Posts Tagged ‘Babylon’

It is widely recognized that the prose chapters of Isaiah 36-39 prepare the way for a quite different posture from chapter 40 forward. The days when a facile division of the long book called Isaiah into three neatly divided and generally unrelated parts have passed. Yet the reality of the book’s two very different postures, if I may repeat the word so soon, is undeniable. Chapters 1-35 represent one and chapters 40-66 the other.

Chapters 36-39 mediate the difference.

One key element that appears on the roster of items to be mediated is the movement from the period of Assyrian domination to that of the exiling Babylonian overlord. Chapters 36-39 help to negotiate that passage, not least by way of the story of the visiting Babylonian emissaries in chapter 39.

If this is not King Hezekiah’s finest moment, we can perhaps recognize in the dynamic of Babylonian flattery and Hezekiah’s naiveté the operating principles of this dark moment, insinuating as it does that Babylonians will in time have more to say that flattering words.

At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, ‘What did these men say? From where did they come to you?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.’ He said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ Hezekiah answered, They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’

Isaiah 39:1-4 (NRSV)

At the time, neither Merodach-baladan nor Babylon are imperial powers. Indeed, both are subject to Assyria, a common circumstance that the two nations likely experienced in different ways. However the text and its reader are aware that Babylon will become that suffocating empire, bent on the suppression of little Judah to whose king they now present flattering gifts upon the occasion of his recovery from illness.

Verse two captures Hezekiah’s response in terms of both sentiment and performance.

Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.

Isaiah 39:2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

NRSV veils the ostensible sentiment of Hezekiah’s welcome, perhaps correctly capturing an idiom or—less enviably—obscuring a key element of the description. The Hebrew expression—וישמח עליהם ישעיהו—reports that Hezekiah became delighted or happy because of them. It appears to this reader that the writer shines a light upon Hezekiah’s culpable penchant for flattery, a byproduct perhaps of a kind of negligent naiveté.

The king’s prophetic confidant will, of course, be unamused.


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Readers of these reflections will have observed this author’s perception that the book of Isaiah is essentially hopeful regarding the fate of nations. Although one takes pains to observe the hard edge of chastisement that generally precedes the promise of inclusion of other peoples in YHWH’s redemptive plan for Israel, hope is there to be had. Sometimes subdued, at times mixed with subjection even if it be glad or much awaited subjection, at times bursting outlandishly from denunciation into blessing, nearly always there is a note of hopeful anticipation for erstwhile adversaries of Jacob.

But not so for Babylon, at least in the book’s fourteenth chapter.

The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.  

On a bare hill raise a signal, cry aloud to them; wave the hand for them to enter the gates of the nobles.

I myself have commanded my consecrated ones, have summoned my warriors, my proudly exulting ones, to execute my anger.  

Listen, a tumult on the mountains as of a great multitude! Listen, an uproar of kingdoms, of nations gathering together! The LORD of hosts is mustering an army for battle.

They come from a distant land, from the end of the heavens, the LORD and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole earth.  

Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 

Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.

See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.

For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

I will make mortals more rare than fine gold, and humans than the gold of Ophir.

Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger.

Like a hunted gazelle, or like sheep with no one to gather them, all will turn to their own people, and all will flee to their own lands.

Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.

Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished.

See, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold.

Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children.

And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.

It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; Arabs will not pitch their tents there, shepherds will not make their flocks lie down there.

But wild animals will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance.

Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand, and its days will not be prolonged.

Isaiah 13:1-22 (NRSV)

Although the oracle oscillates between Babylon and the whole inhabited world—or humanity, generally—it never strays far from the hooks that penetrate into the flesh of historical Babylon, Judah’s oppressor.

Perhaps the point is that there exists a final and determined opposition to YHWH’s counsel that is in the end respected and allowed to be what it is. It is not difficult to understand how this dark denunciation will be taken up in Christian apocalyptic to signal not the end of an historical empire at the point of Median (Persian) swords, but rather a final destruction of all human resistance to Redemption’s purpose.

The observation does not murder hope. But it kills frothy optimism.

There is, even in this oracle of misery, a purpose beyond battle, one that assumes the low profile of expectant imperatives—Listen! … See!. Someone, it seems, will benefit after the river of blood subsides.

But, oh, the humanity!

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The forty-seventh chapter of the book called Isaiah surprises. It reads as a latter-day oracle against Babylon, something the work might have been expected to have got out of its system by the time the famous oracles against the nations are wrapping up in chapter 23.

Yet here is that venerable Schadenfreude smack in the middle of the book’s most lyrical ‘comfort’ pages, its contempt for Babylon dripping with poetic justice. It is not easy, matters would appear to suggest, to get over Babylon. She does not creep silently into our traumatized past.

An embittered oracle like this does fit comfortably in its current location in one detail: its predilection for the notion of naming and renaming. Often in this section of the book, renaming denotes a redemptive move that radically changes a character’s lot. Such new names are happy ones. They grace the redeemed and are a matter of celebration both in the soul of the renamed and in others who find its syllables delicious on their lips.

The maneuver traffics in two main discursive pieces. First, though less frequently, an actual new name (שׁם חדשׁ) is bestowed.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

Isaiah 62:1-2 (NRSV)

More frequently, the calling or naming of a collective and personified figure either reminds its members of a true, deeper identity that circumstances might have belied; or it inaugurates for those individuals and the community they comprise a new and elevated status. Typically קרא, to call, is the verb in question.

Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.

Isaiah 60:18 (NRSV)

In both cases, the outcome is to be welcomed for the naming or renaming heralds new and better days.

In chapter 47, where disgraced Babylon comes under inspection, things are very different. This conversion of a redemptive trope in support of rejoicing over a fallen enemy, occurs already in the chapter’s first verse.

Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate.

Isaiah 47:1 (NRSV)

Then again, after a clarifying note the YHWH, Israel’s Redeemer, is the author of Babylon’s fall and that this is a feature of Israel’s rescue, verse five goes at things once more.

Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.

Isaiah 47:5 (NRSV)

Verse 5, just quoted, is quickly complemented in the terms of Babylon’s own prior reflection on her status:

You said, “I shall be mistress forever,” so that you did not lay these things to heart or remember their end.

Isaiah 47:7 (NRSV)

Babylon’s tragic renaming is in fact a removal of prior appellatives rather than the application of a new one, although the context verbosely supplies descriptors of Babylon’s envisaged new status. That is, three names—Tender, Delicate, Mistress of Kingdoms—are removed and replaced with a studied namelessness.

The effect is powerful, for the context makes clear that the names that have now been stripped from Virgin Daughter Babylon were both crucial to her own self-identity and proffered by her commercial and political clients. This is no private ceremony of judgement but rather a catastrophic judgement executed in full view of Babylon’s erstwhile empire.

Babylon’s envisaged downfall is celebrated here because she stands in for all that opposes YHWH’s purpose to redeem Jacob/Israel. Among a range of candidates, Babylon has become something greater than herself. She is a loathsome symbol of all that stands in the way.

No wonder, then, that Babylon becomes in subsequent reflection a cipher for the worst of humanity’s worst, not least in the literature of a renamed Israel that sees itself in continuity with its historical and spiritual predecessor.

He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. 

(T)hey will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more.”

Revelation 18:2, 10, 21 (NRSV)

There is in the biblical literature of justice, theodicy, and eschatological trajectory something of a zero-sum game. YHWH is at his most ferocious not out of ephemeral pique or caprice, but rather when facing down unyielding resistance to his determination to redeem. The Bible’s literature is in the main not gratuitously vengeful. But yes, when it comes to this, there is some dancing on an a tyrant’s grave.

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