Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Eidevall, Göran, Prophecy and Propaganda: Images of Enemies in the Book of Isaiah (Coniectanea Biblica: Old Testament Series, 56; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009). Pp. vi + 219. Paperback. US$34.95. ISBN 1-57506-806-0.

Göran Eidevall invites his readers to follow him into an under-explored area of OT/HB scholarship: images of Judah's enemies in the book of Isaiah. If so much of Isaiah—chapters 7–48, which Eidevall labels the “discourse on empires” (p. 24)—is devoted to Jerusalem's theopolitical opponents, what can these portrayals tell us about the ways in which Isaiah's author/editors imagined those opponents' roles vis-à-vis Judah and YHWH? Eidevall partitions his study into three sections: Introduction, Investigation, and Discussion. The Investigation section is in turn divided into chapters on Isaiah's images of empires, neighbouring nations, and anonymous enemies. The Discussion's three chapters concern the relationship between the enemies and YHWH, the place of the enemy's image in ideological identity-formation, and a three-page summary of the total argument. Eidevall's argument is well-structured and often convincing, if necessarily speculative on some points of historical and redactional reconstruction. Many readers will find themselves wishing that he had speculated further, however, in charting the potential theological outworking of his theory.

The introduction is brief but strong, providing the book's methodological orientation by comparing several definitions of the term “enemy image.” Eidevall focuses on a criterial understanding of propaganda, on the ideological and political functions of metaphorical distortion, dehumanization, and demonization. His working definition construes “enemy image” as “referring to textual (or, sometimes, pictorial) descriptions of groups or nations, where negative, stereotype characterization is combined with the notion of a perceived threat” (p. 6, italics original). He outlines primary sources and previous research efficiently, concluding with questions that readers might join in asking of each text encountered. His methodology is thus enviably accessible, though in practice it fails to address some basic questions. When asking, “What kind of text is this?” (p. 20, italics original), for example, I would have welcomed some additional attention to the nature and use of polemics in poetry, since it is Isaiah's poetic oracles that receive almost all of Eidevall's exegetical attention.

Eidevall's investigation of specific imperial images begins with Isa 5:26–30, a passage he advances as a prologue to the “discourse on empires.” Here (pp. 23–28) and in a later consideration of the role of unnamed enemies in Isaiah's macrostructure (pp. 174–176), the author foregrounds the anonymity of imperial forces as a deliberate editorial framing device for the book as a whole. As empires come and go, the assembled oracles spoken to them remain, and the fearsome names and retributive promises from the past can be applied to new imperial threats as they emerge. Eidevall then turns to individual empires (Assyria, Egypt and Cush, and Babylon), moving through sequentially arranged selections of relevant texts, and reflecting on the text, the characterization, and the historical contextualization of each case. These studies are generally thorough, but some are more cursory than others: the character and context of Isa 10:24–27 certainly connect Assyria's apparent powerlessness with YHWH's previous “holy war” victories, inviting interpreters to view Assyria as a chiffre for later oppressors (p. 53), but what is the significance of this hermeneutical invitation? This apparent exchangeability of empires and ciphers, along with the process of “continuous re-contextualization” (p. 27) it facilitated, resurfaces often in this, the largest chapter of the book (pp. 49, 52, 54, 63, 122), but rarely with deep theological consideration. The repetition and exchangeability of the imperial paradigms seem to comprise Eidevall's ideological point; intriguing issues such as the relationships between YHWH and other patron deities (in rivalry, powerlessness, etc.) are only addressed piecemeal. But the redactive sculpting of imperial entities remains persuasive, as when Isaiah 14 reflects Babylon's transformation into an arch-enemy capable of devastating the created order (p. 117).

The chapters on Isaiah's portrayal of other nations and anonymous enemies are shorter, but no less forceful. Reviewing Isa 17:1–6 under the heading “Images of Ephraim/Israel and Aram,” Eidevall notes a paradox in the imaging of (enemy) nations: personification ironically contributes to the process of depersonalization (p. 143), as when the undifferentiated “Jacob” figure metaphorically loses all of his health, wealth, and sovereignty. The irony is underscored by the formulaic epithet that concludes 17:6, in that this comes about by the word of Jacob's own god, the God of Israel (pp. 144–145). The Samaritans provoke ambivalence, as these are enemies who are also relatives (p. 149). In Isaiah 34, Edom's alleged complicity with Babylon results in an effacement of its cultural identity, a reduction to a faceless evil (p. 157). As it was the author/editors who determined the literary character of Judah's opponents, internal enemies could be readily likened to historical ones (pp. 168, 172–174). The analogical re-applicability of imperial enemy images is foregrounded once again here, but Eidevall only glances over the poetic/narratival orientation of the images' code names.

The chapter relating the enemy images to YHWH moves in an admirably logical progression. The images are profiled first as enemies not merely of Judah but of YHWH, and second as instruments that serve his purposes; then YHWH himself is profiled, first as Judah's enemy and then, more predominantly, as “the enemy's enemy.” The rhetorical danger of casting one's enemies as instruments of one's god appears in the implication of enmity between God and his people. Accordingly, the instrument role is reserved for some empires (e.g. Assyria) and absent from the depiction of others (Babylon, whose destruction of Jerusalem was too traumatic to articulate; pp. 179–183). This theodicy is not fully spelled out, but Eidevall's language here is reminiscent of scholars like Brueggemann or Goldingay, promising fruitful ground for a biblical theology of enemies—if such an undertaking is even possible, or warranted.

The last full chapter, “Enemy Images, Ideology, and Identity,” ties Eidevall's findings on enemy images back to the identity and agenda of Isaiah's editors. Adapting a concept from Antti Laato, Eidevall posits the “701 paradigm” as a narratival anchor for the prophet's editorial ideology and chronology. YHWH's rescue of Jerusalem from Sennacherib's army (which Eidevall revisits, having earlier mused on the rendering of one enemy by another in 36:6, pp. 103–107) provides the conceptual matrix from which the author/editors draw their images of Judah and YHWH, and of Assyria as the prototypical enemy (pp. 187–190; with Assyria's offensive as the prototypical invasion?). Though it remains implicit in Isaiah, Babylon's violation of this “701 paradigm” is pivotal to Eidevall's subsequent reconstruction of the Isaianic tradition's diachronic development (pp. 190–194). The chapter's final portion locates the author/editors close to a post-exilic power structure, perhaps one sympathetic to the politics of Ezra and Nehemiah (p. 199). Scrolling through Isaiah's cast of imperial antagonists, readers can appreciate anew the reappearance and rehabilitation of some of the characters, contrasted with the uncompromising dehumanization and demonization of others.

Eidevall's scholarship is thorough and his writing is concisely detailed, though occasional formatting issues, most of which are unclear footnotes, plague his provocative renderings of Isaiah's texts. The main problem with Eidevall's text, however, is that it reads like a sourcebook, albeit an excellent one with promising, provisional conclusions (but, maddeningly, no index!). Yes, Isaiah is replete with rich enemy images; yes, these images reveal tantalizing hints about the final editors' political and ideological agenda, to say nothing of the character of the deity for whom they claimed to speak. But what are the further implications of the argument? Did the author/editors of other OT books, or the compilers of the LXX, understand and share the outlook of Eidevall's final editors, or did their linguistic and conceptual choices paint a different portrait? Given Eidevall's repeated chorusing on the empire-as-cipher, what ramifications might his thesis have for the characterization of even later empires, particularly of Rome as Babylon in Revelation or Qumran's Habakkuk pesher? That is, to take Eidevall's argument one step further, once an enemy's image had been dehumanized and/or demonized, what were the theological consequences of transferring that defaced identity onto another, later foe?

Eidevall should not be blamed for avoiding all of these questions; it is to his credit that his study prompts so many of them for further investigation. Those who buy his book will have a fine reference work at their fingertips, one that commends itself as a strong auxiliary text for any course dealing with Isaiah or theopolitics in the OT. But unless we attempt a more comprehensive response to these unanswered (and too often unasked) questions, the possibility of a more thorough understanding of enemy images in this and other biblical contexts will be a long time in coming.

Matthew Forrest Lowe, McMaster Divinity College