Volume 44 - Issue 2

The Beauty of Holiness: Re-Reading Isaiah in the Light of the Psalms

by Joseph Blenkinsopp

I think three groups of people will gravitate toward this book: those who love the books of Isaiah, those who love the Psalms, and those familiar with the name Joseph Blenkinsopp. This volume is a historical-critical and intertextuality scholarship of Isaiah and Psalms at its best. Blenkinsopp works through these books intertextually, identifying a plethora of common traditions and themes between them. He argues that a guild of temple singers composed and perpetuated these traditions over a long period of time, leaving vestiges of liturgical and prophetic elements in the pages of these books.

The ingenious contribution of this work, in my view, is how Blenkinsopp reimagines a common prophetic and liturgical source that gave rise to intertextual doublets in Isaiah and the Psalms. These doublets, or parallels, as Blenkinsopp argues, are connected by terminologies and language characteristic of temple musicians and prophets. The parallels identified are said to be unique—they are either entirely absent in the Hebrew Bible or given a twist in Isaiah and Psalms. For instance, the term “Torah” in these two books is less connected to Moses or associated with the imposition of law as seen elsewhere. Instead, this Torah has prophetic connotations, and proceeds from Zion rather than Sinai. It is also a Torah for all peoples and not merely for the nation of Israel (p. 6).

Blenkinsopp’s volume can be broadly structured into three sections. First, Blenkinsopp discusses the origins and developments of the liturgical psalms on the basis of the Psalter, the books of Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah. He argues that the authorship of these liturgical compositions can be traced to temple musician guilds based on the eponyms seen in the superscriptions (or in his preferred term, “rubrics”) of Asaphite, Korahite and Ezrahite psalms. Subsequently, temple guilds of Heman, Asaph, and Ethan/Jeduthun perpetuated the use of these songs from the time of David through to Josiah. Blenkinsopp suggests that Ethan and Heman probably had Edomite origins but were later indigenized into the Levitical guilds by the Chronicler (pp. 22–23). Importantly, Blenkinsopp also points out that musicians such as David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun had prophetic ministries. They were given prophetic gifts alongside their instrumentation abilities (2 Sam 23:1–7; 1 Chr 25:1–8). On the other hand, cult prophets were involved in temple worship (Amos 7:10–17; Jer 7:1–2). In other words, psalmody and prophecy had a more intimate connection than usually supposed.

Second, Blenkinsopp works through the three sections of the book of Isaiah (1–39, 40–55, 56–66), uncovering substantial psalmic material in Isaiah. They occur as “psalm entire, embryonic, or fragmentary,” manifesting “terminology, themes, and religious orientation” found in the Psalter (pp. 37, 50–51). For instance, Blenkinsopp notes that the concept of God’s holiness in the Trisagion, Isaiah 6:1–7, is likely dependent or even composed by the guilds that produced Psalm 22, where “God is holy and enthroned on the praises of Israel,” or Psalm 99, where the “Enthroned One is proclaimed holy three times” (p. 38). Third, Blenkinsopp reserves four chapters for the furtherance of four themes that are common and significant in Isaiah and the Psalms: traditions and eschatological perspectives surrounding Zion (ch. 7); language relating to the righteous and the wicked as two segregated groups (ch. 8); a specific community called the “servants of YHWH” (ch. 9); and an apparent repudiation of sacrifice (ch. 10).

Blenkinsopp’s erudition is obvious; yet more than this, his understanding of the text reimagined from the life in the temple guilds has shown us what the ministers at the temple “aimed to achieve in their participation in the temple liturgy”—the beauty of holiness (p. 148). This idea is inspiring! Likewise, all who meditate on and sing of God’s glory in Isaiah and the Psalms today will revel in the beauty of God’s holiness as the original musicians did. As such, Blenkinsopp’s study has evoked something of the heart from these texts that had always resound through the ages.

Now most, if not all, of the connections identified between Isaiah and the Psalms by Blenkinsopp are said to be dependent on the Psalms (pp. 50, 52, 70–74, 81–82, 158–159, 161). I am surprised that Blenkinsopp has invariably assumed a single direction of dependence, almost without qualification, even though the dating of individual psalms is notoriously difficult. In other words, Blenkinsopp is not interested in the final editing or editors of the psalms. He is, rather, focused on the presumed early authors of the psalms. Hence, it must be said that while Blenkinsopp finds a convincing number of connections between Isaiah and the Psalms, he makes little comparisons of the final theological contours and messages of both books. His comparisons of the themes of Torah and Zion in Isaiah and the Psalms are masterly and accurate, but his quiescence on kingship is especially odd, since it is a considerably important theme in both texts.

This volume is less accessible than it initially looked. Blenkinsopp writes in long sentences and his proposals require readers to be somewhat familiar with the dating and historical agendas in the compositions of Isaiah, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and the Psalms. Many of Blenkinsopp’s sources are German, steeped in higher critical scholarship, and dated from between the early to mid-twentieth century. Several are even dated to the nineteenth century. Though the title of the book, its length, and readable format may entice many readers, I think those who will best appreciate this volume are students working at the interface between biblical history and the text. Nevertheless, Blenkinsopp is an important name in the field, and for those who can appreciate his work, how great is that appreciation!

Peter C. W. Ho

Peter C. W. Ho
University of Gloucestershire
Cheltenham, England, UK

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