Book Review: Reflections of Empire in Isaiah 1-39

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Book Review: Reflections of Empire in Isaiah 1-39 by Shawn Zelig Aster
Reviewed by Yaakov Blau

Professor Shawn Zelig Aster’s work Reflections of Empire in Isaiah 1-39: Responses to Assyrian Ideology (SBL Press) is an important contribution to the world of academic Bible study. I approach the work principally in my role as a teacher of Tanakh and related subjects in an orthodox Day School. Admittedly, this may set me apart from Aster’s target audience. While this work is certainly a valuable addition to the overall scholarship on Isaiah, I am curious about its value to my work as an educator, and that is a more complex question. While reasonable minds may disagree, I believe that Day School educators should be knowledgeable in the area of academic Bible study, but ought to expose their students to that discipline with extreme caution. On the one hand, it is unhealthy to try to hide ideas and approaches from students, in the hope that they will never come across them on their own, particularly approaches that are espoused in university Bible courses. On the other hand, exposing adolescents to ideas that they are unready to adequately process, both in terms of their religious development and in terms of their overall Torah knowledge, is irresponsible.

This review considers the utility of the book from my perspective as a teacher with the aforementioned concerns. Since, as noted, I and those in my position were not the intended primary readership of this work of scholarship, my perhaps idiosyncratic evaluation of the work says more about my own pedagogic needs and professional concerns than it does about the book and its author. I presume Aster’s book will be reviewed by those more qualified to assess it from within the world of academia, and I am interested in hearing their opinions. It is important to stipulate that while Aster uses the methodology of contemporary academic Bible studies, educators who correctly believe that we ought to be cautious when exposing our students to nontraditional ideas and methods, we should feel comfortable utilizing the insights of this volume which does not seem to me to contain material which should pose a challenge.

The work argues that much of Sefer Yeshayahu is actually a response to, and rejection of, Assyrian theology and culture, and very persuasively shows how the development of Assyrian ideology and the goal of its dissemination were integral parts of the Empire’s imperialistic plans. In order to argue this, Aster meticulously lays out the historical background of the development of the Assyrian Empire and the culture that it espoused. He then argues that the dating of the sections in Isaiah that he discusses are from a time where it is reasonable to assume they were reacting to said culture. His final step is to go carefully examine the text and demonstrate that it is, in fact, formulated as a response.

To that end, I believe that Aster’s treatment of the historical background of the period is a valuable resource for educators and one that we would otherwise be hard-pressed to find explained so lucidly. The question of how to date material found in Tanakh and to what degree its composition is influenced by the culture of the ancient Near East are important issues, even if they reside on the peripheries of a typical high school Tanakh curriculum.

Let us examine some specific examples of Aster’s usage of both methodologies. While dealing with issues of dating the various parts of Isaiah, Professor Aster often concludes that all the verses in the units he discusses are from the same time period. He even rejects prevalent scholarly views, such as the assumption that the last three words of 7:17 are a later addition. However, he does so by employing the methodologies of academic biblical study, including the assumption that the book was redacted over time and that various sections of the book were written well after the time of the prophet Isaiah. The implicit acceptance of these methodologies as correct, and as the starting point of analyzing the book, is not what high school students ought to be assuming as they develop their own understanding of how to study Tanakh. That is, while Aster does not himself accept the conclusions of the scholarly methods which call into question the authorship of the biblical canon, premature or indiscriminate exposure to these methods may lead unripe students to draw false conclusions. This would be particularly damaging before they have gained greater sense of mastery over Tanakh, and would undermine their general respect for biblical study and classical parshanut.

Similarly, his underlying assumption that much of Isaiah is a response to Assyrian ideology basically assumes that what are presented as visions are not actually prophetic visions, but rather the author using the imagery of a vision to counter Assyrian tenets. For example, chapter 6 presents God on a throne as a contrast to the Assyrian idea of the Assyrian king on the throne. The Seraphim are meant to conjure up, and counter, the Assyrian Apkallū (antediluvian mythical winged creatures who transmit divine wisdom). Isaiah’s complaint that his lips are impure is developed from Assyrian and Babylonian sources that focus on the purity of the lips. As another example, Aster argues that the end of days imagery of chapter 2 is merely taking Assyrian ideals of sovereignty and replacing God for Assyria. Once again, I do not think high school students are best served believing that Tanakh was written as a response to outside influences, rather than predominantly developed internally. As well, the implicit message that what is described as prophetic visions did not actually come from God, but are just a literary device for the author to counter outside influences, is one that is not healthy for a high school students’ religious development. Again, while those students are not Aster’s audience, the insights gained are potentially useful if held within an educator’s arsenal. 

To be sure, students should know that both the issues of dating and outside influences exist, but high school is not the right time for them to be a major focus. Rather, high school students need to first have a strong sense of the traditional approaches to Tanakh. If one agrees that the most important goal of teaching is to lay the foundation for a life of Torah and mitzvot, one would do well to follow the Rambam’s dictate to first fill their bellies with “bread and meat.”

Aster’s work is very focused on arguing that every part of Isaiah, or at least the sections under analysis in this book, is a response to Assyrian culture. As Aster himself freely admits, not all of his arguments are of equal strength. I think that judiciously conveying aspects of his approach to high school students as a supplement to more traditional understandings of each section could be quite valuable and one that many students may find compelling.

Professor Aster’s work is certainly an important addition to any serious student’s understanding of Isaiah. At what level of a student’s development is such material introduced is a complicated question of timing and proportion—a question we as educators perpetually wrestle with. We are fortunate to have researchers of Aster’s quality and piety to provide scholarship such as Reflections of Empire in Isaiah 1-39 for us to mine as we labor in our educational work.

Rabbi Yaakov Blau is a rebbe in Yeshivat Frisch and is the author of Medieval Commentary in the Modern Era: The Enduring Value of Classical Parshanut. His recent TRADITION essays can be accessed in our archives.

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Shawn Zelig Aster responds: Thanks to Rabbi Yaakov Blau for his thoughtful review of my book. Indeed, undertaking academic writing means engaging with previous scholarship, even with the views of scholars whose prejudices about the origins of Biblical text prevent them from contributing meaningfully to the understanding I seek to advance.

I highly recommend that high school teachers look at the detailed lesson plans, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations, forming a full curriculum on Sefer Yeshayahu, that I’ve prepared and made available at www.teachtorah.org. Many thanks to Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary, who runs and arranges funding for this website. The curricula there present the meaningful conclusions of my research into Sefer Yeshayahu in an intellectually-serious manner, directed to the classroom Rabbi Blau describes.

As a side point, it seems that some discussion of the basic nature of prophecy is called for. As I pointed out briefly in the preface to the book, Rambam in Hilkhot De’ot, chapter 7, is an indispensable introduction to the question of what prophecy is. As he points out there, prophets other than Moshe Rabbenu do not take dictation from God, but are given general outlines of a message (“mashal”) and are then asked to explain the message in their own words, filtered through their human brains. This filtering process inevitably means that the words of prophets will be influenced by the environment in which they live (with or without subways, with or without Akkadian kings’ propaganda). To understand their words, we need to do our best to understand the environment in which they lived.

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