Tag Archives: hebrew bible

The Book of Joel: A Prophet Between Calamity and Hope (Review)

Joel book pic

Identifying the historical context of the book of Joel has been a great challenge in the history of interpretation. While many other books in the prophetic corpus contain superscriptions that provide context, Joel offers no such help. As you may imagine, this uncertainty has opened the door to a variety of proposals ranging from a monarchic date of the book to the late postexilic period.

Elie Assis in a recent monograph, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, presents a case for the composition of Joel during the exilic period (587 BCE-538 BCE). During this time of national crisis, the prophet encouraged those left in Judah after the destruction of the temple that their God ultimately had not abandoned them. Through the strategic use of rhetorical devices, Joel encouraged the people to reestablish the covenant and persist in prayer. Thus, the author concludes that the book of Joel, alongside Lamentations, sheds light onto the otherwise vague exilic period.

The book’s 12 chapters are divided into 4 parts. While Part 1 and 4 comprise an extended introduction and conclusion, the central two parts represent Joel’s two major divisions (1:2-2:17 and 2:18-4:17). The author devotes much space to unraveling the relationship between the two sections of Joel.

Assis’ introduction orients the reader to the problem of identifying the historical context of the book. Through a helpful survey of scholarly literature, the author discusses the issues that influence various opinions, such as the state of the Temple and the cult alluded to by the prophet. Joel’s two major concerns, as noted by Assis, are the locust plague of chapters 1-2 and the political salvation after the exile. Assis further discusses  features unique to Joel over against other prophetic books.

Regarding the locusts, the author maintains that Joel employs a double meaning with both literal and metaphorical dimensions. In dealing with a people who thought they had been rejected by their God, Joel uses the imagery of locusts to communicate his ultimate message in familiar terms. Though the Temple lay in ruins, Joel reminds the people that the opportunity for worship and prayer were still available.

While this book has much to commend, I will limited my praise to two points. First, the book contains a form of prose that is both readable and engaging. The author writes clearly, though not always succinctly. The reader is able to easily follow the flow of thought, further aided by frequent summaries and connections to the wider argument. The structure of the chapters also is organized and follows the methodology outlined in the introduction.

Second, the author pays careful attention to the literary features of the text. From the opening pages of the introduction, the reader is able to discern Assis’ concern to listen to the text before formulating conclusions. The book contains a thorough treatment of the Hebrew text of Joel, as well as discussions of ancient literary and rhetorical devices. Furthermore, the author’s handling of the textual data upholds his defense of the unity of Joel, refuting attempts to uncover underlying source documents.

Though there are many more aspects of the book I could commend, I must mention briefly several points that did not meet the standard set by the rest of the book. First, Assis rejects the notion that Joel at any point called the people to repentance. Instead, the prophet exhorted the people to return to God that they may renew a “bond that had been broken” (15). Yet, this point is not altogether clear. Though Assis does deal with the passages that seem to indicate calls for repentance (e.g.. 2:13), his alternative exposition is unpersuasive. Furthermore, if the people were under the judgment of God for their sin, how could a reestablishment of the covenant not involve repentance?

Second, Assis too quickly dismisses the mention of the city walls in 2:7. Historically, this has been a strong argument for either a prexilic (before the destruction of Jerusalem) or postexilic (after the walls had been rebuilt) date. The author says that the destruction of Jerusalem need not imply a severe demolition of the wall, but the work of Ezra would seem to stand against this. Furthermore, the language of the invading army scaling the wall (יַעֲלוּ חוֹמָה) would appear to support a  wall that was undisturbed or rebuilt. Otherwise, the enemies would have no need to gain entry over the wall. Assis would do well to provide stronger support against this reading.

Finally, though well written, the book tends to be a bit repetitive. The author certainly could organize the material in a more succinct format. This becomes less burdensome with the help of good indices (Scripture and Author) at the conclusion of the book, allowing for the quick reference of a particular passage or author.

In conclusion, Assis has presented a good case for an exilic date for the book of Joel. Though I do not embrace his conclusions, I found the book stimulating regarding the book of Joel, exposing weakness of older arguments, and opening up new questions for further research. The degree to which the reader will agree with the argument of the book will be influenced to a great extent by the degree of rhetorical artistry afforded to the prophet Joel. Those more skeptical about the employment of complex rhetorical/psychological devices will doubtlessly remain unpersuaded. Regardless, Assis’ has served Hebrew Bible scholarship with the publication of this work.

2 Comments

Filed under Joel

T. Michael Law on Roger Beckwith’s Book on Canon

In response to many questions and comments regarding Roger Beckwith’s book, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, T. Michael Law has offered some thoughts. While many scholars prize Beckwith’s book as the definitive work on the Canon of the Hebrew Bible, Law states that the book is replete with errors both in Beckwith’s interpretation of the evidence, as well as his methodology. Law says that “you don’t need Jesus reading BHS for your faith to survive.”

This is sure to keep the conversation going. I highly recommend reading Law’s post (find it here). If anyone cares to respond to Law, let me know so I can make sure to post a link.

Leave a comment

Filed under canon

A Few Helpful Resources on the Text of the Hebrew Bible/LXX

In my review of T. Michael Law’s book  When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (see here), I posed a couple of questions that, in my humble opinion, would increase the value of the book as an introductory work. I have been asked what other resources I would recommend alongside Law’s book to provide a “fuller perspective.”

Again, these simply are my suggestions as a reader. Certainly one book cannot do everything, but I know what is helpful to me when I explore unfamiliar territory. The resources below are in relation to the specific points of my review. All but the fourth resource(s) are found in Law’s “Further Reading” section on pages 201-12, which itself is worth the cost of the book.

I confess at the outset that Law is the expert here. He is in a far better position to give book recommendations in Septuagint studies. Nonetheless, here are a few sources that may provide a more balanced perspective.

1. Robert Hanhart, “Introduction,” in The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon, by Martin Hengel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 1–17.

Comment: Interestingly, Hanhart presents a different perspective than Hengel on the problems in the history of the text of the LXX. In fact, it was for this divergent view that he was asked by Hengel to write the introduction. Though his remarks are brief, readers can hear another take on the problem.

2. Nora David et al., eds., The Hebrew Bible in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Forschungen Zur Religion Und Literatur Des Alten Und Neuen Testaments 239 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

Comment: Though a more technical work, this book consists of 4 parts assessing the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the study of the Hebrew Bible. Part 1 is further subdivided into five essays labeled “General Studies” and four essays as “Case Studies.” The “General Studies” section represents two views: one emphasizing textual plurality in early Judaism, and the other articulating a greater degree of continuity with the later Masoretic Text. The existence of the volume is evidence that the conversation is slightly more nuanced than one may be led to believe by Law’s book.

3. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).

Comment: This book incorporates 32 essays addressing a range of issues in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholarship. While many contributors of “The Old/First Testament Canon” section would side with Law, I appreciate their attempt to clarify terms and concepts. Understanding what an author means by “canon” or “Bible,” even if one disagrees, opens the door to a clearer discussion.

4. Peter J. Gentry, “The Septuagint and the Text of the Old Testament,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 16, no. 2 (2006): 193–218. See also Peter J. Gentry, “The Text of the Old Testament,” JETS 52, no. 1 (March 2009): 19–45.

Comment: These two articles, written from an evangelical perspective, stand at the other end of the spectrum. Gentry is a specialist in the Septuagint, and here assesses the value of the LXX, as well as methodological considerations for its study.

15 Comments

Filed under OT Resources, Septuagint

Review of When God Spoke Greek (Blog Tour)

when-God-spoke-greek

This is the second stop of a blog tour on T. Michael Law’s book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (see here). Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy, as well as to Brian LePort for organizing the tour. Due to the nature of this project, this review will be confined to chapters three and four of the book.

Introduction

I remember traveling to Colorado as a young boy for a family ski trip. The beauty and majesty of the Rocky Mountain ridgeline left me breathless. One thing that I found striking was how distance changed my perception of the great mountains. The further away I was from the snowcapped peaks, the fewer mountains there seemed to be. Yet the closer I came to the mountains the clearer I saw that what appeared to be one massive rock formation was in fact a multitude of smaller mountains. Perspective changes everything.

When one looks at study of the Hebrew Bible, a similar reality is apparent. From a wide-angled perspective, the Hebrew Bible appears to be a uniform collection of canonical books, but upon closer inspection the complexities of the discussion come to the fore. One area in particular is the formation of what would later emerge as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon itself. Interestingly, while everyone looks at the same evidence, interpretations differ, and in some cases are contradictory.

This paradox becomes clear when one approaches these two chapters of Law’s book. While many may  have preconceived notions about the place and purpose of the Septuagint, Law offers what may be to some an alternative perspective. This review will first detail the contents of each chapters. Secondly, several questions will be posed to further the discussion of how the book may better serve its readers.

Chapter 3

Chapter three asks the question “was there a Bible before the Bible?” In short, Law says no. To support this answer Law presents evidence of textual diversity/plurality from the early witnesses. The result of this situation is a Judaism without strict textual boundaries until the close of the Hebrew canon in the 2nd century CE.

Law surveys the forms of Hebrew Scripture attested by Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint (LXX), Dead Sea Scrolls, and Samaritan Pentateuch (S.P.), each with underlying Hebrew texts from which they were translated/edited. Each of these traditions, says Law, testifies to variant literary editions (ie. textual traditions).  In light of these manuscripts, especially those from the Judean Desert, Law contends that scholars are forced to abandon older assumptions about the homogenous nature of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible.

Law cites the varied manuscript evidence from Qumran and surrounding sites, as well as many examples of significant differences among the other textual traditions. Though contradictions and inconsistencies are of great concern to modern readers, Law states, peoples of the ancient world had no such concern (31).

It must be noted that the “textual diversity” found at Qumran is absent from surrounding sites (aligning instead with the Masoretic tradition). Though Law tips his hat to this phenomenon, he discounts its interpretive value. He reasons that the quantity of manuscripts outside Qumran (25 total) is not a large enough sample from which to draw meaningful conclusions.

Law also acknowledges the careful scribal practices of the Masoretes in the medieval period, frequently alluded to by more conservative scholars, but argues that it is illegitimate to project these scribal tendencies upon the earlier textual data. While the Masoretic Text (MT) does indeed evidence an ancient tradition, Law states that it consists of only one such tradition. The reality of the textual climate prior to the 2nd century CE was “characterized by plurality, not uniformity” (22). To disagree with this reality is to put the proverbial buggy of one’s formulated conclusions, so to speak, before the horse of the textual data.

Chapter 4

Chapter four turns the corner to the Septuagint as a translation. Law reminds the reader that the translators of LXX did not invent the art of translation, but contributed to a well-established practice in the ancient world. Yet the LXX is not  just another work of antiquity. Rather, the innovation of the LXX was to bring the work of translation to the realm of formal religion, a feat not previously undertaken (35).

As to the origins of the Greek translation, Law retains a tentative posture in light of the circumstantial evidence. He postulates a 2nd century BCE date for the latest Greek Pentateuch could have been composed based on linguistic features of the text and citations by later authors. The text itself betrays an Egyptian origin, most likely Alexandria.

Law discusses the Letter of Aristeas, which is a 2nd century BCE legend regarding the origin of the Septuagint. While certainty eludes scholars, one purpose of the narrative that Law presents is to affirm the authority of the Septuagint by rewriting the story of the Exodus (36). The resultant translation as told in the Letter of Aristeas is not simply a new edition of Torah, but rather “a new revelation” (37).

An analysis of the internal components of the LXX leads Law to conclude that the translators of the Greek Pentateuch were “moderately educated, Hellenized Jews in Alexandria” (40). Yet, this position too is held tentatively. Sure footing, Law states, is found not in hypothetical reconstructions of the Septuagint’s origins, but rather in the early reception of the text (42).

Comments and Questions 

This summary should provide readers with an overview of Law’s argument. The book itself is well written. It is as readable as it is scholarly. As any author can affirm, transferring the complexities of academic discussions to a more popular audience is no easy task. But Law presents his argument in a fresh and engaging way. Though I am left with several lingering questions, I can concur with the 21st century philosopher (formerly known as) Jay-Z that while the book may have 99 problems (not really), Law’s presentation ain’t one.

Several early responses have been released at this point (see here for example), so I will not rehash these points of critique with which I am in large agreement. Yet I do wish to raise a couple of questions that may allow the book a better servant to its readers.

First, would not the clarity of the book (geared to a more popular audience) benefit from a more careful treatment of terminology? While jarring phrases like “before the Bible, there was no Bible” (19) may have a strong rhetorical effect, they may miscommunicate the fact of the matter. The novice reader may be left with the impression that early Judaism operated as a literary free-for-all, with every, and any, religious text welcomed as equally authoritative. While this may indeed be Law’s intention, this conception blurs the continuity (if any!) between text and canon. Perhaps clarifying what exactly is meant by “Bible,” “canon,” and “scripture,” may better serve readers.

Second, could the reader not be helped by a more balanced presentation of state of Old Testament scholarship? Certainly Law represents a major position regarding textual plurality in ancient Judaism, but it is not the only voice in the conversation. Other scholars have proposed alternative theories to this view, favoring a greater degree of continuity. For example, in opposition to the plurality of literary editions, some scholars have argued for the preservation of a Temple Text, conservatively transmitted. If correct, this theory would offer an answer to the question of continuity with the later MT. While there may have been certain cases of free translations, a stable text was always in transmission. While some of these monographs are found in the “Further Reading” section at the back of the book, brief mention in the chapter may better orient the reader to the conversation.

Lastly, and perhaps most significant, is a question regarding the format of the book: are endnotes really the best option for any book ever? The use of endnotes can be a great challenge to many readers in turning to the back of the book 30 times in chapter three and 26 times in chapter four. I recognize that many of these decisions are outside the control of the author, but this review would be incomplete, as always, without my stereotypical lament of this point.

In conclusion, this book would best serve either students who have knowledge at an introductory level in LXX scholarship, or those who plan to further explore the field. I fear that novice readers may inadvertently be misled if this is the only book on the subject they read. Hopefully, readers will make use of the “Further Reading” section, which is subdivided by subject. The resources included are invaluable for entry into the world of the Septuagint/Hebrew Bible. For those who are familiar with the debate, this book affords an engaging presentation of a major position. Law is to be commended for both of these well-researched and well-written chapters.

16 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

Malachi: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text

malachi-a-handbook-on-the-hebrew-text

Back in March, I mentioned Duane Garrett’s volume in the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible series on the text of Amos (see here). The current edition of the Review of Biblical Literature has a review on another monograph in the same series on the text of Malachi (see here). The review is generally positive, noting some of the negative aspects that I alluded to in my post. This looks like it will be another good resource, particularly for beginning Hebrew students.

1 Comment

Filed under Malachi, Uncategorized

Did Amos See a Plumbline?

plumbline

I read  a recent post making some notes on Amos 7:7-17. Although there is much I would care to comment on, one issue in particular caught my attention. As with the author of this particular post, most Bible translations render the Amos 7:7 something like the NASB: “Thus He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand” (An exception appears in the NET Bible). While the idea of a “plumbline,” appearing four times in vv. 7-8, has become a cherished image (not to mention a controlling feature of many sermons!), I want to join those who raise a red flag on this translation.

As many commentators note, the Hebrew noun אֲנָךְ is woefully ambiguous. A host of interpretive renditions and emendations have been put forward, but no degree of consensus has emerged. The widely adopted “plumbline” has its roots in the Akkadian cognate annaku “tin,” which some view as interchangeable with the metal lead. The latter became the standard interpretation following Medieval exegesis. The logic of this interpretation is that the metal lead by metonymy represents a lead weight ie. a plumbline. The idea that this noun represented some type of metallic object is supported by several ancient versions such as the Old Greek and Symmachus (ἀδάμας “steel”?), Theodotion (τηκόμενον “molten”), as well as the Peshitta and Vulgate.

Yet is “plumbline” really what Amos envisioned? Granted, it does fit the context. Yet against this view is the analysis of Landsberger (“Tin and Lead: The Adventures of Two Vocables.” JNES 24 [1965]: 285-96″) and others, who have shown that אֲנָךְ cannot be understood as “lead,” and thus cannot mean plumbline. While one need not except Landsberger’s conclusions that “tin” is the preferred translation, we can agree that the Medieval interpretation itself stands on shaky ground.

I do not in anyway want to overly simply the text-critical problem in this passage, but I do want to voice a caution. Whether a clear alternative will win the votes of scholars is not likely. Indeed, plumbline may be here to stay. Yet, I would be hesitant to make too much of this point.

The focus of the vision is the inevitability of judgment for Israel. Yahweh will no longer pass by the people as he did for the exodus generation (v. 8b). Their guilt was self evident even without a plumbline. The idolatries of the high places and foreign sanctuaries were ripe for judgment and were destined for the same end as their chief patron, the king. Whatever Amos saw, he recognized it as an means of retribution. One that would do its work until Yahweh saw fit to rebuild fallen the booth of David (9:11).

4 Comments

Filed under Amos

A Review of Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview

Image

Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, xxi + 533 pp., $35.00 paper.

The complexity of Judaism between the conclusion of the events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the trajectory set after the Bar Kokhba Revolt continues to foster much discussion between various fields of scholarship. For Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholars, Early Judaism provides insights into questions of the formation of the Hebrew Bible, early interpretive perspectives, and the existential self-perception of Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora. For New Testament scholars, Early Judaism sets the stage for life and ministry Jesus, reflecting his messianic identity and mission, as well as the emergence of the Christian movement.

The sheer amount of evidence, both literary and otherwise, is enough to occupy one for a lifetime. Students can easily find themselves lost in trying to sort through the available material. Yet, this recent volume published by Eerdmans, derived from the Dictionary of Early Judaism, makes an introduction to this complex world accessible to readers. The primary audience of this book is students with a working knowledge of Old and New Testament, as well as the historian.

Consisting on fifteen essays composed by twenty-one scholars, the volume takes a topical arrangement. In the first chapter, John J. Collins provides an introduction to Judaism in contemporary scholarship. A major issue in the study of early Judaism is what constitutes appropriate labels and terminology. Though no characteristic terminology for the Intertestamental period itself is without difficulty, Collins states “‘Early Judaism’ seems the least problematic label available” (2).

A further contributing issue is the question of what actually constitutes literary evidence of Judaism in this period. Collins overviews the place of rabbinic writings, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the study of early Judaism. He rightly concludes that “the identification of a given text as Jewish depends on the profile of Judaism one is willing to accept” (12). In the course of his survey, Collins rejects the claim, set forward by Jacob Neusner for instance, that it is illegitimate to speak of Judaism in the singular. This view advocates for an understanding of Judaism as a plurality of separate, but equally valid, traditions. But, as Collins notes, an insistence on radical diversity in early Judaism “distorts the data just as much as an essentialist approach that would exclude ostensibly Jewish material that does not conform to a norm” (8). The chapter concludes with a call for further research in the field of early Judaism.

The second chapter, authored by Chris Seeman, Adam Kolman Marshak, traces a detailed chronology of the Jewish people from Alexander to Hadrian. The organization of the material, for the most part, takes its cues from the leadership under which the Jewish people were subject. The chapter hinges on the two major Jewish revolts (Maccabean and Bar Kokhba). In addition to the political leadership, the authors describe the religious climate during this period. The rise of priestly power marked a significant feature in the relationship between political leaders and the Jewish people. The centralization of the synagogue, as well as life in Diaspora, is also addressed.

In the following two chapters, Judaism in both the land of Israel (James C. VanderKam) and the Diaspora (Erich S. Gruen) are taken up. In Israel, facets such as the temple, festivals and institutions, religious groups, and Jewish literature characterized Judaism. Though different emphases of Judaism may be found, VanderKam identifies two commonalities at the core of Jewish religion: monotheism and covenant.

Life in the Diaspora was noticeably different than that in Israel. Yet, as Gruen states, such a life is not foreign to the Jewish people, but rather, “the notion of removal from the homeland is lodged deeply in the mythology of the nation” (95). This chapter covers a variety of topics from extent of the Diaspora to the relation of the Diaspora communities to the homeland. The author argues against the popular notion of a continuing exilic perspective in the mind of Diaspora Jews. Jerusalem, says Gruen, “possessed an irresistible claim on the emotions of Diaspora Jews, forming a critical part of their identity. But home was elsewhere” (115).

In the fifth chapter, Eugene Ulrich examines the literary evidence during this period with a goal of presenting his understanding of the development of what eventuated in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He identifies two distinct periods in the history of the biblical text: 1) A period of developmental growth and pluriformity; and 2) A period of uniform text tradition since 2nd century C.E. (122). The competing theories of the origin of the text (Urtext, ect.) are briefly described, yet dismissed. Ulrich concludes his chapter by seeking to clarify terminology regarding canon, which he reserves for the final product in the 3rd/4th centuries.

The sixth chapter consists of James L. Kugel’s  exploration of Early Jewish biblical interpretation. Despite the circumstances of exile, “Israel’s ancient writings offered an island of refuge” (154) and eventually took on a prescriptive quality. Kugel outlines several instances of interpretation both by later biblical authors, as well as later Jewish interpreters. Regarding the latter, he lists four assumptions that later interpreters commonly shared in viewing the biblical texts as cryptic, relevant for later audiences, harmonious, and divinely inspired.

The next three chapters (7-9) introduce the reader to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Loren T. Struckenbruck), the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eibert Tigchelaar), and Early Jewish literature written in Greek (Katell Berthelot). Each of these chapters provides background information about the provenance, dating, and value of each respective body of literature for the study of early Judaism.

Two chapters (10-11) give attention to two major sources for Judaism of the time: 1) Philo (Gregory E. Sterling, David T. Runia, Maren R. Niehoff, and Annewies van den Hoek); and 2) Josephus (Steve Mason, James S. McLaren, and John M. G. Barclay). Both chapters chart the life and works of these two men, relating the significance of their massive literary legacies to the subject of early Judaism.

The twelfth chapter (Jürgen K. Zangenberg) examines the archeological data for Judaism during the Second Temple Period. The author adopts a broad definition of “Jewish,” noting the difficulty of identifying a particular artifact (ie. a piece of pottery, letter, ect.) as intrinsically Jewish. More specifically, Zangenberg asks not just whether an object can be identified as Jewish, but “what type of Judaism it might reflect” (322, italics original). He organizes the chapter chronologically and geographically, surveying the available evidence from the period.

The three final chapters of the book (13-15) discuss Early Judaism in relation to three relevant issues: 1) the Jews among the Greeks and Romans (Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev); 2) the relationship of Early Judaism to early Christianity (Daniel C. Harlow); and 3) the relationship of early Judaism to latter Rabbinic Judaism (Lawrence H. Schiffman). These three chapter, asking very different questions, evidence the range of questions involved in the discussion.

A significant strength of the book is the inclusion of supplemental material such as a timeline of the Second Temple Period, 13 maps of various regions, and 71 photographs/figures of locations and artifacts (manuscripts, pottery, ect.). At various points in the book,  authors reference these pictures as visual support for their presentation.

In addition, the volume includes substantial bibliographies at the conclusion of each chapter, providing further resources for the interest reader. These sources provides an invaluable compilation of both primary and secondary literature for further study.

With all the strengths of the book, there exists weaknesses in various chapters. In some instances an author may overstate the evidence, or present their conclusions as the settled consensus of scholarship, without acknowledging other voices in discussion. One example is the chapter authored by Eugene Ulrich on text, ancient versions, and canon. The assumption of the fluidity of the texts of the Hebrew Bible until a very late date, though common, is by no means the only explanation for the evidence. Others, such as Emanuel Tov, have put forward alternative explanations for what appears to be the “standardization” of the text in later centuries. Such alternatives are simply not included in the chapter. Though it is impossible to address every issue in the discussion, such a fundamental point as the dating of the canon should have received wider attention.

Yet for all of its content this book should be found on the shelf of anyone serious about the study of the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, or the New Testament. Indeed, the title “Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview” is well earned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Judaism

The Literary Function of the Remnant Motif in Isaiah’s Royal Narratives

As mentioned in previous posts, my recent work has been on the remnant motif in the book of Isaiah. As I understand the motif, it functions on a literary level in two distinct ways: 1) As an indication of blessing for Judah (cf. 4:3; 10:20-21; 11:11, 16; 28:5; 46:3-4); and 2) As an indication of the severity of judgment for the nations (14:22, 30; 15:9; 16:14; 17:3; 24:6) and Judah (1:9; 6:13; 10:22). One particular relationship that I found especially intriguing was the use of the motif in the two so-called Royal Narrative units (7:1-25; 36:1-37:38). Here, the literary function of the remnant betrays the prophetic perspective of the monarchy, contrasting the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah as negative and positive examples of kingship.

The parallels between the two sections themselves can hardly be missed. Both narratives, set in the context of the threat of invasion by foreign armies, occur geographically in the same place – “the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field” (7:3; 36:2). This location is referenced only in these two narratives and in the parallel account of chapter 36 in 2 Kings 18, indicating more than mere coincidence. Furthermore, the progression of events establishes an obvious parallel as the report of the mounting threat provokes great anxiety in both kings, followed by signs of reassurance, and the command of Yahweh mediated through the prophet Isaiah not to fear. That the two literary units were intended to parallel one another is clear, yet, the dissimilarities form an equally significant relationship.

While both narratives follow the same order of events, moving from crisis to promise, promise to sign, sign to response, the characters in each narrative are presented antithetically. In chapter 7, Yahweh sends the prophet Isaiah in response to the military threat to speak words of comfort to King Ahaz near the Washer’s field, yet in the contrasting narrative (36-37), the king of Assyria sends his emissary, the Rabshakeh, to speak words of threat at the Washer’s field. Furthermore, whereas Ahaz exhibited his unbelief in rejecting the request for a sign (7:12), the Hezekiah narrative makes no such statement. Together, the narratives present two models of leadership in Judah: one that rejects the covenant promises of Yahweh and one that exhibits trust in the God of Israel. It is in the context of this contrast that the literary function of the remnant motif emerges.

Isaiah 7:3, 21

The remnant motif makes a two-fold appearance in chapter seven, both following the report of the coalition of Syria and the Northern kingdom of Israel—an event that causes both the king and the nation of Judah to tremble like trees in the wind (v. 2). In response, the prophet Isaiah is instructed to assure the king that Yahweh will indeed deliver the people by diffusing the league by the use of a superior military power. Almost in passing, Isaiah is commanded to take along his son שְׁאָר יָשׁוּב (“a remnant will return”) (v. 3). This constitutes the first reference to Isaiah’s family in the book, who, as becomes clear later, prove to be significant in the prophet’s own ministry as signs for Israel (8:18).

It is immediately apparent by the identification of his name that Isaiah’s son holds significance to his overall use of the remnant motif. Yet, though all agree that the name שְׁאָר יָשׁוּב is significant, its specific meaning has posed some difficulty for interpreters. Does the mention of a remnant reinforce the message of comfort to the king that a remnant will indeed return despite the threat to national security? Does the name imply the weight of a coming judgment, namely that only a remnant will return after a devastating defeat? Or, does the name pertain not to Israel itself but to the enemy armies that their forces will be greatly diminished if they continue their advance? It must be admitted that the immediate context of the passage provides no explicit answer to these questions. To complicate matters further, two parallel expressions are found in 10:20-23, displaying, in my view, both a positive and negative literary use of the remnant motif.

Yet, when set in the wider literary context, as well as in contrast to the Hezekiah narrative, the function of the name becomes clear. It must be remembered that at this point in chapter seven, Isaiah’s son was a young boy, and this, at least on a literary level, may indicate that his name did not originate in response to the Syro-Ephramite threat. Furthermore, the prediction of a remnant during the time of peace prior to this event would have no functional positive connotation, unless destruction was already expected. Thus on a literary plain, the mention of the remnant at the beginning of the narrative may anticipate Ahaz’s rejection of Yahweh’s assurance, casting a negative light over the entire chapter. Thus, the enigmatic meaning of Isaiah’s son’s name is resolved by the wider context of chapter seven.

The second mention of the remnant in Isaiah 7, occurring in the context of the sign of Immanuel (vv. 10-25), furthers this interpretation of the chapter. Verses 18-25, comprised of four בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא (“on that Day”) statements, describe Yahweh’s purpose to summon Assyria to overtake the land, thus fulfilling the judgment portended by Isaiah’s son at the beginning of the chapter. While the first two statements are generally recognized as oracles of judgment, the latter two have proved problematic for scholars, with some arguing for a continuation of judgment and others for a shift to a positive note of prosperity.

The crux of the debate falls on the interpretation of verses 21-22 as the question becomes, is the mention of curds and honey an allusion to the glorious land promised to the exodus generation (Exod 3:8; 13:5; Num 13:27)? Or, does it betray an expectation of a deserted land that reflects the national poverty of Judah? In the larger context of judgment, the latter seems to be the preferred option. When all four oracles are taken together, the picture delineates a land that is so desolated from war that the livestock have endless plains to graze with no urban populations to hinder them. What was once thriving farmland is now only fit for grazing. Though the imagery of curds and honey can itself function, as with the remnant motif, both in positive and negative contexts, here it presents itself negatively. All four בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא statements thus come together to magnify the coming judgment, furthering the message proclaimed in verses 1-9. Isaiah prophesies a desolate land to demonstrate the folly of distrusting Yahweh.

An objection may be raised at this point against a negative interpretation of the chapter that Isaiah’s mission is to prophesy the failure of the Syro-Ephramite league, thus offering protection and security for Ahaz. According to this reading, the remnant would accompany the message of hope as the prophet strengthens and encourages the king. Yet, in addition to the points above, the mention of the remnant in this specific context could hardly afford substantial comfort. For, the means of disbanding the Syro-Ephramite league is the Assyrian army foretold in the second unit (v. 17ff), who, though providing relief from the imminent threat, would bring unimaginable destruction upon the land, beyond any assault that the coalition could deal. It is akin, to borrow a metaphor, to escaping a lion only to encounter a bear. The contextual data thus lends weight to the remnant used in a negative context as an indication of judgment. The faithless response of Ahaz further supports this negative interpretation, standing as the antithesis of the positive portrayal of Hezekiah.

Isaiah 37:4, 31-32

Nearly thirty years after the collapse of the Syro-Ephramite coalition, Judah faced the threat of annihilation yet again, but now at the hands of their former deliverer, Assyria. In 701 B.C.E., Sennacherib marched against Jerusalem, an event recorded by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 36-37).

Sennacherib, through the mediation of his official, the Rabshakeh, calls for the surrender of the city in the hearing of the people (36:2-20). Composed of both threat and promise, the Rabshakeh launches a compelling ploy of psychological warfare to make surrender appear the preferable option. Reminding the city of Assyria’s military success, coupled with the lack of viable alliance options for the city’s defense, the Rabshakeh warns against trusting Hezekiah, whose removal of cultic sites could hardly gain the favor of the nation deity. What the Rabshakeh offers, in essence, is a new Solomonic reign of safety and prosperity under the lordship of the king of Assyria (cf. 1 Kgs 4:25). On a natural level, capitulation to Sennacherib was indeed logical, yet Hezekiah’s devotion to Yahweh precluded such a response.

The first occurrence of the remnant motif in this passage is found in Hezekiah’s appeal to Isaiah the prophet to intercede on the city’s behalf (37:2-4). In the final clause of his request, Hezekiah says, “lift up your prayer for the remnant [הַשְּׁאֵרִית] that is left” (37:4f-g). The function of the remnant motif here, though clearly referencing the current population in Jerusalem, is not immediately discernible, either serving as a positive expectation of hope (ie. “Yahweh has left a remnant to this point, he will certainly deliver us now”) or a desperate cry of despair (ie. “The destruction Assyria has dealt is so severe that only a remnant is left”).

A clarifying text does indeed occur in the prophet’s extended response to Hezekiah’s second appeal (37:21-35). Yahweh, exposing the folly of Sennacherib’s boasting, reasserts his sovereignty over even the king’s military conquests. For, before Sennacherib had planned his offensive strategy, Yahweh had already determined the path of his victory (v. 26). And as the one who establishes success in battle, Yahweh states his purpose to turn away the threat against Jerusalem, leading Sennacherib away with a hook in his nose and a bit in his mouth (29). Following his address to the king of Assyria, Yahweh provides a sign to Hezekiah in verse 30, though it lacks the miraculous luster one may expect. For the following two years, the city would live off the produce of the land, followed by a year of agricultural normality. Though this sign may appear ordinary, it is upon this guarantee that Yahweh pledges a “surviving remnant of the house of Judah [פְּלֵיטַת בֵּית־יְהוּדָה הַנִּשְׁאָרָה] shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward” (v. 31).

Here in the context of Yahweh’s promise to prosper the city, the pairing of פְּלֵיטַת and שׁאר forms a more developed picture of the remnant motif as an indication of blessing. It is interesting to note that in verse 31 it is the remnant itself that is bearing fruit, and not simply eating the fruit that had previously grown (v. 30f). Thus what Hezekiah is told is that Yahweh, who will sustain the inhabitants of Jerusalem with the produce of the land, will further plant the remnant as a tree that bears fruit in season. The combination of roots established in the earth and the bountiful production of vine classify the remnant as secure and healthy. Unlike the vineyard that yielded wild grapes in chapter five, the remnant shall once again be fruitful.

As seen in these narrative texts, Isaiah employs the remnant motif as a literary indicator of the monarchial climate in Judah. When used of a faithless king such as Ahaz, the motif can indicate the severity of judgment that will be brought upon the people. Yet, standing in juxtaposition, the remnant can also display Yahweh’s purpose to preserve and prosper his people led by faithful Hezekiah.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Isaiah

The Problem of Time in Joel

For being such a short work, the book of Joel contains a host of problematic issues that have troubled its interpreters. One of the most significant is the historical/literary relationship between the first two chapters. The question is, is the locust plague of chapter one a literal infestation of locust portending the invasion of chapter two? Or, does the imagery portray the devastation left in the wake of an enemy army throughout both chapters? Indeed, answers do not come easy.

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature contains an article by Ronald L. Troxel that addresses the question once again. I have not yet had an opportunity to read the article, but the abstract does sound intriguing:

Scholarship on the book of Joel has long been vexed by the wayyiqtol verb forms in 2:18-19a. Ibn Ezra suggested that they are analogous to the prophetic perfect, expressing certainty about the outcome, while Adalbert Merx suggested that they should be read as simple wāw + jussive, and Julius Bewer argued that the imperative forms in 2:15-16 should be read as simple qatal forms, enabling vv. 15-17 to be read as a report of the people’s response to the exhortation of vv. 12-14. More recent studies of Joel 2 have found it difficult to explain the interchange of qatal and yiqtolverbs in vv. 2-11. Some have explained these as signaling the intrusion of redactional materials, while others have sought to accommodate them under a tense or aspectual understanding of the verbal system. Still others have despaired of finding a solution and have adopted readings of the verbs based solely on the context. Both of these problems are, however, amenable to rather straightforward solutions. On the one hand, the wayyiqtol verbs of 2:18-19a come into focus once we recognize the narrative structure of the book. The wayyiqtol verbs are embedded in speech by the narrator, whose voice was last heard in 1:4. On the other hand, the qatal and yiqtol verbs in 2:3-11 follow typical morphosyntactic and morphosemantic patterns, once we take into account their discourse settings, particularly the pragmatics of their clauses.

For those with access to JBL, you can find the article here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Joel

Zephaniah the Preacher

Zephaniah

The legitimacy of rhetorical analyses of the New Testament has been an area of lively debate in scholarly circles. For anyone who was not at IBR this last year, the tension in the room during the dialogue between Stan Porter and Ben Witherington III was a bit uncomfortable to say the least. The question is, “should the text of the New Testament be studied as texts that would first have been preached?”

While New Testament scholars have greater difficulty coming to a consensus on this question, those who study prophetic literature can enjoy much more common ground. For, before the  prophets’ messages were recorded, they were proclaimed to Israel and Judah. And as any good preacher knows, the power of a well managed illustration can hardly be underestimated.

In a previous post, I mentioned a paper I am presenting to a Prophetic Literature seminar on the rhetorical function of the remnant motif. Though I have since shifted the emphasis of my paper to a literary approach, I remain intrigued by the rhetorical usage of the motif, especially as it appears in negative contexts against both Israel/Judah and the nations. One instance that i found particularly stimulating was in the book of Zephaniah

In chapter 1, Zephaniah details the judgment of Yahweh “against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v. 4a). Judgment is warranted for patterns of idolatry and syncretism, which had apparently seeped even into the king’s household (v. 8). In describing the objects of Yahweh’s judgment, Zephaniah says “And I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal” (v. 4c). The phrase “remnant of Baal” has posed difficulty for many scholars, as it appears at first enigmatic.

Yet, the remnant here, paralleling the idolatrous priest in the following clause (v. 4d), evidences its intrinsically negative character. Furthermore, when set in conjunction with the other wicked groups mentioned in verses 4-6, the remnant appears to refer to more than the idols themselves, identifying, rather, a group of people.

The reason for the appropriation of “the remnant of Baal” in reference to a group, presumably of Judahites, may at first appear enigmatic, but when assessed on a rhetorical level, the motif provides insight into the situation in Judah. Marvin Sweeney notes that there exists a “tendency of biblical traditions to employ the language of the Canaanite cult to polemicize against YHWHistic practices that were not considered to be legitimate.”[1] 

Hence, what Zephaniah describes is a band of syncretistic priests acting not as the religious leaders of the holy remnant of Judah, but rather as the remnant of Baal. Such an image would certainly provoke the attention of his original audience.

In my view, Zephaniah’s ministry coincided with the Josianic reforms of. 622 BC, and was indeed influential in its success. Thus, the announcement of judgment by Zephaniah, accords with Josiah’s purging of syncretism during the early stages of restoration. The proclamation of Zephaniah during this time functioned to undergird and validate the king’s program of reform. And the remnant motif was a potent rhetorical device to motivate the people to reject lawlessness and embrace a posture of covenant fidelity. Zephaniah was indeed an able preacher.

 

[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, Zephaniah: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis; Fortress, 2003), 68.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Zephaniah