Wibble Wednesday: A little bit louder and a little bit worse (Isaiah 14)

Has it really been a month? Argh. Travel, then keyboard trouble, and more travel soon enough. And Isaiah’s kind of rough sledding to say anything interesting about, which I’ll get into below.

Short snarky summary: Babylon’s doomed, and that’s good news for Israel! We already said that last chapter, but it apparently bears repeating.

Every week it gets harder to come up with any really new commentary on Isaiah. The fact is, we’ve wandered into a groove of “God’s angry at Israel, God will send oppressors, the oppressors will become prideful and will be smote for their pride, Israel will rise again,” and we just go round and round in it without much progress. There’s sometimes a dash of messianic spice, and the oppressor bounces from Assyria to Babylon, but, y’know, there’s only so many variations on this particular scheme. At the end of Chapter 13, there was a prediction that Babylon would be overthrown and ruined by God’s will. Most of this chapter is bringing out specifics of that ruin and of Israel’s redemption.

We start with the redemption aspect, in which it is predicted that the House of Jacob (a politic choice of phrase, encompassing as it does both Judah and North Israel) will rise up again, reclaiming the land of Israel, and being joined by strangers to swell their ranks as well. This passage is a little bit alarming on that front, though: the prediction of strangers coming to the ways of Israel and bringing them to their own homelands sounds almost evangelical, but their’s a dark twist of these strangers, these converts to the community, being kept by Israel as “slaves and handmaids”. I kinda liked Isaiah more when he was talking about being nice to the friendless stranger.

The triumphaism doesn’t end there, because the next several verses, which cover fairly familiar thematic ground, are put forward as a “song of scorn” over defeated Babylon. These verses are, as I said, pretty stale stuff conceptually, but bring in a few interesting metaphors and concepts. One image brought front and center is of the king of Babylon going down to Sheol (the realm of the dead; distinct realms of punishment and ease aren’t really a thing in this particular tradition yet) and commiserate with all the other once-great now-vanquished mighty ones. In their sympathy they address Babylon as “Shining One, son of Dawn”, which my gloss identifies as a lost mythical character, but one could easily enough map it (as either a forbear or a a later myth-merge) into the much, much later Christian notion of Lucifer the Morning-star.

Another interesting allusion occurs in the next stanza, where the King of Babylon’s pride is identified as an ambition to climb to the sky, to build a throne above even the seat of God. Well, placed particularly in the context of Babylon, and of overwhelming ambition struck down by God, there’s what appears to be a blindingly obvious reference to the Tower of Babel; I don’t know if it has any significance beyond the obvious thematic and geographic correspondence, though.

The rest of the song of triumph over Babylon is the usual triumphalism; blotting out their name from the world,completely obliterating the nation, and burying its king in obscurity and dishonor. For the record, I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen exactly that way: Babylon was conquered by Cyrus, but (a) it didn’t actually go away; the Babylonian people remained a politically and culturally significant force in the Achaemenid Empire long after they were swallowed up, and (b) King Nabonidus apparently survived the conquest, althouhh his son and co-regent Belshazzar did not; it’s not clear that either of them were dishonored in death (it didn’t really seem like the Persians’ style, frankly).

Near the end of this prophecy (called the “Babylon Pronouncement”, remember) the focus seems to run off the rails, because next comes a stanza where the extermination to be brought forth by God is described as a course of action “To break Assyria in My Land”. Wait, what? Assyria? Assyria and Babylon are geographically heavily overlapping empires, but completely distinct in time, culture, and ethnicity. Assyria was itself fallen before Babylon became really significant to politics as touching directly on Israel. It’s worth mentioning again, of course, that Babylon is utterly anachronistic as a concern for Isaiah at all; during Isaiah’s lifetime, the city of Babylon and the surrounding ethnically Chaldean communities were vassals of the aggressive Assyrian Empire which would shortly thereafter demolish Northern Israel and fail to conquer Judah. So for Isaiah to be talking about Asssyrians isn’t all that weird, but bringing them up in the middle of a screed about the punisshment due the Babylonians just point up how weird the original target of that screed was. Babylon was at a nadir of influence and importance at that particular point in history! The Assyrians didn’t use it as a base of operations or their own capital or anything; they basically knocked over a few buildings every time the natives got restless, which was all the time. So it’s hard to read the Babylonians and Assyrians in this chapter as one and the same group, unless you go with an incredibly anachronistic view of associating both groups with “whatever the hell was to the east of Israel”, which would include not only the Assyrians and the Babylonians but also the kingdoms of Hatti and Mittani, and the Persian Empire. So I don’t know if this Assyria/Babylon confusion is the result of inconsistent, post-Isaiah modification of just who the black-hatted imperial villain is here, or whether both sections were written at the same time with two distinct antagonists in mind, or what. Fortunately, the final stanza makes it clear we’re well and truly out of talking about the eastern, Mesopotamian foes, with a pronouncement on the death of King Ahaz.

First, a bit of a backgrounder on Ahaz. He was a Judahite king, the father of the Hezekiah whose reign Isaiah generally approved of and which saw the coming of that failed Assyrian siege. Ahaz, by way of contrast, made nice with the Assyrians, which Isaiah emphatically did not approve of. Ahaz himself dealt with a different foe, the Kingdom of Israel with an Aramite assist. Way back in Isaiah 7 we got a close-up on how Isaiah felt about all this: he disapproved of Ahaz’s irresolution and fear, he disapproved of being asked to prophecy instead of rusting to God, and he really disapproved of the alliance with the Assyrians against these foes (surprisingly, he didn’t seem to care at all about the civil-war aspect of a Judah-Israel clash). So there was little love lost between Isaiah and Ahaz, and furthermore, from Isaiah’s point of view, Ahaz’s death was the beginning of a new golden age, with Hezekiah hewing to and rediscovering the Law, and rebuffing the Assyrians to boot. Surprisingly in light of Hezekiah’s actual signiicance, the foe this stanza tells to beware is… Philistia? Hey, hopefully you remember those guys; they were the constant antagonists back in the days of Saul and David. The thing is, they’re not by any stretch of the imagination associated with either Babylon or Assyria, or with any actual foe of either Ahaz’s or Hezekiah’s, as far as I can tell. They’re off to the southwest, far from Aram, far from Babylon, and far from Assyria (they’re close to Israel, but Israel and Judah are at the center of the narrative here, so that kind of goes without saying). The Philistines were still around in Hezekiah’s day and they even get a mention as a people Hezekiah defeated (2 Kings 18:8), but what the hell are they doing here? They weren’t really much of a local power any more, which is why Hezekiah rolled over them so easily, as Aram had a few generations earlier. Why this particular Judahite triumphalism over what seems to have been a fairly minor victory, and one with no lasting effects? This actually lends some credence to the “contemporary Isaiah” theory (i.e. that one of the authors of the Book of Isaiah was actually either Isaiah or someone else around the same time), since nobody from the much later times when Babylon was significant would’ve been likely to have cared enough to put in a prophecy of a largely insignificant act of Hezeiah’s.

Anyways, next chapter we get entirely out of talking about Babylon. We move on to a different hated set of foreigners.