Prophecy and Ethics Isaiah and the Ethical Tradition of Israel

Written by E. Davies Reviewed By Pete Diamond

The present book is based upon the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Cambridge (1978). As such it is primarily aimed at the academic community and presupposes a knowledge of Hebrew and general awareness of the aims and methods of contemporary Old Testament research. The book is well written and its argument clear, so that the enterprising person without technical training would have little difficulty assimilating the basic thrust of the book.

The central concern of the author is to elucidate the ethical background or tradition which influenced the prophet Isaiah’s preaching. More specifically, the problem is raised of what influence, if any, did traditional themes and motifs of Israel’s religion and faith have upon the prophet’s message, particularly where Isaiah addressed issues of morality (p. 9). Four areas of possible influence are investigated: covenant/vassal-treaty backgrounds; Israel’s legal statutes; wisdom-circles; and the teachings of Isaiah’s contemporary, Amos (p. 10). The author pursues this question of tradition by, first, providing an excellent and very useful survey of past research, not only as it has interpreted Israel’s prophets and their relationship to tradition in general, but also as it has specifically viewed the influence upon Isaiah of the four categories of tradition mentioned above. Then, second, the majority of the book is taken up with the detailed exegesis of the texts which the author identifies as central to the problem at hand (Is. 1:2–3; 3:13–15; 5:8–10; 10:1–4; 1:21–26).

Mr Davies’ handling of the passages is careful and thorough. An abundance of information is provided, not only about potential Near Eastern backgrounds, but also concerted attention is given to describing the socio-economic conditions of Israelite society alluded to in the texts in conjunction with the legal and political institutions charged with the regulation and protection of the society. In contrast to much previous research which has largely reached a positive conclusion about the influence of the above traditional elements upon Isaiah, Davies concludes in the negative. He discounts very strongly any dependence on Amos or the wisdom traditions. Here his arguments are most persuasive. In addition, he denies any substantial contacts between Isaiah and covenant-treaty terminology and literary forms. Nor does he think the prophet appeals to any specific stipulations of the law in his indictment of the social/moral problems. It is more probable in the author’s view that Isaiah is to be understood as drawing from Israel’s ‘total culture’ which had as a common basis for all its traditions a faith in Yahweh who required his people to pursue compassion, humility, honesty and integrity. So, rather than drawing on any one intellectual stream, Davies sees Isaiah exhorting and warning the people ‘in an ad hoc fashion in relation to the specific situations with which he was confronted’ (p. 119).

For students interested in a basic introduction to the issues involved in producing a tradition-history analysis of the prophets, this is not the book for them. It would be better to start with the excellent introductory guide Prophecy and Tradition by R. E. Clements which provides a general survey and an analysis of the subject. In a sense, Davies’ study represents the application to and elaboration of certain criticisms and positions advocated in R. E. Clements’ book. Besides the excellent bibliography in E. W. Davies, Clements also provides a select reading list.

As one attempts to evaluate Davies’ views, a number of suggestions may be offered for consideration. The selection of key passages was limited to those generally accepted as authentic. The author functions within the broadly held critical positions regarding the authorship and literary growth of the book. For the person whose view of the critical issues differs significantly from the author’s, there may be additional passages in Isaiah relevant to his thesis which have been incorrectly excluded. Though he does appear to have isolated the most important passages, it would have been helpful if the author had provided a listing of all potentially relevant passages, even within the material generally accepted as authentic, and then offered an explanation of why he ultimately selected only five. For example, if 2:5, 6 are considered as authentic, the meaning of walking in the ‘light of the Lord’ would seem a significant datum to be considered, especially in the preceding context of vv. 2–4 with its legal imagery. Again, if the authenticity of passages like 24:5, and 33:8 were accepted, their references to violation of ‘covenant’ and ‘law/instruction’ would need to be taken into consideration. Texts like these would materially affect the author’s thesis that Isaiah did not directly appeal to covenant and law.

The dependence of the eighth-century prophets on ideas of covenant/Near Eastern treaty and their possible use of a covenant lawsuit literary form is a complex issue and requires a consideration of wide-ranging materials. Davies’ treatment confronts this issue as it touches Isaiah 1:2–3 and 3:13–15. Some of his arguments here are unsatisfying. For example, he isolates 1:2–3 from the rest of chapter 1 which appears to have its individual units structured very purposefully. The accumulation of idioms in these verses which have possible covenant/treaty parallels and the context of chapter 1 suggests a higher probability for those who want to see a ‘lawsuit’ in the chapter. Davies’ counter arguments addressed to each possible parallel begin to lose some of their force as one considers the high frequency of their occurrence within the immediate context. It is also not clear that he has sufficiently discounted the influence of ‘trial-courtroom’ imagery in these texts (cf.B. Gemser, ‘The RIB—Or Controversy Pattern in Hebrew Mentality’, SpVT 3 (1955), pp. 120–137).

The author’s thesis that Isaiah’s preaching drew more from Israel’s ‘total culture’ than any one specific tradition seems generally sound. Most significant here are the author’s attempts to show the social limitations within Israel’s legal system and thus why the prophet did not appeal to specific laws to address social, moral problems. Though his deprecation of the legal system might be a little exaggerated, he has illustrated well how Israel’s statutes could be perverted to serve the evil ends of various groups in society and thus the pointlessness of the prophet appealing to them. But pointlessness for guaranteeing justice is one thing and usefulness for illustrating the nature of God’s indictment, another. In addition, such an explanation for the relative lack of references to covenant and law in eighth-century prophecy, rather than as an indication of the late date (seventh-century and later) for their emergence to prominence in Israel, provides help in the consideration of this problem.

Finally, for those interested in possible biblical contributions to contemporary social ethics, Marxist-Christian dialogues, or the evaluation of Liberation theologies, such a basic exegetical study as Davies’ book is crucial as one seeks to put modern questions before Israel’s prophets. Davies’ study provides much help for appreciating how Isaiah saw and attempted to address the problems of ethics in his society.

Pete Diamond

Research student at Cambridge University