Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah

Yehezkel Kaufmann.  The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah.  New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1970.

Yehezkel Kaufmann was a Jewish biblical scholar.  He argued against the influential German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen.  Wellhausen proposed that the priestly laws of the Torah reflected a later stage of Jewish religious thought, whereas the earlier stages were freer and prophetic.  Many have suggested that such a claim coincided with anti-Judaism, in that it seemed to depict the rituals of the Torah as a later degeneration from a once lively religion.  Kaufmann contended, however, that the priestly rituals were pre-exilic and came before prophecy.  Another model against which Kaufmann was contending held that ancient Israelite religion was polytheistic and later became monotheistic.  My understanding is that Kaufmann, by contrast, regarded monotheism as a long-standing feature of ancient Israelite religion.  Kaufmann downplayed foreign influence on ancient Israelite religion by arguing that the ancient Israelites misunderstood paganism and thus must not have been influenced too heavily by it: they held that the pagans worshiped the idols themselves, for example, when actually the pagans regarded the idol as a home for or a symbol of the deity.  Kaufmann acknowledges that ancient Israelites and Jews participated in pagan customs, but he says that they did so on an individual level, that they still believed that they were committed to their national god YHWH, and that their understanding of paganism was limited.

A lot of these Kaufmannian beliefs show up in The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah, which is volume IV of his series History of the Religion of IsraelThe Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah focuses on Isaiah 40-66, which Kaufmann believes was written when Jews were in exile in Babylon.  Kaufmann says in this book that priestly laws came before prophecy, and that the Jews in exile misunderstood pagan religion.  Not only did they equate the gods with the idols, but Deutero-Isaiah also implies that YHWH is unique in that YHWH claims to predict the future, while the gods of other nations did not.  According to Kaufmann, this was a gross misunderstanding of Babylonian religion, which thought that its gods could predict the future.  Kaufmann largely depicts the Jewish exiles as faithful Yahwists: other people-groups in exile took their gods with them, but they also worshiped the gods of the country to which they were exiled; the Jewish exiles, by contrast, worshiped YHWH alone.

Kaufmann challenges a variety of scholarly beliefs and arguments.  Against the scholarly claim that the ancients thought that the god of the conquering country was more powerful than the god of the conquered, Kaufmann astutely notes that the conquering countries often thought that the conquered countries’ gods were helping them conquer, and that conquered people still worshiped their gods and carried them with them into exile.

Many scholars believe that Isaiah 40-55 is Second Isaiah and was written in exile, whereas Isaiah 56-66 is Third Isaiah and reflects the disappointments and struggles of Israel’s post-exilic period.  Kaufmann, by contrast, believes that all of Isaiah 40-66 is Second Isaiah and is exilic.  He attributes the desire to split up Second Isaiah to a Christian attempt to preserve Second Isaiah from Jewish laws (such as the Sabbath), which appear in Third Isaiah, since there are Christian scholars who characterize Second Isaiah as wonderfully free from that sort of material.  Kaufmann argues that Isaiah 56-66 does not overlap with what Ezra and Nehemiah depict as post-exilic realities (i.e., conflict with Samaritans), and that it depicts Zion as still desolate.  When “Third Isaiah” depicts the Israelites as engaging in animal sacrifices—-the sort that occur at the Temple—-while also doing pagan rituals, Kaufmann contends that these Israelites are not actually doing these things, but Second Isaiah is saying they are the types of people who would do these things.  I was open to Kaufmann’s argument that “Third Isaiah” was really part of Second Isaiah and was exilic, but sometimes his argument was a stretch.  Plus, I was confused, for Kaufmann did seem to argue that Isaiah 56-66 reflected some sort of disappointment (i.e., Second Isaiah liked that Cyrus conquered Babylon, but did not appreciate Cyrus going on to consolidate his empire).  I think that seeing Isaiah 56-66 as post-exilic makes sense of that disappointment, but I am unclear as to how Kaufmann’s model does.

Kaufmann also interacts with various interpretations of the Servant Songs, which Christians have historically applied to Jesus.  Who was the Suffering Servant whose stripes made people whole?  Was he Israel, who through the suffering of exile would challenge Gentile idolatry, hopefully making the Gentiles spiritually whole?  Was he a righteous community within Israel, promoting a program of restoration and return from exile that much of Israel resisted?  Was he a Davidic king who died, and whom people thought would rise from the dead, as the god Tammuz did in Babylonian cults?  Was he seen as the Israelite version of the Babylonian king, who was humiliated in rituals designed to expiate the country’s sins?  Was he the prophet Second Isaiah himself?  Was he regarded as the Messiah?

Kaufmann presents cogent arguments against many of these suggestions, as well as the belief that Isaiah 53 depicts a sort of vicarious suffering in which a righteous person suffers and dies for the sins of others, thereby bringing atonement.  Ultimately, Kaufmann settles on the idea that the Servant was Israel—-that the righteous within Israel were suffering undeservedly for sins they did not commit, and that influenced God to have mercy on the nation of Israel as a whole.  Through God’s work on Israel’s behalf (and not through Jewish proselytizing), Gentiles would accept Israel’s God as God, or so says Second Isaiah, as Kaufmann conceptualizes his message.

Kaufmann’s work is informative and thought-provoking.  His interaction with alternative points-of-view and scenarios were sometimes impressive, and sometimes incomplete.  The book also had interesting tidbits of information, such as how rabbinic Judaism believed in vicarious suffering, whereas biblical thought did not (except, according to Kaufmann, in the cases of animal sacrifices and the Passover lamb, which died in place of the worshiper).

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