Review of C. Hays, Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Hays, Christopher B., Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah (FAT, 79; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). Pp. 445. Hardcover. €129.00; ISBN 978-3-16-150785-4.

This monograph is an important contribution to several fields of biblical studies. First and foremost, it investigates the rhetoric of death in the book of Isaiah, but in terms of method and perspectives, it has a much broader range. To pursue its goal, it includes a rich inquiry into the conceptions and imagery of death in Iron Age II Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria-Palestine outside Israel, and Israel and Judah. The ruling methodological assumption is that the meaning of biblical texts neither merely corresponds to literary artifacts of neighboring cultures, nor simply opposes them. The biblical literature is deeply embedded in its ancient Near Eastern context, but it also witnesses to several important processes of transformation of traditional ancient Near Eastern thinking. Throughout his book, Hays manages to assess the evidence carefully and to put the biblical texts adequately in context.

The first half of the monograph is dedicated to the perception of death in the ancient Near Eastern world, the second half deals with the rhetoric of death in Isaiah 1–39.

The discussion of the various cultural realms of the ancient Near East in the first part of the book entails historical sketches, the evaluation of possible mechanisms of cultural transfers, and the presentation and analysis of different burial and mourning practices and, where available, texts that are relevant to the topic. Each section is concluded by a helpful, brief summary. Despite the vast historical array of his investigation, Hays succeeds not only in repeating and combining accepted results from previous research, but he also includes innovative and new elements, especially regarding the cultural interdependences of both the great powers and also smaller states like Israel and Judah.

Hays starts his historical overview with Mesopotamia. Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian sources show an increased interest in the topic of death in Iron Age II, and there were obvious channels of communication for these ideas into Israel and Judah in the preexilic and exilic periods. Especially the rhetoric of the Sargonids made vast use of death imagery, which was taken over to a considerable degree among their vassals, either coercively or voluntarily.

Egypt was traditionally the most elaborate ancient culture regarding the construction of an otherworldly afterlife. Hays convincingly argues against a strictly isolated view of Egyptian notions of death and presents both shared and distinctive traits of Egyptian approaches to death in comparison to Mesopotamia. Despite some strong anti-Egypt texts in the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that Egypt was a major influence on Israel and Judah in the period under discussion, and one has to reckon with the reception and transformation of Egyptian death imagery by Israel and Judah.

Especially helpful is Hays' chapter on Ugarit, which challenges—correctly in my opinion—the scholarly consensus from Claude Schaeffer to Klaas Spronk that the cult and culture of Ugarit was mainly concerned with, or even concentrated upon, the topic of beatific afterlife and revivification. He points out the spotty evidence of Ugaritic texts and offers a contextual interpretation of the relevant findings, which themselves point to the fact that at least the Ugaritic kings anticipated a divinized afterlife. However, as Hays stresses, we are far from a complete picture of conceptions of death in the Levant.

The discussion of perceptions of death in ancient Israel and Judah includes both archaeological and textual inquiries. Important is his enlightening reconstruction of the history of scholarship on the topic and its dependence on overall interpretations of the religion of ancient Israel. Hays generally reads widely and discusses most of the relevant titles regarding death and burial; however, the contributions of Robert Wenning unfortunately find no mention in this chapter.

The historical investigation of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant provides the background for the second part of the book, the interpretation of Isaiah 1–39. Here Hays discusses all relevant texts employing death imagery. The selection is accurate, nevertheless also somewhat artificial, especially regarding the evaluation of these texts in terms of the formation of the book.

With regard to dating texts from Isaiah 1–39, Hays discerns two major periods for the allocations of the passages examined. The first is the time of the prophet himself, comprised of a “darker” set of texts. These employ the imagery of death within the context of oracles of doom. The second is the reign of Josiah, when “brighter” perspectives prevail, announcing Yhwh's salvation from death. Hays is close to Hermann Barth's thesis of an “Anti-Assyrian Redaction,” but he defines the contours of that redaction differently (e.g. Hays considers Isa 9:1–6 Isaianic rather than Josianic), and he finds the terminology of a “Life and Death redaction” more appropriate.

Hays offers very detailed analyses of the texts relevant to his topic. In historical terms, however, there is a certain bias in his investigation. He considers Iron Age II the period “in which much of Isa 1–39 was composed” (203). To be sure, I think this is basically correct. Nevertheless, this assumption is only one possible result of biblical exegesis, and Hays at times relies upon it as a presupposition. He seems to prefer Isaianic dates for texts whenever possible (357), and he does not shy away from discarding—in a quite undifferentiated manner through a footnote quoting J. J. M. Roberts about “the tendency of some Isaiah scholars to ‘look to late contexts for the work of redaction’” (356–57, n. 4). Hays has, as he states, “ … come away often unconvinced from the work of scholars who find these texts fragmentary and late” (357). In methodological terms, however, the prophet's own time must neither be privileged nor neglected as a possible date of origin for texts in the book of Isaiah. It is one possibility among others, though it is often probable when a text is not understood better when dated to another period during the formation of the book.

Hays even assigns texts like Isa 25:6–8 and 26:11–21 to the seventh century based on their thematic consistency with older ancient Near Eastern texts and the bright, optimistic rhetoric of that time. His own approach regarding Isa 24–27 is based primarily on the critique of the common dating of this complex as a “ … result of intertextual fishing expeditions without adequate methodological controls” (317). This may be true for some scholarly contributions to Isa 24–27, but Hays' own approach is not without its difficulties either. First, he does not analyze the contextual embeddedness of Isa 25:6–8 and 26:11–19 (+ 26:21) in the overall context of Isa 24–27 (318: “The larger question of the date of chaps. 24–27 would require its own thorough study”). Secondly, he does not discuss major contributions from German-speaking scholarship on these chapters. especially important are Erich Bosshard-Nepustil, who provides detailed analysis of the reception of Gen 6–9 in Isa 24–27,[1] and Odil Hannes Steck, who provides a detailed portrait of the late redactional stages in the book of Isaiah, attributing Isaiah 24–27 to the early Hellenistic period.[2] Thirdly, he neglects the fact that comparable texts from the ancient Near East provide no argument for dating biblical texts per se to the same period. The biblical book of Job is similar to Ludlul bēl nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy, but this does not help us to date Job.

The neglect of the context when studying a biblical text is also problematic in his analysis of Isa 38:9–20. Hays offers very detailed and sophisticated exegesis, but he does not take into account the contextual function of this text—for example the parallelism between the fate of the city and the fate of the king. Furthermore, his proposed date again remains somewhat arbitrary.

Finally, Hays does not always sufficiently differentiate between the world of the text and the world of the author. For example, he argues that “the prospective nature” of Isa 30:27–33 “strongly suggests that the punishment had not yet happened” (230). Isaiah 30:27–33 should therefore be dated, according to Hays, before the demise of the Assyrian empire. But the syntactical structure of a biblical text corresponds, first of all, to the world of the text and not the world of the author. The latter may, but does not need to be the case. Prophetic texts announcing events in the future may or may not be dated before that event. At any rate, there is a need for more, and more detailed arguments on this point.

In sum, Hays presents a very impressive scholarly work that sets a high standard for related investigations in future scholarship. It is very carefully researched and clearly written. His approach to questions of the formation of the book of Isaiah, however, remains somewhat unsatisfying, and the dates he proposes for texts are contestable at some points. His overall position on the formation of the book will be published in the “Isaiah” entry of the Encyclopedia of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), but it is unfortunately not yet available.

Konrad Schmid, University of Zurich

[1] Vor uns die Sintflut: Studien zu Text, Kontexten und Rezeption der Fluterzählung Genesis 6–9 (BWANT, 165; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005), 247–59. reference

[2] Der Abschluß der Prophetie im Alten Testament: Ein Versuch zur Frage der Vorgeschichte des Kanons (Biblisch-theologische Studien, 17; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner Verlag, 1991). reference