Wibble Wednesday: Hanging Gardens (Isaiah 13)

Man, this week’s chapter is kinda rough sledding. But I’ll try to figure it out, because that’s the whole point of this exercise.

Short snarky summary: Bad apocalyptic shit is coming down from on high. Medes and Babylonians are involved, somehow.

Chapter 13 is the first of several prophecies which are identified with a geographic region. This one is the “Babylon” prophecy, which is somewhat topical seeing as how, in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was ascendant in world affairs to the extent that, generations after the historical figure of that name died (assuming, as all available texts suggest, that Isaiah prophecied roughly in the time of King Hezekiah), they would actually conquer Judah. Now, this is all a bit anachronistic here, because any significant interactions between Babylon and Judah were still decades, maybe even a century, past Isaiah, but assuming the Book of Isaiah was heavily massaged by future authors, Babylon is a sensible thing to have Isaiah be talking about.

The verses of this chapter are more than a little cryptic and weirdly lacking in referents. The first several verses describe the mustering of an army: raising standards on a hill and beckoning forth “purified guests”, “[God’s] stalwarts”, and “proudly exultant ones”. I basically have no idea who these entities are. Babylonians, called forth to raze a sinful Judah? The Persians, who eventually gobbled up a decadent and weak Babylon? Angels, taking who-knows-what part? The heroic language tends towards the third interpretation—why would Isaiah praise the gentiles in such terms?—but the text is rather focused on a clash of terrestrial nations, so it’s hard to know what to make of it. My translation glosses the notion that the “purified guests” is a reference to a metaphorical feast, after the ritual slaughter of a massacre (of Judahites? of Babylonians? of someone else?). That interpretation somewhat raises more questions than it answers, to my mind.

From verse 4 onwards the murk lifts, somewhat. God is assembling together “nations” who “come from a distant land”. So by this point we’re unambiguously talking about ordinary terrestrial war-hosts. The Persians/Achaemenids are a good fit for this description, because they are indeed a culturally and geographically dispersed group which came together for a purpose relevant to Babylon (specifically: conquering it). They’re described as “the weapons of [God’s] wrath”,b ut that’s the same kind of language used about the Assyrians in Chapter 10, and it’s an established principle that Isaiah regards the nations of the world as tools in the big game of Populous that God’s playing.

After these two stanzas of describing the prologue to war, there is an interpolation with a completely different tone which is either a metaphorical description of war or an apocalypse which crept randomly into a story of national conflict. The first stanza works OK for either war or total destruction: it describes how people will quail in terror at the coming of all this wrath. There’s a lot of language of illness used here: fear producing feverish shivering, spasms like those of pregnancy, and faces flushed with fear and anxiety. But all in all this is, although colorful, a straightforward enough description of how people might react to the coming of a strong and dangerous foe.

But from verse 9 onwards we veer out of the realm of the mundane and into a strangely apocalyptic vision. The earth will be laid waste, the sun and moon and stars blotted out. This is much more “End Times” than “Change of the Guard”, as it were, and it honestly feels like an interpolation from a completely different prophecy. Verse 11 backs away from this a bit, discussing less the celestial and universal issues as the wasting of the entire earth and cosmos, and returning to a much more comfortable theme, the affliction of the comfortable. The usual villains make a showing: the haughty, the tyrannical, the arrogant, the undifferentiated evil. It’s implied that nearly everyone belongs to one of these groups, for after God destroys them all, “people will be scarcer than fine gold”.
So, all in all, we’re given a strong vision of cataclysm, but, it must be said, a cataclysm which seesaws crazily between the ordinary and the supernatural. The next stanza starts with a vow to shake heaven, which sure seems supernatural, but the events described sound like a much more commonplace sort of destruction: men fleeing in terror, seeking fo safety, and when they don’t move fast enough they’re killed, their babies dismembered, their wives raped, and so forth. Commonplace atrocities of war, really (at least by Bronze/Iron Age standards).

These stanzas (verses 6 to 16) feel kind of like a different story really, because before we got into the widespread wrath and destruction, we had a notion of nations rising up to destroy one people (either the Judahites or the Babylonians, it’s still not clear). In verse 17 we return to a local political context, because God specifically promises to raise up the Medes, “who do not value silver or delight in gold”, and are thus pitiless and implacable. Some of that is definitely propaganda, but the Medes were a significant group in the Mesopotamian power struggles of the time. They were instrumental in toppling the Assyrians (so the people persecuted above might even be the Assyrians, really), formed an uneasy peace with Babylon, and were then along with Babylon swallowed by the Persian Empire. So the presence of the Medes here certainly suggests that the people being persecuted in this chapter might actually be Assyrians, notwithstanding the name of the prophecy. Certainly the Medes were never really in much of a position to do much to Israel or Judah (at any given time, either Assyria or Babylon was in between), and the occasional hostilities between Media and Babylon never flared into the apocalyptic fury described here, so Assyria’s really the only possible victim here, which seems wrong somehow, but it’s the only way the geography makes sense.

But then…. isn’t this the “Babylon prophecy”? Shouldn’t it say something about Babylon? It finally does, in its final stanza, and it only makes things more confusing right when I thought I knew when and where we were talking about here. See, apparently Babylon, “glory of kingdoms”, is to be conqueredby God, made a complete desolation. Oops. See, this means that the aggressors are the Persians, and I guess Media was part of the Achaemenid Empire before it overthrew Babylon? Sure. We;ll go with that. But this is all massively anachronistic: in Isaiah’s day, Babylon was a tribute city, under the firm control of Assyria; it wasn’t an Assyrian city and couldn’t serve as a metonym for Assyria itself, but from any reasonable point of view at the time had already fallen, between its time as a significant Sumerian city-state and before its rebirth at the center of a new Babylonian Empire. So this whole chapter feels like an unfortunate stew of anachronism and tonal clashes. Not sure what to make of it, as a whole.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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