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.

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Religion in The First Avenger: Magic, Canon, and Cosmos (Part One)

Since 2009, Disney has earned roughly $18.2 billion on the Marvel Cinematic University (MCU). All of the events in the MCU, introducing the heroes, villains, and objects, culminated with Avengers: Endgame. For various reasons, the MCU offers some interesting parallels for understanding various elements of religion. So, over the next 20 weeks, I will be watching the MCU films in chronological order, thinking about how they can shed light an religious studies topics.

This week, I watched Captain America: The First Avenger (TFA). Though TFA is chronologically prior to Iron Man, it was released in 2011, after Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor (2011). The film is about Steve Rodgers, who volunteers for a special physical enhancement test in the US Army. After a successful test and due to unseen circumstances, Captain America, who is Steve Rodgers, saves the world from a Nazi group which split off from Nazi Germany and nearly destroyed the entire East Coast with the Tesseract. Red Skull the villain, sees himself as harnessing the power of the gods through science. At the end of the film, Captain America stops Red Skull; however, Captain America crash lands in Greenland. The film ends by showing how Captain America was buried in ice for 70 years, discovered in time to become part of the Avengers team.

In what follows, I will lay out of few general observations about TFA and issues in religious studies. Many of these thoughts are undeveloped and will receive more thorough treatment as I re-watch all of the MCU Phase One films.

First, TFA represents a strained relationship between science and magic/religion. Red Skull is mocked by his peers during the beginning of the film for seeking to find the Tesseract in order to power his weapons. He comments at one point: “What others see as superstition, you and I see as science.” That is to say, there is recognition of the boundaries between science and magic/religion. In finding and utilizing the Tesseract, the film effectively illuminates how the boundaries between “religion” or “magic” and “science” are sometimes more porous than we realize. For example, turning towards Mesopotamia, is the Maqlû rituals, anti-witchcraft rituals, magic, religious, or scientific? The practitioner uses various objects as material technology to push against the witch’s  possession of victim. Though most would not categorize this as scientific, the ritual was perceived, in some respects, as harnessing the power of the deity. Thus, though they are not the same, Red Skull’s use of the Tesseract and a practitioner’s use of the anti-witchcraft rituals are an interesting parallel in terms of the relationship between magic, religion, and science.

hugo_weaving_as_red_skull

Second, issues of canonization arise in the MCU. After all, the films were not made in chronological order. This emerges most clearly with Howard Stark’s character, who is the father of Tony Stark/Iron Man. TFA introduces Howard Stark as a wealthy arms dealer for the US Army. If we watch the movies in chronological order with no background knowledge from the comics, his character is not significant; however, if we watch the movies based on release-date order, Howard Stark becomes more significant. Such an issue is equally important in the Hebrew Bible: which book was composed first and which book is imagined to be chronologically first? Moreover, should one read the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish canonical order, or should they read it based on composition date? For, if you don’t read the texts based on composition date, certain elements which occur chronologically earlier, though later in terms of composition, may be unclear. Such issues are relevant for both Biblical Studies and the MCU because they point to an even more central practice: what are the reading/watching practices for audiences? Though I have no answer, it is worth comparing more in the future.

Third, Red Skull finds the Tesseract in sculptured mural of Yggdrasil:

“Yggdrasill, the world tree, is an energy field that supports and connects the Nine Worlds. It is represented as a tree the roots and branches of the tree each connect a different realm… and the earthly realm of Midgard through which all the connections pass.” – (Source)

In other words, the location of the Tesseract implies that it has a connection with the cosmic Yggdrasill, a mythical tree from Norse cosmology and mythology. Put another way, an object of power (Teseract) was found amidst a religious symbol of a cosmic power (Yggdrasill). The significance of Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract would have been notably less were it not associated with a cosmic power. That is to say, the way in which one interacts with their material environment can be understood different based on the associations and links. For example, when a Mesopotamian king captured an enemy temple, the temple was not simply a building for gods; rather, it was a microcosm of the macrocosm, of the universe. So, the significance of capturing temples was heightened through associating temples with a greater cosmic significance. Thus, while Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract is distinct from a Mesopotamian king capturing a temple, there is a similar pattern in both: the material object is associated with a cosmic power in order to make more significant the material item.

Reflections on Barbara Smith’s Approach to Literature

In a previous post, I provided a summary and reflections on Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978). Rather than summarizing the entire book here, I want to summarize two points which stood out to me.

First, one of the major concerns in Biblical Studies is thinking about how texts relate to history. Smith, in my opinion, offers a helpful perspective on this idea. In her view, a text’s composition, namely the time when it was actually written down, is a historically determinate event (34). Put another way, since the composition of a fictive utterance is a historical act, some of the meaning is absolutely historically determinate (138-139). A fictive utterance may be defined in contrast to a natural utterance: where a fictive utterance is usually present in imaginative works of literature like poems, tales, and drama (20), a natural utterance is a historical event, occupying a specific point in time and space (15) [1].

Elements which are historically determinate, of course, may be argued. For example, when reading Ps 29, the scribe’s poem was informed by a unique cultural library of linguistic conventions. Unfortunately, such conventions are not always evident to modern readers. As such, scholar must explore the historically determinate aspects and meanings of a Psalms by looking at other ancient Near Eastern literature in order to identify linguistic conventions and patterns. In doing so, scholars can better understand the historically determinate meaning of Ps 29, as well as other texts. Without identifying the linguistic conventions, there are errors of identification: “Errors of identification produce erroneous assumptions and bring into play inappropriate conventions. Conventions are conventions, however, and they may change over time and, under varying conditions, be alters” (141). Put another way, if we don’t understand the linguistic conventions of biblical poetry, we can’t understand the meaning of the poem that is historically determinate.

Simultaneously, though, scholars should be careful not to restrict the historically indeterminate meaning, namely the aspect of meaning which depends on the reader to bring to it life experiences and assumptions which results in the poem being “interesting” (154). This tension between historically indeterminate meaning and historically determinate mean is shown by Smith to be a spectrum. Adopting this perspective for biblical texts would be, I think, productive. Through clearly distinguishing between the types of meaning, scholars may engage with the text at two levels: the historically determinate level which informs intellectual and social knowledge and the historically indeterminate level wherein the human spirit exists and thrives.

Additionally, Smith’s “discourse” is informative regarding biblical genres on two fronts: didactic and proverbial. First, she defines proverbs as “sayings” which seem to have no known original speaker. As such, “it appears uncontaminated by ordinary human error or bias, and thus oracular” (72). Her comments indicate that proverbial sayings are unique on account of their seemingly non-human origins. Though I won’t divulge into discussion of how this perspective may impact biblical interpretation, suffice it to say that it has potential to do so.

Second, Smith discusses “didactic” in terms of poetry: “we may not say only that the line between didactic poetry and pure poetry is hazy, but that all poetry is didactic. We usually refer to a work as “didactic” when such propositions are explicitly formulated within them. But all works of literature may be seen to imply propositions, most of them not stated explicitly and many of them unstable – unspeakable – in terms of the formulated wisdom of the culture” (142). In short, poetry is all didactic. This make me think of the problematic characterization of Ps 78 and Ps 49. Both Psalms begin with remarkably similar language and style; however, they differ in terms of content. Ps 49 does what Smith comments on what is typically called “didactic” poetry: it is explicit concerning wisdom. By contrast, the content of Ps 78 takes a narrative form, the propositions not stated explicitly. On account of the distinction between the content of Ps 78 and Ps 49, there is not much consensus concerning the relationship between the texts. By employing Smith’s approach to didactic poems, though, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about their relationship. Moreover, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about biblical poetry generally.

[1] It is important to note that a natural utterance may also be written, namely an inscription. In an inscription, a natural utterance is performed upon reading it because the inscription, like a personal letter, is a historically unique verbal event, analogous to a speaker in discourse (20).

Reflections on “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative” by Mieke Bal

At base, narratology “is the theory of narratives, narrative texts, images, spectacles, events; cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story'” (3). What Mieke Bal offers, then, is a basically a method for describing narrative. It is divided into three, large chapters: “Text: Words,” which focuses on how to describe various levels of texts; “Story: Aspects,” which focuses on various aspects of a narrative fit together; “Fabula: Elements,” which focuses on how chronology works in a narrative. Each chapter is full of helpful terminology, fleshed out with thorough discussion, which can easily be utilized for describing narratives in Near Eastern and Biblical texts. In this reflection, though, I will only focus on a few things which stood out to me.

First, Bal describes the levels of narration (pp. 44-56). Here, she describes various ways in which levels of narration may be understood depending on the particular text. In terms of my own work, this is interesting on one front. As is any literature, the Hebrew Bible is teeming with levels of narrative. The most basic example appears at the beginning of much prophetic literature, such as Micah:

(1) The word of Yahweh came to Micah, a Mosharite, in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, when he had a vision concerning Shomron and Jerusalem. (2) “Listen, all you peoples // Pay attention, Oh land and all within it…”

In this text, the speaker of vs. 1 is clearly distinct from vs. 2. Whereas vs. 1 is spoken by an external narrator, vs. 2 is spoken by the character. One way we can identify this is because the shift from a 3MS verb (the word came) to a 2MP and 2FS verb (Listen… Pay attention). Now, although this is a very basic example, the same narratological technique is used through the Hebrew Bible and all literature. I am  pointing it out because attentiveness to various layers of narrative can clarify confusing or problematic elements of texts.

Second, the issue of levels in narration is interesting for grammar, as a few scholars as discussed the issue of embedded text in light of the Hebrew verbal system (cf. Pardee, 2012). In 1 Sam. 1:20, for example, a waw-retentive PC can introduce a circumstantial clause which is embedded into the narrative line (Pardee 2012, pg. 303). This use of a waw-retentive PC in BH is common. Thus, it appears that analysis in terms of morphosyntax of biblical Hebrew can overlap with narratological concerns. And while they should not be conflated into one thing as analytical categories, it appears to me that narratology is a fundamental aspect of any language, BH included.

So, in Bal’s discussion on what marks personal and impersonal language she distinguishes between I/you and first and second person (personal) and he/she and third person (impersonal). Although these are only the first two distinctions she provides, it stands that narratology is (may be?) a fundamental aspect of BH, for BH uses grammatical person markers. The implication is that BH has narratological components built into it.

Third,  Bal’s description of how one defines an “event” was interesting in light of the Hebrew verbal system. According to Bal, an event is “the transition from one state to another state, caused or experienced by actors” (182). She continue on by describing three criterion for defining an event. What I am interested in seeing flesh out, though, is how her understanding of “event” does (or does not) fit with the H stem in BH. Roughly defined, the H stem expresses is causative. Drawing from my memory (I don’t have access to the three major grammars at the moment), I wonder how often the causative notion connotes an event (i.e. the transition from one state to another state as part of the fabula in a narrative) as opposed to a mere process, unimportant to a fabula.

These are just musings. I am still working them out in my head. So, if you are unsure of what I am saying, don’t worry. I am also not sure what I am saying.

Cheers!

Reflection on “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet” by Roman Jakobson (1966)

For those who were with biblical poetry, Roman Jakobson is an incredibly important scholar. For, his understanding of parallelism shaped and formed the framework by which Adele Berlin (The Dynamics of Biblical Paralellism) treated Biblical poetry in her own book. One quote from the article stands above the rest:

Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language – the distinctive features, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical unites and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focus upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context; therefore the grammar of parallelistic pieces becomes particularly significant.

It is these categories in particular which Berlin breaks down within biblical poetry. In the next few years, though, I do look forward to a dissertation being written within NELC at the University of Chicago. It may help to clarify much of what others, Jakobson, and Berlin argued, albeit with more clarity.

One things, though, stood out to me within this article: oral traditions. Essentially, a 19th century scholar recorded a many Russian folklore traditions and poems. Although many of these records had some variation, it was noted that many of these traditions were extremely similar. Scholars argued that these similarities were due to the usage of parallelism and its dominant role in oral traditions.  Such things are present throughout many modern cultures.

Additionally, they often times drew from parallelism as defined by Lowth. Down the road, it was argued that poetic and prose traditions in the Hebrew Bible reflect an oral culture preceding it. It is this point which I want to address. Without a doubt, the oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible are possible; however, comparison of 19th century oral traditions, such as a Turkish one which goes back to the 16th century, with those of the Hebrew Bible is methodologically flawed. The method is problematic because 2000 to 2300 years separate modern traditions and ancient traditions.

So, while it is possible to prove that modern folklore traditions tend to employ grammatical parallelism, it is harder to claim such a thing for the Hebrew Bible, as did Albright and many other scholars. That said, one must produce evidence and develop a method in order to bridge the gap between modern folklore traditions and ancient traditions, particularly with regard to the relationship between oral traditions and grammatical parallelism.

Cf. U. Gabbay / Dead Sea Discoveries 19 (2012) 267–312 (esp. p. 279), wherein here notes that Mesopotamian scholars had a sense they were the recipients of an oral tradition that allowed them to offer the best commentary on canonical texts.  

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.

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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).

Also, feel free to click on this link. It may help me win a free book: https://homebrewedchristianity.com/giveaways/bibliotheca-bible-giveaway/?lucky=21539

 

More on the History of the Old Testament

Historiography is the narrative of what happened in history. Like any narrative, story, or account, it takes place from one particular tradition. The narrative is told from a particular perspective. One major example of this is in the Hebrew Bible itself.  The authors, editors, and compilers of the Hebrew Bible each had a particular tradition which informed their perspective. Thus, their writings and edits evident in the Hebrew Bible were historiography.

But is historiography history? In other words, in the Hebrew Bible history? The answer is simple: yes and no, and a little bit in-between. Okay, maybe that’s not a simple answer. Though, I ask that you bear with me. All will become clear soon (hopefully).

In a recently published volume about the reception of the Hebrew Bible between the 1st century CE and the 21st century, Walter Dietrich comments on the current status of how scholars understand the reliability of the Hebrew Bible.  He makes his comment in light of historiography, the notion that the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible were telling a story from their own perspective and tradition.

“Contemporary research discussion moves between the poles of a sceptical hyper-criticism and an unbroken trust in the reliability of biblical history writing. On the one hand one thinks that it is only possible to write the history of Israel without or against the Bible and on the other hand one follows to a large degree the biblical view of history. The truth lies between these two poles. An avoidance of the use of biblical historical records is no less appropriate than their extensive and uncritical use. Many details provided by the Old Testament are plausible or have already been verified by extra-biblical sources [i.e. outside of the Bible], but many are fictional and have already been proven to be false through external evidence. There is therefore a need to find the appropriate balance of critical evaluation of biblical sources and a reasonable reconstruction of history” (HBOT, vol. III/2, pp. 468-69).

This is a somewhat complicated and dense idea. So, I shall clarify. Many people either disregard 100% or maintain 100% confidence in the Hebrew. Neither of these stances is true. Rather, the truth of the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is between complete skepticism and complete belief. Already, non-biblical evidence has proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate. Yet, non-biblical evidence has also proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate. Therefore, we need have a balance between complete dependence and complete skepticism of the Hebrew Bible for reconstructing history.

This is because much of what is written in the Hebrew Bible “is characterised by a combination of historical, aesthetic, and theological objectives” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 469). So, the Hebrew Bible, the historical books in particular, is not just a person writing a historical document, though it does have history within it. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible is not just a person writing a theological document, though it does have theology within it. For this reason, Dietrich comments that in the Hebrew Bible “the boundaries between historical facts and literary fiction are fluid” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 468).

Think about, for example, how different news stations present the same story. Fox News does not present stories the same way as CNN. Likewise, CNN does not present stories the same way as MSNBC. MSNBC does not present stories the same way as Al Jazeera. Rather, each of these television stations constructs and shares a narrative based in history. Because each station approaches the issues and events differently, they each present the story in a different way.

 

Broadly speaking, this is how scholars attempt to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. It is a perspective on history; yet, just as some facts presented in the news are absolutely false or skewed, the same thing happens with the Hebrew Bible.

What are your thoughts? How skeptical of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? Or how trusting of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? I’d love you hear your perspectives.

 

Bibliography:

Dietrich Walter, “Historiography in the Old Testament”, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. III/2. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

On Prophecy in the Ancient World

third_mari

Source: Wikipedia

More often than not, understandings of prophecy arise from hearing about or reading the Hebrew Bible. Books like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah shapes and form these understandings. In this blog post, I will briefly examine one example of prophecy which occurred before all else in the Hebrew Bible. By looking at this text, I hope to demonstrate, through non-biblical material, a function of prophecy in the ancient world. The letter which I will write about was written around the 18th century BCE (c. 1800 BCE) [1].

In this letter, Inibsina is communicating with her brother who she calls Kakkabi (Zimri-Lin) [2]. Within the letter, we first read the following: “Previously, Selebum the Assinu gave a prophecy to me… Now, one female Qammatum of Dagan of Terqa came to me.” Here, Inibsina is telling Kakkabi that she previously received a prophecy. Now, she received another prophecy from a religious priestess. What did this priestess prophecy, then?

“The alliances of the men of Esnunna (a city in the ancient world) are deceptive. And, under the straw, the water will go; and toward the net, of which it can be said I will bind, I will gather it. His city I will destroy, and his stuff, which from ancient times was not defiled, I will defile.”

What is going on here? For the sake of this post, there are two main things which should be addressed: what is the message and who is the speaker?

In this prophecy which was first reported to Inibsina, the message is fairly straightforward: current allies of Kakkabi are deceptive and will not remains faithful to the alliance. As a result, the god Dagan of Terqa will destroy the city of those in the alliance who are deceptive [3]. In other words, the god recognizes the unfaithfulness of some members in the alliance. So, he will destroy them. As for the speaker, it is Dagan of Terqa speaking through the Qammatum priestess.

What does this mean, though, for how we think about religion, politics, and society in the ancient world? As this text demonstrates, the gods are understood to be directly involved in politics and social relation. Consequently, religion is directly involved with politics and social relations. Viewing it the other way, politics is directly involved with religion. Either way we look at this letter, it is evident that the people living in 18th century BCE Mari did not make a large distinction, if any, between politics and religion. They were intrinsically intertwined, if not the same.

Likewise, prophecy was intrinsically intertwined into politics. Although popular modern notions of prophecy tend to distinguish it from politics, this ancient letter demonstrates that it was, during this period, understood as part of the political atmosphere. This notion of prophecy for both religious and political ends is important because it may inform how we understand prophecy within the Hebrew Bible. Though I do not advocate that all prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is politically driven, it is worth keeping this reality in mind as we read through prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible [4].

[1] ARM 10 80. Translation is my own.

[2] Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press, p. 28 n. b. For simplicity, Kakkabi is best understood as a nickname for Zimri-Lin.

[3] My attempt is not a careful and close reading. I simply want to present the gist of the text.

[4] Ancient Israelite prophecy is, in fact, a unique phenomenon.

Bibliography:

Charpin, Dominique (Paris), “Mari”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 23 April 2017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e723510&gt;

Nissinen, Martti, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press,

What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?

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14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.