M. K. Y. H. Hom, The Characterization of the Assyrians in Isaiah: Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives

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

Hom, Mary Katherine Y. H., The Characterization of the Assyrians in Isaiah: Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives (LHBOTS, 559; New York: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. xiv + 235. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN 978-0-567-63171-8.

In this revised dissertation (University of Cambridge), Mary Katherine Y. H. Hom sets out to study the way in which the Assyrians are characterized in the book of Isaiah. Her study analyzes every text in the canonical book of Isaiah that either mentions the Assyrians or wherein there is a “strong probability” that the Assyrians are implied (p. 4). This practically limits the study to First Isaiah (Isa 1–39), though Hom deals with the mention of Assyria in Isa 52:4 as well.

In the introduction, Hom offers a reconstruction of the compositional history of the book of Isaiah and determines four historical periods corresponding to four distinct redactional stages. 1) eighth century (Isaianic); 2) seventh century (Josianic); 3) sixth century (exilic); and 4) fifth century (postexilic). She maintains that the final redaction must post-date the book of Chronicles (apparently unaware that scholarly consensus dates Chronicles much later than the fifth century) since the Chronicler was unaware of the book of Isaiah (contra most scholarship, which understands the reference to “the vision of Isaiah” in 2 Chr 32:32 as indicating such knowledge for the Chronicler). Finally, she views the time of the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah as “a ripe and likely time for the redaction” (p. 10).

Hom defines her approach in this study as primarily a literary and synchronic one that deals with the final form of the text (the MT) in its canonical/received order. However, as the book's title suggests, she asserts that her study also takes into account “diachronic” issues when necessary, i.e., when her synchronic reading uncovers “inconsistencies” (p. 7). She explicitly sets out her method as first determining a textual unit, then analyzing it by means of exegetical study, and finally considering “possible historical situations” reflected in the text (p. 7). However, in the actual procedure of each chapter, diachronic concerns and perspectives dominate and questions of relevant historical events usually precede any exegesis. For example, in her first chapter she sets out the textual unit in one sentence, then in her second sentence begins to discuss possible historical events underlying the unit (p. 13). Similarly, in chapter 2 in her first sentence she begins discussing the “evident redactional history” of her chosen text. (This approach is standard throughout.) Apparently the reason for this procedure—which is unexpected in light of her earlier stated method—is that she might establish that Assyria is somehow characterized in her chosen texts even when, in fact, the textual units examined do not actually mention the Assyrians. Therefore, she necessarily discusses historical events (e.g., Sennacherib's invasion) and redactional history (which applies Assyrian descriptions to later empires by not mentioning Assyria by name) so that she can then claim these texts as characterizing Assyria. This is not to say that her conclusions in this regard are atypical for Isaianic studies, as most scholars would agree with her in seeing Assyria or an Assyrian invasion being behind most of her chosen texts. However, given that her study sets out to be literary and synchronic, the actual approach is quite unexpected. In fact, describing the approach as synchronic does not seem appropriate. For example, in her study of Isa 5:25–29 Hom states that ultimately “the Babylonian exile is in view here” (p. 18); and she reaffirms that “the final form and message of the text remains our primary subject of inquiry” (p. 19). However, she then proceeds to a “verse-by-verse presentation of the characterization of Assyria in this passage” (p. 19). If the final form indicates this text is about Babylon, and she is setting out to study “the final form and message of the text,” how she can then read the text as if it is about Assyria is unclear.

This monograph is deeply informed and in dialogue with the best of Isaianic scholarship; moreover, Hom shows good judgment in adjudicating most relevant critical matters. In instances where such matters are particularly pertinent to her study, she devotes considerable time in thoroughly engaging relevant arguments. By and large Hom adopts fairly conventional positions. Her most extensive critical discussions include evaluating Erlandsson's interpretation of Isa 13–14, discussing the connection between Isa 10 and 30; interpreting the “agricultural parable” of Isa 28:23–29 as well as the “crux interpretum” of Isa 21; and discerning the function of Isa 30–31.

Each chapter of the book is basically a study of a particular text in its own right. Some chapters are quite brief (2–3 pages) while others are more extensive. The chapters have curious titles which reflect her conclusions regarding the “typologization” of Assyria in each text. Most are either subtitled “Diachronic Typologization” or “Synchronic Typologization” with each occurrence of the specific typologization numbered consecutively (so that ch. 1 is subtitled “Diachronic Typologization I” and ch. 2 “Diachronic Typologization II,” and so forth). She states that the reason for her numbering of these “typologizations” is in order that “the reader can trace their development” (p. 8). However, given her complex reconstruction of the compositional history of the book (pp. 8–12), how the “diachronic typologizations” as numbered reflect their actual development is unclear.

The overall findings of the study are well-argued, though most are fairly standard views. Hom convincingly underscores the typological function of Assyria and the way in which eighth-century situations under the Assyrians were generalized to make them applicable to later circumstances. She draws attention to the punitive role of Assyria and suggests this role links Isa 7 and 36–38 but also serves to contrast the two stories, as Assyria oversteps its commission and is deemed worthy of judgment. Assyria is negatively paired with Egypt (e.g., 7:18; 27:12–13) but also positively in the eschatological picture of 19:23–25. Ultimately, Babylon replaces Assyria as the type for the Evil Empire (23:13) and Assyrian imagery is employed to allow application to even later oppressive regimes (Persia, etc.). Hom ably demonstrates that “Assyria plays a key role in the Isaianic and biblical development of the typology of the imperial oppressor, which reaches its height of notoriety in the later symbolic depiction of Rome as ‘Babylon’ ” (p. 199).

As indicated in her chapter titles, Hom further distinguishes between “synchronic typologization” and “diachronic typologization.” Exactly what these terms mean is one of the more difficult aspects of the book. In the introduction Hom states that “a synchronic approach attempts to understand the text as a functional whole” while a “diachronic approach investigates the changes that occur in the text and its meaning through various stages” (p. 6). How this relates to her “typologization” terminology is uncertain. Hom's clearest definition for “diachronic typologization” comes in her conclusion when she writes “texts that appear to apply to both Assyria and another entity simultaneously may be said to exhibit diachronic typologization,” noting that such texts are “elusive in identifying a specific referent,” but that in “the final form of the text, the anonymity…serves to render the text applicable to multiple situations” (p. 192). This seems to suggest that by “diachronic” she means the way Assyria is typologized in the “final form of the text.” This is a very atypical usage of the term.

The way Hom categorizes each text into one or the other variety of “typologization” is not always evident. For instance, Hom notes that Isa 28 does not mention Assyria (“the name of Assyria is withheld,” p. 191) making “the passage typologically applicable to later situations” (p. 103). However, Hom deems Isa 28 as “synchronic typologization,” even though it fits with the above-cited definition of diachronic typologization (a text “elusive in identifying a specific referent…serves to render the text applicable to multiple situations,” p. 192). Similarly, Isa 33 is deemed “synchronic typologization” even though it does not mention Assyria, and she asserts that “the notable absence of explicit mention of Assyria renders the description of the oppressor more generally applicable to later empires, such as Babylon and Persia” (p. 158). In fact, she suggests Isa 33 signifies “three oppressors in one,” (p. 159) yet deems it “synchronic typologization.”

While the individual sections of the monograph inevitably leave the reader with many questions, it is in the monograph's function as a whole that its value is most clearly seen. The greatest contribution of the book is in its sustained focus on the theme of the Assyrians in the book of Isaiah. As well, the details of the exegesis of individual texts and Hom's assessment and evaluation of modern scholarship will repay close attention. Reading the monograph brings a renewed appreciation for the function of the theme of the Assyrians in Isa 1–39 as a whole; and in that way the book fills a lacuna in scholarship. For this reason and more, the study is to be recommended.

Paul S. Evans, McMaster Divinity College