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Jesaja 40–48. Übers. u. ausgelegt v. U. Berges.
Freiburg-Basel-Wien: Herder 2008. 559 S. gr.8° = Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament. Geb. EUR 90,00. ISBN 978-3-451-26836-6.
Hugh G. M. Williamson
The planned six volumes that will make up the commentary on Isaiah in the Herder series are divided between W. Beuken on Isaiah 1–39 and U. Berges on Isaiah 40–66. Beuken’s work is nearing completion, with two volumes already published, and now we already have the first of B.’s three. He assisted Beuken in several respects in regard to his contributions and likewise Beuken has read and commented on the present volume. Though the two authors do not take exactly the same position on some critical issues, they work in the closest co-operation and from within a generally comparable style and approach. In a previous review in this journal I already welcomed Beuken’s work as an outstanding contribution to the series. That accolade is no less justified here as we see the first-fruits of B.’s labours.
Author already of a major monograph on the book of Isaiah as a whole which carefully analyses it from both synchronic and diachronic points of view, B. is clearly very well equipped to move on to commentary work. Readers will find here an exposition that is thoroughly well informed about the latest developments in Isaiah research (some of which are fast moving) as well as deeply sympathetic to the material he is handling. Secondary literature (which is probably more abundant for these chapters than virtually any others of the Old Testament) is generously listed and discussed, though there were some surprising omissions. Textual issues are addressed more fully than in many other series, though by no means exhaustively, and while some attention is given to the hypothetical reconstruction of the processes which lay behind the formation of the text that we have, the major effort is devoted to a positive and detailed exposition of the material that we have, attending mainly to its immediate context but not neglecting its contribution to the book overall and even, though more briefly, how it fits into the Old Testament literature as a whole.
The format of the series, which has many helpful features, can lead to relevant discussions being somewhat dispersed, so that readers will need to be alert if they are to gain the full advantage of the learning here shared on individual points of exegetical significance. To give just one example, B. has chosen to restrict his notes »Zu Text und Übersetzung« to text-critical comments in a narrow definition (and, it may be added, favouring a relatively conservative position) rather than to embrace philological and semantic considerations as well; the latter are reserved for the later exegesis. Thus, for instance, readers will learn from the notes on the first verse (79) just a little about the syntax of the two words rendered »sagt euer Gott« without being alerted to the unusual nature of the clause. Later, in the introduction to verses 1–2 (98), we learn in addition and at greater length that the clause is more or less completely distinctive to the book of Isaiah, all similar examples elsewhere in the prophets using the verb in the perfect rather than the imperfect tense; surprisingly, though, B. makes nothing of this in terms of composition history but restricts himself to the semantic domain. Finally, in the exposition of verse 1 (99) he expands further on its meaning here and elsewhere. Given the way in which most people use commentaries for reference rather than to read through, a little more in the way of cross-referencing might have been helpful to ensure that none of this valuable information is overlooked.
In his extensive introduction, B. discusses several of the distinctive positions which he takes with regard to these chapters. Most importantly, in terms of the origin of the material B. first argues that the tide of opinion is moving away from the long-prevailing view that all these chapters were, with only a few specific exceptions, the work of a single great prophet. He notes in particular that we do not have a name for any such prophet, which, for reasons that I do not fully understand, he thinks is more or less decisive – after all, a good deal of the Biblical literature is anonymous. However, there is also the contributory factor that in mainly German-speaking scholarship in recent years the tide of opinion has been growing that one may detect multiple levels within these chapters, pointing firmly away from unitary authorship. This view is not widely shared in Anglo-American circles, as witness several major commentaries in recent years, so that this is a debate which is likely to intensify before it is resolved. At the same time, B. is insistent that the material of separate origins from several different decades can often be found to have close affinities with the concerns and the phraseology of the Levitical temple singers, so that he ascribes both authorship and editing (see especially the hymnic passages which serve as structural markers) to these circles in such a way that one can still speak of a »Gesamtbild«. This cautiously expressed proposal allows B. in the subsequent commentary both to focus primarily upon an exegesis of the text that we now have as representative of a certain reasonably united point of view while also in a subsidiary manner exploring possible marks of editorial layering. He also, we may note in passing, rightly does full justice to the differences of emphasis and address between chapters 40–48 and 49–55, a subject which has only been seriously attended to by a few commentators in the past but which we may expect to see further developed in the future.
The other major position that B. adopts that will not pass without comment concerns his explanation of the text as »dramatic«. By this he is (rightly) insistent that he does not mean that, as a few have conjectured, the material was written for dramatic performance. Rather, this is his way of seeking to do justice to the frequent changes of voice and audience within the text, often without formal marking. This is certainly a noteworthy feature of the material that has been frequently overlooked, so that B. is drawing attention to something of significance with which exegesis most certainly needs to deal. Whether the language of drama, however qualified, is the most illuminating approach, however, remains to be seen. It is certainly wide open to misunderstanding and hence caricature.
In the course of a short review it is regrettably not possible to take up and discuss the many other individual points that B. advances throughout the length of this commentary. His primary focus on a detailed exposition of the text we have in its wider literary and theological context will be appreciated by many. Although inevitably there are elements here and there where scholars will favour one alternative or another, readers may be assured that, given the well-informed and eirenic style of writing, they will find here a major work of sustained excellence.