ETHICAL DIMENSION OF CULT IN THE BOOK OF ISAIAH. By Bohdan Hrobon. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2010. xiv + 256 pages. Hardcover. $135.00.

Reviewed by Reed Lessing, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, MO.

This is a revision of Hrobon’s Oxford dissertation done under the supervision of Hugh G.M. Williamson. In it, he critiques the widely held view that OT prophecy centers on internal aspects of religion, while the priestly focus is on faith’s external and formal aspects. On page 216 Hrobon provides a metaphor that neatly sums up his argument, suggesting that ethics and cult are two sides of the same coin. The ethics side of the coin gives it value, being engraved with “justice and righteousness.” The cult gives the coin validity because its side reads “belonging to Yahweh.” This coin is unable to purchase salvation; Yahweh saves for his own sake. The people, however, can obtain a cherished commodity for it—communion with Yahweh that comes through loving their neighbor.

In Part 1, Hrobon explains the priestly teachings regarding sacrifice, purity, holiness, and the Promised Land, taking on the Wellhausian hypothesis by pointing out its methodological flaws and erroneous presuppositions. In doing so, he suggests that priestly texts are intimately connected with ethics. Yahweh’s presence is central to the cult and this is determined, to a large degree, on Israel’s ethics that, in turn, impact the land, the city and the sanctuary.

In Part II, Hrobon offers a thorough analysis of Isaiah 1:10–17, 43:22–28 and 58:1–14. He painstakingly details literary genre, historical background, structure, and text-critical issues. Along the way he engages other parts of Isaiah. H. concludes each textual study with his own translation.

Hrobon anchors Isaiah 1:10-17 in the time of Ahaz, and thus maintains that the prophet’s critique comes because of the king’s spiritual bankruptcy. Israel’s worship was not the problem; the people in charge of the worship services were the problem. Isaiah does not turn against the cultus but against those leading it.

The study on Isaiah 43:22–28 demonstrates that neither the cult nor the faithful execution of an ethical life saved Israel. The nation exists only because of Yahweh’s resolve to keep forgiving. Hrobon concludes, “This important exilic lesson about the limitations of cult and ethics with regard to salvation is consistent with the Priestly teaching” (150).

Hrobon’s interpretation of Isaiah 58 convincingly argues, among other things, that verses 13–14 with their emphasis on the Sabbath are, far from an awkward redactional layer, the actual climax and conclusion of the chapter. To make this point, he argues that the ethical implications of the Sabbath day overlap with the Sabbath year. And the Sabbath year, for its part, includes motifs connected to the Year of Jubilee. The Sabbath day, then, functions as a “little jubilee,” a weekly celebration of the principles expressed in the Sabbath year and Jubilee release.

Both chapters 58 and 59 need to be interpreted together because they answer the question, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” (Is 58:3a). The problem does not lie with Yahweh (Is 59:1), nor in his eagerness to save (Is 59:15b–20). The obstacle is the people’s transgression and sin; more specifically, it is their lack of justice and righteousness (Is 58:2; 59:4, 9, 14) that issues forth from selfish desires (Is 58:3b, 13) as demonstrated by their mistreatment of the marginalized in the community (Is 58:3b–4; 6-7; 9b–10a). God will not come near when there is a perversion of justice and righteousness (Is 59:9, 14). The people’s voice will “not be heard on high” (Is 58:4b).

Isaiah’s critiques against Israel’s worship life could appear to be a total about-face from the Mosaic commands and ordinances. But when Hrobon’s Isaiah texts are put together, we see that worship ceremonies are the means while justice and righteousness are the ends. The prophet was against outward sacrifice that did not entail the inward sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart that leads to a ready willingness to address our neighbors’ needs. Isaiah was no more against sacrifices than he was against psalms and songs. It is only when the sacrificial system and ceremonial laws became a substitute for morality that he inveighs so heavily against them.

As convincing as he is, in the end Hrobon tends to overstate the similarities between priests and prophets. In doing so tends to flatten their unique contributions to Israel’s testimony. Moreover, when discussing prophetic rhetoric he writes, “The negative treatment of cult and rituals in the Prophets is not to be understood as the repudiation, but as a rhetorical feature that forces the audience to focus on the importance of their ethical behaviour” (10). I wonder why, then, Hrobon does not discuss the rhetorical idea known as “dialectical negation” which holds that some texts are best understood as examples of “both/and” thinking rather than “either/or” propositions.

But these are only a few minor points of disagreement. This is a very fine engagement of an issue that has divided the guild for some time. Those looking for a rationale to read sections of Isaiah as sympathetic toward the cult will be greatly rewarded by this book.







  1. Bohdan Hrobon Avatar
    Bohdan Hrobon

    Dear Prof. Lessing,
    Thank you for your kind review. This is just a short comment to your objection about not discussing “dialectical negation” in my book. I do mention and discuss it when appropriate (e.g. pp. 21 or 195). However, the main point of my study is that this and similar qualifications do not do justice to the majority of the so called cult-critical texts in the OT. My general objections are listed on pp. 10-11, a section from which you cite the description of this approach and mistakenly present it as my opinion. My exegeses hoped to show how inaccurate and foreign the “both/and” thinking is to the selected texts in Isaiah. That is why the title of my book is not “Ethics and Cult …”, but “Ethical Dimension of Cult …”.
    With the best regards,
    Bohdan Hrobon

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