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A dialogic reimagining of a servant's suffering: understanding second Isaiah's servant of Yahweh as a polyphonic hero

Williams, David Wyn (2007) A dialogic reimagining of a servant's suffering: understanding second Isaiah's servant of Yahweh as a polyphonic hero. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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A definitive identification of the Servant figure of Second Isaiah is notoriously difficult, as attested by centuries of conjecture and debate. The interpretive obstacles are profuse: the Servant is addressed as Israel-Jacob, but then spoken of in terms that are not consistent with the nation's experience; in some texts he seems to represent a community, while in others he speaks as an individual; he seems to suffer extreme hardship and persecution, but then is said to experience new life; some of his experiences appear to be historical, while others are best described as idealistic. Further hampering objective interpretations are the pervasive traditional approaches among Christian and Jewish readers, which associate the Servant, equally emphatically, with Jesus or Israel.

But a primary reason the Servant is so difficult to pin down is rarely considered, and that is that there exists no objective image of the Servant anywhere in Second Isaiah. As a literary character he is constituted entirely by dialogue; that is, by discourse addressed to him, spoken by him, and spoken about him by others in the form of a confession. His actions are never described, and his person is never defined. Scholars have referred to this as his 'fluid' nature, but have lacked the methodological tools for a fuller study of this literary curiosity.

The ideas of literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin speak to this type of characterisation. His 'polyphonic hero' is a fictional character who is constituted by what is spoken to him or her, by what they overhear said concerning them, and by how they make that discourse, and the discourse of the wider world, an aspect of their own self-knowledge. They become known only by the discourse that converges on them, much as the Servant of Second Isaiah is constituted. This thesis develops a reading strategy based on Bakhtin's theory of the polyphonic hero, as well as his broader theories of dialogism. It reimagines the inner discourse of the Servant in order to comprehend him according to the dialogue by which he knows himself, and not according to conventional reading strategies that seek for a fixed, opaque image. In the process it discovers that there are not multiple Servants, which is often posited as a solution to the problem of his fluid nature, but one Servant, Israel-Jacob, whose self-knowledge as the faithful Servant of Yahweh calls empirical Israel to faith in a time of national distress. It concludes that the Servant is present in the collection of Second Isaiah as a 'voice-idea', the embodiment of a theologically critical position that calls many of Israel's theological and ideological presuppositions into question, in order to liberate her for a renewed history as a faithful 'witness' to Yahweh her redeemer.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Boorer, Suzanne
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