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Sweeney, Marvin A.
Isaiah 1–39. With an Introduction to prophetic Literature.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1996. 547 S. gr. 8°. = The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, XVI. Kart. $ 45.-. ISBN 0-8028-4100-7.
This latest addition to a well-established series follows a familiar pattern. After an editorial foreword, identical with that in previous volumes in the series save for a few necessary changes, there follow two introductions. One deals with prophetic literature in general, the other with the book of Isaiah in particular. Then by far the larger part of the book (448 pp.) is devoted to the detailed analysis of the individual units within Isaiah 1-39. The book is completed by a glossary of genres and formulas, much fuller than anything that has appeared in earlier volumes. One can say straightaway that this will be an indispensable companion to the detailed study of these chapters of Isaiah, partly because of the great interest in the structure of the book of Isaiah which recent debate has generated, but also because Sweeneys detailed investigations are very illuminating in their own right.
The Introduction to the Prophetic Literature begins with a full (10 pp.) bibliography, not of course confined to Isaiah, and this at once illustrates one of S.s great strengths. At a time when German- and English-speaking Old Testament scholarship have tended to pursue their own paths, S. shows mastery of both traditions, and the bibliographies throughout the book form a valuable resource in themselves. A brief outline is offered of some of the ways in which form-critical study of the prophets has developed since Gunkel, but the main part of this introduction is devoted to the genres of prophetic literature, from the complete book downward. This attention to the structure of complete books is a new and most welcome development; form-criticism in its earlier days seemed to be concerned only with analysis into ever smaller units. Here due weight is given to the likelihood that the Jerusalem temple was the context for the composition and handing-down of the completed works, which are regarded as well-planned structures rather than haphazard collections. Prophetic narratives and prophetic speech-forms are then discussed fairly briefly, but what is said here is of course supplemented by the more detailed discussion later in the book of relevant examples of these genres in Isaiah.
The second introduction is concerned with the book of Isaiah as a whole, not simply the chapters to be analysed in detail. Again there is a very full bibliography. It may well be that particular interest will focus on the way in which S. eschews conventional divisions of Isaiah. He argues persuasively for a division into 1-33 + 34-66. Ch. 1 is to be seen as an introduction to the whole book. More unexpectedly, ch. 55, even if first composed as a conclusion to what precedes, now functions as the introduction to the chapters which follow. Thus chs. 34-54 are to be seen as a unit. There are important implications here for the widespread but perhaps questionable understanding of 40-55 as forming "the book of Deutero-Isaiah (it is noteworthy, however, that this view of the structure of Isaiah is not always carried through; elsewhere in the book there are references to "Deutero-Isaiah, clearly implying chs. 40-55). Following the implications of his first introduction, S. then elaborates on the genre of the complete prophetic book as offering "a programmatic vision of the future rather than simply as preserving an "Isaiah archive. His tentative proposal is that the book of Isaiah reached its final form in the fifth century BCE, and may have been designed to support the viewpoint of Ezra and Nehemiah. Its preservation may well have taken place in a levitical context, and this would be supported by the extensive presence of liturgical material in Isaiah.
It is, however, likely that we can detect earlier editions of material underlying this final shaping of the book. Thus it is likely that there was a seventhcentury redaction, shaped by the achievement and ultimate failure of Josiah, and it may be that we can trace material that goes back to Isaiah himself in parts of 6:1-9:6;14:24-27; and 28-32. This proposal accompanies a brief sketch of Isaiahs own role as royal advisor. There follows a section on "Intention, and S.s proposal here is that the complete book should be seen as intended to foster covenant loyalty in the fifth-century community; that a sixth-century edition wished to rally support for the newly restored temple; that the seventh century redaction was concerned to legitimize Josiah; and that the material going back to Isaiah himself was concerned to warn the kings of his day against false alliances.
Obviously, this kind of proposal is open to the danger of circular argument, with potentially relevant material picked out first to establish and then to support the hypothesis, but the arguments put forward are for the most part persuasive.
This review has concentrated on the introductions to the book; it would scarcely be possible to work in detail through S.s proposals for formcritical analysis of his allotted chapters. (There is of course an irony in that he is confined to chs. 1-39 material which never, in his view, formed a significant corpus in the development of the book of Isaiah.) All one can say is that each section is discussed under the headings of "Structure, "Genre, "Setting and "Intention, and that each has a bibliography. Larger units, such as chs.24-27 and 28-33, are treated in this way, as well as the smaller sections of which those units are composed. Though not, of course, a commentary in any of the traditional senses, the detailed discussions under these various headings function in many of the ways characteristic of the commentary, and one can envisage that all those engaged in the serious study of Isaiah will have frequent recourse to S.s work. It is rounded off by a glossary, apparently newly composed for this work, with descriptions of the various forms referred to; both English and German modes of reference are set out.
In conclusion a note of the series as a whole seems to be in order. The first volume in it to appear was by R. E. Murphy. It was published in 1981, and in 170 pages it covered Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Qoheleth and Esther. The editors foreword announced that the complete 24-volume series was planned for completion during the 1980s. The bare facts about this new volume show how much has changed. Now more than 500 pages are devoted to part of one book, and this is only the ninth volume to appear. Far from completing the series in the 1980s, it will clearly be well into the new millennium before it is accomplished. One consequence of this delay is that this and subsequent volumes appear at a time when interests in Hebrew Bible study have shifted significantly. Detailed form-critical study of the kind here undertaken is no longer at the centre of many scholars concerns.
The attempt has been made here to show that S. has responded in a most sensitive way to this shift in interests; it is much to be hoped that future contributors will be equally responsive to the developing needs of the discipline.