Review: “First Isaiah” by J. J. M. Roberts

J. J. M. Roberts. First Isaiah. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2015.

*After reading the book but before writing my review, I read Matthew Neujahr’s review (click here for his review). He details aspects of Roberts’s commentary that I noticed but do not discuss in my review. Instead, I detail aspects of Roberts’s commentary that Neujahr does not discuss or address. As such, I highly recommend reading Neujahr’s review in addition to this review.

J. J. M. Roberts has published many articles about Isaiah, ancient Near Eastern history and religion, and the Hebrew Bible more broadly. This commentary on First Isaiah, one might presume, would be his magnum opus, an erudite and critical synthesis of his scholarship and work in Isaiah, historical-critical scholarship, and ancient Near Eastern history since completing his dissertation in 1969. Unfortunately, Roberts does not come through. Indeed, his commentary offers a range of interesting nuggets, attends to historical-critical problems, and includes reference to various manuscript traditions. But the strengths of the volume do not outweigh the more systemic problems. As such, I will discuss a few of these systemic problems. To be clear, my goal is not to emphasize this volume is worthless. For while one might use different, and arguably better, commentaries, one may still find undeveloped ideas and observations in the commentary worthy of further synthesis and discussion. So, my hope is that this review enables scholars to be aware of any issues with the commentary should they refer to it in any capacity.

One of the most frequent, reoccurring frames through his volume is the Zion tradition. (Reference to “the Zion tradition” as opposed to “Zion traditions” reflects his language, not mine.) While the Zion tradition is not fundamentally problematic, how he uses this framework for interpretation is somewhat haphazard and uncritical. Indeed, he uses a singular, not the plural, to describe the Zion tradition. From the outset, Roberts comments that “the Zion tradition was the main theological influence on Isaiah’s thought” (5). Beyond this statement’s seemingly massive generalization, he seems to assume a monolithic notion of Zion tradition. The heading, in fact, for Jon Levenson’s (ABD 6:1098–102) article on this tradition in Anchor Bible Dictionary is “Zion Traditions,” the title and his discussion indicating that such a tradition is not monolithic but rather multivocal. At no point in the commentary, though, does Levenson refer to Zion traditions, nor does he specify why he speaks of a monolithic Zion tradition as opposed to a multifaceted tradition, which is more in line with the major work on Zion theology and tradition. Even Ollenburger’s Zion, The City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult (1987, 146), though mentioning the Zion tradition, explains that the term regards Zion as a symbol in a broader, diverse symbolic network. That is, Ollenburger allows for the multivocality of the term “Zion tradition. Thus, the question remains for Roberts: What does he mean by “the Zion tradition”?

Now, Roberts seemingly answers this question. Note 8 in the introduction refers to a 2012 article entitled “Public Opinion, Royal Apologetics, and Imperial Ideology.” He comments that earlier articles are cited in this article. After looking at these citations, the lack of references struck me. Roberts cite four articles; and he published each of those articles. Moreover, the works are relatively outdated (1973, 1982, 2002, 2003), especially since he likely finished writing all the articles prior to 2002 (accounting for the production time for the 2003 article). Such outdated and self-referential citations strike me as problematic, and they suggest an insular echo chamber within which Roberts does not deal adequately with approaches to Zion traditions that do not agree with his own. Indeed, that problem compounds and becomes more apparent due to the minimal engagement with any secondary materials, as Matthew Neujahr notes in his 2018 review.

Another ill-defined aspect are his assumptions regarding poetic structure. Throughout the commentary’s textual notes, Roberts frequently makes textual emendations based on whether parallelism is out of place, based on his idea of what constitutes good poetic structure. Three examples will suffice to demonstrate that his assumptions about what makes sense or constitutes normal parallelism may hinder our understanding of the text.

First, he comments on the parallelism in Isaiah 1:13. The MT’s אָוֶן וָעֲצָרָה he calls an “odd parallelism that seems strangely out of place.” So, following only the LXX, he emends אָוֶן to צום on that basis that צום parallels עצרה better in terms of parallelism (16). He does not consider, though that perhaps the tension between אָוֶן and עֲצָרָה is precisely what the text brings to the table. That is, the deity’s speech may construct a tension between Israelite iniquity and their festive gatherings, the עֲצָרָה. In other words, rather than changing the text based on what he perceives to be better parallelism, Roberts should begin by taking the text on its own terms, rhetorically and philology—he does not do this. (Notably, the LXX support his emendation; however, other MSS do not support his emendation.) Similarly, Roberts removes the phrase קָרָמִים וְהַנִשָּׂאִים from Isaiah 2:13 on the grounds that it “disturbs the balance of the poetic parallelism” (38). Were manuscript evidence extant, I might accept Roberts’s claim, but even Roberts admits that the phrase appears in all manuscript traditions! So, yet again Roberts relies on a constructed notion of “good” parallelism, without other manuscript evidence, to make textual deletions. Finally, Roberts suggests emending the second word דּוֹדִי in Isaiah 5:1 to דּוֹדַי because the “slight emendation of the vocalization [. . .] avoids redundancy” (70). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this emendation finds no support in 1QIsaa or other manuscripts. Thus, we see yet again a pattern of emending that is based on an ill-defined notion of what constitutes good poetry.

I do not highlight these examples to be nitpicky. Rather, these examples point to a broader methodological and systemic problem: he organizes poetry and emends texts with no evidence more than his subjective sense of what constitutes good poetry. He should have made clear his position on poetry and when textual emendations are, in his view, necessary. I suspect this systemic problem is also a result of his poorly defined method and theoretical assumptions. Indeed, he mentions issues of textual emendations; however, his stance, method, theory, and underlying assumptions are equivocal. For instance, he writes that “there is no virtue in teasing a bogus meaning out of an obviously corrupt text” (7). How, though, does he determine what is “obviously corrupt”? Likewise, even if the Hebrew Bible require more “creative conjectural emendation than would be the case in New Testament studies,” how he decides what constitutes a reasonable creative emendation is unclear. Had he defined this creative endeavor and offered a methodology, he may have avoided, or at least explained, putting forth so many seemingly unsubstantiated textual emendations. (Admittedly, other scholarship may have influenced some of his emendations; however, he does not refer to such scholarship.)

Equally unclear is how he determines whether two pericopes in Isaiah, or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, bear a literary connection. Though frequently invoking the term allusion, he never defines the term, nor does he use the concept consistently. For example, he suggests that Isaiah 30:28 is an intentional allusion to Isaiah 8:7–8; however, he offers no justification as to why it constitutes an allusion. After all, just because the same word—or even phrase—appears in two places does not necessarily mean any degree of textual allusion (398). Such failure to use allusion consistently or identify a working method and definition is consistent through the commentary.

More broadly, and beyond these systemic issues, the commentary is best characterized as haphazardly composed. Indeed, he offers important comments here and there. But Roberts rarely interacts directly with secondary sources (even with a rich bibliography!) and does not dig into content that he could have synthesized into broader conclusions in the introduction. To these unsynthesized observations I shift.

Relevant to my interests, Roberts frequently discuss the problem of the speaker and addressee, highlighting how the text may address a fictive addressee like a foreign nation but direct the oracle itself at the Judean court. Such comments appear especially in his discussion of the הוי oracles. But he never synthesizes problems of the speaker, the real addressee, the fictive addressee, the reader, and other aspects of the speaker–addressee paradigm. For example, how does the addressee impact the speaker’s register? How does the speaker represent speech from non-Judeans, such as Egyptians or Nubians? If we assume the oracles addressed representatives of various nations originally, what is the rhetorical impact and religious significance of directing oracles secondarily to a Judean audience? And what even is the imagined public and Judean royalty in Isaiah? To what degree are they diverse or monolithic? Dealing with such broader, systemic issues in Isaiah would strengthen the commentary.

Similarly, as anyone who read Isaiah knows, Isaiah is replete with texts that flow and ebb with unexpected shifts in the verbal subject and speaker. While he rightly notes such instances throughout the commentary, but not always, I wonder if synthesizing how Isaiah uses enallage may shed light on the composition as a whole and, perhaps, ancient Judean religious and rhetorical ideas. (See, for example, Marc Brettler’s comments on the dearth of enallage in biblical studies at TheTorah.com.)

For both speech and enallage, as well as other content discussed in this review, the introduction would have been a great place to discuss and outline such ideas, showing how the ideas fit into broader scholastic discourse on Isaiah. And an expanded introduction in general would strengthen the volume. In particular, I would have like more on Roberts’s methodology and a thorough overview of the history of scholarship. Unfortunately, the introduction is so broad that it leaves the reader without any sense of the history of scholarship and unclear how Roberts’s commentary fits into the broader systems of scholarship about Isaiah, especially since he rarely interacts with his secondary material in the introduction and commentary.

Even with these criticisms, the volume is not all bad. Indeed, the textual notes often refer to other manuscript traditions and translations. So, such references may be helpful for people not learned in Latin, Syriac, and Greek. Granted, noting every instance of plene spelling in 1QIsaa seems unnecessary and excessive. Likewise, the volume may be of interest to folks with historical-critical interests, though he does not include much in-depth interaction with previous works, nor does he include much in the way of footnotes.

Before concluding this review, I have a relatively extensive list of more specific criticisms.

  • In various places he brings David into the text when David is absent, especially when he invokes the Zion tradition. In various places, that is, he claims that the text refers to David, such as the “hegemony of the Davidic monarchy” (170) and the restoration of “the ancient ideal of the Davidic monarchy” (186). The texts for which he invokes the Davidic monarchy, though, include no explicit mention of David. And Roberts does not explain why the Davidic monarchy might be relevant.
  • Though Roberts clearly knows much about Mesopotamian history, at one point he wastes nearly two full pages citing texts from ancient Near Eastern inscription (180–81). And the full quotations do not bring much more to the text than a short paragraph could have brought.
  • He perpetuates the outdated notion of women participating in so-called pagan worship via Adonis gardens in ancient Israel (244).
  • Some of his readings are not attentive to the text, such as his comment on Isaiah 19:5–15 where he claims that Egypt will collapse politically and economically on account of Yahweh’s judgment. While true to a degree, that the verbs do not associate the drought in Egypt to Yahweh’s agency is notable; instead, Yahweh’s action in the narrative is to add a spirit of confusion (256–60).
  • He claims that Isaiah 24 is a worldwide judgment; however, this understanding is overblown, since the text only refers to the range as from the sea to the east; however, Roberts never puts forward an explanation for what constitutes the east in Isaiah and how far the east reaches (310). Likewise, the text does not mention the north or south.
  • While others such as Neujahr point to Roberts’s discussion of Mari as helpful in understanding Isaiah, I am left wondering about the value of 16th-century materials and political situations on an 8th-century BCE text. I would have liked if Roberts had not just highlighted how texts from Mari might explain Isaiah but also why a text predating Isaiah by 800 years is relevant (372–73).
  • Roberts often assumes an orality-versus-written dichotomy. Recent work by Jacqueline Vayntrub, though argues that orality is a literary trope, not necessarily the historical situation. So, consideration of this problem would have strengthened his volume. Instead, thinking about how Isaiah’s speech appears as “the presentation of speech in the mouth of a socially authoritative individual” (Vayntrub 2019, 204), regardless of the historical background of what Isaiah actually did, may have been a more productive route for exploring speech in Isaiah.
  • Though I do not catalogue every instance, equating the term typically translated “iniquity” as “sin” strikes me as problematic (421). Indeed, the terms may be equivalent in some situations; however, their equivalence is equivocal and depends on the context.
  • He draws from Gustaf Dalman’s Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina to argue for the meaning of a noun as ankle chain jewelry (63). But Dalman’s work is orientalists and regards the early 20th century. Thus, its relevance for an 8th-century BCE text is unclear.

In conclusion, Roberts is an excellent scholar; however, for a broad introduction to and thorough understanding of First Isaiah, his commentary is not the best option. Granted, scholars investigating Isaiah, whether with historical-critical, literary, or philological questions, should consult Roberts’s commentary on First Isaiah. But readers should remember that his use of Zion tradition, textual emendations, short introduction, and unsynthesized observations are broader issues in the commentary.

Typographical Errors: Period should be a question mark after “like a dried-up tree” (34); comma needed in the phrase “inserted unchanged in an” before “unchanged” (164); a bibliographic entry for Albright writes “Preëxilic” instead of “Preexilic” (296); inconsistent spacing regarding typesetting, as far as I can tell (352–3); missing “r” in “Assyria” (385); a double space at the beginning of a sentence instead of a single space (389); missing “t” on “heart” (421).

*I want to express my gratitude to Fortress Press for providing a copy in exchange for my honest opinions.

Psalm 1: Translation and Notes

This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which I am offering translations and notes of particular Psalms. I am doing this to prepare for my Psalms final. I did not divide this verse by standard versification (the way the verses are divided in the Hebrew Bible). Instead, I used an outline so that I could illustrate the structure of the Psalm more clearly.

  1. Blessed is the man [1] who
    1. Does not walk in the council of the wicked
    2. And on the path of the sinners he does not stand
    3. And in the dwelling of the scoffers he does not dwell [2]
    4. But rather [3]
    5. In the law of Yahweh he delights
    6. And on his law he meditates continually. [4]
      1. So, he is like a tree transplanted onto channels of water which
        1. its fruit it gives in season
        2. And its leaves do not wither [5]
          1. And all that he does will prosper [6]
          2. Not so the wicked [7]
          3. But rather [8]
        3. Like chaff which is blown in the wind [9]
      2. For that reason [10]
    7.  They will not be vindicated, the wicked, in judgement
    8. And {they will not stand}, the sinners, in the council of the righteous. [11]

a. For Yahweh takes care of the path of the righteous and the paths of the wicked perish. [12]

[1] This phrase is potentially problematic. The word for here is אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי. It is a Masculine Plural Noun in the construct form. This means that it is directly connected to the following word. As a rule of thumb, we can insert the word “of” between the construct noun and the following noun. So, “blessings of the man” would be a more literal translation. Throughout the Psalms, and other texts, this word אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי seems to function as a sort of claim. So, “blessed is the man” = “the blessings of the man.”

[2] 1.1-3 serve to define what the blessed man does not do. The word “who” (BH אֲשֶׁ֤ר) begins this by marking the beginning of a series of subordinate clauses. This means that 1.1-3 are not complete sentences; rather, they serve to define the parameters of the phrase “blessed is the man.” Notably, each thing used to define what a blessed man does not do is very similar. In 1.1, we see the following structure: a negative particle (namely, not) + verb + location in construct with a preposition + masculine plural noun (to represent people groups). 1.2 and 1.3 use the same elements; however, they re-order the sentence structure: location in construct with a preposition +masculine plural noun + a negative particle + verb. Because 1.1-3 are so similar in structure and all use the same preposition (a bet), they are best understood as one unit. This unit serves to define what the blessed man does not do.

[3] The short phrase כִּ֤י אִ֥ם serves to transition into the next set of parameters for the blessed man. As with most particles, prepositions, or conjunctions, it may mean a wide variety of things. I am taking it as a way of marking the transition into something else. This new thing being introduced is meant to be distinct from 1.1-3. So, I translate “but rather.”

[4] 1.5-6 describes what a blessed man does. Like 1.1-3, it uses the same preposition bet. By doing so, it links itself to 1.1-3. With the conjunction, though, we know that it is a contrast to what 1.1-3 describes. Furthermore, 1.5-6 continue the same sentence structure found in 1.1-3; however, there is now no negative particle. Thus, whereas 1.1-3 were what the blessed man does not do, 1.5-6 is what the blessed me does do.

Because 1.1-3 and 1.5-6 are so closely linked in terms of sentence structure and the preposition which they use, they should be read as a unit. Recall, though, that I argued in note [2] that 1.1-3 are a unit. In light of 1.5-6, 1.1-3 are still a unit, albeit a sub-unit. 1.5-6 is, likewise, a sub-unit. These two sub-units operates in conjunction (together) to present a full picture of what a blessed man does.

Notably, though, this consistent structure is broken by two slightly different elements. First, we see in 1.6 a different verb form. 1.1-5 use QATAL (Perfect) verb forms. 1.6 shifts to a YIQTOL (Imperfect) form. Second, vs. 6 has the additional words “day and night” (יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה). I translated these as “continually” because it seems to be what the text is trying to express. The addition of “continually” breaks the sentence (syntactical) pattern which I noted in [2]. For these reason, namely the breaking of a pattern from 1.1-1.6, the minor shifts and changes in 1.6 may serve to say to the reader, “Hey! Things are about to change. I’ve some new ideas to talk about, so I’ll prepare you with a minor shift in pattern of the text.”

[5] 1.6.1 is the shift which I mentioned in [4]. Rather than continuing with more parameters about how a man is to blessed, 1.6.1 uses a metaphor. It compares 1 and 1.1-6 to being planted by channels of water. 1.6.1.1-2, then, serve to specify the parameters of a tree planted by water. It (1) gives fruit in season and (2) does not whither. This is imagery is important because it is what allow life to thrive. One can have water. Without food, though, one is unable to survive. This imagery, then, metaphorically describes the blessed man as one who enables others do survive. A tree transplanted by water will be (1) thrive as an individual tree and (2) sustain the life of other animals and people.

The extent to which one blessed man may impact the environment positively is not too surprising. In an early post, I spoke about how miscarriage of justice could make the foundations of the earth totter. There was a correlation between ethical behavior and creation. Thus, we see in Psalm 1 a similar idea at play. The blessed man is not merely an ethical man who avoids the wicked and studies the law of God as an entity autonomous from everything else. Rather, his being blessed is correlated to creation. He doesn’t necessarily cause creation to prosper; however, the Psalmist does correlate the provisions of nature and wildlife to the ethical behavior of man.

1200px-danriver1

The Dan River in Israel

[6] 1.6.1.2.1 is not entirely clear. The verb for “to do” is not clearly referring to a particular thing. Likewise, the verb for “to be caused to prosper” has no clear subject. Up till this point, though, the only present character is the blessed man and the wicked ones. Because the two verbs in 1.6.1.2.1 are a 3MS forms, it is best to understand the subject as being the blessed man from 1.

Another interesting feature of this metaphor is the use of verbs. Recall in note [4] that 1.6 was the first occurrence of a YIQTOL verb form. In the metaphor, the only verbal form used is a YIQTOL form (except for one WǝQATAL which functions like a YIQTOL). The implication is that this metaphor is durative. Consequently, the blessed man is thought to be this way unceasingly. At no point in the imagination of this Psalm does the blessed man cease being like a tree.

Furthermore, the use of YIQTOL forms in this metaphor emphasizes it as a particular unit. The end of the first unit, 1.1-6, offers a transition into this new unit of the tree metaphor.

[7] 1.6.1.2.2 shifts directions, yet again. Whereas previously the Psalm focused on the metaphor of the righteous man, it draws a contrast with the wicked ones.

[8] Until this point, “but rather” has only occurred once as a way of describing what the blessed do. By re-using “but rather” in context of the wicked ones, the reader now expects to see a contrast between what the blessed to and what the righteous do, or are like.

[9] The contrast derived from the phrase כִּ֥י אִם strongly contrasts the imagery of a healthy, fruit-giving tree. The notion of being “chaff” blown in the wind implies absolute lack of value. When gathering grain, the chaff is, quite literally, blowing away in the wind. They do this because it serve no value. It does not contribute to the sustaining people. Additionally, the tree is said to “give.” In 1.6.1.1, the verb establishes the tree as the agent of giving. In 1.6.1.3, the chaff has no agency in the action. Thus, the role of chaff is less significant in the sentence. Whereas the tree is an acting agent, the chaff is only acted upon.

[10] “For that reason” serves as another transition to describing the nature of the wicked. Notably, there are two conjunctions which introduce the wicked: לֹא־כֵ֥ן (lo’ ken) and עַל־כֵּ֤ן (‘al ken). These two conjunctions are strikingly similar in terms of how they sound (lo vs. al). Because of this similarities, the Psalmist may be attempting to tie these two phrases together into a larger unit.

[11] 1.7-8 reflect 1.1-6. Whereas 1.1-6 demonstrates what a blessed man did and did not do, 1.7-8 reflects what a wicked man will not do, namely stand in judgement. The notion of “standing in judgement” may have to do with what I wrote about regarding Psalm 82. If one is standing in judgement, their honor has been, to a certain extent, restored. If the wicked will not stand in judgment, their honor will not be restored. Consequently, 1.8 acknowledges that they will not stand among the righteous. For the righteous will have their honor restored.

This imagery of “the righteous, a MP N, reflects well 1.1-6. In 1.1-6, the wicked ones, a MP N, are juxtaposed to the blessed man. Now, the wicked ones are juxtaposed to the righteous ones.

Furthermore, the reason I placed “will not stand” in {} is because it not actually in the text at this point. This is what Greenstein refers to as “deep structure.” Grammatically, it should be translated “and the sinners in the council of the righteous.” As cognitively aware readers, though, our minds fill in the place where we expect a verb. Because 1.7 contains the verb, the mind fills in the blank.

Finally, the description of the wicked, including the metaphor has more brevity than the blessed man. This is important because it further demonstrates that the focus of the Psalm is the blessed man. Even though a stark contrast is being drawn between the wicked and the righteous, the focus is ultimately the righteous.

[12] a serves as the summation of Psalm 1. Before explaining a, though, note the structure of Psalm 1. Here is a small, easy version:

  1. Ways of the blessed are described.
    1. Ways of the blessed are described metaphorically.
      1. Conclude the ways of the blessed.
      2. Shift to the ways of the wicked.
    2. Ways of the wicked are described metaphorically.
  2. Ways of the wicked are described.

Each number 1 reflects the same type of description in 2. The only different is that one describes the blessed, while the other describes the wicked. This structure is what is called a chiasmus. The chiasm allows us to see a stark contrast between the wicked and blessed not just in terms of the specific words used, but in the places where they are employed. The summary is a. picks up on this by summarizing the entire Psalm in terms of the the way of the righteous as opposed to the way of the wicked. One major addition occurs here, though.

This is the only place in the Psalm where Yahweh becomes the agent of the verb. Although Yahweh appears as a figures to describe the “Law of Yahweh”, he was not the subject for a verb. As the subject a verb, Yahweh is said to “care for” (lit. “know”). I take this verb “to know” as a way of expressing how the divine watches over the blessed.

In contrast, the path of the wicked may be taken in two ways. First, the “path” could be a collective notions of “paths.” This is possible because the wicked don’t all act wicked in the same way. Thus, “path” could be understood as a plural. Furthermore, although “path” is typically understood as a masculine noun, it shows up a feminine noun. In light of these two observations, it is possibly that the subject of “to perish” is the paths themselves. So, we would translate, “and the paths of the wicked perish” (taking תֹּאבֵֽד in a stative sense). Alternatively, Yahweh could be the subject. In this case, the verb “to perish” should be taking as a 2MS, with Yahweh acting as the subject: “the paths of the wicked you, Yahweh, cause to perish.”

The alternative is less likely for two reasons. First of all, I am hesitant to give a Q form a causative meaning unless absolutely necessary. The other option, with “path” as the subject, demonstrates that using the verb as a causitive Qal is not necessary. Second, Yahweh as the subject is odd in the structure of a. Like any good syntax, the first part of a. reads as a verb followed by the subject. Thus, the subject, namely Yahweh, “knows.” The syntax clearly correlates the two. There is no reason, though, to correlate Yahweh with “perish.” Structurally and grammatically, it makes more sense for the subject of “to perish” to be “paths” (lit. path).

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