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

Sweeney, Marvin A., Isaiah 40–66 (FOTL, 19; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). Pp. 432. Paperback. US$55.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6607-3.

Marvin Sweeney's commentary on Isaiah 40–66 is a labour of love, dedicated to Roy Melugin, of blessed memory, who was to have been the original contributor of the volume to the series. When Roy was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he asked Marvin Sweeney to undertake the project. It is a worthy tribute both to a friendship and to Melugin's enormous influence on the study of Deutero-Isaiah and Isaianic studies generally. We will all miss him.

The format as well as Sweeney's general views will be familiar to anyone who knows his 1996 FOTL commentary on Isa 1–39.[1] Each section consists of four parts: exposition, genre, setting, and interpretation. The first goes from line to line through the text; the second catalogues the various “forms” or traditional generic stances that contribute to the rhetorical effect of a passage; the third discusses both the literary and intertextual context of the passage and its historical circumstances; while the fourth draws the first three sections together and develops theological and social implications.

Sweeney divides Isaiah into two matching parts, chs. 1–33 and 34–66, and thus holds a strong position on the intentional unity of the book. The first part concerns the announcement of God's plans for Judah and Jerusalem, and the second their realization. The overall aim of the book is to assert the worldwide sovereignty of YHWH on Zion. At the same time, he follows the standard division of chs. 40–66 into Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah, though he also sees ch. 55 as a transitional chapter, which serves as a prologue to Trito-Isaiah and a conclusion to Deutero-Isaiah. Unlike many recent commentators, he thinks there is sufficient stylistic unity in Deutero-Isaiah to attribute it to a single poet (p. 33). Sweeney even suggests that this may have been a descendant of Isaiah ben Amoz, as evidenced by the interest in Isaiah's children (e.g., 8:18) and the author's familiarity with earlier Isaianic traditions, such as that of the paradoxical commission of ch. 6 (p. 34). Deutero-Isaiah was never isolated. Sweeney also supports the Babylonian provenance of Deutero-Isaiah, against the arguments of Barstad and Tiemeyer,[2] and its dating to the period of Cyrus, on the plausible grounds that no subsequent Persian monarch is mentioned (pp. 147–48). However, Sweeney also repeatedly considers that at least some of the texts in chs. 49–54, as well as chs. 60–62, which comprised the original climax of the sixth century book, were composed for the dedication of the Temple and the inauguration of Joshua b. Jehozadak as high priest in 515 B.C.E. (e.g., pp. 166, 199, 213). If so, Deutero-Isaiah's career may have spanned not only several decades, but also the gap between Babylon and Jerusalem.

Isaiah 2–55, together with their culmination in 60–62, constitute the sixth century edition of the book of Isaiah, beginning with the pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem in 2:2–4 and ending with the establishment of Zion as the world centre in chs. 60–62. Trito-Isaiah adds to this the division between the righteous and the wicked (p. 39) and observance of the Sabbath as well as justice and righteousness as the foundation of the restored community. Sweeney dates Trito-Isaiah to the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and sees it as fully in support of their reforms. In contrast to most scholars, he does not think that Ezra and Nehemiah opposed the inclusion of foreigners in the covenant community, provided that they converted to Judaism and observed Torah (p. 254). They thus initiated the transition from ethnicity to religion as the basis of Judaism.

Deutero-Isaiah differs from other exilic and postexilic prophets, notably Haggai and Zechariah, in seeing no future for the Davidic dynasty. The Persian Empire, and Cyrus in particular, is God's instrument for restoring Israel, rebuilding the Temple, and bringing justice and righteousness to the world; in 55:3 Israel assumes the Davidic covenant. There is an obvious tension with prophecies about an ideal future Davidic monarch in Proto-Isaiah, such as 9:5–6 and 11:1–10, which Sweeney tentatively resolves by suggesting that Cyrus could have been seen as an interim figure (pp. 149, 246), and that the one who sits on the throne of David in 9:6 need not have been a Davidide. Likewise, the identity of the king in 32:1 is not explicit. However, it might be better to acknowledge that there is tension and that Deutero-Isaiah may be countering the strongly monarchic stance of Proto-Isaiah. This is inevitable in any composite and cumulative work. Moreover, it masks another issue: is Cyrus the heir of the Davidic promise or is Israel? It is quite true that Deutero-Isaiah identifies YHWH with the Achaemenid Empire (p. 246), but at the same time it imagines Zion as the world capital to which all the nations will bring tribute. For example, 65:25 notably reworks 11:1–10 and applies it to the servants of YHWH, not to the shoot of Jesse; Sweeney, however, does not discuss this transposition in his extensive treatment of the “paradisal imagery” of the verse (p. 382). Similarly, on 55:3, the key text for the transfer of the Davidic covenant to Israel, Sweeney devotes space to the description of the Davidic attributes of “witness” and “leader of nations,” but none to the ideological implications of the promise (though it does appear in passing on p. 328). Interestingly, he identifies the servant in 61:1 with the high priest, Joshua b. Jehozadak, but does not comment on how his anointing evokes royal imagery. The tension between identification with the Empire and its subversion would provide ample material for a post-colonial theorist; one could easily imagine an interpretation on the lines of colonial mimicry and hybridity.

Sweeney, like Klaus Baltzer,[3] thinks that there is a liturgical dimension to the entire work, which was designed to be performed, either in Babylon or at the dedication of the Temple in 515 B.C.E. But then he also identifies the lazy dogs and shepherds of 56:10–12 with the leaders of the restoration community: Joshua b. Jehozadak, Zerubbabel, Haggai and Zechariah (p. 271). This evidently conflicts with the identification of Joshua as the servant in 61:1, and the hypothesis that the sixth century edition of Isaiah was composed for his inauguration. But it also raises the question, which Sweeney does not fully discuss, as to the identity of the opponents in chs. 57 and 65–66 (and the nefarious practices attributed to them), and whether Trito-Isaiah does not show signs of sectarian polemic. Who exactly are the wicked condemned to the undying worm and everlasting flame in 66:24?

Anyone familiar with Sweeney's work will know that questions of theodicy are important to him, especially in the wake of the Shoah. A motif throughout the commentary is the inadequacy of Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah's justifications for the calamity and the assurance that the restoration will compensate for it. Insofar as the rhetoric of the book attempts to provide comfort to the exiles, as it says in the first words of Deutero-Isaiah, and thus meaning to history, it is a failure. Isaiah 40–66 is constructed over an abyss. The sceptical voice recurs repeatedly, only to be overwhelmed by rhetorical questions. If the answers to the rhetorical questions are apparently obvious, and, as Sweeney repeatedly comments, are designed to elicit assent, the potential for disagreement is equally clear, given the political and theological dominance of the Persian Empire and the marginal status of the Yehudite community. The questions become especially pertinent in the lament of 63:7–64:11, with its repetition of the charge that YHWH deliberately led the people astray, thus echoing the prophetic commission of 6:9–10. Here Sweeney overlooks the force of the accusation, with its implication that nothing has changed since ch. 6 and that the people are still under judgment. Isaiah 63:7–64:11 poses a question of the entire book, which chs. 65–66 do not truly answer.

This is not a conventional exegesis. There is virtually no engagement with standard commentaries, such as those of Blenkinsopp, Childs and Goldingay, no reference even in the bibliography to my favourite, J. Severino Croattó, and no discussion of lexicographical issues.[4] What it does superlatively well, in keeping with the aim of the FOTL series, is to show how the different rhetorical forms combine, in minutely varied patterns, to create complex arguments. Sweeney proceeds, almost in point form, step by step, at times more or less paraphrasing, to demonstrate how Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah build their case, both overall and within each subsection. Deutero-Isaiah, for instance, logically develops in five stages, from the establishment of YHWH's mastery of creation and human events, to his choice of Cyrus, and thence to the restoration of Zion as the divine bride (p. 38).

Like many commentaries, it will repay repeated reference, rather than linear reading. It is a book to live with. It is inevitably repetitive. This is in part because of the structure imposed by the series. The different sections overlap; it is difficult, for instance, to distinguish exposition from interpretation. “Setting” and “Genre,” likewise, often flow into each other. But it is also because Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah are themselves repetitive. There are only a limited number of rhetorical forms, and these recur in different combinations in passage after passage. We learn ever again that rhetorical questions are designed to draw the audience into the argument (e.g., p. 144), and that hymns of praise suggest a liturgical context.

I missed any consideration of large-scale structure. Sweeney's exposition is primarily sequential and syntagmatic. Goldingay has persuasively argued that Deutero-Isaiah is characterized by a helical structure in chs. 40–48, and an alternating one in chs. 49–55.[5] Meanings are built up through repetitions in different imaginative contexts. I would also have liked some attention to the feminist treatment of Isa 40–66, for example the work of Løland and Dille on the maternal metaphors.[6] The perennial question of universalism versus particularism is likewise sidelined, though Sweeney does not agree with Berges and others that 66:20–21 predicts full equality between the nations and Israel, but refers only to Jewish exiles (p. 384).[7]

All in all, this is an excellent commentary, with the limitations noted above, and a worthy tribute to Roy Melugin and all that he contributed to the field.

Francis Landy, University of Alberta

[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 1–39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (FOTL, 16; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). reference

[2] Hans M. Barstad, The Babylonian Captivity of the Book of Isaiah: “Exilic” Judah and the Provenance of Isaiah 40–55 (Oslo: Novus, 1997); Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer, For the Comfort of Zion: The Geographical and Theological Location of Isaiah 40–55 (VTSup, 139; Leiden: Brill, 2011). reference

[4] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 19A; New York: Doubleday, 2002); idem, Isaiah 56–66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 19b; New York: Doubleday, 2003); Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001); John Goldingay, Isaiah 40–55 (2 vols; ICC; London: T&T Clark, 2005); idem, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 56–66 (ICC; London: T & T Clark, 2014); J. Severino Croattó, Isaías: La Palabra Profética y Su Relectura Hermenéutica (Buenos Aires: Lumen, 1994); idem, Imaginar el futuro. Estructura retórica y querigma del Tercer Isaías. Isaías 56-66 (Buenos Aires: Lumen, 2001); cf. Daniel Patte and J. Severino Croattó, Global Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 195–211. reference

[5] John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40–55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 131, 177, 217, 261, 365, 519. reference

[6] Hanne Løland, Silent or Salient Gender: The Interpretation of Gendered God-Language in the Hebrew Bible, Exemplified in Isaiah 42, 46, and 49 (FAT, II.32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008); Sarah J. Dille, Mixing Metaphors: God as Mother and Father in Deutero-Isaiah (JSOTSup, 398; London: T & T Clark, 2004). reference

[7] Ulrich F. Berges, The Book of Isaiah: Its Composition and Final Form (trans. Millard C. Lind; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), 495–502. reference