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Beuken, Willem A. M.
Jesaja 13–27. Übers. u. ausgelegt v. W. A. M. Beuken. Unter Mitwirkung u. i. Übersetzung aus d. Niederländischen v. U. Berges u. A. Spans.
Freiburg i. Br.: Herder 2007. 432 S. gr.8° = Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament. Geb. EUR 70,00. ISBN 978-3-451-26835-9.
H. G. M. Williamson
During most of the 20th century it was normal for commentaries on Isaiah to be divided between different authors who each wrote separately on the book’s two or three main parts. The only exceptions were conservative commentators who still maintained that Isaiah himself wrote the whole book which bears his name. The new century, however, has seen a sudden return to the older position where a single author undertakes a commentary on the whole book (e. g. J. Blenkinsopp, B. S. Childs, and W. Brueggemann). This is largely due to the renewed appreciation of the fact that, however much it is agreed that many hands have contributed to the book over a long period of time, there is nevertheless a sense in which one may legitimately speak of the unity of the whole because of the late stages in redaction, at the very least, which bridge over some of the more obvious historical divisions.
Willem Beuken has been one of the pioneering scholars who have drawn attention to these links between the various parts of Isaiah, and it is fitting, therefore, that with the present volume he should in fact have brought to completion what amounts to a commentary on the whole book. It is remarkable, however, that in his case the commentary is distributed over no less than three different series, and that they were written in a peculiar order. He started with three volumes on Isaiah 40–66 in the »Prediking van het Oude Testament« series (1979–89). Perhaps because they were written in Dutch, it was some years before the importance of these volumes was internationally recognized, but most scholars can now see that, together with a number of related articles, they played a significant role in the development of the newer approaches to Isaiah, not least because of B.’s particular interest in intertextuality and in the literary allusions between the various parts of the book. This was then followed by a commentary in English on Isaiah 28–39 in the »Historical Commentary on the Old Testament« series (2000), and finally there have appeared two volumes in German, on Isaiah 1–12 (2003) and the present volume, both in the Herder series. (The Preface informs us that the commentary on 28–39 should follow shortly —presumably a revised version of his earlier work on these chapters.) Given that each one of these six volumes is a substantial and detailed work, this represents a remarkable effort of sustained and focussed erudition spanning almost four decades.
In these circumstances, major surprises are not to be expected of this commentary, though there is much that will inform and illuminate. B. has a comprehensive knowledge of the recent secondary literature, which is duly listed, but he does not allow it ever to dominate his own explanations and exposition. His textual comments are rather selective, in the sense that he comments only from time to time, but when he decides that discussion is called for he has fuller and often more insightful comments on this topic than all but the most specialized of other commentaries. His stance on most text-critical matters is conservative, with emendation only rarely entertained. While it is certainly an important task to explain the given Masoretic text, there are occasions when such a good intention comes perilously close to a defence of the impossible, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Before the full verse-by-verse exposition of each paragraph, there is an extended introductory section which generally follows a similar outline in two parts. The first part (with sub-sections according to the differing demands of each passage) focuses on a synchronic description, starting always with »Stellung im Buch« and then attending to the nearer context as well as the structure of the passage as it stands. Here as elsewhere B. shows that he has always worked closely with his concordance. Cross-references, allusions and other parallels are cited in full in order to build up a picture of the web-like character of the book as a whole. Needless to say, this provides rich fare for the reader to contemplate, though inevitably not all will be convinced on every occasion of the cogency of the allusion. There is something of a problem of method in this approach as currently practised by biblical scholars, and B. is certainly on what might be called the generous side of the argument. But of course it is of great help to have so much material laid out for consideration. – To give just one example of how illuminating B.’s approach can be, Isaiah 24–27 has often been treated as a more or less isolated section of the book, the »Isaiah Apocalypse«. By contrast, and in line with more recent work, B. shows both that it is closely related to the preceding »oracles against the nations« (chapters 13–13), for which it furnishes a universalizing application, and that it is also dependent on many other parts of the book (including 1–12 and sections from chapter 40 and onwards). The consequence of this is significant not just for the understanding of the book as a whole but also for these chapters in particular, because the focus elsewhere on Zion and Babylon gives a fresh context for the consideration of the nature of the famously unnamed city in these chapters. In other words, the position of any given section in the book has a two-way consequence, both inwards on the passage in question and outwards on other material elsewhere in the book.
The second part of each introductory section (again with varying sub-divisions) focuses on »Diachronie« – the arguably different origins of the material, its redaction and date. Until comparatively recently, this material would have stood first and would have been given greatest attention. I entirely agree with B. that it should come second and that its more hypothetical nature should be emphasized. My only regret is that sometimes he maintains this cautious approach to the extent of not giving a firmer steer as to his own opinion, even if certainty is unattainable. After all, few other scholars are as well positioned to give us the benefit of their expertise in this regard.
In sum, anyone with an interest in the book of Isaiah following what has been a period of momentous change in approach to Isaiah will give a warm welcome to this outstanding commentary. Since B. has been among the leaders of this new movement, it is a source of the greatest satisfaction and felicitation that he should have crowned his work by completing his work of commentary on all 66 chapters. Ultimately, there is no other way to demonstrate both the success and the fruitfulness of this current phase of research than to work through the material with the kind of comprehensiveness that the commentary format dictates. In my opinion B. stands at the very forefront of those who have attempted to do so in recent years.