Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Early Redaction of Isaiah

This quote by Michael Fishbane is absolutely essential in gaining an understanding of the biblical tradition and its interpretation.
Even in the language of the prophets, speaking under divine revelation, we can detect inner biblical exegesis. In Isaiah 29, the prophet is denouncing the people of Judah; they have been the object of his scorn throughout the preceding oracles and no new subject has been introduced. In Isaiah 29:9–11 we would expect to find that it is the people of Judah who are referred to as drunk and who totter and who cannot fathom the prophetic visions given to them. But by the addition of a few words the oracle becomes—by inner biblical exegesis—a rebuke of false prophets. The passage is not easy and requires a close reading; the inner biblical exegesis—the words added by an interpreter—are italicized in the following quotation from Isaiah 29:9–11:
“9. Be astonished and dazed, revel and be, blinded: you have drunk, but not from wine; totter, but not from drink;
10. For YHWHa has poured over you a spirit of stupefaction: He has closed your eyes—namely, the prophets—and your heads he has cloaked—the seers;
11. All prophetic visions shall be sealed from you ….”
Without inclusion of the italicized words it is YHWH who has closed your eyes and cloaked your heads. The object of the denunciation is unspecified. Because of what preceded, however, it would seem that the object was the people of Judah. By the addition of the italicized words—“namely, the prophets” and “the seers”—the object of Isaiah’s scorn has shifted from the people to (false) prophets and seers who do not speak with the true word of God.
Moreover, by the addition of the italicized words, a common biblical literary construction called chiasmus has been disrupted. Here is another clue that we are in the presence of inner biblical exegesis. Chiasmus derives etymologically from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an x; chiasmus refers to a rhetorical construction of an a, b; b’, a’ type. In such a construction, the linguistic features of a second line invert (usually by means of synonyms) those of the preceding one.
In Isaiah 29, without the words added by inner biblical exegesis, we have a perfect chiasmus in which a second line is inversely parallel to a first line, literally:
“He has closed your eyes;
Your heads he has cloaked.”
Here—in the original—it is the people who do not see. In this quotation of Isaiah 29:10, without the inner biblical exegesis, we can identify the preserved original oracle. By the explicatory addition “the (false) prophets” and “the seers,” they—the false prophets and the seers—become the cause of the people’s blindness. The result is that an oracle condemning the people is transformed into a rebuke of false prophets.
Without going into further detail (but relating to this same example), we simply observe that in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Bible, parts of which may date from the third century B.C., this process of exegesis within the text of Isaiah was taken further, for there the abruptness of the intrusion was smoothed over. And a later Greek version, known as the Lucianic recension, went still further in an effort to improve on the Septuagint version without (apparently) ever consulting the Masoretic Hebrew version.
From the viewpoint of the exegetical process, the textual strata represented by the Masoretic text and by the Septuagint and its Lucianic recension reflect continuous rereadings of the original oracle. Moreover, this example represents the most invasive exegetical procedure, which, in the final Hebrew text, transforms the meaning of the passage and disturbs its syntactic balance—a matter later translators into Greek tried to rectify.
Moreover, this striking transformation of an oracle against the people into one against false prophets shows the extent to which the interpretive tradition might introduce a new authority into a received tradition, so that these human comments compete with and ultimately transform the focus of the ancient, divine words. The privileged voice of divine revelation and the human voice of instruction have become one. That this paradox not always perceived is a measure of the scribes’ success in subordinating their voice to that of the tradition. Even more paradoxically, in the end it is their interpretations that have become the received tradition; their oral traditions are the written text given to the community.

Fishbane, Micheal. “The Earliest Biblical Exegesis is in the Bible Itself.” Bible Review, Fall 1986, 42-45.

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