A Covenant with Death

Death in the Iron Age II and Its Rhetorical Uses in Proto-Isaiah

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Christopher B. Hays
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     465 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A Covenant with Death: Death in the Iron Age II and Its Rhetorical Uses in Proto-Isaiah is the revised dissertation of Christopher B. Hays, originally published by Mohr Siebeck in 2011 as Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah. This new edition, while similar to its predecessor in terms of its aim and overall theses, has been restructured and strengthened through additional use of secondary resources, newly available critical editions of texts, and a forward by Matthew Suriano. 

The volume’s introduction, labeled as “chapter 0,” serves as an overview of Hays’s goals and his methodological considerations in dealing with the large number of primary texts employed. His thesis is concisely stated, and thankfully not obscured by the kind of unnecessary tangential discussions one might expect to see in a newly published dissertation. Death appears to have been a central principle of cultural formation in the ancient world: Hays sees the treatment of and discussion concerning death in Isaiah 1-39 to be unique in comparison to the rest of that book, as well as to other biblical texts. By examining Isaiah 1-39 in comparison to proximally dated texts from other ancient Near Eastern corpora, Hays analyzes the manner in which the author of the text was able to isolate rhetoric concerning the afterlife from the cultural koine of the region, and either employ or subvert it in his own writings. 

The first chapter discusses death in the context of the two major ancient Mesopotamian civilizations—Babylon and Assyria—during the Iron Age II. Though it would have been possible for Hays to focus exclusively on the Sargonid kings and the Neo-Assyrian dynasty for the purpose of comparison with the material from Isaiah 1-39, it is helpful that he occasionally situates Mesopotamian beliefs and rituals in their pre-Iron Age II context. While the Sargonids receive the majority of the attention within this chapter, there are frequent references to texts and rituals dating from Ur III to the Kassite period. Hays succinctly and tactfully manages to broach issues such as the imposition of Assyrian religion on vassal states (a question popularized by Mordechai Cogan in his doctoral dissertation Imperialism and Religion [Society of Biblical Literature, 1974]), as well as the ramifications of Assyrian-Judean contact on the dating of the Deuteronomistic History, without letting such nebulous matters become the sole focus of the discussion. Furthermore, the attention given to the various members of the Mesopotamian demonological pantheon and their role in the treatment of death is a welcome addition to the current literature on the topic.

Chapter 2 shifts the focus to death in Egypt during the Iron Age II period. Steeped in primary material, this section sheds light on the potential connections between the biblical text and texts of the Egyptian empire, which have received comparatively little attention in comparison to the Mesopotamian empires to the east. Despite frequent references to Egypt throughout the biblical text, particularly in the prophetic material, comparative work examining Egypt and the Levant is rare within the field. Hays’s contribution helps rectify this, and ultimately suggests a connection between the references to death in Isaiah 1-39 andthe rise of mortuary religion in the 25th and 26th dynasties of Egypt.

Chapter 3 goes on to discuss death in Syria-Palestine outside of Israel and Judah. As several different territories are included under this umbrella, this is understandably the most disjointed chapter of the work. Texts and ideas originating from Phoenicia, Hatti, and the various Syro-Palestinian Bronze Age empires, such as Ebla and Mari, receive attention. The majority of the chapter is dedicated to the crossover between Ugarit and the marziḥu ritual with the Mesopotamian kispu. Hays’s discussion of the clash between the minimalist/maximalist positions concerning a cult of the dead among the Ugaritological community is the highlight of the chapter. 

Chapter 4 moves to a discussion of death in the Hebrew Bible. For those reading A Covenant with Death with little exposure to the history of biblical scholarship, the section reviewing recent academic literature serves as an excellent primer to the topic of death in the biblical text within the field. Hays engages with copious texts concerning Neo-Assyrian prophets and the process by which literary tropes from this literature might have disseminated to the biblical prophetic literature. My one criticism of this section is that while there is a section dedicated to archaeology and its impact on the historicity of the biblical text, there is room for expansion concerning the treatment of familial tombs and what they might tell us, both about Judean burial and the manner in which the audience might have received references to death in Isaiah 1-39. 

In chapter 5 Hays directly discusses death in Isaiah 1-39. He isolates various references to death in Isaiah, and employing the texts of the various Near Eastern cultures covered in the first half of the work, compares them in an effort to understand the background for the biblical material. Hays’s assertion that Isaiah’s references to death and the dead were likely part of a large renewal in interest in death in the ancient Near East at the time is certainly convincing. Furthermore, the notion that the author of Isaiah 1-39 was not only familiar with the traditions of surrounding cultures, but was also able to employ them and when necessary reframe them for his own purposes, appears probable based on the evidence discussed in the first half of the study.

The aim of A Covenant with Death is ambitious, as it deals with a large number of texts from independent, frequently uncommunicative fields. The greatest worry with a study such as this is that the author will not do appropriate justice to the literature of academic subjects outside of their own field. However, at no point does one feel as though Hays is grabbing at the writings of other disciplines in order to substantiate his thesis. Though Hays works through a mountain of primary evidence and draws connections between the cultures via comparison when similarities arise, he is consistently careful not to argue for direct causal relationships. This work is beneficial for anyone studying death in the ancient Near East.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raleigh C. Heth is a graduate student in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher B. Hays is D. Wilson Moore Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East.



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