Book Reviews

Interpreting Isaiah

Issues and Approaches

David G. Firth, H. G. M. Williamson, eds. Downers Grove, IL 2009-07-22

The Book of Isaiah continues to draw the attention of biblical interpreters. As the editors of this volume point out, the “study of Isaiah is in the midst of a period of great change” as scholars shift their focus from diachronic concerns to a more canonical approach that is “interested in asking about the purposes behind the shape of the book and how the various component parts engage with one another” (pp. 15–16). The purpose of this volume is to assist readers in moving from introductory work on Isaiah to more in-depth research on the book. In the process it seeks to inform readers of “current issues and approaches” (p. 16).

The book’s thirteen essays are grouped under three headings: (1) Orientation, (2) Themes, Theology, and Text, and (3) Studies in Selected Texts. Williamson’s essay, “Recent Issues in the Study of Isaiah,” surveys the current landscape and shows that there is a concern among scholars to understand the book’s “unity,” however that is defined and understood. Nine essays appear in the second section, including “Monotheism and Isaiah” (N. MacDonald), “Too Hard to Understand? The Motif of Hardening in Isaiah” (T. Uhlig), “Isaiah and Politics” (D. Reimer), “Faith in Isaiah” (P. Johnston), “Nationalism and Universalism in Isaiah” (R. Schultz), “Wisdom in Isaiah” (L. Wilson), “The Theology of Isaiah” (J. Goldingay), “The Text of Isaiah at Qumran” (D. Swanson), “Isaiah in the New Testament” (R. Watts). The final section includes three essays: “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1–7?” (P. Wegner), “A Structural-Historical Exegesis of Isaiah 42:1–9” (S. Snyman), and “An Inner-Isaianic Reading of Isaiah 61:1–3” (J. Stromberg). Several essays assume the diachronic conclusions of higher criticism that the book contains material from preexilic, exilic, and postexilic times.

This reviewer found two essays to be particularly helpful. Schultz concisely surveys the various ways scholars have approached the difficult issue of Israel’s relationship to the nations in the Book of Isaiah. He then offers a helpful survey of the textual data and an insightful summary that provides a balanced view of the evidence. He suggests that interpreters, rather than highlighting tensions within the book, should focus on “how a ‘nationalistic’ or ‘universalistic’ emphasis functions in a particular text and context in light of the primary theme or emphasis of that text” (p. 143). He also understands “the book as presenting the various (non-conflicting) ways in which God is pursuing his salvific purposes for both” Israel and the nations (p. 143).

Watts points out that “Isaiah is the most frequently referenced single work in the New Testament” (by his estimate, one hundred citations and five hundred allusions, p. 213). He presents a helpful though brief survey of the New Testament’s use of Isaiah and then offers a synthesis of the evidence. After making a case for coherence in the New Testament’s utilization of Isaiah, he concludes, “This kind of coherence is unlikely to be the product of isolated and near-sighted proof-texting. Instead, Isaiah’s narrative of God’s dealings with his people provides a, perhaps even the, dominant conceptual framework by which Jesus and his later interpreters conceived their self-identity. Eschatologically speaking, the salvation Jesus brings is that of which Isaiah spoke, being drawn largely though not exclusively from his messianic (chs. 9, 11) and return-from-exile (chs. 35, 40–66) hopes of a gloriously renewed Zion” (pp. 232–33). He adds, “The New Testament hermeneutic is as clear as it is fundamental: Jesus, as God’s suffering but vindicated agent and indeed his very presence, now constitutes his true messianic servant-Israel Son” (p. 233).  

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