dinsdag 5 februari 2013

Review of: Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1-39 (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2010

Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1-39 (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2010

Review in: Interpretation  2012 66: 203
Review door: Andreas Schuele
Gevonden op: http://int.sagepub.com/content/66/2/203.full.pdf+html

Isaiah 1–39
by Patricia K. Tull
Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth & Helwys, Macon, GA, 2010. 605 pp. $65.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-57312-071-5.

ESPECIALLY OVER the last couple of decades, research in Isaiah has seen several new and innovative approaches to one of the longest and most complex literary corpora of the Hebrew Bible. While tradi­tional scholarship concentrated on discovering the voice of the 8th-century prophet behind later additions, recent contributions to Isaiah have shifted the emphasis to other aspects of the book. Two in par­ticular need to be mentioned. First, there is an increasing awareness that the scribal activity that shaped the book and that continued over several centuries is as literarily intriguing and as theologi­cally significant as the words of Isaiah ben Amoz. In this perspective, the question of authorship and “originality” does not suggest itself as the only, or even primary, key that unlocks the deeper levels of meaning in Isaiah. Second, most if not all recent work on the book of Isaiah explores its intertextual profile. The assumption is that this book in its final form alludes and responds to other literary corpora of the HB, especially other prophetic texts and parts of the Torah. Put in less techni­cal terms, the continuing work on Isaiah took place in a library that held copies of scrolls such as Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Genesis, and Exodus. As a result, Isaiah presents itself as a hub of the Scriptures to which it refers.

One of the main accomplishments of Patricia Tull’s commentary is that it pays attention to these recent shifts and innovations in Isaianic studies and so offers a comprehensive and up-to-date intro­duction to Isaiah 1–39 for a broader audience. Written for the Smyth & Helwys Series, this com­mentary is not only devoted to the reconstruction of the texts’ own history but also to their reception in the NT and the literature and art of (Western) Christianity. Tull provides a wealth of information and resources that everyone who wishes to engage Isaiah at any deeper level will greatly appreci­ate. It will not take the reader long to pick up on the freshness and vibrancy of Tull’s scholarly work. The introduction does not do it much justice. Here, Tull presents Isaiah in a more old-style fashion as a book that emerged from the oracles of the historical prophet, to which later generations of scribes added their share. Fortunately, the main body of the commentary offers considerably more than a simply linear reconstruction of the book’s different layers.

A commentary on a massive amount of text such as Isaiah 1–39 with a vast and variegated array of genres and themes requires a number of decisions about what to highlight and unfold in greater detail and what to mention in passing. Clearly, the discussion of the first 12 chapters of Isaiah, covering roughly half of the commentary, is also its heuristic centerpiece. Here, the commentary truly shines in terms of the density of exegetical observations, overviews of historical events and timelines, as well as references to pieces of art and literature, making for a thick description of the texture of Isaiah that readers will find both informative and inspiring. Tull meticulously observes the characteristic flow of the texts from judgment prophecy to visions of salvation, from expressions of despair to images of hope, culminating in the praise song of ch. 12, which concludes the first of the three major compositions of Isaiah 1–39. As in a previous monograph, Tull highlights the symbolic use of vegetation and water imagery. While it may not be surprising to find this in texts that emerged from an arid climate and a largely agrarian society, Isaiah’s way of employing this imagery lends poetic depth to everyday experience; the depiction of conquered and ravaged Jerusalem as a “hut in a cucumber field,” the parable of the vinedresser and the vineyard, the “stump of Jesse” as a symbol of messianic hope, as well as the picture of Mount Zion’s paradisiacal exuberance and lushness—all these serve as symbolic media to convey the prophetic message in the midst of harsh political realities. Again, the introduction would have been a good place to prepare the reader for the poetic and image-creating dimensions of prophetic language. As Tull rightly observes in an excursus on prophecy in the ancient Near East, the prophetic books of the Bible are more than collections of prophetic oracles with additional narrative elements as glue. Rather, prophecy in the format of books offers a way of transforming historical and political experience into a symbolic universe, thus changing its frame of reference and allowing for the perception of purpose and divine intentions.

For every commentator of “First Isaiah,” the middle part of the book, comprising the oracles against the nations (chs. 13–23) and the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse” (chs. 24–27), is somewhat of a no-win territory. Apart from the numerous linguistic problems, chronology is a major issue here. Like many other Isaiah scholars, Tull assumes that significant portions of Isaiah 13–27 belong in the Babylonian and Persian periods, which makes them roughly contemporaneous with Second and Third Isaiah. However, if this assumption is essentially correct, then one would have to inter­pret these chapters as part of an inner-Isaianic conversation (or even controversy) about the role of nations, including Israel, in global history. In many ways, Isaiah 13–27 witnesses to a darker and harsher view of the history of nations than Isaiah 40–66, with the possible exception of Isaiah 66. For the most part, Tull chooses not to engage these questions in any greater detail. What she offers is, again, a wealth of interpretation and information regarding the historical facts, names, and places associated with the texts, as well as exemplary examinations of the intertextual web that connects Isaiah 13–27 with other parts of the HB. Given that these particular chapters have received the lion’s share of attention in recent debates about First Isaiah, one would have hoped for Tull to position herself more clearly in this conversation. Nonetheless, especially for those readers who seek basic orientation in the thicket of some of the most difficult texts of Isaiah, this commentary is a very reliable guide.

Another characteristic of this commentary that deserves particular mention is the “connections” that Tull offers at the end of each section. It is fair to say that she puts just as much effort into giving Isaiah a place in today’s world as into the reconstruction of the world around the book’s original audience. There is a lot of food for thought here that will be especially useful for ministers and congregational leaders. The same is true for Tull’s attention to the Jewish reception history of Isaiah, which she presents with measurable sympathy but also with the necessary awareness of dif­ference. On a more critical note, some of the connections appear to be free associations that do not always follow cogently from the textual work. For example, concluding her discussion of Isa 11:6– 9, Tull points to the reckless practices of modern animal farming. While probably very few people would disagree with her critique, Isaiah’s vision of peace in the animal kingdom is not primarily a matter of distorted ethical behavior. Rather, Isaiah challenges one of the key characteristics of the natural order, namely predation. There is a sentiment that creation is either still unfinished or fun­damentally flawed—neither of which is a standard assumption of Western Christian theology. The fact that life sustains itself by feeding on other life is a deeply troubling reality that seems to con­cern contemporary theology a lot less than it should, which is one of the reasons why Isaiah’s vision of re-creation and peace deserves more attention than it typically receives.

Patricia Tull’s remarkable volume on Isaiah is an innovative introduction to this prophet just as much as it is a “traditional” commentary. For this reason, one would hope to find it on the book-shelves of ministers as well as in the syllabi of college and seminary classes.


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