Review of U. Berges, Jesaja 40-48

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

Berges, Ulrich, Jesaja 40-48 (Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament; Freiburg: Herder 2008). Pp. 559. Cloth, € 90.00, ISBN 978-3-451-26836-6.

The German commentary series HThKAT (chief editor: Erich Zenger) is known by its beautiful graphic arrangement which makes the series especially user-friendly. In this volume, Berges, professor at the University of Münster, presents the first volume of his planned commentary on Isaiah 40–66. For questions about the relationship of chapters 49–55 to 40–48, we will have to wait for the second volume of Berges’ commentary.

Awareness of the theological unity of chapters 1-66 is apparent in Berges’ continuous contact with W. Beuken’s volumes on First Isaiah in the same series. The first seventy pages (an eighth of the volume) offer a general introduction, including a detailed bibliography. Berges discusses the main stages of the history of scholarship, the historical setting, and the literary and rhetorical structure. Emphasizing the affinity with the psalms and the importance of “Zion” (missing in Ezekiel!), he sees a collective group of deported temple singers as authors. Since the advance of Cyrus (550) these Levites developed an “oratorio of hope.” After participating in the first greater return (522/1) to the Judean homeland, their Zion theology provided the legitimation of their work, which was subsequently integrated into the growing book of the prophet Isaiah. Furthermore, their critical attitude against Babylon—a fruit of exilic experience—was integrated into chapters 13–14 and 21. The critique against idols—missing in the chapters 49–55 which are written from the view of those who had returned to Judah—stands at the beginning of the exilic struggle against the rather attractive Babylonian deities. The ʿebed YHWH poems are seen in their interrelation with the entire text in which Israel/Jacob is addressed as “my ʿebed.” The fact that this ʿebed is appointed to bring back the dispersed of Israel has its own logic: a literary figure and theological idea takes concrete shape in an ideal group of faithful exiles who are members of the blind and deaf Jacob. They incite their compatriots to trust in YHWH alone as the lord of the universe (whose center was and is Zion), to leave Babylon, and to experience the salvific liberation of Zion.

The dramatic character of the text—without a mediating narrator—does not point to a theater performance (against Watts and Baltzer), but to a “Lesedrama” which provokes the imagination of the reader/hearer. In the sequence of scenes, the speaker and the hearers witness directly the dramatic actions of YHWH. In contrast to a narrative which can temporarily leave the ongoing course of events by flashbacks, drama is fixed by the actual flow of time. Therefore, an analysis of the literary structure of the text’s flow is indispensable for understanding the work and its dramatic progress.

Berges finds an overture and four main parts that are subdivided into strophes. The overture consists of two correlating halves: 40:1–11, “God plans a new beginning,” revolves around Zion-Jerusalem; vv. 12–31, “God is able to bring it into being,” revolves around Jacob-Israel. The first main part (41:1–42:12) follows. It is also divided in two halves. The first half contains a lawsuit that reveals the powerlessness of the nations and their gods against the power of YHWH (41:1–20); the second presents the ʿebed (42:1–12). The arrangement of the strophes in both halves is an inverted mirror. Finally, a hymn closes this first main part. The same structure can be observed in the second section containing YHWH’s dispute with his blind and deaf ʿebed Jacob-Israel (in two phases 42:13–43:13 and 43:14–44:23, also ending with a hymn). The third section presents a new development: YHWH’s triumphal actions in Cyrus and the Persians (44:24–45:13 and 45:14–25, and concludes likewise with an implied hymn). The reality that Cyrus did not (and will not) “know YHWH” does not pose a flaw in YHWH’s plan, but rather demonstrates the sovereignty of YHWH and the restricted function of Cyrus, whose mission is separate from that of the ʿebed. Finally, the fourth main part (chapters 46–48; characterized by a more large-scale structure) demonstrates the defeat of the Babylonian gods and the fulfilled catharsis of Jacob, who has now been refined and tested in the furnace of affliction. The last strophe (48:20–21; 22 is an editorial supplement) closes chapters 40–48 with the call to go out from Babylon with shouts of joy proclaiming the redemption of the ʿebed to the ends of the earth.

Berges offers us a detailed and well-written commentary rich in details and helpful exegetical observations. His conclusions are generally plausible and refrain from extreme positions. This said, I would like to conclude this review with a few questions that come to my mind. Why one should include only professional singers and former temple poets among the authors of the work that shows the “strongest argumentative character of all prophetic texts,”? This question is not answered by Berges. Neither does he answer the question of how a collection of authors over several decades produced a very long and homogeneous text characterized by such an intricate and skillful structure made up of chiastically stringed strophes. Finally, why was this group seen as legitimate bearers of the task of enlarging the collection of the prophetic words of Isaiah who had no connections to the preexilic temple singers?

Edgar Kellenberger, Oberwil, Switzerland