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Barker, William D.
Isaiah’s Kingship Polemic. An Exegetical Study in Isaiah 24–27.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014. XV, 254 S. m. Abb. = Forschungen zum Alten Testament. 2. Reihe, 70. Kart. EUR 64,00. ISBN 978-3-16-153347-1.
J. Todd Hibbard
The present volume, a revised 2007 Cambridge dissertation written under Robert Gordon, examines Isaiah 24–27, a relatively self-contained section of the book (mis-)labeled the ›Isaiah apocalypse‹ by earlier scholars. This four chapter unit presents the interpreter with several unresolved issues, including its date, relationship to earlier texts and traditions, and meaning, to name just a few. William D. Barker’s central argument is that Isaiah 24–27 is an earlier rather than later unified prophetic (not apocalyptic) text that makes a case for YHWH’s cosmic kingship by taking up and re-casting, primarily, portions of the West Semitic mythic tradition associated with Ba’al. As such, the volume’s primary method involves comparing Isaiah 24–27 and Ugaritic texts, but frequently it expands the comparative net to include Egyptian and Mesopotamian traditions as well. After an introductory chapter that lays out the issues, Chapters 2–9 attempt to make a cumulative case for a Ugaritic background to these chapters in Isaiah. This is rounded off with a final chapter (Chapter 10) in which B. summarizes the main contours of his argument and teases out some of the study’s implications. An extensive bibliography and index follow, the latter of which helpfully includes both biblical and non-biblical references.
Because the study interacts so frequently with the Ba’al texts from Ugarit, B. offers his own interpretation of the Ba’al Myth in Chapter Two. Most importantly for purposes of his study is his contention that the myth is a theodicy whose main theme is Ba’al’s cosmic kingship, limited and precarious though it is. This interpretation stands in contradistinction to several others, especially those that see it as a cosmogony of sorts. Additionally, B.’s understanding of the Ba’al myth is important for his argument about the Isaiah author’s use of it. In Chapter Three, he takes up the reference to mot/mawet in Isaiah 25:8, which he understands as either personified or demytholo-gised »death.« He identifies two central characterizations of mot/ mawet: the antithesis of life-giving YHWH and the one who enslaves mortals. Because death is associated with the underworld, he undertakes a review of underworld deities in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Ugarit. He concludes that there are no connections between the former two and Isaiah 24–27, but he identifies several points of connection between Isaiah and the Ugaritic material about divine Mot.
B. continues his quest for parallels by examining the banquet scene in Isaiah 25:6–8 in Chapter Four. He is particularly interested in the activities at the banquet and the meal, both of which lead him to a comparison with other banqueting practices portrayed in the ancient Near Eastern mythic traditions as well as other texts in Isaiah (especially 2:2–4). In some sense, B. builds on this in Chapter Five by arguing that the Ugaritic marzeaḥ is the background for the meal in Isaiah 25:6–8. He finds both funerary and celebratory elements in the two literary traditions that involve feasting and drinking together.
Chapter Six explores the Leviathan traditions in the ancient Near East and Isaiah 27:1, focusing especially on the Ugaritic Litan. This reference in Isaiah is indisputably indebted to the Ba’al Myth, however, the chapter includes an interesting discussion about serpentine textual traditions and physical representations in Mesopotamia and Egypt as well. B. examines the presence of word pairs that appear in both the Ugaritic texts and Isaiah 24–27 in Chapter Seven (relying on the Ras Shamra Parallels project). Though thirty-six word pairs are identified, only five turn out to be shared exclusively by the Ba’al Myth and Isaiah 24–27. Regrettably, he does not identify the five parallels so it is hard to evaluate their exegetical significance. The following chapter examines additional evidence that might favor the idea of a shared tradition between the Ba’al texts and Isaiah 24–27. Examples include finding allusions to the marzeaḥ through the vineyard image in 27:2–6, a reference to Ba’al in 26:13, and the condemnation of the asherim in 27:9, among others. Most of these alleged associations rely, however, either on evidence that is too thin or on exegetical arguments that are too baroque to be convincing. Finally, in Chapter Nine B. makes the case for view-ing Isaiah 28 as thematically linked to Isaiah 24–27 through a shar-ed Ugaritic background even while acknowledging that the former begins a new literary unit. His primary evidence for the connection is the identification of additional Ugaritic-Hebrew word pairs in Isaiah 28 (though only two of these turn out to be of any real importance) and the notion of YHWH’s permanent kingship over mot/ mawet (Death).
B.’s work draws our attention to the fact that the biblical authors, in this case Isaiah’s, did not write in a cultural or literary vacuum, but with the acknowledgment of a rich literary tradition that informed their work. Because Isaiah’s compositional history is so lengthy and complex (at least in the standard critical view), authors contributing to the book might very well have interacted with that inherited literary tradition different ways. In this case, Isaiah presents YHWH as king by re-using language and categories from other mythic traditions. The strength of B.’s work, then, in my view is in focusing attention on the presence of non-biblical West Semitic traditions in Isaiah, in particular, its interaction with the Ugaritic traditions. B. reminds us of the importance of looking at those traditions in order to appreciate and understand more perceptively the meaning of Isaiah.
That said, it is not always clear how B. envisions that interac-tion. He presents the idea of a Ugaritic background throughout, but also occasionally attempts to make the case that the Isaiah author is engaged in polemic against the Ba’al texts. Background and polemic are not the same thing, however. As such, the book occasionally suffers from a lack of clarity about why the inherited Ugaritic (and other) materials are present in the Isaiah material. Additionally, it would have been good to provide more analytic depth when discussing the association between the non-biblical tradi-tions and Isaiah. Additionally, the alleged connection between the two traditions is based on such intricate arguments that it is hard to know who would have recognized the association. Finally, B. fails quite often to acknowledge interpretive debate about Isaiah texts, debate that has a direct bearing on his own argument. This deci-sion weakens his argument considerably.
Other important questions raised by this study are left unre-solved. In particular, I would like to have seen some discussion about how meaning changes when a mythic tradition is re-used in a prophetic text (beyond acknowledging one is set in the past, the other in the future). How does each genre of text function differently?
Despite these reservations, B. is to be commended for a study that takes the presence of non-biblical ancient Near Eastern traditions in Isaiah seriously.