Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Hyun Chul Paul Kim, Ambiguity, Tension, and Multiplicity in Deutero-Isaiah (Studies in Biblical Literature, 52; New York: Peter Lang, 2003).  Pp. xvi + 289.  Cloth, US$71.95.  ISBN 0820462136.

            Kim’s central question in this work is simple: Is Deutero-Isaiah universalistic or particularistic? But this book does more than address a long-standing concern of theological scholarship. Kim uses his central question to structure a work about reading Scripture, especially the prophetic literature. One seeking a hard and fast answer to its animating question might emerge from reading this book slightly frustrated—there is no one answer. However, those who are driven by interest in hermeneutics will find this work, if not completely persuasive, then at least suggestive.

            After summarizing scholarship on the question of universalism in Deutero-Isaiah, Kim delineates his central methodological presuppositions. Chief among these is his contention that texts correlate a surface dimension (what we would call the text, and what Kim often calls the “extant text”) with concepts that exist below the text’s surface. These concepts are vital to a text’s existence; in fact, they structure and in some way determine the surface features of the “extant text” (p. 43). To unearth these concepts, Kim makes three critical moves. First, he exposes the interrelationships of the subunits within a particular section of text (intratextuality). Next, he looks carefully at the texts adjacent to the text in question (contextuality). Finally, he considers texts beyond those close at hand (intertextuality). These moves, especially the first, allow Kim to construct exegeses which, while vitally involved in the details of the text, do not necessarily need to follow the results (settled or otherwise) of source and form critical surgery on Deutero-Isaiah.

            Kim offers detailed treatments of four passages from Deutero-Isaiah, each of which relates to the question of universalism: 42:1-13 (the first servant song), 44:24-45:8 (the oracle dealing with Cyrus as messiah), 49:22-26 (a picture of the return to Zion), and 51:1-8 (a “light to the nations” passage). Kim concludes with a solid summary chapter, which gathers the varied results of his readings together quite well. Kim claims that he has brought synchronic and diachronic readings together, exposing a “conceptual diversity within the unified but complex extant form of the text” (p. 205). Critiquing Western biblical scholarship’s drive for coherence in reading texts, Kim proposes a “yin/yang” hermeneutic which seeks to keep would-be opposites (like universalism and particularism) in a dynamic, unresolved, yet ultimately harmonious relationship (p. 212).

            Kim moves beyond an impasse over universalism through careful reading and clever reworking of terminology. His argument, however, could be much clearer. The work is not well edited, with many difficult constructions left from its previous life as a dissertation. One example will suffice. Describing the nature of his work, Kim claims “it focuses on the more reliable tangibility of exegetical attention to the concepts rather than to hypothetical conjectures of literary strata, sources, or origins, although these are still very much worthwhile” (p. 41). In other words, Kim’s exegesis will attend to the concepts underlying the texts rather than seeking meaning in the text’s development. Kim and his editors could have spent more time making the prose clearer and more concise.

            Kim’s readings are, first and foremost, readings of the final form of the text and tend to lean toward the synchronic. Some difficulties ensue. In his discussion of the image of the foreign kings as foster-fathers and their daughters as “lowly” nurses (p. 160), Kim is obviously discussing an honor/shame dynamic, but he does not bring sociological perspectives to bear on the text. Attention to the diachronic might serve to illuminate his point here.

            The lack of sociological analysis points to a larger lack of theoretical grounding in this work. Kim makes large claims about the nature of texts and reading without discussing his philosophical assumptions.  In his chapter on method, Kim refuses to treat the role of the reader in discerning concepts or creating coherence, apparently granting to the text the power to demand its own (correct) reading (p. 49). But in his focus on multiplicity of meanings, Kim cannot remain purely within the text, introducing the reader as an important category in his last three pages. In addition, Kim’s appropriation of the language of “intertextuality” fails to account for this term’s use in literary theory, where it describes the inability of texts to remain bounded wholes outside the cultural play of signification. Kim’s readings often move in the opposite direction, pointing to texts (pericopes, biblical books, or the Christian canon) as sufficient in themselves to determine meaning.

            Despite these difficulties, and in some ways because of them, this book makes for interesting reading. Kim’s position on the “concept” driving the “extant text” sounds almost Platonic, while his fascination with the undecidability of meaning and textual aporia is almost Derridean. If Kim can keep the idealist yin and the yang of deconstruction working together he will produce more readings worth careful attention.

Don Polaski
The College of William & Mary