Review of U. Berges, Isaías

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

Berges, Ulrich, Isaías: El profeta y el libro (Estudios Bíblicos, 44; Estella, Navarra, Verbo Divino: 2011). Pp. 216. Softcover. €18.35 ISBN 978-84-9945-223-4.

At the beginning of 1998 Ulrich Berges published Das Buch Jesaja: Komposition und Endgestalt. It was the result of his Habilitationsschrift, which he defended several months earlier at the University of Münster. Due to a combination of synchronic and diachronic readings, this work was able to explore the composition and formation of the book of Isaiah in more depth

Berges' Das Buch Jesaja and several other of his studies on the book of Isaiah form the basis of the recent Isaías: El profeta y el libro, published originally in German in 2010 (Jesaja: Das Buch und der Prophet).

This book focuses on the book of Isaiah as such, covering all 66 chapters of the book. The main body of the book consist of a study of the book of Isaiah as a literary composition, which is structured in seven parts, pp. 53–130. It is worth stressing that for Berges both the book's literary features and its history of composition are important.  He maintains, inter alia, that

  1.  Isa 5:1–8:18 and especially the “Book of Emmanuel” (Isa 6:1–13; 8:1–18) play a central role in understanding the content of the first twelve chapters.
  2. The “Book of Emmanuel” exercised great influence over other chapters, particularly, Isa 7:10–17; 9:1–6; 11:10–16 (three textual units on the Messiah).
  3. Tthe oracles against the nations (Isa 13–23) and the apocalyptical prophesies (Isa 24–27) should be read in juxtaposition when studying the composition and formation of the Book of Isaiah.
  4.  Isa 28–35 is the third section of the book and consists of five main laments (Isa 28:1; 29:1, 15; 30:1; 31:1).
  5. Isaiah 48 is the climatic point of the next section (Isa 40–55). Isa 48  serves as a summary of the first main subsection of this unit, whose main topics include Jacob's election, the history interpreted from Yahweh's perspective, destruction of Babylon, and the power of its idols. In addition, it serves as a severe criticism against Jacob, who is blind and deaf and refuses to answer to God. The presence of a great number of intertextual links between Isa 48 and other biblical texts such as Deut 9 (Israel as a stiff-necked people), Jer 6:27–30 (Jacob's purification), and Ezek 20 (profanation of the name) is stressed.

Berges presents clear interpretative positions on key chapters/issues in the book. For instance, according to him  the question in Isa 1 is not  whether Israel has committed apostasy or not. Instead, the chapter points towards the belief that Yahweh has hardly punished his people. The chapters on Cyrus's calling serve as a second example. Yahweh's choice and call of Cyrus can be understood as an important divine intervention in human history. God's intervention at the Reed Sea (liberation of Israel from the slavery in Egypt) occurred right in front of the Israelites. Similarly, all the people of the earth and all their gods witnessed Cyrus's call and vocation before their very eyes. In other words, in choosing Cyrus, Yahweh appears as the singular God and king of the earth. According to Isaiah, Cyrus is neither God's servant nor witness, but God's anointed shepherd. He serves as part of the new power of the world (the fact that God has invoked that new power underlines God's overwhelming greatness).

An important feature of this study is that links between the book of Isaiah and other books in the HB are stressed, and esp. between Isa 40–55 and Lamentations, Isaiah and Deuteronomy and between the figures of Isaiah and Moses.

Berges is also interested in the history of reception of the book of Isaiah and later memories of the prophet Isaiah. He devotes more than 40 pages to the reception and influence of Isaiah and the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, Josephus, the Septuagint, Qumran, the New Testament, the rabbinic tradition, the patristic literature, and art and music.

I would like to conclude with two personal observations:  First, I agree with Berges that Isa 36–39 is at the center of Isaiah's book. He may have buttressed the case by mentioning that intertextual links within the book provide additional support for his argument. One may notice, for instance, that Isa 1–12 and Isa 36–39 have the same function in the book of Isaiah, and that a link exists between Isa 6:1–9:6 and Isa 36–39. Second, Berges refers several times to the Servant (pp. 86, 99, 100, 105, 108), and especially to the Fourth Servant Song, about which he has recently written elsewhere[1] According to Berges, there are deep connections running through Isa 52–54, particularly between the suffering Zion (Isa 52; 54) and the suffering servant (Isa 53). Once again I believe that there are intertextual references that could provide better light to interpret Isa 53. Unfortunately, these are totally absent in Berges' book. In our opinion, either Isa 6 or especially Gen 37–50 could have offered a more compelling insight on the important link that exists between the Servant's mediation on God's saving mercy and on his own suffering.

Enrique Sanz Giménez-Rico, Universidad Pontificia Comillas, Madrid (Spain)

[1] U. Berges, “Das vierte Lied vom Gottesknecht (Jesaja 52,13–53,12): Überlegungen zur aktuellen Debatte um die Symbolik des Kreuzes aus alttestamentlicher Perspektive,” ZKT 133 (2011), 159–74. reference