Review of R. Oosting, The Role of Zion/Jerusalem in Isaiah 40–55

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Oosting, Reinoud, The Role of Zion/Jerusalem in Isaiah 40–55: A Corpus-Linguistic Approach (SSN, 59; Leiden: Brill, 2013). Pp. xiv, 314. Hardcover. €131.00 $182.00 ISBN 978-90-04-23298-3.

The Role of Zion/Jerusalem in Isaiah 40–55 is Reinoud Oosting's reworked doctoral thesis from the VU University Amsterdam from 2011. Its main claim is that the literary figure “Zion/Jerusalem” in Isa 40–55 (understood by Oosting to be a distinct literary corpus) stands for two distinct concepts. When referred to as “Zion,” she is associated with the return of the exiles; but when referred to as “Jerusalem,” she is associated with the rebuilding of the city. The impetus for this claim is the perceived discrepancy between the various descriptions of “Zion/Jerusalem” in Isa 40–55. Isaiah 52:7–10 is a case in point. While verse 8 speaks about Zion's watchmen, verse 9 speaks about Jerusalem's ruins. How can the same entity be in ruins, yet also have watchmen upon its walls?

In the first chapter, Oosting outlines his research method. He surveys and evaluates earlier scholarly attempts to approach the text of Isa 40–55 from a linguistic perspective: Rosenbaum (a functional perspective), Leene (a semantic approach), Holter (a semantic approach), and Korpel and de Moor (a structural analysis).[1] According to Oosting, the scope of Rosenbaum's investigation is too narrow as it focuses solely on the word-order within a given clause and fails to look at the textual corpus of Isa 40–55 in its entirety. In response to Leene and Holter, Oosting argues that their emphasis on the semantic features of the text runs the risk of overlooking important linguistic signals within the text. According to Oosting, linguistic observation has priority over semantic observations: while the author was bound by certain grammatical rules, he was free to choose semantic and literary terms. Finally, Oosting criticizes Korpel and de Moor for focusing more on text-critical aspects and less on the extant Masoretic text. Their tendency to emend the MT in places deviates from the endeavour to understand the given text in its final form.

Instead, Oosting advocates using a corpus-linguistic approach and reading Isa 40–55 as a single discourse. Exegetical decisions should be founded upon syntactic concerns. In particular, Oosting is concerned with valency patterns, i.e. the capacity of a word (mostly a verb) to function together with other words in the same clause. Does a verb take a direct or an indirect object? If the latter, what prepositions are used, and what syntactic relationship do they signify? For instance, to what extent are the prepositions אל and ל interchangeable? What about the prepositions אל and על, or ב and מן? On this basis, Oosting argues, for instance, that there is a semantic distinction between the expression אל לב in Isa 44:19 and the expression על לב in Isa 46:8, often understood to be interchangeable. Preference of one valency pattern over the other must be explained with the help of semantic and/or literary arguments.

Oosting further highlights the use of valency patterns for understanding clause structure. For instance, does a preposition go with the verb or with the noun in a given clause? In the case of Isa 45:8, is it the heaven that is above (cf. NIV), or is it the rain (cf. NRSV).[2] Looking at the same syntactic constructions elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Oosting notes that several texts contain the construction “heaven above” while no other text testifies to the construction “to shower from.” Thus, valency patterns support the translation of the NIV. Close attention to valency pattern may result in a reading that disagrees with the Masoretic accents. In these cases, Oosting argues that the latter have to give.

Finally, attention to valency patterns can help the exegete to understand the extent of a clause, as well as the type of connections between different clauses in a verse. For instance, is a clause that opens with a certain type of conjunction a main or a subordinate clause? Further, can a given word or phrase function as adjunct (“as” or “like” something) although not introduced by a preposition?

The second chapter forms the heart of the study. Oosting looks at 12 passages that each refers to either Zion or Jerusalem or both (Isa 40:1–11; 41:21–29; 44:24–28; 45:9–13; 46:1–13; 48:1–11; 49:13–26; 50:1–3; 51:1–16; 51:17–23; 52:1–12; and 54:1–17). The discussion of each passage falls into four parts. Oosting begins with a brief introduction to the passage, with focus on its discourse structure, addressees, and key themes. He then provides a translation of the text, arranged in such a way as to explicate its inherent hierarchy. The second section offers syntactic remarks, while the third section contains the discourse analysis, at which point Oosting discusses the syntactic understanding of difficult passages and suggests new readings. The final part explores the roles of “Zion” and “Jerusalem” within the passage.

For an exegete interested in understanding and translating the text of Isa 40–55, the third part holds the most interesting information. Although I found myself ultimately disagreeing with many of Oosting's suggested translations, this did not detract from the value of his discussions. On the contrary, my differing opinion highlights the difficulty involved in understanding these texts, and I have full respect for Oosting's contrary opinions. What follows is a representative selection of matters discussed.

To begin with a point of agreement, I fully endorse Oosting's conclusion that the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem” in Isa 40:9 function as direct objects of the participle “herald.” In line with the pertinent textual evidence in the rest of Isa 40–55, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” are thus the recipients of the good news, not their givers.[3] This conclusion further fits the portrayal of Jerusalem in 51:17–23 and 54:11 which depicts Jerusalem as still in need of comfort.

In contrast, I disagree with Oosting's suggested reading of Isa 41:27. By comparing this very difficult verse with several other passages in Isaiah (Isa 3:6; 5:9; 14:8; 22:15; 45:14; 56:12), Oosting argues that it is reasonable to assume that the verb “to say” can be supplemented to Isa 41:27a. As to the relations between verse 27a and verse 27b, Oosting argues that the common understanding of the phrase “to Jerusalem” as the indirect object of the predicate “I will give” is unlikely on comparative syntactic grounds. There is no syntactic precedent for the order: indirect object + direct object + predicate. Rather, in view of comparative material in Gen 45:22; Deut 3:15; and 1 Sam 1:5, the indirect object immediately precedes the predicate. With this in mind, Oosting argues that the supposed elided verbal form “to say” also governs the term “Jerusalem,” which results in the translation “and [say] to Jerusalem” of verse 27bα. In my view, this is a possible reading yet, as it ignores the evidence from the ancient versions, it is not the most likely one. It also does not address the interpretative problems of the words הנה הנם in verse 27aβ in a satisfactory manner.[4]

Oosting continues by arguing that this verse, as translated by him, is germane to the understanding of the function of the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem” in Isa 40–55 as a whole. While verse 27a gives assurance to Zion that “they will come,” understood to be a reference to the exiles, verse 27b promises to Jerusalem a herald of good tidings. There are thus “two lines of argument in Isaiah 41–46: one related to Zion and the other to Jerusalem” (p. 80). The herald to Jerusalem is further associated with the Servant, who, in contrast to the messenger to Zion who will raise his voice (Isa 52:7), will not speak (Isa 42:1–4). Here, Oosting is trying to prove too much on the basis of too little. Given the notorious textual difficulty of verse 27, I do not consider it to be a solid basis for Oosting's claim that “Zion” and “Jerusalem” have different spheres of connotations.

I also disagree with Oosting's translation of Isa 44:28. In my view, it makes good exegetical sense in the wider context of Isa 44:26–28 to understand the verbal form תוסר in verse 28b as a 2.m.sg. imperfect, addressing the Temple in the second person.[5] Oosting, however, argues that it is better understood as a 3.f.sg. imperfect, addressing Jerusalem indirectly in the third person (mentioned in v. 28a). The word “temple” is thus not the addressee but instead functions as adjunct (“as a temple”). I cannot help but suspect that Oosting's syntactic analysis is influenced by his desire to see Jerusalem as associated primarily with the rebuilding of the city.

Oosting's discussion of Isa 46:1–6 focuses on the qal passive participle נשאתיכם in verse 1b. He argues that it does not refer to idols being carried, as does the parallel verse 1a. Rather, “your carried things” denotes tributes. With this in mind, Oosting questions the common assumption that this oracle demands a Babylonian setting. While I agree with Oosting's last claim, I disagree with his suggestion that we are dealing with tribute which, in my view, is very weak. It is, in my view, more likely that the text speaks about idols.[6]

A final example here is Oosting's discussion of Isa 48:1–22. Oosting argues that the preposition מן in מעיר in verse 2 should not be understood as “from” (resulting in the reading “for after the holy city they have named themselves”) but as “away from.” Oosting, comparing the syntax of Isa 48:2 with that in Gen 27:39; Isa 14:19; and Job 28:4, argues that this understanding of the preposition מן is possible. While that is correct, the resulting reading “but away from the holy city, they have called themselves [by the name of Israel]” is in my view both counter-intuitive and unnecessary. There is nothing syntactically problematic with the more normal reading “from.”[7] In the same context, Oosting suggests that the reference to a “furnace” (בכור) in verse 10 provides a hint as to the whereabouts of the target audience of this oracle, namely Egypt. Oosting's claim is based on Deut 4:20; 1 Kgs 8:51; and Jer 11:4, where the same word is used as a reference to Egypt. On this slim evidence, combined with the claim that the term “holy city” in verse 2 denotes Jerusalem rather than Zion (cf. Neh 11:1, 18), Oosting builds a whole theory that the community addressed as “Jerusalem” is situated in Egypt. He further combines this claim with the aforementioned notion that the audience of Isa 46:1–6 is not present in Babylon. Oosting's conclusion, based on extremely little textual evidence, is that Jerusalem denotes the exiles in Egypt, while Zion denotes the exiles in Babylon. Further, Zion is a call to the exiles to return to Judah, while Jerusalem is a call to rebuild the city.

Oosting concludes chapter two with twelve points that summarize the dual roles of “Zion” and “Jerusalem” and their gradual development throughout Isa 40–55. In addition to the abovementioned claims, Oosting postulates that Zion is portrayed as a barren woman (Isa 49:13–26), which makes it unlikely that she is the same as the woman in Isa 50:1–3, who is described as a mother. It follows that Isa 50:1–3 must be speaking about Jerusalem, which, as a character, is a mother and wife who has given birth to children (Isa 51:18). Oosting then goes one step further and, on the basis of the depiction of Jerusalem in Isa 50:1–3 and 51:1–16, argues that it must be Jerusalem's children who are commanded to comfort Jerusalem in Isa 40:1–2. In my view, this whole argumentation is unconvincing and also somewhat circular. For instance, Zion has children in Isa 49:13–26 (vv. 17–18, 20–22), they are just not present. Therefore, I would not call her “barren.” A mother whose children are absent or even dead is still a mother. I am on the whole not persuaded by Oosting's distinction between Zion and Jerusalem and of their different associations. While he manages to create a coherent picture, it is only very loosely anchored in the text; his interpretation is sometimes based on a single word or on a doubtful distinction between two entities.

Turning to chapter 3, Oosting looks at how other scholars have understood the role of Zion/Jerusalem. He interacts primarily with Abma, Laato, and Berges.[8] Each discussion falls into three parts: (1) how do these scholars understand the designations “Zion” and “Jerusalem”; (2) how do these designations agree with the literary structure of Isa 40–55; and (3) what is the relationship between Zion/Jerusalem and the other dramatic personae in Isa 40–55? Oosting evaluates and criticizes the different proposals, and in the end argues that his own view is closest to that of Berges. He then summarizes the information he himself gathers in the preceding chapter two, and outlines the characteristics and tasks of “Zion” and “Jerusalem” in dialogue with the three aforementioned scholars: Zion—barren woman, associated with the return of the Babylonian Jews to Zion; Jerusalem—mother, whose children are summoned back from Egypt to their mother by the Servant of Yhwh and encouraged to comfort her and to rebuild the city.

Evaluating this book is difficult. On the one hand, although I disagree with most of Oosting's translations of passages in Isa 40–55, his translations have firm textual support. The fact that I have translated these passages differently does not lessen the import of his argumentation. I also agree with Oosting that valency can be a useful tool for elucidating Hebrew syntax. On the other hand, I am skeptical about the overall result of his investigation. I do not hold it for likely that, on the basis of the text of Isa 40–55, the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can be differentiated along the lines that Oosting suggests. The question as to why the author(s) of the text used two different designations is an open question that begs an answer, yet the answer, in my opinion, does not lie in Oosting's suggestion of different target audiences of different geographical origins and of different roles in Yehud. On this note, it is surprising, given Oosting's focus on the geographical origins of the people associated with the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem,” that he never once refers to those scholars who advocate a Judahite setting of Isa 40–55.[9] It is also noteworthy that Oosting never interacts with Goldingay and Payne's major commentary to Isa 40–55.[10]

Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer, University of Aberdeen

[1] M. Rosenbaum, Word-Order Variation in Isaiah 40–55. A Functional Perspective (SNN, 36; Assen: van Gorcum, 1997); H. Leene, De vroegere en de nieuwe dingen bij Deuterojesaja (Amsterdam: VI Uitgeverij, 1987); K. Holter, Second Isaiah's Idol-Fabrication Passages (Beiträge zur biblischen exegese und Theologie, 28; Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995); M.C.A. Korpel and J.C. de Moor, The Structure of Classical Hebrew Poetry. Isaiah 40–55 (OTS, 41; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 1998). reference

[2] NIV “You heavens above (ממעל), rain down righteousness.” NRSV “Shower, O heavens, from above” (ממעל). reference

[3] L.-S. Tiemeyer, For the Comfort of Zion. The Geographical and Theological Location of Isaiah 40–55 (VTSup, 139; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011), 279–285. reference

[4] For my own suggested reading of the verse, see ibid., 276–278 reference

[5] Ibid., 286–287 reference

[6] Ibid., 118–123. reference

[7] For my own translation of the verse, see ibid., 240–243 reference

[8] R. Abma, Bonds of Love. Methodic Studies of Prophetic Texts with Marriage Imagery. Isaiah 50:1–3 and 54:1–10, Hosea 1–3, Jeremiah 2–3 (SSN, 40; Assen: van Gorcum, 1999); A. Laato, The Servant of yhwh and Cyrus. A Reinterpretation of the Exilic Messianic Programme in Isaiah 40–55 (ConBot, 35; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1992); idem, “About Zion I Will Not Be Silent.” The Book of Isaiah as an Ideological Unity (ConBot, 44; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1998); U. Berges, Das Buch Jesaja. Komposition und Endgestalt (HBS, 16; Freiburg: Herder, 1998); idem, “Personification and Prophetic Voices of Zion in Isaiah and Beyond,” in J.C. de Moor (ed.), The Elusive Prophet. The Prophet as a Historical Person, Literary Character and Anonymous Artist (OTSt, 45; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2001), 54–82. reference

[9] See especially H.M. Barstad, The Babylonian Captivity of the Book of Isaiah. “Exilic” Judah and the Provenance of Isaiah 40–55 (Oslo: Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, 1997). See also C.R. Seitz, Zion's Final Destiny. The Development of the Book of Isaiah. A Reassessment of Isaiah 36–39 (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1989), 130–48, 206; M. Goulder, “Deutero-Isaiah of Jerusalem,” JSOT 28 (2004), 351–62. My own work on this topic, Tiemeyer, For the Comfort of Zion, was not yet published when Oosting wrote his dissertation. reference

[10] J. Goldingay and D. Payne, Isaiah 40–55 (2 vols; ICC; London: T&T Clark, 2006). reference