Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 62’

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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