John Goldingay, Isaiah.
(New International Biblical Commentary; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001), x, 397 pp. ISBN 1-56563-223-0. $11.95
Reviewed by James Kennedy
Baylor University

The book of Isaiah is such a complex book that it resists reduction to any one thematic expression, unless it should perhaps be the cosmic kingship of Yahweh. A commentator must wrestle vigorously in order to present the book to interested readers. John Goldingay’s presentation grows out of such wrestling and offers itself as one stemming from devotion to the text as sacred scripture. He is in full accord with the editorial vision the New International Biblical Commentary sustains. For example, it is from within a specifically Christian frame of reference that Goldingay discusses the theological significance of Isa 52:13–53:12. However, his sensitivity to the nature of poetry as such forestalls dogmatic posturing and promises to enhance the experience of any contemporary reader. Goldingay sets out to hear and to give voice to as many thematic voices in the book of Isaiah as possible.

He hears at least four voices from the book of Isaiah that he parenthetically glosses as “pens.” He employs four metaphorical constructs by which to present his expositions on these voices as components of the book of Isaiah. They are Ambassador, Disciple, Poet, and Preacher. The Ambassador, Poet, and Preacher correspond respectively to First, Second, and Third Isaiah. Goldingay presents the Disciple(s) as the organizing and orchestrating voice behind the text. These categories turn out not to be very helpful. They only increase the amount of referential terminology Goldingay employs. In so far as he describes the number of these voices with the qualifier “at least,” he admits that there are other voices as well. For example, there is the voice of “a prophet” that the reader may hear in Isaiah 24–27. Goldingay characterizes this material as stemming from a prophet “who arguably deserves to be thought of as a fifth voice” (p. 4). The voice, however, remains without a defining metaphor, unless it is the term “prophet.” Goldingay needlessly complicates his discussion by hypothesizing that the Poet was a disciple of the Ambassador and so, one assumes, may represent the Disciple category and the Preacher was a disciple of the Poet and also represents the Disciple category. Goldingay then casts the discussion of the various voices in terms of theories concerning how the book of Isaiah came to be. He observes that such theorizing is popular in scholarship but that the evidence from the book is not sufficient to know with certainty the process by which the book came to be. Goldingay’s description of the voices in the book develops into a confession of the limitations of knowledge concerning the book’s writing. Even so, the variation between Goldingay’s approach and that of more confident and bolder redaction-critical analyses is Goldingay’s expression of hesitancy regarding the book’s editorial history. He still works under the concern to isolate the putative historical contexts behind textual complexes as he feels able to isolate them. It seems counterproductive to cast the thematic movements that comprise the book as voices related to a number of periods in Israelite history instead of adopting the book’s attribution of itself as the vision of the prophet Isaiah, fictive though that attribution is.

In several places, Goldingay’s comments in effect imply a concern to domesticate the book and its God as if to make reading it more palatable for a theology that serves a contemporary middle class sensibility of social decorum. For example, he attributes to Isaiah Yahweh’s decree to impede Israel’s capacity to repent in 6:9 and then states that Isaiah “does not mean it” (p. 61). The entire commission turns out to be an ironic attempt to bring the people to their senses. Apparently, Yahweh would never tell Isaiah to command the people to seek understanding only then to thwart their attempts to do so. Goldingay’s variation on Isaiah 6 makes it safe for modern consumption. Furthermore, Goldingay depicts Yahweh’s punishing rage as a divine tantrum. He characterizes Yahweh’s own description of anger in 57:14–21 as a flaring of temper in which Yahweh “gets the negative feelings out and finished with” (p. 324). Goldingay’s Preacher is speaking in verses 14–21. Goldingay interprets the monologue in which Yahweh promises to heal and comfort as the Preacher’s own concluding “that Yahweh had better try mercy rather than punishment.”

There is no divine expression of intent for Goldingay but a rejoinder to Yahweh from a prophet and his commentator as to the effect that the Deity should learn anger management techniques. In the introduction to the commentary, Goldingay interprets 1:10–20 as suggesting Yahweh’s ambivalence about Israel’s liturgical practices. Israel engages such worship with vigor but Yahweh is no so sure that it is appropriate. In the commentary proper, he observes that Yahweh “feels a distaste for the people’s enthusiastic worship” (p. 36). Goldingay’s assessment of Yahweh’s attitude as ambivalent seems misleading in light of the rhetorical force of a series of lightning striking demands in 1:10–15 that are prefaced by the metaphorical addressing of the social elite in Jerusalem as rulers of Sodom and people of Gomorrah. It seems somewhat disingenuous of Goldingay to describe Yahweh’s hatred of the festivals (as 1:14 states) as a matter of taste. It seems to me that such domestication runs counter to the inner spirit of the book of Isaiah which holds forth the Deity as asserting the strange, alien character of divine action (Isa 28:21) as well as actively proclaiming that human beings cannot comprehend the strategies of Yahweh as ruler of the cosmos (Isa 55:8).

Fortunately, Goldingay is more the master of his task than to allow the difficulties of reference to occlude his interpretive insight. Although regarding specific instances of interpretation there are substantial disagreements between this reviewer and Goldingay, to focus on them would, it seems, be inappropriate. Knowledgeable readers do not expect interpretive and hermeneutical unanimity. What is more important is the insight Goldingay brings to his reader concerning the text’s nuances and moods. Goldingay not only traces many examples of paronomasia, he also explains how various instances of world play operate as functions of meaning. For instance, his discussion of the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 includes observations on the double paronomasia the prophetic writer invokes with the words mishpat, “justice,” and mishpah, “bloodshed,” as well as with tsedaqah, “righteousness” and tse’aqah, “cry.” Not satisfied simply with observing the fact of similarity, Goldingay offers a way of seeing how it works. He writes, “[t]he proximity of the words and the similarity of sounds belie the distance between what they refer to and the distance between hope and reality” (p. 53). The paronomastic value of the text evokes the dissonances that characterize the society of the prophet’s day.

Similarly, Goldingay observes that the assonance and repetition characterizing Isa 24:1–13 suggest to the reader something of the overwhelming speed by which destruction descends on the land as well as the completeness of the desolation the text configures. The effect, he argues, is to convey a sense of the enormity of the terror that engulfs the land’s inhabitants. Once again, as in Isaiah 5, Goldingay describes the quality of the language as evoking a corresponding appreciation in the reader’s mind. Incidentally, one may wonder whether these kinds of insights do not call into question any supposedly sharp distinctions between poetics and hermeneutics.

A section titled “Additional Notes” follows each discussion of the Isaianic texts. Here the reader will find a cache of insights concerning a wide array of interpretive issues. The reader who keeps in mind the way Goldingay characterizes the focusing of the imagination that alliteration and assonance serve, will find the “Additional Notes” a good resource. For instance, Goldingay elaborates on alliteration and repetition in more detail in the “Additional Notes” to Isa 24:1–16 and 24:17–23. The “Additional Notes” will also be immensely helpful for readers who do not know Hebrew as when Goldingay periodically observes that different English words were selected to translate some of the same Hebrew words. Helpful though they are, these notes might be even more so if they had been integrated into Goldingay’s narrative. Nevertheless, serious readers will be happy they are included. Taking advantage of them is worth the extended effort.

Serious lay readers will benefit from Goldingay’s commentary on Isaiah. Its limitations do not compromise the overall high quality of the work he has produced. Scholars may at times feel somewhat shortchanged but they too will get a good return especially with careful attention to the “Additional Notes.”