Isaiah 1–39: With an Introduction to Prophetic Literature. By Marvin A. Sweeney. The Forms of the Old Testament Literature 16. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, xx + 547 pp., $45.00 paper.
This volume, the ninth to appear in this series, is one of the best so far. It contains the usual features: extensive bibliographies, a glossary of genres and formulas, and a discussion of the structure, genre, setting and intention of each unit. Also included is a 21-page introduction that discusses form-critical methodology and the genres of prophetic literature.
The introduction is very well written and shows a keen grasp of the issues in form criticism, both past and present. Sweeney argues that the forms of prophetic literature must be examined as well as the forms of prophetic speech, since “the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible does not distinguish between the ‘original’ words of the prophets and the later redactors and tradents. . . . The final form of the prophetic book in its entirety must therefore stand as the basis for form-critical exegesis” (p. 11). Sweeney carefully preserves this distinction between oral forms and written forms in the introduction, where each is treated separately.
It must be pointed out that Sweeney is not performing a naïve “literary reading” of the final form. He is fully committed to discussing the history of the compositional process. Moreover, he insists that the sociohistorical setting of each unit must be understood. While the first step—a study of the oral forms and their Sitze im Leben—is necessary, Sweeney believes that it is essential to continue the process by identifying how each layer of composition (including the text as a whole) functioned in its own historical setting.
The study of compositional history is thus very important for Sweeney, for only by distinguishing between earlier and later material can he explain why the later community treasured the original prophetic message as relevant to their situation: “Only by investigating the process by which such later tradents understood, reformulated, and reapplied the earlier words of the prophets can the form critic identify the impetus for the preservation, growth and continued vitality of the prophetic tradition” (p. 12).
Sweeney next includes a large section (pp. 31–62) on the book of Isaiah as a whole. While he believes that chaps. 1–39 contain the earliest material, he does not believe that the book of Isaiah ever existed as three separate “books.” Sweeney not only rejects Duhm’s divisions of Isaiah as a theory of composition but also states that the classic tripartite division does not even correspond to the internal literary structure (pp. 41–42). From a top-down perspective, Sweeney notes that the book is thematically structured into two sections, with a division between chaps. 33 and 34; the first half of the book contains announcements of judgment, whereas the second half proclaims that the judgment has ended. These two sections, which are held together by intertextual links between chaps. 1 and 65–66, can be further subdivided into other sections. This narrative shape can only be discerned at the end of an ascendant formcritical process, since Sweeney’s procedure is to begin with the smallest literary units and work upwards.
Sweeney identifies four compositional stages based on larger groupings of these units: The first goes back to the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz; the second is a Josianic redaction dating to the late 7th century; the third is a late 6th-century exilic redaction; and the fourth stage, resulting in the final form of the book, dates to the late 5th century during the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. Sweeney is fairly confident regarding his ability to date these stages, and he depends heavily on references to international politics for reconstructing the Sitz im Leben of each unit. His arguments for dating the layers of tradition are well reasoned, though not all readers will be convinced by his tendency to see the widespread agricultural metaphors in the book as evidence of cultic liturgical activity (pp. 54, 57, 129).
Highlights of the book include frequent demonstrations of how the later community appropriated earlier traditions (pp. 67–69, 357–358, 457–459, 485–487), a brilliant discussion of the form-critical problems in 7:1–25, and an explanation of 9:7–10:14 that shows Sweeney’s remarkable ability to understand the ˘ow of the argument and the function of a unit in its context. Another noteworthy section is his treatment of chap. 38 (pp. 488–505), where he interacts extensively with C. Seitz. One disappointing feature is Sweeney’s tendency to downplay the possibility of eschatological references (e.g. pp. 99, 196–211, 394–396), especially noticeable when he examines chap. 11 only in the context of 7th-century national and religious aspirations (pp. 210–211).
Even for those who may disagree with Sweeney’s views on compositional history, this is an invaluable tool for understanding the compositional strategy of the book of Isaiah. Sweeney’s meticulous work is to be highly commended and will stand the test of time as a first-class exegetical tool.
Michael A. Lyons