Reading Isaiah

Title of Work:

Reading Isaiah: Poetry and Vision

Author of Work:

Peter D. Quinn-Miscall


Pastor Steve Bauer

Page Number:


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Reading Isaiah Resized CoverOne has to admire the transparency with which Quinn-Miscall begins his book. He openly admits that his book is not an in-depth commentary (4). Instead, his focus is to provide a “new way of reading Isaiah” (4). This new way seeks to reveal “the richness, intricacy, and complexity of Isaiah” (4). He explores the “variety of poetic devices, themes, and imagery” within the book (4). He sets forth that Isaiah must be taken as a whole and not divided up into two or more parts. He also concludes that the book was written about a “fifth or even fourth century B.C.E. date” (4). Quinn-Miscall highlights the literary features that he will be emphasizing throughout the rest of the book: simile, metaphor, apostrophe, personification, synecdoche, and narrative/speeches.

The book is divided into five chapters, four of which are labelled with questions: 1) What is the Book of Isaiah? 2) What does Isaiah think? 3) What does Isaiah imagine?  4) Who speaks and who acts in Isaiah?  5) The Lord’s Holy Mountain. He makes it clear from the outset, “I want to guide my readers in a way of reading this grand poem and vision and leave it to them to develop their own theological and spiritual conclusions and applications” (5). He asks more questions than he answers, and that seems to be his intent.

There is some difficulty in evaluating this book. One reason is that Quin-Miscall seems to go out of his way to avoid any category into which one might put his book. It’s not exegetical, though it does contain evidence of exegesis. It’s not narrative and literary, but does contain narrative elements. It’s not a theological treatise, but does contain theological assertions. In this evaluation I will proceed in two ways. First, I will evaluate him by the criteria he sets up in his book. Second, I will evaluate him by the unintended categories he sets up for himself.

There are basically two categories Quinn-Miscall establishes in his book:

  1. Contrasts
  2. Figures of speech

In the first category he is largely successful. In a dizzying array of diversity he abundantly shows the complex and contrasting nature of the book of Isaiah. In the second category he is largely unsuccessful. He introduces the literary features on page 13: simile, metaphor, apostrophe, personification, and synecdoche. But these get only a passing reference throughout the rest of the book. He gives examples of most of these. But he doesn’t give the importance of these examples. Or, to word it differently, he tells us the “what” with these examples, but he doesn’t tell us the “so what” with them.

His unintended categories are also worth noting. While Quinn-Miscall seeks to extricate himself from any sort of critique or judgement by stating that he is not trying to make any waves in the areas of translation and theology, he does make assertions in both areas. And when he does this as a professor in a school of theology, these assertions deserve scrutiny. I will limit my critique to the following two areas: translation and theology

Quinn-Miscall’s translations of some key passages in Isaiah are linguistically possible. Yet, they are exegetically and contextually not probable. One example is his translation of Isaiah 34:14, “Demons meet with phantoms, and a hairy beast calls to his friend. Indeed, there Lilith [a female demon] reposes and finds rest for herself.” He takes “desert dwellers” (צִיִּים֙) to mean “demons.” This is also how the LXX takes this difficult passage (“καὶ συναντήσουσι δαιμόνια ὀνοκενταύροις” LXX). The real issue, though, is Lilith (לִּילִ֔ית). The word here is a hapax. And taking it as a female demon is going beyond Isaiah and into legend. The explanation from New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis is probably the best: “It is likely that לִילִית‎ was an actual desert animal, a bat or owl, who was animistically endowed with demonic qualities by superstitious pagan worshipers. Isaiah’s reference, however, does not make ‏לִילִית‎ the object of worship. Rather, the term is used to symbolize the forthcoming desolation of judgment” (NIDOTTE, 2:788).

Quinn-Miscall’s translation is improbable for Isaiah 34:14. But his translation (and the theology it brings) for another passage (Isaiah 45:7) is untenable. He translates the verse, “I make peace and I create evil.” Then he writes, “‘I create evil “ is a shocking statement that is usually softened in translations…’ “ (93) We might argue that all the translations except Quinn-Miscall and the KJV accurately reflect the use of the word in context. The word, “רָ֑ע” doesn’t always carry with it moral implications. This might be one of his examples, which he intentionally leaves hanging so that we make our own theological conclusions. That being said, his reasoning is unsettling.

There are other examples of Quinn-Miscall’s tendency to go in his own direction theologically; I’ll conclude with one example from Isaiah 53. Concerning the Great Servant Song, he writes, “[It] has received large amounts of attention over the years, not so the Song of the Woman in Chapter 54. This certainly reflects, in part, the fact that most commentators have been men with a decided male focus. I want to join efforts to counter this heavy male focus” (195). This is an unproved assertion. Not only this, but it is an ad hominem unproved assertion.

What then is the Great Servant Song speaking about in Isaiah 53:1-6? This is his assessment: “Because of the references to this Isaianic text in the Gospels, a longstanding Christian interpretation of Isaiah puts this poem in a christological context, reads the servant as Christ, and sees this as a process of vicarious suffering and atonement. That is, that through his [the servant’s] own unmerited suffering he enabled others to escape the divine punishment that they deserved. In Isaiah people are punished and suffer for their own iniquity. A large portion of Isaiah’s vision declares that the iniquity has been forgiven and that the time of desolation is over or soon to be over. In Isaiah and in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, there is no hint that God will accept the suffering of the innocent and righteous in place of the punishment of the guilty and wicked. People may well suffer unjustly or excessively—Jerusalem ‘has received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins’ (40:2)—but not in place of the deserved punishment of others.” (198)

There is a brutal irony in his words here. Lilith can be taken from mythology and put in his translation (33). Even a Canaanite “version of creation” can be set alongside the Genesis account with equal veracity. But in the discussion of the meaning of Isaiah 53:1-6 he allows no room for the New Testament to speak. Even if what he claims about the rest of Isaiah were true (i.e. “there is no hint that God will accept the suffering of the innocent in place of the punishment of the guilty”), that would not eliminate the reality of what Isaiah 53 actually says.

Quinn-Miscall is successful in his goal of showing us the contrasts in Isaiah’s words. His perspective, which seeks to read Isaiah as a unit, is a welcome addition to studies of this book. He is unsuccessful, however, in his other goals of showing us the beauty and literary value of Isaiah’s poetry. When we add to this the translation excesses and theological uncertainties, it is difficult to recommend this book to either pastors or parishioners.

Peter D. Quinn-Miscall is an adjunct faculty member at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and the Aquinas Institute of St. Louis.