John Goldingay on Voices in Isaiah

New International Biblical Commentary, by John Goldingay, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001.

The Nerd understands many of his readers are not ready to accept the idea of multiple authorship in the book of Isaiah. Many of his readers are from a certain background where Jewish and Christian tradition has assumed single authorship and even turned it into a matter of faith. The Nerd asks, “Faith in what?” The book of Isaiah does not say it was all written by one man. In fact, it begins clearly in the voice of someone else: “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz.” And Isaiah is not mentioned after chapter 39.

But there seem to be multiple voices in Isaiah. One voice introduces the book and speaks of Isaiah in the third person. Another voice seems to come directly from the prophet who saw Adonai seated on a throne, who challenged Ahaz, who named his son “the remnant returns,” and who saw horrific events coming but also glimpsed better days. Then there is a voice during the exile, calling streams from the desert, taunting the makers of idols and those who put trust in them, and saying new things are coming that will make us forget the old things. Finally there is a somewhat shrill voice, welcoming to foreigners, promising light for Jerusalem, but foretelling terrors for those who worship in secret gardens and keep marring the Jewish people’s bright future.

Goldingay sees these four voices in Isaiah and thinks of them possibly as four separate author-editors (or even more than four). The Nerd differs slightly from Goldingay, and is open to them being two or three author-editors. Still the presence of the voices is hard to deny when you read the book of Isaiah without dogma, but only a willingness to see what is on the pages.

The first voice we hear is one Goldingay calls the Disciple. He speaks about Isaiah in the third person (1:1; 37:2; 38:1). Isaiah has limmudim (disciples) in 8:16, so perhaps this is one of them. There is a longstanding theory that the book of Isaiah went through an edit and expansion in the days of King Josiah (641-609 BCE, more than fifty years after Isaiah). And Goldingay thinks the prose sections are from the Disciple (or circle of disciples) while the poetic sections are from Isaiah.

The second voice is Isaiah himself, who is known in Goldingay’s introduction as the Ambassador. Goldingay says:

In chapter 6 he tells us of that vision that led him to volunteer to serve Yahweh. His voice speaks again in chapter 8. Here he tells of naming his son in such a way that he will embody his father’s message of receiving Yahweh’s warning that he should distance himself from his people’s paralyzing fear that is causing them to walk the wrong way, and of his duly turning his back on the people.

Isaiah speaks as one sent and is, therefore, an ambassador of the heavenly King. The words are Isaiah’s retelling of the message he heard from Hashem. So they are personal to Isaiah, in his own words, but they are constrained by what he has seen and heard from above. They are his and his words, Isaiah’s and God’s.

The third voice is on Goldingay calls the Poet. He is often known as Second Isaiah. He speaks during the exile to people who feel beaten down by a history of failure and verdict from heaven of guilt. They are a defeated people, a failed people, only they are not really and the Poet brings the message:

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service is over, that her guilty record is forgiven, that she has received from Hashem’s hand a double amount for all her offenses.” [40:1-2]

There will be waters of life in parched places, cedars where there was only scrub before, and those foreigners who made Judah desolate, theirs sons and daughters will bring the survivors of Jerusalem back in caravans and weight them down with gold. But like Isaiah himself, the Poet meets with resistance and says, “I have labored to no purpose” (49:4).

The fourth voice is the Preacher. He is actually gentle and humble, one who wants to bind up the broken-hearted, but his voice is shrill and he speaks of cruel wickedness that must be burned out at the source. He seems to be speaking after the exile and things are still not right. But Jerusalem will arise and shine and its light will come.

The Nerd thinks that the book of Isaiah is a collection. It has been reshaped, touched up. Two, three, or possibly more voices are here. Isaiah was under-appreciated by his own generation except for a circle of limmudim. But his words came to be seen as genius when Babylon rose up and events happened as Isaiah had foreseen. And over time, a wider and wider circle would have delighted in Isaiah’s words. The past tragedy was explained. Hope for present and future days was revealed. Goldingay’s explanation captures the essence of it and many specific theories and variations are possible.

The ambassador, disciple, poet, and preacher all speak. There is horror and hope. The vision is unclear. It is open-ended. It has not finished speaking.

 

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