Word Order Variation in Isaiah 40–55: A Functional Perspective Studia Semitica Neerlandica

Written by Michael Rosenbaum Reviewed By John Goldingay

This Brandeis dissertation (written after the author had also studied at Fuller Seminary, I am proud to say) applies some insights from linguistics to Isaiah 40–55. I can only claim expertise in Isaiah, not in linguistics and can therefore only express a judgement on whether the linguistics are illuminating, not whether they are true. The answer to that first question is certainly they are.

While the study of Hebrew grammar and syntax is an age-old enterprise, in another sense it is quite a young discipline. Dr Rosenbaum begins by noting that specific aspects of it are quite neglected in the standard works. One is the significance of word order. In English, at one level ‘she went home’ and ‘home she went’ have the same meaning, but they have different connotations. On the other hand, sometimes word order is determined by practical considerations; for instance, we may hold a complicated phrase for the end of a sentence, not to emphasize it but to aid clarity by giving as much possible information early on about where the sentence is going.

In large part Dr Rosenbaum’s study is concerned to nuance that statement, to categorize the various kinds of significance which may attach when the standard word order is varied, and to categorize the basis on which there appear other elements in a sentence other than mere verbs, subjects, and objects. You see, that last clause was an example of holding back the subject because it was complicated, in the hope of helping the reader follow the sentence.

In English as in Hebrew, we sometimes give words unexpected positions in a sentence in order to signal closure (as in ‘home she went’), and Dr Rosenbaum notes many usages of such kinds in Isaiah 40–55. In studying these chapters I have often looked for explanations such as emphasis when words occur in unexpected positions, but I now see that I was often on the wrong track, and I am having to rewrite some footnotes. The subject may precede the verb simply because the subject changes (for instance) and the variant word order is a way of helping the reader. Sometimes close attention to word order and other aspects of poetics, especially the working of parallelism, directly aids exegesis and points to unsatisfactory understanding represented in English translations.

For example, I became convinced that 40:15 means ‘Even the nations are accounted like a drop from a bucket, like dust on scales’; the first colon is not an independent noun clause, as English translations assume. On the other hand, I was not convinced about the abolition of other noun clauses which turned (e.g.) 48:17b–18 into ‘I, Yahweh, your god, who teachers you for your benefit, who leads you to the path which you should walk—if only you had paid attention to the path which commands …’. I find it hard to imagine an audience familiar with noun clauses hearing the words thus.

Word order is a way of helping an audience, rather than silent readers, if (as I believe) even Second Isaiah expected to be heard rather than read. Dr Rosenbaum rightly emphasizes the need to recognize that the syntax of verse is different from that of prose, as it is in English. Might one also need to allow for the difference between verse designed to be read and verse designed to be heard, or did everything belong to the latter category?

I enjoyed this pioneering book, though it is of course hard work if you do not have a grounding in linguistics and, of course, it requires a knowledge of Hebrew.

John Goldingay

Fuller Theological Seminary