Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Couey, J. Blake, Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah: The Most Perfect Model of the Prophetic Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). Pp. xiv + 247. US$110.00. ISBN 978-0-19-874355-2.

J. Blake Couey's Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah is a revised publication of his 2009 doctoral dissertation (supervised by Dr. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp and completed in cooperation with committee members Jaqueline Lapsley and J.J.M. Roberts). Portions of the book have appeared elsewhere, in the form of an article for the Journal of Biblical Literature entitled “The Disabled Body Politic in Isaiah 3:1, 8,” and as an article in an edited volume.[1] These portions appear in the current work in chapters 2 and 3, having been reproduced with the permission of their respective publishers. Couey's work joins that of scholars engaged in renewed Isaiah scholarship and contemporary conversations regarding the features of Hebrew poetry.

In merging these two areas of specialization, Couey attempts to fill a gap in Isaiah scholarship at large, and particularly in scholarship on Isa 1–39: namely, the intersection of form and content in the prophetic corpus. The resulting work is a literary and historical study of the poetry of Isa 1–39 with the specific aim of identifying the unique poetic features of the corpus as they relate to devices of Hebrew poetry more broadly. This, however, is not the only aim of Couey's work. In addition to cataloguing and exploring the literary features of First Isaiah, Couey seeks to demonstrate that “poetic language in Isa 1–39 constitutes a distinctive form of discourse that must be appreciated on its own terms” (p. 204). Form, Couey argues, cannot be divorced from conversations concerning interpretation. Thus, “an adequate understanding of Isaiah's prophetic proclamation is impossible without sufficient attention to his linguistic artistry, to the formal and thematic features that make his words poetry” (p. 2). In order to demonstrate his thesis, Couey first locates his work within the field of Isaiah scholarship and poetic theory (introduction), a section that is followed by three chapters respectively detailing the literary features of Isaiah's poetry: the line (chapter 1), structure and movement (chapter 2), and imagery (chapter 3). Each chapter concludes with a reading of a poem from Isa 1–39 aimed at demonstrating the significance of attending to poetic form for understanding prophetic literature. Finally, Couey closes the book with a summary of his argument, a brief discussion regarding poetic form and interpretive content, and a concise summation of the poetic features of Isa 1–39 (conclusion).

Couey's introduction begins by defining poetry generally as a verbal artistic medium that creatively exploits the linguistic features of the language in which it is composed, that displays increased patterning through features such as parallelism and repetition, that is lineated, and that is marked by an “indissolvable relationship…between form and content” (p. 2). Couey then utilizes this definition of poetry to present the nature of his work in First Isaiah, where First Isaiah is defined as either the eighth-century b.c.e. prophet or the speeches located in Isaiah 1–39 that are most likely to be representative of the prophet's work. Couey goes on to situate his scholarship within the literature on First Isaiah, and especially those works most attentive to the literary genre of Isaiah. Finally, Couey closes his introductory chapter by briefly outlining the remainder of his work.

Chapter 1 addresses lineation in the poetic oracles of Isa 1–39. Given that a tradition establishing lineation in ancient Isaiah manuscripts is absent, Couey begins his discussion with a defense of lineation as a feature of Biblical Hebrew poetry broadly. He concludes that, though the line is rarely presented visually in the manuscripts, it is a distinctive aural feature of Hebrew poetry. Proceeding from this assertion, Couey offers criteria for identifying the line in the poetry of Isa 1–39. Parallelism, syntactic features (particularly helpful in cases of enjambment), sound play, and word count are explored and presented as helpful cues for detecting line breaks in Isaiah. This discussion on features of lineation in Isa 1–39 is brought to a helpful conclusion through its methodological demonstration in Couey's reading of Isa 22:1b–14.

In chapter 2, Couey moves beyond the line to explore issues of structure and movement in the poems of First Isaiah. His work further demonstrates that the most common structural feature of the poetry of Isa 1–39 is the pairing of lines into couplets, either through parallelism or enjambment (though larger groupings of lines, sets of three, four, or five, are also present in the corpus). The nature of movement in the poetry of Isaiah, then, is achieved through the relationship between pairs of lines, either by the stepped progression of parallelism or the syntactic dependence of enjambment. Larger sections may occur within the poems, but are less frequent and display no predictable patterning. Despite the use of these features to create poetic movement, Couey argues that the main way that forward motion is achieved in the poetry of Isa 1–39 is thematic development, a method often only recognizable upon having read the entirety of the poem. To conclude his section on poetic structure and movement, Couey offers a reading of Isa 3:1–15.

Chapter 3 addresses the use of imagery and metaphor in First Isaiah's poetry. Couey acknowledges the significant work recently completed concerning metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. For his own work, however, he interacts primarily with George Lakoff and Mark Turner's metaphor theory. Building on their methodology, Couey demonstrates how “figurative images or metaphors project selected features from one conceptual domain onto another, lending insight into unappreciated aspects of their target” (p. 203). He demonstrates especially the function of imagery and metaphor in Isa 1–39. This section illustrates most clearly Couey's desire to blend historical and literary methods in the interpretation of Isaianic poetry. This is because the conceptual domains of the metaphors and images are located in the world of the ancient Near East, a reality that makes interpretation contingent on historical insight. Paired with this interpretive crux is the location of the imagery or metaphorical language in the medium of poetry, a feature that Couey argues must also be considered for interpretation. In order to demonstrate the significance of historical inquiry and poetic form, Couey explores several kinds of images that hold places of prominence in First Isaiah's poetry. These include agricultural imagery and animal imagery, both of which are drawn on in Isa 1:1–20, the poem that concludes this chapter.

A brief concluding chapter closes Couey's work with a final assertion of the importance of form in the interpretation of poetic texts as a medium that includes prophetic poetry, as well as a helpful summary of the unique poetic features displayed in Isaiah 1–39.

Couey's work is a significant contribution to literary approaches to Isaiah and, especially, to the poetic material of Isa 1–39, the poetry of which is often overlooked in favour of Isa 40–66. Additionally, his work is a helpful contribution to scholarship on Hebrew poetry broadly. It succinctly introduces the distinctive features of biblical poetry, expands conversations regarding poetry in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and follows theoretical conceptualization with textual examples that readily demonstrate applicability. Couey's thesis concerning the essentiality of form for interpretation is a highlight of his work and, where it is explicitly demonstrated in readings of individual poems, is particularly insightful. However, one area that is suspiciously lacking in Couey's exploration of prophetic poetry is that of voice. Given Couey's chosen corpus and the significance of voicing in prophetic literature, as demonstrated by the medium's extensive use of quotation formulae, the absence of analysis of the intersection between voice and poetic style in First Isaiah is striking. Couey's acknowledgement that speech and personification are possible areas for further study suggests that such an omission may be addressed in future work.

Extensive technical discussion regarding Hebrew language and its use in poetic discourse may limit Couey's audience to those with at least foundational knowledge in Hebrew language studies, most likely students in graduate programs and scholars. Couey's work would be particularly helpful as an introduction to Hebrew poetics, as a contribution to literary work on Isaiah, and as an addition to current debates concerning the intersection of Hebrew poetry and prophetic literature.

Chelsea Lamb, Ambrose University

[1] J. Blake Couey, “Evoking and Evading: The Poetic Presentation of the Moabite Catastrophe in Isa 15–16,” in Concerning the Nations: Essays on the Oracles Against the Nations in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (ed. by Andrew Mein, Else K. Holt, and Hyun Chul Paul Kim; Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 612; New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015). reference