Review of L. S. Tiemeyer, For The Comfort of Zion: The Geographical and Theological Location of Isaiah 40–55

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

Tiemeyer, Lena Sofia, For The Comfort of Zion: The Geographical and Theological Location of Isaiah 40–55 (VTSup, 139; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010). Pp. xvi + 414. Hardback. €130.00; $185.00. ISBN 978-90-04-18930-0.

One of the more dependable staples of modern research on the formation of the book of Isaiah is the notion that the second major unit of material, Isaiah 40–55 (usually identified as “Deutero” or “Second” Isaiah) derives from the hand of an individual prophet, living in Babylon toward the tail end of the exilic period and writing with a sense of an imminent restoration of his people to their homeland. There have been many adjustments to this basic model, including issues surrounding the dating of its contents, the social location of the author, the expanse of material that should be included in these categorizations, and for some, redactional strata within these chapters pointing to waves of successive authorship. Nevertheless, virtually all scholars have agreed that the unit comprising Isaiah 40–55 remains the starting point for any analysis, a textual “control” against which all other variables may be evaluated. Tiemeyer's monograph has much in common with these lines of inquiry, but with one crucial difference; namely, it challenges the presupposition that Isaiah 40–55 originated in an exilic context. Rather, Tiemeyer argues, the work is more likely a product of a homeland Judahite community, reflecting and addressing the concerns of that community vis-à-vis the end of Babylonian rule and the period of restoration under Persia.

Tiemeyer's lengthy monograph (414 pages + front matter) goes into thorough detail in fleshing out the basis for the aforementioned proposal and then identifying its implications for the understanding not only of Isaiah 40–55 but the book as a whole. The monograph is divided into 13 chapters: an introduction, an eleven chapter analysis, and a conclusion. The introduction presents a brief history of scholarship into the study of the Deutero-Isaiah and an overview of the monograph's major points of order in the ensuing chapters. The analysis begins in earnest in chapter 1, which addresses the question of authorship, compositional strata, and literary shaping of the work. Within the course of the discussion, Tiemeyer more closely engages the history of scholarship and identifies the various proposals regarding how Isaiah 40–55 should be read, to whom it should be ascribed (a single author or multiple authors?), and its rhetorical unity. The chapter concludes that rather than crediting a single individual with authorship of the work, it is better to view it as the product of a group of authors that nevertheless forms a rhetorical unity, a carefully orchestrated “reading drama” (p. 51) that interfaces with perspectives well entrenched in Judah rather than Babylon.

Chapter 2 goes on to examine conditions for life in Judah during the Neo-Babylonian period. Tiemeyer takes account of the most current archaeological and sociological research that demonstrates a significant population remaining in the homeland after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. Tiemeyer is careful to note that while life did not carry on in a normal sense in the wake of the that destruction, the tail end of the Babylonian period saw a return to some sense of routine. Under such circumstances, a society which could produce works like Lamentations could also yield a group that could produce Isaiah 40–55, perhaps first on the oral level and textualized subsequently (p. 68). She also considers the possibility of literate resources among the exilic communities. However, she concludes, the evidence does not necessarily weigh heavily in favor of the exilic communities being more capable of producing a text like Isaiah 40–55 (p. 73). A homeland community was just as capable (p. 75).

The question of homeland Judahite authorship as likely (as opposed to just possible) is the subject of the next several chapters. Chapter 3 addresses the issue of Babylonian imperial culture and the appearance of Akkadian concepts and lexical influence in Isaiah 40–55. Tiemeyer begins by raising the issue that most studies have presupposed Babylonian provenance as the background to these terminological and ideological features. In her discussion she identifies where this presupposition falls short. Especially significant is her observation that a writer need not be in Babylon to show familiarity with Mesopotamian culture and language. Tiemeyer walks the reader through the abundance of evidence for such familiarity in late preexilic contexts (p. 130), and draws the rather logical conclusion that if one may speak of preexilic Judahite texts as knowing and deploying Akkadian loanwords, rhetorical styles, and conceptual motifs, the argument for a Babylonian provenance for Isaiah 40–55 based on these features loses potency. Chapter 4 goes on to provide evidence for a decidedly Judahite perspective throughout Isaiah 40–55, identifying spatial/geographic notices and references to traditions of sacrifice and temple service that either favor a Judahite origin for the author or which, at least, do not demand an exilic setting (p. 152).

Chapter 5 considers the exodus motif in Isaiah 40–55. Though Tiemeyer agrees that this concept is found in the work, she critiques the view that the expression of this concept conceives of the so-called “second exodus” therein as a genuine geographical move through the wilderness back to Zion. First, it is set against a panoply of rhetorical and conceptual devices in Isaiah 40–55 and is not, in Tiemeyer's view, the central motif of the book. Second, Tiemeyer makes the salient point that the exodus is not necessarily a physical journey (p. 165) but functions metaphorically and even mythically. Though there are references to a Diaspora audience, these references are not inherently part of an exodus motif and do not argue exclusively for seeing the authorial circle behind Isaiah 40–55 as anticipating a return from geographic exile to their distant homeland as a second exodus. Rather, the exodus motif may pertain more to shifting conditions and ideologies than to geography.

After a preliminary discussion about the orientation of Isaiah 40–55 as a Judahite “reading drama” (chapter 6), Tiemeyer spends several chapters discussing the disparate characters and images within the work as vehicles for a Judahite group's self-expression (chapters 7–9). Jacob-Israel is identified as the homeland community, not that of the exiles, the figure of Zion-Jerusalem is not a metaphor for the exiles but refers to the actual inhabitants of the region (though returnees from exile receive mention, it is always a lower rhetorical priority), and the relationship between God, the prophet's own self references, and the figure of the suffering servant possesses more contact with the homeland perspective in Lamentations than with perspectives in any literature we may associate with the exilic experience or golah community. Chapter 10 looks to the prologue of Isaiah 40–55, identified as Isa 40:1–11, in relation to the larger work: it foreshadows motifs found in the ensuing chapters and establishes the basis of their perspective, namely, that the “comfort” afforded to the prophet's audience will come in the guise of God returning to Zion (p. 345).

Finally, Chapter 11 explores the relationship between Isaiah 40–55 and Lamentations, identifying allusions to the latter within the former and considering the function of these allusions from a Judah-centered point of view. As Tiemeyer argues, Isaiah 40–55 provides a new context in which the contents of Lamentations are addressed, transforming its terms into a new discourse where Zion is restored, its people are on the precipice of a promising age of renewal (p. 356), and those returning from exile may share in this restoration (p. 360). Thus, in keeping with her proposal at the beginning of the book that Isaiah 40–55 was composed between 539–520 b.c.e. (p. 6), the rhetoric of the work speaks to a mixed community on the verge of rebuilding the Jerusalem temple and thus ushering in the very restoration that the work's prophetic authors anticipated. A brief concluding chapter addresses the implications of the study for reconstructing the social, political, and theological trends in Yehud toward the end of the sixth century b.c.e., as well as what this means for the study of “Third/Trito” Isaiah (Isaiah 56–66) as a separate literary unit.

Tiemeyer's examination is extremely detailed and thoroughly engaging. She treats the evidence in a judicious and fair manner, and remains flexible enough in the evaluation of details to allow for variations in interpretation. Her proposal and analysis of the source material significantly challenge scholarly assumptions regarding the social and geographic location of the author/s of Isaiah 40–55. This challenge, of course, does not yield a closed case. For example, her observation that late preexilic Judahites could know and use Akkadian literary conventions leads to the possibility that this same logic could work in the other direction, i.e., an exiled Judahite could utilize memories regarding the homeland even while he or she was separated from it, and create a “Judahite” text even while living in Mesopotamia. If this is admitted, then her proposed dating of Isaiah 40–55 to 539–520 b.c.e. could be pushed earlier into the traditional late exilic setting. However, this does not detract from the merit of her argument, which poses just as credible a model for the origin of Isaiah 40–55 and the world of its authors based on the evidence. The overall impact of Tiemeyer's discussion forces the reader to ask serious questions not only regarding the assumptions one brings to the formation of the book of Isaiah but, indeed, to other texts often dated axiomatically to this-or-that period. For this reason and others, future research into Isaiah 40–55 (and other texts from the exilic or early Persian period) will need to reckon with Tiemeyer's substantial contribution to the ongoing conversation.

Mark Leuchter, Temple University