of contact with the chapters by Weis and Muraoka, which could have been noted by the editors.

Natalio Fernández Marcos discusses early Christian interpretation of Isaiah in “Is There an Antiochene Reading of Isaiah?” (pp. 247–60). The Antiochene Fathers used the so-called Lucianic version of the Greek Old Testament, which shows consistent features in the prophets. It corrects toward the MT, on the basis of the Hexaplaric tradition, and often improves the style, with a proclivity for Attic forms; Fernández Marcos provides several examples of these tendencies from the Lucianic version of Isaiah. He then addresses the variety among Antiochene interpreters. While all of them were famously committed to the literal sense of the text, some—like Theodoret—were more open to figurative interpretation than others. Some specific examples from Theodoret's commentary on Isaiah would have been appreciated.

In “Zwei Niederländer des 19. Jahrhunderts über die Wahrheit von Jesajas Prophetien” (pp. 261–80), Cornelis Houtman contrasts the treatment of Isaiah by Abraham des Amorie van der Hoeven, a Dutch pastor, with that of Ferdinand Alexander de Mey van Alkemade, a freethinker, in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his captions for illustrated Middle Eastern landscapes, Van der Hoeven maintained that the ruins of cities like Babylon confirmed the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies of their destruction. De Mey argued that Isaiah was a lunatic whose predictions failed to come true and that the prophecies about Cyrus in Isa 44–45 were written later, after the fact; thus, he anticipated the position that became widespread in biblical scholarship later in the century, championed in the Netherlands by Abraham Kuenen. Houtman's essay is a fascinating piece of intellectual history. While the focus on Dutch interpreters is appropriate for this festschrift, especially since van der Kooij held the chair previously occupied by Kuenen, the concern for a much later historical period leaves this chapter feeling unconnected to the others.

Michaël N. van der Meer's contribution, “Visions from Memphis and Leontopolis: The Phenomenon of the Vision Reports in the Greek Isaiah in the Light of Contemporary Accounts from Hellenistic Egypt” (pp. 281–316), examines parallels to Greek Isaiah in Egyptian-Greek prophetic texts. Many of these texts originated in Memphis in the mid-second century b.c.e., geographically and chronologically close to the setting for Greek Isaiah proposed by van der Kooij. The Dream of Nectanebo contains a vision similar to Isa 6. The Oracle of the Potter updates an earlier Demotic prophecy and applies it to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, just as earlier prophecies may have been updated in LXX Isaiah. Finally, much like Isa 7:14, the Oracles of or refer to the birth of a child to a young queen as proof of the veracity of its prophecies. Although the essay begins with an unhelpfully long survey of proposed contexts for LXX Isa 7:14, it proves to be one of the most interesting chapters in the collection.

Takamitsu Muraoka (“Isaiah 2 in the Septuagint,” pp. 317-40) offers a philological study of the Greek text of Isa 2, consisting largely of explanations of particular translation choices. Apart from a dubious interpretation of the Hebrew bĕrōʾš hehārîm in v. 2, which he translates “the highest spot of the mountainous area” (p. 320), his comments are generally persuasive. Muraoka frequently appeals to the literary sensibilities of the translator, but the overall treatment of the text is atomistic, with little attempt to interpret the passage as a whole in Greek.

Wido van Peursen examines the dual transmission of a biblical text in Syriac in “The Text of Isaiah 26:9–19 in the Syriac Odes” (pp. 340–57). Reflecting its ancient use as a morning prayer and liturgical text for the Easter season, Isa 26:9–19 appears in various collections of odes in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, and Armenian. Upon close comparison of the text in the Peshitta of Isaiah and the odes, Van Peursen concludes that the Odes version was originally taken from the Peshitta and then independently revised toward the Greek text in later recensions, with additional changes made for various reasons.

In “Of Translation and Revision: From Greek Isaiah to Greek Jeremiah” (pp. 359–87), Albert Pietersma criticizes Tov's thesis that LXX Jer 29–52 is a revision of the Old Greek of Jeremiah, which appears unmodified in chapters 1–28. He focuses largely on methodology, criticizing Tov's circular logic in assuming the character of the revision to argue for its existence. He further claims that the revision posited by Tov does not resemble any known Hebraizing revisions of the Septuagint. LXX Jer 29–52 does not show greater consistency than the preceding chapters, and the differences between the two sections are best explained as “contextual accommodation and exegesis” (p. 386). While the essay offers a significant study of Greek Jeremiah, the title is misleading. Pietersma only briefly discusses the discredited proposal of multiple translators for Greek Isaiah as a point of comparison to the situation in Jeremiah, no doubt to justify the inclusion of the essay in this collection.

Bas ter Haar Romeny (“Jacob of Edessa's Quotations and Revision of Isaiah,” pp. 389–406) explores the later Syriac tradition of Isaiah as represented by the work of Jacob of Edessa. Using Isaiah as a test-case, he rejects the proposal by Brooks that the biblical quotations in Jacob's translation of the hymns of Severus were the basis for his later revision of the Syriac Old Testament. He also finds no evidence of influence by the Syro-Hexapla in either work. Romeny's careful methodological considerations for determining influence in the biblical versions are especially helpful.

Adrian Schenker discusses a text-critical problem in “Dans un vase pur ou avec des psaumes? Une variante textuelle peu étudiée en Isa 66:20” (pp. 407–412). MT Isa 66:20 has the phrase biklî ṭāhôr (“in a clean vessel”). The offerings transported in such vessels symbolize the returning exiles; consequently, the language of purity reveals a concern that the exiles have become unclean through contact with foreigners. By contrast, LXX Isa 66:20 reads meta psalmōn (“with psalms”). Schenker thinks that the latter is the more distinctive, and thus more likely original, reading, since music is not usually associated with sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible, whereas purity is a common motif. Whatever its merits, the argument seems unnecessarily dismissive of the purity concerns attributed to the editor responsible for MT.

The final essay is by Emanuel Tov, “Personal Names in the Septuagint of Isaiah” (pp. 413–28). He demonstrates that transliterated names generally lack Hellenized endings in LXX Isaiah, although not to the same degree as in books outside the prophetic corpus. He also discusses geographic identifications in the translation, noting several instances of actualization (e.g., the change from “Philistines” to Greeks in Isa 9:11) and inconsistency. The study includes copious textual examples.

Like most Festschriften, the essays in this collection are uneven in quality. A disappointing number reach overly general or unremarkable conclusions. The idea of different “contexts” for Isaiah holds promise for integrating a variety of approaches to the text, especially redaction criticism and reception history (p. xi), but this rubric remains underdeveloped. The division of the collection into two sections seems arbitrary; one could easily argue that the chapters by Beentjes and Weis fit better in part two. Ultimately, the essays are largely independent, and it is left to the reader to determine the extent of any connections among them—perhaps not unlike the book of Isaiah itself. For anyone interested in the current state of research on Isaiah, the collection offers a broad cross-section of European scholarship, which nicely complements the largely American focus of the publications of the SBL Formation of Isaiah Group. Readers should also consult individual essays as relevant for their own interests.

J. Blake Couey, Gustavus Adolphus College