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

Jong, Matthijs J. de, Isaiah among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets: A Comparative Study of the Earliest Stages of the Isaiah Tradition and the Neo-Assyrian Prophecies (VTSup, 117; Leiden: Brill, 2007). Pp. xii+522. Hardcover. US$ 177.00, ISBN 978-90-04-16161-0.

This ambitious monograph is a revision of the author's 2006 doctoral dissertation, written under Arie van der Kooij at Leiden University. De Jong identifies three goals for his study: isolating material in Isa 1–39 from the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e.; clarifying the relationship between the biblical portrayal and historical phenomenon of ancient Israelite and Judean prophecy; and comparing early material from Isa 1–39 to Assyrian prophetic texts from the seventh century b.c.e. (pp. 3–4). In addition, he offers new readings of a number of Mesopotamian texts, robustly defends the proposed Josianic redaction of First Isaiah, argues for a further exilic redaction of First Isaiah, and explores the transition from oral prophetic oracles to written prophetic collections in Assyria and preexilic Judah.

After situating his work against recent trends in Isaiah studies and the comparative study of prophecy in chapter one, de Jong devotes the first part of his project to a detailed analysis of the two corpuses under discussion. His treatment of Isa 1–39 in chapter two focuses largely on redactional issues. The earliest stage of the Isaiah tradition consisted of three collections of sayings of the prophet, each relating to a specific historical crisis in eighth-century b.c.e. Judah: the Syro-Ephramite crisis in 734–732 (e.g., Isa 7:2–9a; 17:1–3); the fall of Samaria and subsequent Assyrian military activity in Judah in 723–720 (e.g., Isa 10:5–15; 28:1–4); and Hezekiah's rebellion against Assyria in 705–701 (e.g., Isa 5:8–23; 19:1–4; 28:7b–10; 30:1–8, 15). Building on the work of Hermann Barth, Ronald Clements, and Marvin Sweeney, de Jong argues that the three collections underwent significant development in the seventh century. Each one was expanded through the addition of an introduction and dating formula (Isa 6:1–8; 14:28–32; 20:1–5), additional prophetic texts (e.g., Isa 8:9–10; 10:16–19; 31:4–5, 8–9), and a concluding description of an ideal king (Isa 9:1–6; 11:1–5; 32:1–2). Further development of the Isaiah tradition occurred during the exilic period, updating previous material to address the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 b.c.e. This redaction included supplements to the first and third collections (e.g., Isa 6:9–11; 29:1–4) and new texts such as Isa 1:2–8. (See p. 465 for a helpful chart outlining these different stages.) In comparison with the extensive discussion of First Isaiah, the treatment of Assyrian prophetic material in chapter three is brief, consisting largely of a survey of relevant texts.

The second part of the study compares the two corpuses on three points: prophecy as a response to historical events, prophecy as a socio-religious phenomenon, and the development of prophetic literature. Chapter four offers detailed reconstructions of the circumstances addressed by prophetic texts. De Jong claims that Isaiah's primary concern was “the perception of Assyrian imperialism” (p. 249). Isaiah remained loyal to the nation of Judah; he only criticized the nation's leadership during the revolt against Assyria because he thought their actions were detrimental to its well-being, and he stopped short of attacking Hezekiah himself (pp. 248–49). Assyrian prophecies were similarly concerned with historical events, such as Esarhaddon's contested accession in 675 or Ashurbanipal's conflict with Šamaš-šum-ukin in 652–648. Proposing new dates for several of the Assyrian oracles, de Jong concludes, against Simo Parpola and Martti Nissinen, that individual oracles in the oracle collections are not all connected to the same events; rather, thematic concerns are the organizing principle of the collections (p. 250). Although he does not observe this explicitly, this characteristic makes the Assyrian oracle collections different from his proposed original Isaiah collections. De Jong notes several similarities between Isaianic and Assyrian prophecies, including the conviction that the deity intervenes on behalf of the monarch during historical crises, and an idealized view of the divinely intended state of the nation. In neither case is prophecy merely propaganda, as both Isaiah and the Assyrian prophets encourage their king but also make demands of him. The two collections differ primarily in tone, with Isaiah's sayings being more negative due to the greater threat faced by Judah during his time (pp. 283–85).

In chapter five, de Jong argues against the historicity of the biblical portrait of true Yahwistic prophets as independent figures who opposed cultic prophets and announced the wholesale destruction of the people. This understanding arose from reflection upon the idea of prophecy in light of the fall of Jerusalem, one result of which was the proposed exilic redaction of First Isaiah (pp. 323–33). The historical Isaiah was an ancient Near Eastern prophet, not a “classical” prophet. De Jong outlines a number of characteristics of ancient Near Eastern prophecy found alike in Assyria and Judah and Israel (pp. 352–53). For instance, prophets were cultic functionaries, typically located in the temple. Prophetic oracles could legitimate a royal claimant, encourage the king and people by announcing the defeat of enemies, issue demands on behalf of a deity, and warn of potential disasters that might be averted through proper ritual means. Differences between Isaiah and the Assyrian prophets are also evident (pp. 354–56). The “woe”-sayings in Isaiah have no parallel. Isaiah and other Judean prophets apparently enjoyed greater public prominence and influence on the king than their Assyrian counterparts, which de Jong attributes to the limited social stratification of Judah, such that Judean prophets occupied a comparable position to scholars in Assyria. This fact may account for a final difference, the development of a tradition associated with Isaiah as an authoritative, legendary figure. No such tradition ever grew around a Mesopotamian prophet.

De Jong takes up the question of prophetic literature in chapter six. He focuses upon the proposed Josianic redaction of First Isaiah, since this revision both transformed the Isaiah tradition into literature and is itself literary in character (p. 357). This redaction derived from scribal circles and was written from the start, with no oral stage. It attributed to Isaiah predictions of the demise of Assyria and reign of Josiah and situated earlier prophetic words in a broader theological context of divine activity in the world. As an expression of royal ideology, this revision effectively erased the distinction between prophecy and propaganda that held for earlier prophetic material. De Jong finds parallels for these developments in Assyria. Prophetic oracles were recontextualized in new literary forms, such as letters, inscriptions, and oracle collections, and new literary texts were written in the guise of prophetic oracles. Such texts displayed a broader perspective on historical events than oracles in their original forms, which focused narrowly on specific crises, and they ultimately reinforced divine support for the Assyrian ruler. De Jong also analyzes Mesopotamian literary-predictive texts such as the Marduk prophecy, which he calls “literary imitations of prophecy” (pp. 357–58). These texts present themselves as ancient prophecies of the reign of a future king, for whom they were in fact composed as propaganda; as such, they parallel the ex eventu predictions of Josiah's rule in Isa 9:1–6; 11:1–5; and 32:1–2. While these different kinds of literary prophecy appear in different texts in Mesopotamia, the Isaiah tradition incorporated all of them in a single corpus (pp. 438–39).

De Jong's arguments are typically clear and well-supported, and he substantively engages both European and American work in biblical studies and Assyriology. The organization of the book is sometimes unwieldy, as he repeats the same claims in multiple chapters and summarizes earlier arguments perhaps more frequently than necessary, although some repetition seems unavoidable given the length and breadth of the study. Because it examines so many different questions, readers will necessarily find some parts more convincing than others. Although carefully argued, de Jong's redactional analysis of Isa 1–39 is problematic. Other than his suggestion that material from Isa 14; 18–20; and 22 was moved to the series of oracles against foreign nations in Isa 13–23 (p. 139), he does not account for the rearrangement of the putative original collections in the final form of the book. Further, the exilic dating of every text in Isa 1–39 that envisions a military threat against Jerusalem seems extreme. De Jong rightly criticizes the stereotype of the classical prophets as proclaimers of doom, although it not clear that this stereotype is so much a product of the Bible as of biblical scholarship. His own account of the historical Isaiah, however, leaves room for texts that he excludes. One wonders why Isa 29:1–8, for instance, could not have been a prophetic warning of disaster like others that de Jong attributes to ancient Near Eastern prophets. The focus on supposed Josianic material, instead of, say, the process by which Isaiah's prophecies might originally have been collected, makes chapter six less persuasive for readers who do not accept a seventh-century redaction of Isaiah. The chapter has additional weaknesses, as de Jong does not adequately articulate criteria for distinguishing oral from written material, and the differences among his categories of literary prophecy (“prophetic oracles in an elaborated literary form,” “literary derivatives of prophecy,” and “literary imitations of prophecy”) are unclear. By “literary,” de Jong apparently means only “written,” as he pays little attention throughout the study to the stylistic features of biblical or Mesopotamian texts, save an occasional comment about parallelism or genre, and line breaks are not marked in the format of quotations from poetic texts.

For this reviewer, the comparative explorations in chapters four and five are the book's most original and compelling contribution. The comparison of biblical and Assyrian prophetic material yields new insights into both sets of texts and the cultures that produced them. The scope of the comparison even extends beyond prophetic texts, examining for instance the portrayal of anti-Assyrian alliances in Isaiah and Assyrian royal inscriptions (pp. 233–40). Ultimately, de Jong develops a convincing portrait of a historical Isaiah who, in terms of both the content of his oracles and his socio-religious functions as a prophet, fits squarely in the eighth century. In this way, the study provides a welcome refutation of the growing trend to view the book of Isaiah in its entirety as a work from the Persian or even Hellenistic period. In addition, the discussion in chapter two contains many exegetical insights that will benefit interpreters of Isa 1–39 apart from the larger aims of the study. Much more could be said about both the strengths and shortcomings of the book, and even the critical comments above are testimony to its interesting and suggestive arguments. Future studies of Isaiah the eighth-century prophet or ancient Near Eastern prophecy will be obliged to engage this impressive study.

J. Blake Couey, Gustavus Adolphus College