Review of Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Introduction and Commentary

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Paul, Shalom M., Isaiah 40-66: Introduction and Commentary (2 vols.; Mikra Leyisra'el – A Bible Commentary for Israel; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2008). Pp. 619, Hardcover US$51. ISBN 00 965 13 1919 8.

Isaiah 40-66: Introduction and Commentary is an updated and extensive exegetical guide to interpreting the Book of Isaiah 40-66. This two-volume Hebrew commentary of Second Isaiah (volume one engages with chs. 40–48, the second focuses on chs. 49–66), written by Professor Emeritus Shalom Paul, former Chair of the Bible Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, combines strong scholarship and detailed exegesis of the biblical text. The author contends, on the basis of historical and linguistic criteria, that Isaiah 40-66 should be attributed to an anonymous prophet called Second Isaiah who prophesied in the mid-sixth century bce, toward the end of the Babylonian exile and the early return of the nation to Israel some 150 years after the prophecies of Isaiah from the eighth century bce collected in Isaiah 1-39. The commentary argues that Second Isaiah’s earlier prophecies, delivered in Babylonia, are distinguished by a series of distinctive features: emphatic affirmation of the uniqueness and incomparability of the only true God of Israel, prophetic universalism, sharp polemics against idols and their craftsmen, the announcement of the appearance of Cyrus the Persian, the journey of the Israelites on their way back to Zion, the extension of the Davidic “eternal covenant” to all Israel, and the four poems of the “Lord’s Servant.” Second Isaiah’s latter prophecies, delivered in Jerusalem, describe the ideal future glory and centrality of Yahweh’s worship while also referring to the practice of foreign cults and the religious schism in Israel itself between those faithful to the God of Israel and those who have forsaken the true worship of God in Jerusalem.

Paul examines Isaiah 40-66 through a close (synchronic and plain) reading of the biblical text, offering a thorough exegesis of the historical, linguistic, literary, and theological aspects of the prophet’s composition. The book carefully examines the intertextual influences of earlier biblical and extra-biblical texts, primarily Akkadian and Ugaritic, which shed new light on many of the themes, verses, motifs, and expressions found in the oracles of Second Isaiah. Though the author is interested mainly in synchronic readings, he utilizes modern historical-critical notions in a reasonable manner. Paul strongly supports the contention that Second Isaiah should include chapters 40-66, not merely 40-55, thereby eliminating the need for a Third Isaiah. Furthermore, the author also draws on the rich spiritual legacy of the medieval Jewish commentators and their keen analysis of scripture. Paul extensively quotes from Rashi, Kimhi, Abrabanel and others as well. An example of their contribution to interpreting Isaiah 40-66 is the question of identifying the cryptic group that is called to comfort God’s people in Isaiah 40:1. According to some medieval interpreters (among them Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Kimhi) the addressee of God's calling is a group of prophets. This suggestion should be seriously considered in light of the exilic prophetic activity (85).

Isaiah 40-66: Introduction and Commentary is to be highly praised, especially for its well-written introduction that includes a thorough bibliography (I, 3-80). It addresses many important items, such as the identity of Second Isaiah, the question of Third Isaiah, historical overview, Second Isaiah the polemist, the unique internal order of Isaiah 40-66, the Aramaisms and late biblical Hebrew featured in the book, ancient traditions in the oracles, the influences of Deuteronomy and Dtr literature, the prophecies of Isaiah the son of Amoz, Jeremiah, prophecy and the Psalter, parallels to the Book of Lamentations, Canaanite and Mesopotamian background to Isaiah 40-66, analysis of the Qumran manuscripts of Isaiah and the ancient versions of the book in Greek, Aramaic, Latin and Syrian languages (textual-criticism), and Second Isaiah in Jewish liturgy. The individual sections of the commentary itself rely upon the MT Hebrew text and are followed by an introduction to the pericope under investigation and verse-by-verse discussion. Chapters 40-48 are introduced separately (I, 83) from chapters 49-66 (II, 285). The second volume contains a number of indexes of scriptures, subjects, literary devices, extra-biblical sources, and traditional Jewish commentators.

In sum, Shalom Paul offers an excellent commentary on Isaiah 40-66. Indeed, it is a significant contribution to the Mikra Leyisra'el academic project undertaken by Israeli biblical scholars. It will be useful primarily for those who can read Hebrew. The reader will find this commentary to be an invaluable scholarly piece that helps to perceive more carefully the message and form of Isaiah 40-66.

Igal German, University of Toronto (Wycliffe College)