Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:

  • Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
  • Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
  • The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
  • Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

Here are my snapshot reviews of those books:

  1. Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney. This is an entry in the series Forms of Old Testament Literature, so you should know what you’re getting – a volume quite focused on form-critical issues, and pretty diachronic rather than synchronic in focus (i.e. more historical-critical than canonical or holistic). For all that, Sweeney is a good thinker with a nice feel for the text. When you do need to come to grips with form critical assessments of a biblical text, he’s one of the better guides and more likely to leave you with an idea whose usefulness will overlap the boundaries of form criticism per se. One reservation is that some form-critical labels for Isaiah texts sounded pretty self-evident, which is more suggestive of a problem with form criticism overall than of Sweeney’s own scholarship.
  2. Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson. I’m quite keen on this series, which also includes Interpreting the Psalms (2005) and Interpreting Deuteronomy (2012), and, despite the non-conforming title, also Exploring Exodus: Literary, Theological and Contemporary Approaches (2008) it would seem. Each volume gathers various essays from important scholars on the respective books, seems overall pretty evangelical in a good way, and is a good way to get on top of the major issues relating to each book. Interpreting Isaiah is no different, though of course the mostly thematic essays have to be selective. I recommend the opening essay by H. G. M. Williamson, “Recent issues in the study of Isaiah,” as a handy introduction to the state of play in Isaiah studies at the time of writing.
  3. The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson, the just-mentioned guy. You’ll need a pretty decent tolerance for extended arguments along redaction-critical (i.e. editing-related) lines to get through this strictly diachronice piece. I rather like Williamson most of the time, and this would be one of his major monographs, but I have to admit I found it pretty heavy weather. Sometimes the sum effect of his diachronic discourses is to leave the reader further from a coherent appreciation of the current text, though we have to let a scholarly monograph do its special thing. I got the main point, though: Isaiah 40-55 shows a clear engagement with the preceding chapters, and the perspective of those later chapters seems to appear in certain key passages in the earlier part of Isaiah, possibly revealing the editing hand of the author of chs. 40-55. But I remain a little sceptical still about our ability to really unravel the editorial history of a book like Isaiah, though no doubt it has one.
  4. Prolegomena to the History of Israel, by Julius Wellhausen. I read an old 1973 reprint of what looks like the original English late eighteenth-century translation, but the original work was published in German in 1878 as the first volume of an intended two-volume history of Israel, the second volume of which never appeared. This is the kind of book that lots of evangelicals shudder over with horror, but not many actually read. I have found it at least as heavy weather as Williamson’s book, though clearly revealing an intelligent mind, and a powerful grasp of the legal detail of the Pentateuch and the OT generally. Before running out of steam, I read five longish chapters:
    1. The Place of Worship
    2. Sacrifice
    3. The Sacred Feasts
    4. The Priests and the Levites
    5. The Endowment of the Clergy (a very ecclesiastical title) – now I don’t know how to summarize my findings in a new paragraph without ruining #5 in my list, so I’ll do it here.
      • Wellhausen’s repeated emphasis was that the regulations for religious life in each of these areas don’t stand still, but vary quite a lot from one another in different parts of the Pentateuch.
      • The corollary is that the evidence of the historical books regarding what was actually done in religious practice does not generally support the existence of the full collection of laws as we now find them in our Pentateuch in pre-exilic Israel.
      • As far as those statements go, my confession is that this is the strong impression I get as I compare Pentateuchal laws with each other and with glimpses of religious practice in the historical books.
      • That amounts to saying that the Pentateuch does not reflect a single historical setting, Mosaic or otherwise. It gives evidence of a long formation and plenty of development in Israel’s laws and rituals.
      • I don’t, however, feel obliged to sign up to all of Wellhausen’s conclusions or his general historical reconstruction of Israel’s religion. But I have to admit the rightness of a lot of his instincts.
      • I would add that any suggestion that the whole Pentateuch is a post-exilic invention, which is the impression some scholars like to give, is artificial and simplistic. To give an example from a true-blue historical critic, R. E. Friedman in his The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003), a colour-coded rendition of the Pentateuch showing how he understands its source divisions, features a note on Deuteronomhy 20 noting that it assumes, not a standing, national army, but the raising of a militia when a military threat arose, which he notes is a pre-monarchic, to say nothing of a pre-exilic, arrangement. That is one example of a Pentateuchal law that is as early as the period of the Judges, and such examples could be multiplied.
  5. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. I won’t say much here, as we change tack significantly. But I have benefited greatly in preparing to write an upcoming book from reading this book and another like it, William Zinsser’s How to Write Well. There are some great tips on good writing and book presentation technique from the point of view of, in the present book’s case, those with an eye on a book’s marketability. It isn’t all about the money, but we do want our books read, and the same things that make someone what to buy a book are the things that make a person want to take the trouble to read it. It’s worth taking the time to let the pros comment on the process, that’s for sure.
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