Isaiah 42:1–4 in Its Rhetorical Context -- By: Gene R. Smillie

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 162:645 (Jan 2005)
Article: Isaiah 42:1–4 in Its Rhetorical Context
Author: Gene R. Smillie


Isaiah 42:1–4 in Its Rhetorical Context

Gene R. Smillie

Gene R. Smillie is a theological education consultant with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Wheaton, Illinois.

Both traditional historical-critical methods of exegesis and more recent rhetorical methods emphasize the importance of hearing the biblical text as closely as possible to the way it was originally heard in order to understand what the author was saying. To preserve the original rhetorical effect of the text of Isaiah, one must read forward, and not backwards, following the direction of the author’s rhetoric, at his selected pace, and not read back into the text something Isaiah had not yet identified.

This article proposes that a major factor driving Isaiah 40–55 is the author’s artistic ability to delay full explanation till later. He intentionally suspended full revelation of his external referent in the Servant songs and salvation oracles. He deliberately heightened the suspense by only gradually revealing more and more about that person (or persons), sharpening the focus by increments, so that the one on whom salvation depends comes into view little by little.

It is disconcerting, therefore, to read a commentator like Gitay, in what purportedly is a rhetorical analysis of Isaiah 41–42, referring seventeen times to “Cyrus” (whom he proposes as the referent of “the Servant” in those chapters), when Isaiah himself did not mention Cyrus by name until the end of chapter 44.1 He ignores devices such as the interrogative מִי (“who?”), which Isaiah used sixty-three times to arouse curiosity or pose rhetorical questions. Gitay identifies with confidence referents that Isaiah himself apparently preferred to leave open. But to break Isaiah’s carefully created suspense with such “give-aways” is like sneaking into the family closet and opening all the Christmas presents two weeks

before the holiday. Moreover, apart from aesthetic considerations there is the possibility that such guesses may be wrong.2 Interpreters who do this sort of thing often blunder over nuances that the author has subtly crafted in order to prolong ambiguity for his own rhetorical purposes.

New Testament-oriented students of the Old Testament bring to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures certain theological dispositions and preunderstandings that color and perhaps ultimately determine ...

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