Review of Remember the Former Things: The Recollection of Previous Texts in Second Isaiah

by Patricia Tull Willey
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Remember the Former Things: The Recollection of Previous Texts in Second Isaiah
Book Author
Patricia Tull Willey
Book Publisher
Scholars Press
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Paul D. Hanson
The Journal of Religion
Select License
October 3rd, 2012

Book Reviews


Remember the Former Things: The Recollection of Previous Texts in Second Isaiah. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, no. 161. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997. xii+297 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Patricia Willey revisits a topic that has received considerable attention in past scholarship in such a way as to achieve a new level of methodological clarity that in turn is productive of a wealth of insight. Drawing on biblical scholars like Michael Fishbane and literary theorists like M. M. Bakhtin, she fashions an ap- proach capable not only of identifying traditional materials but also of differ- entiating between the diverse ways in which such materials were applied to new situations. Central to this study is its carefully articulated understanding of inter- textuality. Willey points out that one can come to grips with the connections be- tween Isaiah 40-55 and previous tradition only if one recognizes that the world of its author is one reverberating with verbal expressions of past generations that shape perception. The prophet does not stand in isolation but benefits from a rich literary legacy that profoundly influences the way current events are under- stood.

Willey projects her own methodological proposals against the background of a detailed description of the way in which previous generations of scholars dealt with literary quotations and allusions. What is new in her study becomes clear against that background.

Willey offers a more nuanced analysis of the connections between Second Isaiah and other literary corpora by going beyond comparison of isolated vsrses to treatment of the relation of larger units in Second Isaiah to literary complexes in other biblical books. Patterns of relationship thereby become visible that enable one to detect not only clear quotations but also fainter echoes that go unnoticed when research is confined to single verse comparisons. For example, when Isaiah 49 is compared with Jeremiah 2, literary connections that either go unnoticed or at best appear very tenuous become quite convincing.

What earlier commentators often portrayed as mechanical "cut and paste" bor- rowing is presented rather as an expressio'n of substantive conversatidn between mentoring tradition and spiritual heir. For example, in 49: 13 ff.,Second Isaiah is not viewed as merely snatching phrases from the Book of Lamentations but as relating to the anguish of the earlier generation and then looking beyond tragedy with audacious hope. The heart-wrenching agony of the earlier generation thus is taken with utter seriousness but so is the conviction of the prophet that he or she has a divinely inspired word to add to the generation-bridging conversation.

MTilley's methodology is capable of accounting for such apparent contradictions between continuity and discontinuity, not only because she draws larger units of tradition into her comparisons, but also because she refuses to treat texts as time-

The Journal of Religion

less artifacts written in cognitive vacuums. Rather, texts are interpreted as expres- sions of the struggle of real communities to cope with new challenges with the aid of a rich linguistic legacy. Whereas in the Book of Lamentations, Daughter Zion refers to the city Jerusalem, in the new setting, she refers to Zion's children living in exile but soon to be repatriated leading to the redemption of the city itself (pp. 224-23). And the language of Jeremiah's call is echoed, not to depict the new prophet's commissioning but to extend the prophetic call to the entire nation of Israel in response to events understood as undermining the legitimacy of older institutions (p. 268).

Sensitivity to texts in context also enables Willey to challenge certain widely held scholarly opinions. For example, she argues against accounting for the paral- lels between Jeremiah 30-31 and passages in Isaiah 40-55 by assuming depen- dence of the Jeremiah passages on Second Isaiah. That such dependence is not the case, she argues by pointing out that Jeremiah 30-31 stands in continuity with earlier parts of that book that are generally attributed to Jeremiah and that Second Isaiah's use of Jeremiah fits the recurrent pattern of the former's applica- tion of received tradition to new situations (pp 140, 153, 273-79).

Any study that sets out to identify and analyze evidence for the influence of previous traditions on a literary corpus must cope with the problem of deciding at what point evidence becomes so tenuous as to advise against further investi- gation, and Willey exercises judiciousness in differentiating between degrees of probability (cf. pp. 128-29, 142, 205) and sometimes, as in the case of allu- sions to Pentateuchal themes, suggesting that contact is not direct but mediated (pp. 132-37).

The question could be raised, however, whether an added degree of method- ological control could have resulted from Willey's paying closer attention to the fact that the linguistic horizon within which biblical writers worked extended beyond the Jewish nation. That she is aware of the importance of a broader base of comparison is proven by her discussion of "Daughter Zion" on pages 106 to

109. But at still other points, especially in cases of "faint echoes," sensitivity to a broader culturalllinguistic horizon might have been fruitful, especially in the case of mythic patterns and motifs that were clearly part of the stock-in-trade of poets throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia. Perhaps a related question pushes be- yond the objectives of her study, but it would seem that inquiry into the relation of Second Isaiah to literary traditions attested outside of the Bible would add further insight into the linguistic habitation of the prophet, a notable example being the relation of Isa. 44:24-45:'i to the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Mu- seum. Needless to say, such inquiry also would add interesting new dimensions to the rich hermeneutical discussion that already infuses this study.

It is always a pleasure to emerge from reading a monograph with the satisfac- tion that you have learned a great deal and the sense that unresolved questions are ones with which the author has dealt honestly and fairly. Willey has written such a monograph. She locates her own work in relation to previous scholarship, and when, for example, she argues convincingly for close connections between Daughter Zion in Lamentations and Second Isaiah or between the geber of Lam- entations 3 and the ebed YHWH, she conscientiously references the scholarly works on which she has drawn. In that way, her study itself stands as a contempo- rary example of the ancient phenomenon she has analyzed since it, too, "locates itself in relation to its discursive context" (p. 270). P.WL D. HANSON,

Haruard Crniversitj.

Willey points out that the intertextual dialogue covers the entire spectrum from concurrence to contradiction. Sometimes an earlier witness is credited with a description deemed equally valid in the new setting, while at other times a traditional formulation is rejected as invalidated by new circumstances. As an example of the latter, Isa. 50: 1 alludes to Jer. 3: 1 to challenge the earlier prophet's theological conclusions: "Whereas Jeremiah, using female imagery, had accused the hearers of estrangement from YHWH, Second Isaiah uses variations of the same imagery to announce reconciliation." Here we see clearly that the author who entitled her book Remember the Former Things did not fail to pay attention to Second Isaiah's other admonition, "do not remember the things of old; behold, I am doing a new thing."

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