Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah consists of twelve papers read at the Formation of the Book of Isaiah Group of the Society of Biblical Literature. The volume also includes a 2002 paper Poetic Imagination, Intertextuality, and Life in a Symbolic World, pp. 7–16, by Roy F. Melugin (1937–2008), which he read in anticipation of six more years of meetings at the SBL annual session and which is printed here as part of the Group's tribute to him. He called for the Group to look at figurative language in shaping a community's symbolic world (p. 14). This volume answers that call. It focuses on portraits of a blessed future, which the editors describe as a portrait of shalom, involving peace, wholeness, and well-being both for the human community and the earth (p. 1).
The first author is Patricia K. Tull (Persistent Vegetative States: People as Plants and Plants as People in Isaiah, pp. 17–34), whose title bears a poignant allusion to Terry Schiavo (p. 31). Tull focuses on the numerous images drawn from the world of agriculture: vineyards and cucumber fields, plowshares, pruning hooks, and threshing sledges. They are images of both judgment and hope, in which Tull hears the word that we belong to the ground beneath us, and we cannot afford to let ourselves be cut off from its sustaining power (p. 34).
Chris A. Franke (Like a Mother I Have Comforted You: The Function of Figurative Language in Isaiah 1:7–29 and 66:7–14, pp. 35–56) compares the opening and closing chapters of Isaiah (cf. Brevard A. Childs, Isaiah [OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001], 22, 526–47). Franke examines the motif of Zion/Jerusalem. In Isa 1:7–26 Jerusalem is seen in a state of desolation, whereas in 66:7–14 the city is portrayed as a pregnant woman who bears, nurses, and protects a child. Those metaphors depart from the usual conventions about women, and they also lead to changes in metaphors of God as perfectly realized masculinity. The reverse is also true. Franke says that perhaps more than any other texts in the prophetic corpus the metaphor in which God is compared to a woman transforms the conventional biblical and ancient Near eastern cultural models of masculinity and femininity [Indeed], it defies and overturns the model (pp. 48–49).
A. Joseph Everson (A Bitter Memory: Isaiah's Commission in Isaiah 6:1–13, pp. 57–76) proposes to hear Isa 6:1–13 as a bitter memory preserved from a time in the postexilic era. Eighth century Judeans were understood to have been deaf, blind, and insensitive to God's will. They were not alone, however; later Judeans failed to learn from their errors, a condition Everson traces through the whole Isaianic corpus.
H. G. M. Williamson (Poetic Vision in Isaiah 7:18–25, pp. 77–90) investigates 7:18–25 with its images of Yahweh's whistling for the fly (v. 18) and shaving the king of Assyria with a razor (v. 20). He finds an intentional connection there with the song of the vineyard in Isa 5:1–7 and also with Isaiah 6 and 7. He thinks 7:18–25 arose before the start of the Persian period and anticipates the possibility of some invasion in the future that will be more cataclysmic even than those already experienced at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians (p. 89). The imagery remains on the dark side of Judah's anticipated future, but was designed to provoke repentance that would avert God's punishment (p. 89).
Willem A. M. Beuken (YHWH's Sovereign Rule and His Adoration on Mount Zion: A Comparison of Poetic Visions in Isaiah 24–27, 52, and 66, pp. 91–108) argues that the trajectory evident in Isaiah 24–27 continues in chs. 52 and 66. The focus in all three was on the universal kingship of Yahweh and the worship of Yahweh by the re-gathered exiles (pp. 92–3). Those chapters provide the background for later descriptions of the city again becoming the seat of Yahweh's dwelling. What was lacking in the actual Zion was moral decay and a failure to recognize God, but Yahweh would rectify those faults and return to the city as his royal dwelling (p. 107).
Marvin A. Sweeney (The Legacy of Josiah in Isaiah 40–55, 109–129) asks why Second Isaiah chooses to portray the interplay between the male servant figure Jacob or Israel (Isa 40–48) and the female figure of Bat Zion? His answer is that the author presents the two figures in light of the symbolic ideals of the reform of Josiah as a thematic template (p. 112). That reform was crucial to the picture painted in Isaiah 40–48. As far as the images themselves were concerned, Bat Zion was the abandoned bride whose husband and children were about to return to her. The image was drawn from Hosea 2, of course, but also from Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Francis Landy (Spectrality in the Prologue to Deutero–Isaiah, 131–158) examines Isa 40:1–11 as a prologue to Deutero-Isaiah. He notes the spectral phrases A voice cries out and A voice says Cry out in Isa 40:2 and 3, and shows that they lead to the command to Zion and Jerusalem to declare the advent of God. In Isa 40:1–2 a female voice offers a word of comfort, while in 40:3–5 a male voice declares God's theophany. The passage moves on to the pathos of transience in 40:6–8 and concludes with the deferred resolution (the entrance of God into Zion) in 40:9–11.
Hyun Chul Paul Kim (The Spider-Poet: Signs and Symbols in Isaiah 41, 159–180), studies Isaiah 41, which with Isaiah 40 exhibits keys words and motifs that form parallels with the paired chapters Isaiah 34–35. Kim shows that these texts are linked internally (forming Immediate Links in Isa 40:31; 41:1, and 41:29; 42:1) and in the larger perspective of the scroll (forming Interval Links in Isa 34–35, 36–39, and [40–]41 and Overarching Links in Isaiah 6 and 41). He thinks these links may display the ways writers and scribes operated in connecting subunits, units, and larger texts (p. 179). Moreover, he thinks the links are keys to thematic and theological interpretations as the reader unravels them.
James M. Kennedy (Consider the Source: A Reading of the Servant's Identity and Task in Isaiah 42:1–9, 181–96) argues that Isaiah's presentation of YHWH's servant should be heard, at least in part, as a challenge to the established function of the cult statue, which was understood as an instrument of mediation between the divine and the human (p. 5). Thus, Isaiah 42:1–9 is crucial to the book's overall argument that the servant of YHWH would replace cult statutes both in Israel and among all humans.
Roy D. Wells (They all Gather, They Come to You: History, Utopia, and the Reading of Isaiah 49:18–26 and 60:4–16, pp. 197–216) investigates diachronic and synchronic readings of the two passages. He argues that the texts are interrelated by an intricate pattern of verbal cross-connections, ranging from echoes of words and sounds to replication of specific and unusual phrases (p. 198). He concentrates on 60:4a and 49:18a, which are identical, and 60:4b and 49:22b, 23a, which he says have significant verbal and phonetic links. In Isaiah 60, whatever Judean nationalism may be found in ch. 49 does not survive (p. 214). Instead, it is replaced in Third Isaiah with seeing the world as sanctuary (p. 216).
Carol J. Dempsey (From Desolation to Delight: The Transformative Vision of Isaiah 60–62, pp. 217–32) argues that the imagery of Isaiah 60–62 is distinct from that of Isaiah 40–55, but is dominated by echoes from themes set forth in Isaiah 1–39. Readers might recall in connection with both Dempsey's study and Wells's that echoes are not quotations and such evidence is more tenuous than quotations.
Gary Stansell (The Nations' Journey to Zion: Pilgrimage and Tribute as Metaphor in the Book of Isaiah, pp. 232–55) offers the final contribution to this volume. He focuses on the metaphors of pilgrimage and bringing tribute, especially tribute said to come from foreign nations. He traces the themes by working backward from Isaiah 60, 61 to Isa 2:2–4. Then he suggests that readers would have read the book forwards, so that eventually the nations, emptied of their gold, bring to the priestly community in Jerusalem the formerly scattered sons and daughters of Zion (Isa 66:18–22).
Several comments about these studies are in order. First, the volume succeeds in doing exactly what it set out to do: to look at figurative language in shaping a community's symbolic world. It also demonstrates the value of the carefully defined groups and seminars of the Society of Biblical Literature in providing a venue for scholars from diverse places who nevertheless share scholarly interests to come together over a period of years to share and evaluate each other's work. This group's previous publications, viz. Roy F. Melugin and Marvin A. Sweeney, eds., New Visions of Isaiah (JSOTSup 214; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996) and Claire Matthews McGinnis and Patricia K. Tull, eds. As Those Who Are Taught: The Interpretation of Isaiah from the LXX to the SBL (SBLSymS 27; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), provided the same service to the academy on other topics in the study of Isaiah. That the SBL also publishes the papers of other groups extends such knowledge to a wider public. Of course, the volume entitled New Visions of Isaiah also shows that other publishers print papers from SBL groups and seminars as well.
Second, while these papers are exploratory, they include work by some of the leading scholars in OT research today. Among these scholars are at least two currently working on commentaries on Isaiah, specifically Hugh H. M. Williamson (the International Critical Commentary series) and Patricia K. Tull (the Smyth and Helwys Commentary series). From these two scholars and others in the group as well, other scholars may expect a continuing flow of scholarly work. Third, these articles take seriously the poetic, figurative nature of texts, a feature that scholarly studies sometimes ignore. Finally, the scripture index, a feature sometimes omitted in anthologies, aids readers in mining the volume for help with specific texts.