Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Composition of the Book of Isaiah and its Literary Character(s)

One of the reasons that the book of Isaiah is difficult to understand, aside from its massive size, is that it becomes more abstract as it progresses.  The character named Isaiah son of Amoz is mentioned in 1:1, 2:1, speaks in the first-person in chapters 6 and 8, and appears sporadically in chapters 7-39, but he disappears altogether for the remaining twenty-seven chapters.  Other named characters appear in the first half of the book, such as kings Ahaz, Sennacherib, and Hezekiah, and Isaiah’s two sons, Shearjashub and Mahershalalhashbaz, along with the unnamed female prophet with whom Isaiah produces at least the second of these two sons.  There are also concrete places in and around Jerusalem where some events depicted in Isaiah 1-39 take place.

Beginning in Isaiah 40, however, these handles by which we may take hold of the text fade away and we are lost in pure poetry.  The only named character mentioned by name is King Cyrus of Persia (45:1).  Jerusalem and Zion appear in the text, but they are not settings for discernible narrative events.  The most significant character in the second half of the book is the unnamed “servant of YHWH.”

Historical approaches can identify layers of composition in the book of Isaiah, assigning portions to various time periods:

            Eighth century – most of 6-39

Sixth century – 13-14, 34-35, 40-55

Fifth century – 1-5, 24-27, 56-66

This may explain why the parts of Isaiah look the way they do, but not why the whole book looks the way it does.  The older historical notion of three somewhat independent parts – 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66 – with each subsequent part added on the end like an additional boxcar on a train is too crude.  The book of Isaiah developed in stages, but each stage reshaped the whole, adding to the beginning, middle, and end.  Nobody knows whether the large complex in Isaiah 40-55 was written independently and later attached to an existing Isaiah tradition, or written deliberately as an extension to that tradition.  I lean toward the latter as an explanation for its internal anonymity, but this is not a definitive argument.

The final form of the scroll of Isaiah presents itself as “the vision” of the eighth century prophet named Isaiah, but he is disembodied in the second half of the book, a feature which allows us to view the servant as an extension of Isaiah the literary character.  One of the most important features of all the prophetic literature is the ways in which the lives of the prophetic characters become entangled with their proclamations.  The Isaiah character of the first half of the book may be the most limited example in this regard.  The symbolic naming of his children in 7-8 and his imitation of a prisoner of war in 20:1-6 are the clearest examples.  The suffering of his literary extension, the Servant, in 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12, amplifies this theme.  The suffering of the prophetic characters, which becomes more clear in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is the primary means by which the Persian/Restoration era prophetic scrolls can subvert the easy equations of divine retribution that emerge from an isolated reading of some of the judgment oracles embedded within them.

I will spend several posts unpacking that last sentence over the next few weeks.


Improving Our Reading of the Prophetic Literature

I have been working on the syllabus for my course, “The Prophetic Literature,” which I begin teaching in one week.  I have written a new textbook called A Chorus of Prophetic Voices, which I will use in draft form with my students this semester before sending it off to the publisher next summer.  So, I will likely be posting on convergences I see in the study of the Prophetic Literature from time to time over the next few months.

The Prophetic Literature is one more element of the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that has witnessed significance divergence over the last few decades.  The common, older approach was to read the material historically, dividing the books and placing the pieces in chronological order.  So, the beginning point was the mid to late eighth century and texts like Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah 1-39.  These efforts then moved on to the Babylonian period a century or so later, examining Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Isaiah 40-55.  The final stop would be the Persian/Restoration period, reading Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  This kind of scheme generally assumed that prophecy in ancient Israel was at its peak in its earliest stages and declined into obscurity.  The great advantage of this approach was its ability to push back against a purely spiritual reading of the prophets.  Instead, they became real people in material contexts preaching against injustice.

The 1990’s brought a shift in approach.  The focus on the final form of the biblical books that began with books like Genesis and I and II Samuel moved into the study of the prophetic literature.  Some attempts to introduce the prophetic literature did so by examining the complete books of Isaiah or the Book of the Twelve as cohesive works of literature.  This effort was bolstered by Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of how the prophetic literature develops alternative worlds of the imagination that challenge structures of power and domination.  This kind of approach yielded two helpful results.  First, it put the literature that had been fragmented by historical methods back together and asked important questions about how it functioned for its readers, ancient and modern.  Second, it gave much more attention to the end of the process of production of the prophetic scrolls.  Prophecy was no longer moving away from something, the lives of the great prophets in the eighth century, but towards something, the literary production of the fifth and fourth centuries.

Over the last decade, these two approaches have often been viewed as opponents of one another.  Interpreters have had to choose either a literary or a historical approach.  What may be emerging is a way of putting the two together, benefiting from the strengths of both.  The two perspectives are connected by settings, characters, and events that existed and took place at the points of origin of the prophetic traditions and became the elements of a narrative that scrolls in their final form present.  The prophets were persons living in particular historical settings in the past and they are literary characters textualized for the present.  In subsequent posts I will be exploring what happens when we look at the prophets from this combined perspective.

A Strange Book Called “Jubilees”

In an earlier post I mentioned a piece of literature called Jubilees as an example of some of the works outside of most biblical canons that are receiving growing attention.  I would like to use a few more entries to introduce this book and its contents.  Western biblical scholarship was largely unaware of this book until about a century and a half ago.  Jubilees lay hidden in the more expansive Old Testament canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, available only in the Ge’ez language.  Awareness of the book that received the curious label “the Lesser Genesis” grew slowly until numerous fragments were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the twentieth century.  The discovery provided a definitive answer to lingering questions about whether Jubilees had any place within Second Temple Judaism.

Describing Jubilees is not easy.  Some interpreters use the category “re-written Bible” for this book and some others from the same period of time.  Jubilees  consists of a re-telling of Genesis 1-Exodus 15.  While attempts to assign a date of composition differ, nearly everyone agrees the Jubilees was written at some point during the second century B.C.E.  One of the new things that Jubilees does with the story is divide it up into periods of 49 years, the length of the biblical “jubilee” period as defined in Leviticus 25, and this feature has provided its current name.


Jubilees opens with Moses on Mount Sinai, conversing with God.  The purpose of the meeting is for Moses to hear and record the story of Israel, beginning at creation.  The opening chapter ends by introducing a figure called the Angle of the Presence, who will narrate the story to Moses for the remainder of the book.  One feature that strikes me is that this transaction of divine presence moves in the opposite direction from all of the tradition in the Hebrew Bible, where angels are present, especially the Angel of YHWH or Angle of the LORD, but they always precede the direct divine presence.  Even in the monumental scene of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses first encounters the voice of the Angel of YHWH, which then seems to transform into the divine voice.  Why does Jubilees reverse this move?  Does the choice tell us something about perceptions of the divine being during the period Jubilees was written?

Many differences between Jubilees and Genesis remarkably anticipate our own questions when we encounter the first book of the Bible.  The common questions about the origin of Cain’s wife in Genesis 4:17, for example, are resolved by naming two daughters, Awan and Azura, born to Adam and Eve.  The former marries Cain and the latter Seth.  There are differences that move beyond the trivial, however.  In Portraits of a Mature God:  Choices in Old Testament Theology, I described the deity of Genesis 1 as naïve, a description that bothers some readers, and this is understandable.  How can a deity repeatedly describe the creation as good and only five chapters later feel the need to destroy it completely because of its corruption?  Christian reading practices have inserted the  idea of “the Fall” into the disobedience of Adam and Eve and expanded this notion so that corrupts the entire world.  This does not fully resolve the question of divine naiveté, however, because we can still wonder how God could not see this coming.  Jubilees, on the other hand, removes all the declarations of goodness from the re-telling of Genesis 1.

More on Jubilees next time.

Dueling Genealogies

I have referred in earlier posts to the attempt to divide the Pentateuch into sources, so I want to take at least one entry to explain why scholars see a need to do that.  Any examination of the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy that goes beyond a brief, surface-level reading will reveal many problematic features, including repetitions, contradictions and narrative incoherence.  In some cases, a fairly simple division of the text into two or more sources can resolve all of these.  The incoherent story of the flood in Genesis 6-8 can be fairly easily divided into an original J version and an original P version that have been woven together by a redactor.

 Another difficulty in the early part of Genesis is the presence of two parallel genealogies in 4:1, 17-22 and 5:1-32.  A list of the names in each of these will help to reveal the problems.

             4:1, 17-22 (J)                                                   5:1-32 (P)

            Adam (Eve)                                                     Adam

            Cain                                                                 Seth

            Enoch                                                              Enosh

            Irad                                                                  Kenan

            Mehujael                                                         Mahalel

            Methushael                                                     Jared

            Lamech                                                           Enoch

            Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-Cain, Naamah                  Methuselah



                                                                                    Shem, Ham, Japheth

 The first problem the presence of these text presents is why there would be a genealogy for Cain at all.  After Cain murders Abel, he is cursed and banished by God, but he and his descendants are amazingly creative and productive, developing city-building, music, metal-working, and animal husbandry.  According the plot of Genesis, this entire line of humans would have been destroyed by the flood, so why give any attention to them and their cultural development.  A problem internal to the first genealogy is that when it gets to the eighth generation and presents multiple children, one of them has a Cain-like name and two of them have Abel-like names.  Particularly when we are told that Jabal and Jubal represent the first animal herder and first musician, these two look more like Abel.  It appears that Abel has been absorbed into Cain’s genealogy.  When comparing the two lists, we find that they have three identical names and four more that are similar.  This is a challenging situation to explain, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that these are two different developments of the same genealogy that passed through tradition and ended up in different sources.  The writer of Genesis then found a way to make use of both of them.  The J version of the genealogy on the left associates Cain even more closely with urban, technological ways of life, in opposition to the nomadic sheep-herding ways of Abel and Israel’s other ancestors.  The P genealogy connects the first family to Noah, the hero of the flood story.  One lingering question would be whether the J genealogy originally had Noah among the children of Lamech and, thus, a descendant of Cain.  If this is true, then the writer of the book of Genesis may have used the P genealogy to separate Noah from the Cain line.

 I am working with this text a lot in a current book project, so I will be coming back to it.  It is one on which I think a combination of methods might make some good progress.

Forward to the Past: More on the Documentary Hypothesis

In an earlier post I commented on the recent revival of the idea called the Documentary Hypothesis.  For those unfamiliar with this idea, it originated in European scholarship in the nineteenth century, and is the product of a process now often called “source-criticism.”  The basic idea is that the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy were composed by a person, often referred to as a “redactor,” using material from four previously existing sources.  These were given the labels, J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomist), and the application of the hypothesis involved dividing the Pentateuch into these earlier sources.  This idea became more complex as various questions were raised about it.  To what extent were these sources written documents or collections of oral tradition, or a mixture?  Could one of the sources, perhaps P, have been the product of the redactor, who wrote this material as a way of organizing all the other sources and putting them together?

The Documentary Hypothesis fell into some disfavor during the last quarter of the twentieth century for several reasons.  First, attempts to assign sequential dates to the sources became quite speculative and were connected to ideas about the development of Israelite religion, which were often anti-Semitic.  Second, literary methods came along that provided productive ways to work with the final form of the text, so that source-criticism was no longer necessary in order to do biblical scholarship.  The troubling thing about this was that in order to create some academic “elbow-room” for themselves, those making use of these newer methods of reading seemed to think they needed to denigrate source-criticism, going so far as to declare it bankrupt or even dead.  The positive aspect of this is that the best of the new methods, such as rhetorical-criticism, narrative-criticism, and various sociological approaches, made tremendous progress over a period of three to four decades in helping us learn to read the biblical text and think about it better.

Source-criticism did not fully go away, however, because so much of what it had observed about the text was useful to other methods.  Phyllis Trible, the foremost practitioner of rhetorical-criticism, specifically commended the source-critics of the past for their keen observations and urged those using the method she was developing to continue to pay attention to and make use of them (see the first chapter of her Rhetorical Criticism:  Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah).  Moreover, many of these observed difficulties could not be fully resolved by other methods.  They could explain the effects of narrative incoherence, for example, but could not say why the text looked this way.

Let me end with one example.  The account of Hagar, Abraham’s second wife is found in two places in Genesis, 16:1-5 and 21:8-21, which would be assigned to two different sources.  The first text tells of the birth of Ishmael to Hagar and fits rather nicely in its context, heightening the tension created by the barrenness of Sarai.  The second text is placed chronologically about fifteen years later, so it can include a scene in which the two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, born fourteen years apart, are together.  The narrative incoherence comes in 21:14-15 where this fifteen or sixteen year old boy is placed on his mother’s shoulder and she later throws him under a bush.  This is also (part of) a story originally about Hagar when Ishmael was an infant.  In the next entry I will offer some possibilities of two sets of methods, once thought to be enemies might work together to resolve the difficulties of this text.

The convergence of “historical” and “literary” methods

I would like to spend one post, at least, pondering the implications of a remarkable statement I read the other day in an essay by Ronald Hendel called “Is the ‘J’ Primeval Narrative an Independent Composition? ” (published in a volume called The Pentateuch:  International Perspectives on Current Research in 2012.  Hendel was commenting on the revival of source criticism, which I have addressed before, and responding to those who had declared the J source to be a dead idea.  One of these critics had made a comment about the J source not having a discernible style, to which Hendel responded , “This position may have been credible a generation ago, when literary study of biblical narrative was virtually nonexistent.  But I submit that it is not credible today, when there are many lucid descriptions of the literary art of biblical prose.”  This is a statement that I cannot imagine anybody making even ten years ago, and it requires some explanation.

What Hendel was claiming is that the advances made in the study of narrative art (sometimes called poetics), one of the methods of biblical study that gained massive influence in the last quarter of the twentieth century and seemed to have eclipsed source criticism, has provided the tools for its revival.  While those who used to work to identify sources used characteristics of texts like vocabulary, syntax, theology, and duplication as their primary tools for doing so, they now have very carefully developed understandings of characterization, settings, and plot development at their disposal.  Hendel’s use of the term “narrative art” pointed back to the work of two scholars of the Hebrew Bible who wrote very influential books in the early 1980’s, Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) and Shimon Bar-Efrat (Narrative Art in the Bible).  Nobody could have guessed thirty years ago that these two books, which were leading the field away from methods that divided the text up into more original units and toward those that read the final form of the text closely, would eventually bring the field back, full-circle, to consideration of the production of biblical books from earlier sources.  This is the remarkable claim that Hendel has made, and it represents another kind of convergence in scholarship of the Bible, because it argues that methods of interpreting the text which were thought to be diametrically opposed to one another, and mutually exclusive, can now be used together.

If Hendel was right, and I think he was, then such a convergence of methods offers powerful new possibilities for our work.  One of my current projects concerns the four scrolls of the Israelite prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve.  The study of this literature has been following two diverging paths for the last three decades, one path that focuses on the literary character of the final forms of the scrolls, and another path that seeks to trace the composition of the scrolls, including the initial work of the prophetic figures they are named for, across a time span of about three centuries.  I am arguing that these two ways of approaching the text should be brought together to inform each other, and that it is the narrative elements of characterization, setting, and plot development that help to connect the final form of the scrolls with the processes that produced them.  This is another subject to which I will be returning soon with some illustrations.

Getting outside of the Canon

Today “Observing Points of Convergence” takes a somewhat different turn, away from old aspects of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament study that are moving toward areas of consensus and toward a new and blossoming field.  It seems as if almost everyone has figured out that in order to understand the canons of Judaism and Christianity better we need to study the literature that did not get into them more closely.  The amount of attention currently being given to the Second Temple Jewish literature in the collections commonly called the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha is astounding.  These books may not have made it into the Jewish canon and only made it into some Christian canons, but they were written at about the time those canons were being formed, so they can tell us a great deal about the Bible we have.

Let me say a little bit about three books I think may be the most important.  The book known as Sirach or the Wisdom of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus is in the Old Testament canons of Catholicism and the various Orthodox traditions, and is included in Bibles that contain the Apocrypha.  So, it has received attention in the past, but usually as an extension of the canonical wisdom literature, read against the backdrop of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.  Newer readers of Sirach now give more attention to its relation to other Second Temple literature from outside the canon, such as the books called I Enoch and Jubilees.  These two books are part of the canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is the only reason we have complete manuscripts of them.  They were both likely written in about the same time period as Sirach, 200 B.C.E. give or take a few decades.

Jubilees and I Enoch both do something rather unusual.  They both go back to the early events in the book of Genesis and retell the story in a quite different way.  Perhaps the issue they are most concerned with is the origin and persistence of human sin.  I Enoch omits the Garden of Eden story entirely and Jubilees removes any reference to God planting the “Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil” in the garden or giving it that name.  Both books connect human sin to the Watchers of Genesis 6:1-4, rebellious angels that God allows to rule over the earth temporarily.  Sirach is also concerned with this question but does not make use of the rebellious angel tradition, placing more responsibility on human choices.  There are other important issues in these books, such as conflicts within the priesthood of the Second Temple.  Such concerns about why there is evil in the world and how we ought to govern ourselves make these books sound quite modern.  They reveal that for at least some Jews in this period the books of the Tanak were just a beginning point of such discussions, which sometimes required re-writing them.

The fruits of almost two decades of greatly increased attention to these kinds of texts are now becoming apparent.  There is now an Enoch Seminar ( that meets for a week every other year so that dozens of specialists in this area can share and critique their work with each other.  The results of such study is beginning to make its way into the general study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and shed new light on old questions.