B.H. Lim, The ‘Way of the Lord’ in the Book of Isaiah

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

Lim, Bo H., The ‘Way of the Lord’ in the Book of Isaiah (LHBOT, 522; London/New York: T & T Clark, 2010). Pp. 224. Hardcover. US$110.00. ISBN 9780567027634.

Bo Lim's study is an extensive examination of the motif of the way of the LORD (WOL) in the book of Isaiah. Upon re-evaluation of Walther Zimmerli's proposal that Trito-Isaiah reinterpreted Deutero-Isaiah's motif of the “way” upon which the exiles returned to Judah (Isa 40:1–11 being the prime example) as an ethical, religious way of living for the LORD, Lim argues that the WOL is semantically homogenous throughout the book of Isaiah. He understands the WOL as a metaphorical way of living obediently to God, a figurative way upon which God's people reach their ultimate salvation (i.e., eschatological), and the way through the transformed wilderness of the New Exodus. Lim's methodology incorporates inner-biblical exegesis, aspects of Israelite religion, metaphor and typology, myth, and eschatology. In order to show the homogeneity of the WOL throughout the different compositional phases of Isaiah, he examines the motif as it appears in Deutero-Isaiah, Trito-Isaiah, Isa 34–35, and the New Testament. While Lim's commanding knowledge of the critical issues for both the book of Isaiah and the motif of the WOL will benefit readers, in this reviewer's opinion many of his analyses tend nonetheless to be either overstated or unpersuasive.

To begin with, most readers will have difficulty with the way in which Lim interprets Isa 40:3–4, his core passage for reading the WOL as a metaphor for obedience (pp. 64–68). For the bicola of vv. 4a–b, Lim decouples the merism of the phrases “let every valley be lifted up” (כל גיא ינשא) and “let every hill and mountain be laid low” (כל הר וגבעה ישפלו). He argues that v. 4a describes the exilic community's forgiveness by noting that (1) נשא may denote “to forgive”, (2) the noun גיא alludes to the oracle against the Valley of Vision (i.e., Jerusalem; Isa 22:1), and (3) the noun גיא is often associated with death (Deut 34:6; Ps 23:4). Since Lim understands the Valley of Vision as a place of death without forgiveness of sin (Isa 22:14), he proposes that v. 4a is a reversal of Jerusalem's judgment. In a completely different scenario, he proposes that v. 4b is a metaphor for God humbling the proud. Thus, the call to prepare the way of the LORD (v. 3) in conjunction with v. 4b forms an injunction for the exilic community to walk obediently in God's commands.

Lim's exegesis is unconvincing due to his insubstantial lexical arguments and somewhat reductionistic analysis of metaphors. The noun גיא is hardly associated with death with respect to the Hebrew Bible.[1] The use of גיא as an allusion to the oracle of the Valley of Vision is tenuous since the raised valleys of the WOL are in the desert whereas the Valley of Vision is equated with Jerusalem. While Lim is correct that mountains and hills frequently serve as symbols for pride in Isaiah, he fails to account for the key difference in the imagery of Isa 40:4, where leveled mountains appear in parallel with lifted valleys. While Lim notes the pervasive metaphor of walking in God's way/law in the Hebrew Bible, he inaccurately equates Isa 40:3 with this metaphor. The metaphor of walking in God's way/law portrays the faithful walking on God's straight way as opposed to Isa 40:3, a passage in which the people construct a straight way for the LORD to return to Zion (Isa 40:10). Many readers will also have difficulty accepting his reading of the metaphor of the “ethical way” in other WOL passages (e.g., Isa 35:8; 57:14; and 62:10–12). While Lim is correct to note that Deutero-Isaiah certainly contains WOL passages that possess this metaphor of the “ethical way” (e.g., Isa 48:17), he unnecessarily reads this metaphor into other passages.

Lim identifies two main themes in the imagery of the transformed desert: the desert as primordial foe and the transformed desert as God's transformed people. Lim builds upon Clifford's hypothesis according to which the desert of the WOL is portrayed as a primordial foe that God defeats similar to the primordial sea in the tradition of the Egyptian exodus.[2] Lim argues that the creation of the way through the desert, which includes the transformation of the desert itself, represents the divine warrior's victory over the primordial chaos that is represented by the desert (pp. 58–61). While the imagery of God's creation of a way through the transformed desert can be considered a “victory” over the desert, Lim fails to offer any passages in which the desert, like the primordial sea, is engaged in combat with God, the divine warrior. Ultimately, Lim's arguments for the desert as a primordial, mythic foe of chaos are unconvincing. The same can generally be said regarding his arguments for interpreting the metaphor of the transformation of the desert wilderness as the people's transformation. Although this reading may apply to a few passages, such as Isa 44:3, in most instances it seems problematic. In Isa 41:17–20, it is not clear how the people can at once be thirsting in the desert and also be the metaphorical desert that God fills with water in order to quench the people (pp. 53–54). For Isa 35:1–7, Lim relies upon the peculiar argument that since the desert cannot literally see God's glory (v. 2), the desert must be a metaphor for the people (p. 151). Although Lim describes how he incorporates metaphor into his methodology, he curiously makes no allowance for how Isa 35:1–2 may just be a personification of nature (cf. Isa 55:12).

Lim's identification of the WOL as an eschatological way in Isa 35 and 62:10–12 is not debated, but his assessment of the WOL as an eschatological way throughout Deutero-Isaiah is difficult to substantiate. Lim's argument for how Isa 55 begins a shift toward understanding the WOL as eschatological in Trito-Isaiah is helpful, but he unnecessarily argues that the WOL was intended as eschatological throughout Deutero-Isaiah. Regardless of whether the imagery of Isa 55:12–13 denotes a new creation and/or a reversal of Eden's curse,[3] Lim's argument for how this imagery substantiates that the New Exodus of the WOL “all along (i.e., Deutero-Isaiah) possessed an eschatological quality” (p. 100) is difficult to evaluate. Lim makes a good case for how this shift toward an eschatological way may cause a re-reading of previous passages in Deutero-Isaiah, but it is an entirely different matter to argue that this eschatological motif was there all along.

In his concluding chapter, Lim surveys how the New Testament interprets the WOL as an ethical and eschatological way. He provides a very helpful overview and critique of how the motif of the WOL organizes and structures the gospels and Acts. He argues that the New Testament does not re-interpret the WOL, but rather, its ethical and eschatological understanding of the WOL is consistent with how the WOL was originally portrayed in Isaiah. However, Lim's arguments fail to explain whether the New Testament utilizes passages like Isa 40:3 because the verse is iconic for the tradition of the WOL, which contains eschatological and metaphorical aspects, or because Isa 40:3 itself has eschatological and metaphorical connotations.

While these critiques of Lim's examples show the major difficulties with Lim's thesis, he is correct to argue that the WOL as a whole carries sub-themes of eschatology, obedient “walking” with God, and the imagery of the wilderness's transformation. This is not to say, however, that every usage of the WOL motif in the book of Isaiah must communicate all these sub-themes. Just as the Exodus tradition may be evoked to denote Egyptian oppression, deliverance, Israelite rebellion, or God's covenant with Israel, not every usage must denote all these elements; similarly, the WOL could be used to denote a selection of its multiple sub-themes. In spite of these issues, Lim has made an important contribution to Isaianic scholarship by researching how the motif of the WOL among its different compositional stages is more semantically fluid than what Zimmerli originally proposed.

Kevin Chau, University of the Free State (South Africa)

[1] Moreover, Deut 34:6 is hardly a supporting example since it only states that Moses died in a valley. As a result, among the numerous occurrences of גיא, Lim is left with a sole example. reference

[2] Richard Clifford, “The Unity of the Book of Isaiah and Its Cosmogonic Language,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (1993), 1–17, here p. 8. reference

[3] It is equally possible to argue that the imagery only describes the revivification of the neglected and damaged land that resulted from the Babylonian incursions. reference