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Williamson, Hugh G. M.
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1–27. Vol. 1: Isaiah 1–5.
New York-London: T & T Clark International 2006. XXX, 410 S. 8° = The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Lw. £ 55,00. ISBN 0-567-04451-3.
Willem A. M. Beuken
The time-honoured series International Critical Commentary is being reissued (under the supervision of G. I. Davies and G. N. Stanton) in the form of new volumes for all the books of the Bible. It does not come as a surprise that Isaiah chs. 1–27 have been consigned to Hugh G. M. Williamson, Regius Professor of Hebrew in the University of Oxford, given his record of competent, innovative studies on this prophetic book. The commentary, planned in three volumes, is to replace the one volume on chs. 1–27 by G. B. Gray (1912). However, it does come as a surprise that W. intends to limit his work to chs. 1–27. In this regard, he follows his predecessor who, apparently for practical reasons, had planned to publish his commentary on chs. 28–39 in the volume on chs. 40–66 (consigned to A. S. Peake) but that has never come out. The choice for chs. 1–27 can hardly be argued on literary- or redaction-historical grounds, even in light of the recent shift of paradigm which has questioned the long standing division of the book of Isaiah in three rather independent corpora. Moreover, W. has articulated new opinions with regard to the redaction-history of »First« and »Second Isaiah« (cf. his earlier »The Book Called Isaiah. Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction«, Oxford 1994). It is to be hoped that he will extend his commentary to include all of chs. 1–39.
The strategy of presentation of this commentary follows a classical pattern. Chs. 1–5 are divided into 21 sections according to what I would call integrative compositional criteria of both synchronic and diachronic nature. Each section consists of four parts: 1. a new translation based on 2. a text-critical, philological and literary-critical verse-by-verse analysis; 3. a description of the place of the section in the larger context of the passage or beyond; 4. a verse-by-verse exegesis founded on the preceding specific areas of research which is best covered by the term »meaning«. This methodological pattern is strictly observed throughout the book. I only regret that these four structural parts of the explanation are not marked by more clarity and distinction in the lay-out.
W.s exegetical position cannot be categorized as falling within any of the many approaches that are in vogue nowadays. Skilfully he applies various methods and integrates them: text-criticism and literary analysis, genre critique and redaction-history. In this way he makes the text brighten to its full. Apparently, his concern to apply a wide range of exegetical tools has led him to take the small textual unit as the perspective of his explanation. This comes clearly to the fore in his dealing with ch. 1, in his view the introduction (»an exhortation to lament«) to the whole prophetic book. While he considers this chapter to be an assemblage of materials of different dates, including some of the historical prophet, it is split up by him into eight passages, mainly on criteria of literary genre: the title (v .1), two calls to listen: to heaven and earth (vv. 2–3) and to the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv.10–17), a woe oracle (v. 4), a reflection on the chances of »the remnant« (vv. 5–9), an invitation to judicial setting (vv. 18–20), a lament on Zion’s corruption (vv. 21–26) and a conclusion in reference to Isa 56–66 (vv. 27–31).
The advantage of this strategy of presentation is, first of all, that every small unit receives the utmost attention. The text-critical paragraphs, for example, are masterpieces of thorough research which cover the ancient versions and cognate languages, the rabbinic and nearly all the modern literature. It is not going too far to say that the results of this research, in combination with the new translation, will be as normative in the future as Wildberger’s commentary has been for the past decades, the more so since W. connects the contemporary respect for the Masoretic text with a pru dent use of the considerably expanded wealth of historical and linguistic data, nowadays at our disposal.
The third part of each section is more difficult to describe and evaluate. It forms a synthesis of source criticism and redaction-history with careful attempts to date the various pieces, although not at the basis of an old-fashioned »evolution of thoughts«. It is, just the same, strongly diachronic and therefore more susceptible to dissent but the innumerable opinions are scrupulously weighed out against each other before W.s own position is taken.
In the fourth part W. proves to be the teacher who has a thorough mastery of the subject matter. Against the background of the previous parts, but without specific references to them, he explains »the text itself« in function of a mainly three-staged semantics: terms and sentences are explained in Isaianic perspective, while their use by the prophets in general and in the Bible serves as a sort of security valve. This part opens the depth of the text to the reader in a style of great readability.
While it is a real voyage of discovery to be led through these five chapters, there is a minor disadvantage to the approach chosen, namely that the predominant occupation with the micro-text and the in-depth exegesis of it often precludes the perspective on the larger gist of the overarching passage although the connections to the wider context are not completely out of sight (e. g. the discussion of the parallels of ch. 1 to the closure of the book in chs. 65–66). In technical terms, the evolving structure of the text as a whole could have been made visible in a distinctive way. At the end of the larger passages one would like to be granted a perception of its rhetorical dynamics. The same holds true for the five chapters as a redactional composition. From where do we go to where, in terms of »message«? However vague this concept is, it expresses a need of the reader.
Reading this commentary is, in spite of its clearity, not an easy task, mainly because W. does more than just present the conclusions of his research: rather he invites to take part in his reasoning. Consequently, one has to bury oneself in the complicated relationship between a diachronic and a synchronic approach, a problematic area which W. in no way shuns. Time and again he warns that these two methods often are irreconcilable when it comes to the composition of the major text blocks in the Isaianic corpus. A review does not allow to enter into details with regard to this problematic area. Just one example should briefly be mentioned.
I find it hard to perceive that the same redactor shaped the end of 5,25–29(30) and 11,11–12,6 in analogy, in order to characterize chs. 1–5 as a prophecy of judgment and chs. 6–12 as a promise. The occurrence of »a signal to nations« (5,26; 11,10.12) and »the sea« (5,30; 11,12.15) in the supposed closure of both textual blocks is too meager an argument because these terms serve quite different purposes in their own conceptual context. I wonder whether the synchronic method in this case has not led to too far-reaching diachronic conclusions. At my estimate the evidence for ch. 12 as the predominant closure of chs. 1–11 (in reference to 2,2–5 and 4, 2–6 as the conclusions (and previews!) of the subordinate blocks 1,2–2,5 and 2,6–4,6) is stronger, both from the diachronic and synchronic angle, at least if we do not isolate 4,2–6 as an insertion from the last redactional phase.
Summing up, this learned commentary with its wealth of data of every sort and thoroughly reflected clarification of the text in its growth and final shape will play a major role in the further study of the »First Isaiah«. All those who are interested in W.s ideas with regard to the composition of the incremental stages of Isa 1–12, as is the present reviewer, can hardly wait for the next volume.