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Initial thoughts on Shalom Paul’s commentary on Isaiah 40-66

May 20, 2012

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Shalom Paul English commentary on Isaiah 40-66 would be forthcoming.  After some delay, it has at last appeared.  The delay associated with the volume can easily be measured – the back cover of the volume (and the preface) mentions that David Noel Freedman is the general editor of the series in which it appears – although Freedman died back in April 2008! 

Paul is not modest in describing the features of his commentary:

What is unique about this commentary is the exegesis of the Hebrew text with its emphasis on the philological, poetic, literary, linguistic, grammatical, historical, archaeological, ideational, and theological aspects aspects of the prophecies, in which every word, phrase, clause, and verse is examined and explicated, and, in addition, aided by both inner-biblical allusions, influences, and parallels, and extrabiblical sources, primarily form Akkadian and Ugaritic literature.  The Septuagint, as well as the Isaiah scrolls from Qumran – especially the complete Isaiah scroll, IQIsa-a – are of paramount significance and are adduced when they shed light on the verses or deviate from the Masoretic text.

Quite an extravagant claim!  But based on a preliminary reading of this commentary, this seems to be exactly the case.  Paul has indeed addressed every single phrase of Deutero-Isaiah in this commentary.  It is an exhaustive accounting, and far more detailed than any commentary I have read.  Paul has produced an exceedingly close modern reading of Deutero-Isaiah, and it is coherent and convincing.  Paul does spend much time debating those who read Isaiah differently than he does – rather he simply states his own views and presents his evidence.  Thus, Paul’s commentary is more effective at addressing the primary source material than the secondary material on Isaiah.  Nonetheless, Paul’s approach of intertextuality (addressing the book from all linguistic parallels) considerably strengthens the work.  Although it is hardly its intention, in English this commentary, in particular, forms an excellent advanced lesson on Biblical Hebrew.

As an example, here is a sample passage – I chose Isaiah 45:16 because of its reference to idolatry, a topic that co-blogger Craig raised today.  Paul translates this verse as

All of them are confounded and put to shame.
To a man they slink away in disgrace,
Those who fabricate idols.

Paul first presents commentaries on the first two phrases.  Turning to the third phrase he writes:

Those who fabricate idols – The Targum (צַלְמִיָא) and many of the medieval commentators translate צירים correctly as “idols.”  This hapax legomenon is related to Akk. uṣurtu, which denotes “design” and also refers to idols (Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, vol. U-W: 292).(C.f. Heb. צורה, “design,” which appears four times in Ezek. 43:11 in connection with the Temple.  For צורה as referring to idols in Rabbinic Hebrew, see m. ‘Abod. Zar. 3:3 and the discussion in b. ‘Abod. Zar. 42b.)  Moreover, צירים in the present context is polysemous, since it can also denote “travail”; see isa. 13:8:  “They shall be seized by pains (צירים) and throes, writhe like a woman in travail.”  (Kimchi; Ibn Balaam; Ibn Ganaḥ, Shefer ha-Shorashim, 429; and Luzzatto).

I’m impressed – he manages to reference the Targum, Akkadian, the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, Radak, Ramchal, Ibn Balaam, and Ibn Janah.  It is remarkable to find a modern reference work so seriously referencing medieval grammarians.

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