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Altes Testament


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The Theme of Hardening in the Book of Isa­iah. An Analysis of Communicative Action.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2009. XV, 423 S. gr.8° = Forschungen zum Alten Testament. 2. Reihe, 39. Kart. EUR 84,00. ISBN 978-3-16-150143-2.


Willem A. M. Beuken

The title of the book raises the question: ›Is it possible to come up with new insights concerning this subject matter? For it has al­- ready been discussed to great extent‹. The only valid answer ensues from reading the book: it is positive. This doctoral dissertation (University of Gloustershire 2005; G. J. Wenham and H. G. M. Williamson supervising) merits high esteem for its innovative character indicated by the subtitle: ›an analysis of communicative action‹. This literary procedure is consistently employed on all the passages in the prophetic book that qualify for the theme ›hardening‹.
Chapter 1 (Encountering hardening in the present situation: Hermeneutical and methodological considerations) starts with a historical survey of the research (F. Hesse, R. Clements, C. Evans, E. Conrad, H. Williamson, J. McLaughin, G. Robinson, A. Laato). It reveals the complicated embedding of the theme (context, literary historical background, oral and written transmission). Next, the theory of speech act as developed in the philosophy of language is exposed (P. Ricœur, G. Laughery, J. Austin, J. Searle) and applied to the Hebrew language (A. Wagner). Its classification of speech act dimensions is indispensable for the following research. An analysis of the semantics of a theme in its grammatical and rhetorical realisation does not suffice. It needs to be supplemented by an analysis of the communicative strategy, i. e. the illocutionary implications (the sort of speaking) and perlocutionary effects (the foreseen or not forseen impact) of God’s and the prophet’s speaking.
Chapter 2 (Encountering hardening in the past: The communicative situation in the book of Isaiah) depicts the early Achaemenid period as fundamental for the growth (probably in several stages) of this prophetic book. Yet, the communicative strategy of the book is integral. It presents two voices in the one implied prophet: the communicative agent commissioned in 40:1–11 takes up the message of Isaiah ben Amoz (chapters 1–39), and with this he addresses his own audience (chapters 40–66). It consists of two groups: the exiles in Babylon (chapters 40–55) and those living in the homeland (chapters 56–66).
The aim of the over-all communicative action is the proclamation and realisation of ›connective righteousness‹, i. e. the universal order on the religious, social and political level as created by Yhwh. Chapters 1–39 look forward to its restoration, chapters 40–66 announce its coming about by the mediation of the Servant. Since righteousness involves action and mediation, it is an appropriate concept for the process by which Yhwh monitors the hardening and de-hardening of Israel. Against this background, the subsequent chapters of the monograph analyse the communicative action in Isa 6; 42:18–25; 48:1–11; 50; 56:9–57:2; 63:7–64:11.
Chapter 3 (The disposition of hardening in Isaiah 6 and the effect of Isaiah’s proclamation) opens with an in-depth exegesis of Isa 6 (style, structure, rhetoric; sections 2–4). It focuses on the positive communication between Yhwh and Isaiah and the negative communication between Isaiah and the audience, i. e. the one people of Yhwh (section 5). The differentiation of speech acts in Isa 6 provides the basis for the rest of the study. Yhwh commands the prophet to go and speak (v. 9a: locutionary act). Through God’s speech act Isa­-iah is to perform speech acts in respect to the people (v. 9b: illocutionary act). This takes form in his directives to the people: ›listen/ see‹ combined with ›do not understand/do not perceive‹. Yet, God’s summons to the prophet includes also the effect of this communication: the hardening of the people (v. 10: perlocutionary act).
Isaiah’s temple vision reveals that Yhwh is about to bring ordale upon Israel. The narrative does neither serve as an explanation of the prophet’s failure in prospect or retrospect of his ministry (as is often argued), nor does it refer to Israel’s calamitous history but it creates now hardening in the addressees/read­ers as a state of mind and heart in consequence of their ongoing sinfulness. With this, they continue their reading of Isa 7–39. These chapters disclose the validity of Isaiah’s message and its hardening impact beyond his ministry (134).
This identification of the implied readers is given support by an uncommon explanation of 8:16 (RSV: ›Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my discipels«; 121–131). The term ›disciples‹ (םידמל) would not refer to followers of Isaiah, but to his addressees/readers who are affected by the hardening effect of his preaching. The prophet would declare that its hardening result is al­ready being realized. – The purport of chapter 3 is difficult (figures 3–6 on pp. 79–81 did not help this reviewer much, maybe due his own hardness), nevertheless the clear exposé deserves serious consideration.
Chapter 4 (Appointing the hardened as witnesses: Isaiah 42:14–44:23) establishes ›the strategy of prolongation‹ of Isaiah’s harden­ing proclamation in 42:14–25. The addressees are resembling, as far as imperceptiveness goes, the people envisaged by the prophet’s preaching in Isa 7–39. The big difference is the fact that in the meantime Yhwh’s judgement has come true. Now the proclamation of the Servant opens up a new future (42:1–9). The addressees are invit­-ed to listen to him which will lead to their appointment as witnesses of Yhwh before the nations (43:8–13; 44:6–9). If they fulfil this mission, they will be de-hardenend and get to know that the One who has formed them, still chooses and helps them. A thorough ana­lysis of the communicative strategy of Isa 42:14–44:23 supports the purport of chapter 4.
Chapter 5 (Characterizing the hardened before the return: Isaiah 44:24–49:13) focuses, against the background of 44:24–49:13, on the development of the addressees’ hardening in 48:1–11. Their atti­-tude, in connection with their lack of righteousness, is explained as sinful ›from of old/from birth‹ (48:8). This takes Israel’s wicked beginning with the ancestor Jacob as a metaphor for its repudiation of Isaiah’s message from the outset. The temporal aspect serves the communicative strategy: it helps to set the present and future alongside the past. For the discourse proceeds to reveal ›new things‹ (48:6), i. e. the fulfilment of Yhwh’s purpose on Babylon (v. 14) and the summons to leave Babylon (vv. 20–21). The old exegetical discussion on ›the former, latter and new things‹ arrives here in a new seaway (205–209).
Chapter 6 (The individual servant and the overcoming of har­-den­ing: Isaiah 49:14–55:13) elucidates how the interaction between Yhwh and the people is restored. In the first section, the communicative interaction between the various speakers in Isa 50 clarifies how Yhwh solves the problem of the addressees’ imperceptiveness by safeguarding the Servant against hardening and equipping him for the task to testify of Yhwh’s trustfulness. The Servant gives testimony that in his person, Yhwh has started to overcome the effect of callousness which ensued from Isaiah’s proclamation. The connection between 50:4 and 8:16 plays an important role in all this. The final appeal of the prophetic voice to listen to the Servant who relies on Yhwh (v. 10), together with Yhwh’s threat to those who light the way on their own (v. 11), cautions for a split between those who put their trust on the Servant, and those who persevere in their obstination.
The second section describes how the de-hardened Servant does transform the addressees (Isa 51). The new designation of these people as ›persuing righteousness‹ (v. 1) and ›having my instruction in your hearts‹ (v. 7) demonstrates that the Servant’s preaching has had the perlocutionary effect of opening them up to the message of Isaiah. This holds, since 40:1–11, the restoration of Zion and her children. In Isa 51–52 they are confronted with the Servant and undergo the salvific impact of his call to trust in Yhwh. Their regained strength and perceptiveness will culminate in God’s return at the head of his people. Thus the rehabilitation of Zion and the overcoming of the hardness in Yhwh’s people are strongly interconnected.
The third section argues that in the fourth Servant song, the overcoming of hardness develops into an illocutionary speech act of the addressees. The ›you‹ of the Servant’s summons to listen in 51:7 return as the ›we‹ of 52:13–53:12. They testify that they had not understood the ministry of the Servant, but now they recognise that because of his faithfulness to death in listening to Yhwh, their own unwillingness to listen and their sins are forgiven so that they can relate to Yhwh in righteousness. By means of this confession, they fulfil their ap­-pointment as Yhwh’s witnesses before nations and kings (52:15–53:1, cf. 43:9). Subsequently, the communicative strategy of Isa 54–55 transforms the exiles in Babylon into people who can partake in Yhwh’s universal world order (55:3: ›come to me‹; 55:12: ›You shall go out in joy‹).
Chapter 7 (The hardened in the homeland – characterization and reversal: Isaiah 56:9–59:21) considers Isa 56–66 as a whole addressed to those who live in Judah, not specifically those who have returned from exile (as is the position of many commentators) but parallel to the exiles. Like these, the inhabitants of the homeland are imperceptive to the message of the Servant, so much so that righteousness is infringed. Consequently, they are in need of the de-harden­ing ministry of the Servant. Two textual blocks in Isa 56–66 with semantics related to the theme of hardening are taken as a literary whole and analysed from the point of view of communicative strat­-egy (56:9–57:21 and chapters 58–59).
56:9–57:21 starts with a description of the antinomy within the people. By means of allusions to passages in Isa 40–55, this situation is denounced as contrary to the connective righteousness offered to the exiles. A similar communicative process as these have undergone should overcome the hardness of the wicked so that Yhwh’s salvation can reach the oppressed. This perspective produces a contrast between present reality and anticipated future (based on a specific interpretation of 57:1–2).
Isa 58–59 consist of several textual units with different interactions that create a complex communicative strategy. God’s summons to the prophet to declare to Israel their iniquity (58:1–59:8) leads to a communal confession of sin (59:9–15a) which is followed by the announcement that Yhwh will come as the redeemer of Zion for those who repent (59:15b–21). The exegesis of the whole block in terms of overcoming the hardening relies on two arguments: (1) Li­ter­ary affinities with Isa 6; 8:11–18; 40:1–3; (2) The resemblance of the pro­- phet­ic voice commissioned here with the prophet who is called in 40:1–11 and transformed into a Servant-like figure in Isa 40–55. His illocutionary action of declaring the addressees their sins has the perlocutionary effect that they side with the Servant by accepting Yhwh’s project of religious and social righteousness. Thus the confession of sins by the people in the homeland (59:9–15a) matches the testimony of the exiles concerning their late recognition of the Serv­ant (53:1–10).
Chapter 8 (Disclosing the still hardened: Isaiah 63:7–64:11) discusses the last passage concerned. Here the hardening of the people con­-tin­ues in their charge against Yhwh: ›Why do you harden our hearts so that we do not fear you?‹ (63:17). A number of analogies in 40:1–63:6 and chapters 1–39 invites to interpret the lament as a particu­-l­ar shift in the communicative strategy of the prophetic book as a whole. It discloses the attitude of those ›who have not heard the proclamation Isa 40ff but have been heavily affected by Isa 1–39‹ (299). According to them, Israel’s rebellion and Yhwh’s punishment (v. 10) were formerly ended by Yhwh himself (v. 14), nowadays, however, their relationship is disturbed in a different way (v. 15). Not Israel’s sins but Yhwh’s own alienation from the people causes the distress to lasten. He has hardened their hearts but only his return (63:17) and forgiveness can put an end to the affliction (64:8). The various speech acts in the passage, imperatives and questions, serve the purpose of moving Yhwh to a new theophany (63:20–64:2), not of moving the complainants to polish off their sins (64:4–6). They are still hardened in spite of the ministry of the Servant. In short, the lament raises doubts about how effective the proclamation of Yhwh’s salvation has been so far.
The final section of the book contains the answer. Isa 65–66 are segmented in speech acts of Yhwh with different addressees and sub-themes. Taken together they present Yhwh as dividing the people into those who as ›servants‹ seek him and those who as ›hard­ened‹ join the previous lament. The latter have distanced themselves from the communal confessions of 53:1–10 and 59:9–15, and will not participate in Yhwh’s salvation.
Chapter 9 contains a ›Summary and Conclusions‹ with three appendices (1: Textcritical and exegetical problems in Isaiah 42:18–25; 2: On the interpretation of the term תועל in Isaiah 50:4 and the different interpretations of Isaiah 50:10; 3: Exegetical problems in Isaiah 63:7–64:11). A bibliography and three indices (on source, author and subject) support the reading.
The over-all assessment of this book cannot but be very favour­able. Its innovative strength lies in the competent and consequent application of a new method of literary criticism, i. e. the analysis of communicative speech action, on a fundamental theme while its semantic ramification throughout the prophetic book is taken into account. Concomitant qualities are the thorough examination of the passages at stake, the extensive acquaintance with specialist literature and its critical integration. The monograph advances the present-day research of the book of Isaiah which focuses on its extraordinary cohesion. The clear style makes the reading pleasant.
At the end of this study, a little devil whispers round the corner: ›Is this construction of how the theme of hardening functions in the book of Isaiah not too ingenious?‹ Of course, devils are to be chased off but the question can be turned in a positive direction by asking how this interpretation of the development of ›hardening‹ matches interpretations of other book encompassing themes. E. g., if the Servant plays a crucial role in the development of the theme from the third to the fourth Servant song (from 50:4–11 to 52:13–53:12), would not something similar be the case for the second Servant song (49:1–7)? Besides, the gap between Isa 48 and Isa 49, on the dramatic and communicative level, deserves more attention in the macrostructure of 44:24–49:13 (208–218). Further, the relation be­tween Isa 6 and Isa 40:1–11 (›The agent(s) of communicative action in the book of Isaiah‹; 45–52) is so fundamental for the analysis of Isa 40–66 that an extended explanation of the speech acts in the open­ing pas­-sage of these chapters would be welcomed.
In addition, the literary analysis of a theme leads quite seldom to text his­torical conclusions, yet that is the case here. These conclusions may be confronted with other redactional historical theories of the last decade that could not be taken into account, since the closing date of this book (2005) is quite remote from its publication (2010). I just mention the following topics of research: the ›Ab­schluss‹ of the book of Isaiah (J. Gärtner 2006), the function of Isa­-iah 24–27 as a ›dramatic‹ text (S. A. Nitsche 2006) and the return of Yhwh (C. Ehring 2007). – Finally, there are a good number of important new explanations which will evidently provoke discussion (e. g. Isa 8:16 [ םידמל], 121–131; Isa 6:10b [ול אפרו], 102 ff.).
All these comments aim at stimulating the study of this high-quality book. An in-depth exchange about its import could express the recognition of those who are committed to the research of the book of Isaiah.