Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches

  • David G. Firth, H.G.M. Williamson
  • Oct 26, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Interpreting Isaiah

David G. Firth and H. G. M. Williamson (eds.), Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches. Nottingham, UK: Apollos; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. 288 pp. Paperback, $28.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3703-8.

Interpreting Isaiah is a fine, challenging, collection of essays that deal with a wide range of topics and approaches related to the study of the prophetic book of Isaiah. The authors are all members of the Tyndale Fellowship Old Testament Study Group. These thirteen essays were presented at their conference in Cambridge, England, in July 2008.

Those acquainted with Isaiah research will recognize the name of H. G. M. Williamson, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, who has written extensively on Isaiah for many years and published several scholarly tomes on this prophetic book. The second editor, David Firth, Lecturer in Old Testament at Cliff College, an evangelical Bible and mission-training college in Derbyshire, does not provide an essay for this volume.

This work is divided into three sections. The first, “Orientation,” consists of Williamson’s survey of research (“Recent Issues in the Study of Isaiah”). The second, “Themes, Theology and Text” (Chapters 2-10), contains treatments of a wide range of topics (N. Macdonald, “Monotheism and Isaiah”; T. Uhlig, “Too Hard to Understand? The Motif of Hardening in Isaiah”; D. J. Reimer, “Isaiah and Politics”; P. S. Johnson, “Faith in Isaiah”; R. L. Schultz, “Nationalism and Universalism in Isaiah”; L. Wilson, “Wisdom in Isaiah”; J. Goldingay, “The Theology of Isaiah”; D. Swanson, “The Text of Isaiah in Qumran”; R. E. Watts, “Isaiah in the New Testament”). The title of the last section, “Studies in Selected Texts,” is self-explanatory and has three chapters (P. D. Wegner, “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1-7?”; D. Snyman, “A Structural-Historical Exegesis of Isaiah 42:1-9”; J. Stromberg, “An Inner-Isaianic Reading of Isaiah 61:1-3”).

The “Introduction” (pp. 15-17) says that this book models different ways of reading Isaiah, and this is true. The essays reflect the various interests and convictions of the authors concerning composition history and textual method. There is variety also in terms of where the contributors find themselves in their scholarly career: some are seasoned scholars; others have recently finished their doctoral work, and their chapters are based on that research. It would be too unwieldy to make substantive comments on all of these contributions, so the following is limited to several observations based on the thirteen chapters.

The “Introduction” correctly states that Isaiah studies (and this holds for all books in Old Testament research) can be categorized into three general groups: author-centered, text-centered, and reader-centered approaches. The first is connected especially to nineteenth-century scholarship for whom identifying the author was a primary battleground. There were those who defended the traditional stance of the eighth-century Judean prophet as the sole writer of the entire book, as well as critical scholars who attempted to identify the person and setting of the various authors of the tripartite divisions of the book (First Isaiah, chs. 1-39; Second or Deutero-Isaiah, chs. 40-55; Third or Trito-Isaiah, chs. 56-66). Text-centered studies, in contrast, focus either on the final or canonical form of a particular text or the interconnections between passages of the book, or analyze texts and their links against the background of a hypothetical redaction history. Clearly, these are dissimilar text-centered approaches. Reader-centered approaches consider the text in relationship to specific communities or perspectives, such as feminism or liberation theologies.

This volume sits squarely within the second category—that is, text-centered approaches—and most of the essays work from a redaction-critical, diachronic commitment. This is quite clear from Williamson’s opening essay. “Reception history” occupies two pages of this nineteen-page chapter (and is limited to the mention of patristic and medieval works!) and more synchronic efforts merit just one paragraph. The bulk of his chapter presents different theories about the redactional composition of the entire book and then of its constituent parts, all with a view toward how each section and layer of the book work together to present some sort of “organic,” complex and thematically differentiated unity across its sixty-six chapters. This emphasis, of course, mirrors Williamson’s own research interests.

This make-up of the volume prompts this reviewer’s first observation. In light of what is said in the “Introduction,” one would have expected a broader range of methodologies and perspectives. From the sphere of text-centered studies, one would have liked to have seen the inclusion, for example, of reading from what is now being called the theological interpretation of Scripture. How might such a view engage Stromberg’s essay, which claims that the narrower salvation vision of Isaiah 60-62 is expanded by a later layer now located in chs. 56-59 and 65-66? There are several essays that do follow a synchronic textual approach (Uhlig, Schultz, Wilson, Goldingay), but these are done by exegetes. What of the recent, stimulating work by theologians working with the biblical text (such as that appearing in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series)? In addition, minority and Third (or Majority) World scholarship is conspicuously absent (Argentine Old Testament scholar J. Severino Croatto is mentioned, but not in relationship to his efforts to relate Isaiah to Latin American realities). Interpreting Isaiah, therefore, is a collection of certain kinds of approaches not a full-fledged introduction to the broad scope of the work that is being done on this prophetic book.

A second observation is that this collection has several contributions that attempt to offer fresh insights and explore new ground. For instance, the essay by Macdonald explores the topic of monotheism in Isaiah 40-55 and argues for a soteriological monotheism (in the context of the exilic period), which elevates the uniqueness of Yahweh and criticizes the foolishness of the idol-makers, instead of an exclusive ontological monotheism. Reimer appeals to work in political culture and ethics to explore aspects of politics in Isaiah, an interdisciplinary method not common in biblical scholarship. Wegner explains how 9:1-7 as a unit can fit into an eighth-century context in contrast to scholars who date the passage later. Swanson studies the orthography and textual particulars of the Isaiah materials at Qumran, and Watts surveys the use of the prophetic book in the New Testament. Each of these topics, Qumran and the Old Testament in the New, continue to stimulate theories of the nature of biblical authority and the hermeneutics of sacred texts in those communities.

A final observation. In spite of the aforementioned caveat, this volume is a rich resource tool. The authors are well versed in the scholarship for the areas that they deal with. The footnotes and bibliographies in each chapter are a gold mine for those interested in Isaiah studies, and the surveys that are offered are valuable to help the reader get a sense of the state of research. I highly recommend Interpreting Isaiah.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
October 2010