Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Isaiah's Daughter, by Mesu Andrews

Mesu Andrews.  Isaiah’s Daughter.  Waterbrook, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Isaiah’s Daughter is biblical fiction that is set in the time of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah.  Ishma and Yaira are refugees from the invasion of Judah by Northern Israel and Syria in the eighth century B.C.E. (II Kings 16-17; Isaiah 7).  Ishma is adopted by the prophet Isaiah.  She is friends with Prince Hezekiah, with whom she attends school, which Isaiah teaches.  Ishma and Hezekiah eventually marry, and her name is changed to Hephzibah, or Zibah, for short.  The book goes from Ahaz’s idolatrous, cruel reign, through key events of Hezekiah’s reign (i.e., his fight against the Philistines, the Passover celebration, the Assyrians’ attempted invasion of Jerusalem, and Hezekiah’s sickness), to the birth of Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh.  It does not include the Babylonians’ visit of Jerusalem.

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A.  Naturally, I compared this book with Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series, which covers the same time period.  There were similarities between the two works: a child sacrifice scene, and Hephzibah’s discouragement at not being able to give birth.  Some similarities may be due to the authors’ common insights into biblical history or what biblical passages say: Lachish is depicted as rather idolatrous in both works, and both works depict Isaiah applying promises to Zion to Hephzibah personally, which is not too surprising, considering that Hephzinah’s name appears in Isaiah 62:4.  But there were also clear differences between the two works.  Hezekiah’s mother Abijah is a righteous martyr in Austin’s work, whereas she is a conniving queen and queen-mother in Andrews’ narration.  Shebna is an atheist in Austin’s series, but merely a self-serving know-it-all in Andrews’ book.

B.  In terms of which telling is better, both have their advantages.  Austin did better in laying out the characters’ motivations.  Andrews, however, had a more sophisticated, deeper writing-style.  That made the book rather slow for the first half, but the book came alive in the second half.

C.  Both tellings highlight the complexity of biblical interpretation, albeit in different ways.  Austin’s work concerned interpretation of the Torah and the different conclusions that this could yield.  Andrews, by contrast, focused more on the prophecies of Isaiah.

D.  Austin’s work tended to assume a Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecies, treating them as about the far off future and in reference to Jesus Christ.  Andrews, by contrast, seemed more sensitive to historical-critical interpretations, which interpret the Book of Isaiah in light of its own historical contexts.  The characters wonder if Isaiah’s prophecies relate to their own day, and, while their eventual conclusion is that several of them relate to the future, they still maintain that they may have at least a partial application to their own time.  Hezekiah wonders continually if he is the anointed Davidic king who will preside over eschatological peace and prosperity.  And, drawing from an article by Margaret Barker, Andrews contends that Hezekiah’s sickness, on some level, fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53 about the servant suffering for people’s sins.  Like a number of conservatives, Andrews apparently treats the prophet Isaiah as the author of Isaiah 53, whereas many scholars would associate that section with an exilic or post-exilic author.  Still, her sensitivity towards interpreting Isaiah in reference to the time of Hezekiah is intriguing and refreshing.

E.  There were some hints of Christianity in the book, some more warranted than others.  Andrews interprets Isaiah 7:14 as a virgin birth, and, in attempting to discern if the prophecy is being fulfilled in their own time, characters wonder if a specific character is a virgin.  This is somewhat warranted, as conservative scholars have argued that “virgin” is a possible meaning of the Hebrew word “almah,” as they are distinguished from queens and concubines in Song of Solomon 6:8.  At the same time, the word may simply mean young woman, as “alam” means “young man” in I Samuel 17:56 and 20:22.  In another passage in the book, there is a statement that offering a lamb can atone for sins.  The stress on the sacrificial victim being a lamb is obviously Christian, since Christians believe that Jesus was the lamb of God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, however, a variety of domesticated animals are offered for sins.

F.  In Austin’s work, Hezekiah and Isaiah largely seemed to be on the same page: both are pious men, seeking to do God’s will.  By contrast, Andrews emphasizes the clash between Isaiah and Hezekiah.  Hezekiah is practical and seeks an alliance with Egypt, which Isaiah lambastes, and even walks naked through town to protest.  Hezekiah tries to build a water tunnel to help Jerusalem in times of siege, but Isaiah deems that to display a lack of trust in God (see Isaiah 22:11), as well as a violation of the sanctity of Gihon (which Andrews seems to base on Nathan’s anointing of Solomon there in I Kings 1).  Andrews even presents Hezekiah and Isaiah clashing in ways that the Bible does not: when Hezekiah allows Levites to sacrifice and Israelites to eat the Passover without being purified (II Chronicles 29-30), Isaiah is outraged, seeing that as a violation of the Torah; Isaiah acknowledges that this is his opinion, though, not a word from God, as his other prophecies were.  Although Isaiah and Hezekiah make peace eventually, the tensions between their two positions are never fully resolved.  Hezekiah rejects Egypt’s gifts of scarabs, seeing them as idolatrous, yet Egypt still helps Judah when the Assyrians invade.  Hezekiah proceeds to build the tunnel.  When Isaiah instructs Hezekiah to put a lump of figs on his boil (Isaiah 38:21) to recover, Hezekiah wryly asks if Isaiah is telling him to help God out, rather than trusting God completely, as Isaiah usually exhorts Hezekiah to do.  The tension between practicality and trusting God remains unresolved in this book.

G.  Hephzibah was not always easy to understand.  She could sympathetically and empathetically comprehend why women would want to worship Asherah, yet she was practically a religious zealot in expunging Asherah worship from the harem.  Still, the book was somewhat believable in depicting her religious journey: she gained strength as she reflected on Isaiah’s words in a season of solitude.

H.  One scene was particularly intriguing.  Biblical scholar Brian Beckham argues that a biblical author in Isaiah 37 criticizes Isaiah’s prophecies by placing Isaiah’s words in the mouth of the taunting Rabshakeh.  Andrews actually attempts to do something with this idea: Hezekiah suspects that Isaiah has communicated with the Assyrians.  By the way, that was in character for Hezekiah, as far as this book is concerned.  Although one might expect Hezekiah to have more faith in his former teacher, Hezekiah could get rather suspicious and paranoid in this book.

I.  Andrews, to her credit, acknowledged nuance among pagan views, rather than lumping them all together.  She narrates, for instance, that the Assyrians were not too keen on human sacrifice.

J.  On page 373, we read: “When one of God’s prophecies doesn’t come to pass, it’s not because He failed; it’s because we misunderstood it.”  How would that be reconciled with Deuteronomy 18:22, which states that a prophet is false if his words fail to come to pass?  If one can explain away non-fulfillment, does that not undermine Deuteronomy 18:22, in some manner?

I am giving this book five stars, because it was engaging.  I appreciated its sensitivity towards historical-criticism and the differences between Hezekiah and Isaiah.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books.  My review is honest.

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