Isaiah & the Demise of Babylon

Contents


Introduction

The Book of Isaiah is typically divided by scholars into three sections: Proto-Isaiah or First Isaiah consists of chapters 1–39, Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah is chapters 40–55, and Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah is chapters 56–66. Proto-Isaiah is attributed to the actual Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE. Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah each come from authors in the late exilic and early post-exilic periods — just before, and sometime after, 538 BCE — respectively.

Even this is an over-simplification, though.1 For the Book of Isaiah to be comprised of three smaller books requires there to have been a process where they were appended together, and edited to have stronger cohesion than if they simply stood apart from one another. Since the whole book underwent such a process, we might wonder if it was also the case for each of three sections individually.

Many scholars think so. The presence of a history of redaction is most obvious in First Isaiah.2 Chapters 36–39 were adapted directly from 2 Kings, which was not written until the middle of the Babylonian exile. Chapters 24–27 are somewhat opaque, but they stand apart in style and themes, and internal clues suggest the prophecy originated in the late seventh or early sixth century BCE, as a response to the fall of Nineveh.

There are two other anomalous sections of First Isaiah: chapters 13–14 and 34–35. I will be looking at the first of these.

I was vaguely aware that scholars had doubts that these two sections went back to Isaiah himself, but I didn’t know any specifics. I read through Isa 13–14, made notes of what stood out to me, and then consulted some commentaries for further insight.


Isaiah 13

The Unrelenting Oppressor

Internal divisions are not clearcut in First Isaiah, but the book does have some sections which cluster around certain themes. Chapters 1–12 are largely focused on God’s judgment on Israel, along with the threat of Israel, Syria, and Assyria over Judah. Chapters 13–23 turn the focus of God’s judgment toward foreign nations, with occasional comments tying back to Israel and Judah. Chapters 24–35 contain further messages of judgment, as well as talk of restoration for Israel. (I’ve examined chapters 24–27 in another article, and came to the conclusion they did not come from Isaiah himself, but a later author.)

Isa 13.1–14.23, which kicks off that section on judgment against foreign nations, targets Babylon. If this was written by Isaiah, this would be extremely unusual. In these two chapters, Babylon is portrayed as a long-time world power finally getting its comeuppance for its ‘unrelenting’ oppression of weaker nations.

Yahweh has broken the staff of the wicked, the sceptre of rulers, that struck down the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution.

This does not resemble the political situation in Isaiah’s time, and wouldn’t for another hundred-plus years. The foreign powers most problematic for Israel and Judah in Isaiah’s day were Assyria and Egypt. Babylon is only mentioned two or three times in the Hebrew Bible’s historical narrative before Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah in 597 BCE, more than a century after Isaiah’s time. In the days of Isaiah, Babylon was not the threat that chapters 13–14 depict.

When Isa 13.1–14.23 are isolated from the surrounding chapters, other peculiarities emerge. Verses 14.1–4a break the flow of the section in half. These verses are a careful bridge between the two halves, but they seem almost like an afterthought to chapter 13. If this bridge is an insertion, then it means the two halves — 13.1–22 and 14.4b–23 — were probably written in different time periods.

Desolation of Babylon

Looking carefully at chapter 13 on its own, I found numerous parallels with exilic and post-exilic literature (when Babylon was a major world power). Of special note is the way Isa 13.21–22 describes the desolation of Babylon, such that its only inhabitants will be desert creatures.

Isaiah 13

Jeremiah 50–51

The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw. On a bare hill raise a banner [שאו נס], cry aloud to them:

The word that Yahweh spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by the prophet Jeremiah: Declare among the nations and proclaim, raise a banner [שאו נס] and proclaim, do not conceal it, say:

See, I am stirring up [מעיר] the Medes against them

Yahweh has stirred up [מעיר] the spirit of the kings of the Medes

And Babylon […] will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah [כמהפכת אלהים את סדם ואת עמרה]. It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations […] 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

Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never be inhabited again or lived in for all generations. As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah [כמהפכת אלהים את סדם ואת עמרה] and their neighbours, says Yahweh, so no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in her. […] and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, a den of jackals, an object of horror and of hissing, without inhabitant.

This is a stock threat of the prophets,3 but the form this threat takes in Isa 13 has distinct overlap with Jer 50–51, an exilic prophecy also aimed against Babylon.

The second item above is an important connection. Jer 51, like Isa 13, predicted that the Medes would conquer Babylon.

Yahweh has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of Yahweh, vengeance for his temple.
Prepare the nations for war against her, the kings of the Medes, with their governors and deputies, and every land under their dominion. The land trembles and writhes, for Yahweh’s purposes against Babylon stand, to make the land of Babylon a desolation, without inhabitant.

Here in Isa 13 we have the same thing:

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 splendour and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.

However, the historical reality was that Persia, not Media, conquered Babylon. In fact, Persia conquered Babylon several years after having already conquered the Medes. Jeremiah’s prediction only makes sense within the narrow time period between Babylon conquering Jerusalem (587 BCE) and Persia conquering the Medes (549 BCE). The ‘afterthought’ in 14.1–2 anticipates the people of Israel returning from exile into foreign lands, which of course indicates they are already in exile. These verses were written to explain the immediate relevance of the prophecy to the Judean people.4

There is the opinion that Isa 13 contains these parallels with Jer 50–51 because the latter text actually quotes from the former,5 but I don’t think there is enough evidence to warrant this. The two texts are remarkably similar in style, purpose, and language, but we have very little way of knowing the order of dependence here, if there even is one. Rather than Jeremiah borrowing from Isaiah, it could just as well be Isa 13 borrowed from Jeremiah, they both borrowed from a common source, or they were written within a collective ‘school’ of prophets that shared the same mode of thought and linguistic style.

Parallelism in the Prophecy

Because of the highly dramatic style of 13.2–16 in contrast to the more historically grounded 13.17–22, some have thought the chapter was written by several hands over many years. In this view, an earlier prophecy against a single enemy nation was progressively turned into ‘a description of an all-encompassing world judgment and final judgment’.6 However, this suggestion ‘simply does not survive close scrutiny’.7

The ‘universal’ language is intentionally dramatic, but a careful reader sees that despite this elevated language, there is still the implication of concrete history behind them. Verses 13.2–5 say that Yahweh is raising an invading army ‘from a distant land’, and verse 13.17 identifies the invaders as the Medes. Verses 13.7–16 say that Yahweh is sending the army to attack a ‘people’ who will ‘flee to their own lands’. Verse 13.19 identifies them as the people of Babylon, the people of Chaldea.8

The style used in the chapter is not one of chronological sequence, but rather a veiled, eschatological army is portrayed ushering in the day of Yahweh, which engulfs the entire world. Then v. 17 with its introductory particle, “behold” (hinnēh), pulls back the veil to reveal the solution to the mystery: It is the Medes executing the judgment on Babylon who constitute God’s phantom army.9

There is a unity across chapter 13 that reads very naturally.


Isaiah 14

Rejoicing Cedars of Lebanon

As the canonical form of Isa 13–14 plays out, we have a prophecy of Babylon’s conquest by the Medes, with a brief word on Israel’s return from exile. This is then followed by the statement that, when the exiles return home, they will taunt the king of Babylon with a song that parodies a dirge.

When Yahweh has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon

The poem in Isa 14.4b–23 has its own intertextual relationships with other prophetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, but not in the same way as Isa 13. I did notice that Isa 14 shares more verbage in common with the rest of First Isaiah.10 Yet, it was also noted that the poem completely lacks any mention of ‘Yahweh’ by name, found only in the framework of 14.3–4b and 22–23. This would be extremely unusual if it was written by Isaiah himself.11

There are far fewer parallels with any specific anti-Babylonian passages in Jeremiah or elsewhere, but I did see an increase in parallels with certain passages in Ezekiel. Specifically, places where Ezekiel had something to say about Assyria.

Isaiah 14

Ezekiel 31

The cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down.’ Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. You said in your heart […] ‘I will ascend to the tops of the clouds’

Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon […] its top among the clouds. […] I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the Pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that were well watered, were consoled in the world below.

Both texts make a connection between the enemy of Israel — Babylon’s king and Assryia, respectively — and the ‘cedars of Lebanon’. The enemy reaches, or tries to reach, the ‘tops of the clouds’. In each case, the enemy is condemned and thrown to the underworld, Sheol, where the enemy’s dead victims find consolation in their oppressor’s demise.12 Ezekiel’s prophecy is not against Assyria per se, but Egypt; the prophet instead uses the fall of Assyria in the past to give a warning to Egypt in the present.

The overlap is strong enough that some think Ezekiel owes direct literary dependence to Isaiah,13 and not the other way around since the version in Isa 14 seems to be older,14 for reasons given below. However:

The cedars of Lebanon—often the object of Assyrian plunder—are portrayed as sharing in the rejoicing.15

If Ezek 31 borrows from Isa 14, but Ezek 31 is about Assyria, why is Isa 14 nominally about Babylon?

Helel Against the Gods

The message of the poem in Isa 14 is of Babylon’s king meeting his demise, divine vengeance for his brutal abuse of power. The second half of the poem (given below) reiterates the king’s downfall, but situates it within a story of the king attempting to rise above the overworld of Heaven, only to be thrown down to the underworld of Sheol. To some scholars, the poem in Isa 14.4b–23 ‘obviously contains material that has been reworked’ from a Canaanite myth, and still retains the polytheistic worldview of this earlier material.16

How you are fallen from heaven, O Helel, son of dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of El; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit.

In different versions, the Hebrew word hêlêl is variably translated as ‘day star’, ‘morning star’, ‘shining star’, or ‘shining one’. It comes from a root verb with a wide semantic range, meaning ‘boast’, ‘commend’, ‘praise’, or ‘shine’. It doesn’t actually contain the word ‘star’ in its definition, but it is traditionally connected to the ‘morning star’ due to the additional epithet ‘son of dawn’, as well as its ancient translations in Greek (εωσφορος) and Latin (lucifer), both names for Venus. As will be shown below, this connection is warranted, but I’ve left ‘Helel’ untranslated above since it seems to function as a name.

In verse 14.13, we find the Hebrew word אל, from the family of words which mean ‘god’ or ‘gods’. English translations almost universally give the line as ‘the stars of God’. Leaving אל untranslated in this passage instead gives us El, the name of the ruling god of the Canaanite pantheon.17 While Yahweh had been conflated with El sometime in the first half of the first millennium BCE, some texts in the Hebrew Bible betray an earlier theology where Yahweh and El are distinct.

There are a handful of items in this half of the poem which show its roots in a pre-exilic polytheism. As mentioned, there is the naming of El, rather than the Hebrew word usually used for Yahweh as ‘god’, ʾĕlôhîm. El was also sometimes called ʿElyōn (most high), which is used here as well. The ‘stars of El’ likely refers to a pantheon of gods, since stars were commonly identified as divinities in Near Eastern literature, including in the Bible (e.g. Deut 4.19; Job 38.7). This interpretation is corroborated by the mention of the ‘mount of assembly’ (har-mōwʿêḏ), cognate of Ugaritic ‘group of the assembly’ (pḫr mʿd) and Akkadian ‘assembly of the gods’ (puḫur ilī).18 Finally, ‘the heights of Zaphon’ refers to a Near Eastern analogue to Mount Olympus, the mountain where the pantheon of gods assembled.

Simply, Isa 14.12–15 depict Babylon’s king as attempting to scale Mount Zaphon, to rise up over the divine assembly in heaven, above even the most high god El.

Some think Ezek 28 borrows from this same myth,19 even suggesting they are, together, evidence that ancient Israel already believed in Satan as a once-mighty, now-fallen angel. I find the connections specious. The two passages are each a rebuke of a powerful foreign king, condemning him to judgment for his sins. Yet other than the overt use of mythological symbolism and the obvious fact that both kings are prophesied to die, the two poetic prophecies share almost nothing in common.

Isa 14.4b–23 appears to derive from an astrological story.20

The most plausible reconstruction is of Helel’s challenge to the power of Elyon, who, when thwarted, was thrown down to Sheol. The myth depicts a cosmic battle between Helel and Elyon in the brilliant rise of the morning star in the heavens and its sudden dimming before the strengthening rays of the sun.21

In contrast, Ezek 28 seems to borrow from the same myth behind Gen 2–3, where a man blessed in the garden of Eden later sins and is exiled by a cherub sent from God.

The Identity of Helel

The obvious question to be asked when reading Isa 14 is, who is ‘Helel’, the ‘son of dawn’?

First Isaiah was shaped in response to the Babylonian exile. The section prophesying judgment on foreign nations begins (13.1–14.23) and ends (21.9; 23.13) with further condemnation of Babylon.22 It contains retrospective comments on the Babylonian exile (14.1–2). Isa 36–39, copied from 2 Kings, concludes First Isaiah with a prediction about the Babylonian exile, serving as the segue into Deutero-Isaiah, which is entirely about the return from that exile.

those who shaped the Isaiah scroll were deeply concerned to make sense of the memories of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon […] At the time when the Isaiah scroll was constructed, Babylon’s era of power seems to be at an end.23

Because the poem is prefaced with the declaration that ‘you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon’ — and because Babylon in Isaiah’s time was nothing like the oppressive power condemned Isa 13–14, as mentioned above — the most obvious suggestion is ‘the king of Babylon’ is an anachronistic reference to Nebuchadnezzar. He was the king responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, as well as the deportation of Judeans to a foreign land.

The most suitable candidate for the ruler intended in the introduction is Nebuchadnezzar, the typical king of Babylon.24

However, identifying the target of the prophecy as Nebuchadnezzar is problematic because his fate does not resemble the king’s as described in verses 14.18–21.

All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb; but you are cast out, away from your grave, like loathsome carrion, clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword, who go down to the stones of the Pit, like a corpse trampled underfoot. You will not be joined with them in burial, because you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people. May the descendants of evildoers nevermore be named! Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their father. Let them never rise to possess the earth or cover the face of the world with cities.

Here, the king is exhumed from his burial (‘cast out, away from your grave’) or simply left unburied (‘you will not be joined with them in burial’),25 and his dynasty is overthrown. However, Nebuchadnezzar received a peaceful burial, and his son Amel-Marduk succeeded him.26

The shift in style in prose in 14.3–4a over to poetry, then back to prose in 14.22–23, indicates redaction has taken place.27 These verses were added to the start and end of the poem to reorient it against Babylon. The other clues we’ve seen in the text point to the poem coming from an earlier era, before Babylonian rule.

The interpretation of the political context of the Isaiah passage is debated as well, yet despite some problems (see Olyan 2006), evidence indicates that the allegedly “Babylonian” king whose downfall Isaiah 14 describes was, originally, no king of Babylon at all, but rather the Assyrian ruler Sargon II (Ginsberg 1968; Frahm 1999).28

We saw before the parallels between this taunt and Ezek 31. The latter text names Assyria as the object of derision, and because of the parallels some scholars think Ezek 31 is dependent on Isa 14. This may suggest the exilic Ezekiel made use of an earlier, pre-exilic version of Isa 14 which was originally aimed against Assyria, which was redacted into its current anti-Babylonian form in the post-exilic period. There are also the previously noted linguistic similarities between this poem and First Isaiah, as well as the overt polytheism more at home in the pre-exilic world.

A rather convincing case can be made that this taunt song was originally directed against a hated Assyrian king.29

Between Isaiah’s time (circa 740–700 BCE) and the fall of Assryia (612 BCE) there were ten Assyrian kings. The first two, Isaiah’s immediate contemporaries, are mentioned favorably in the Bible, making them doubtful candidates for the taunted king’s identity.30 One scholar suggests the poem is taunting all Assyrian kings as an ‘archetypal cruel and arrogant ruler’,31 but this seems doubtful to me, since it means generalizing some rather specific elements of the poem’s predictions.

While some insist the poem really was written during the Babylonian period and was aimed against Nebuchadnezzar or one of his successors,32 most scholars identify the poem’s target with Sargon II.33

Sargon was the third king of Assyria during Isaiah’s time. He antagonized Judah and nearly conquered Jerusalem, qualifying him (from a Judean’s perspective) as an ‘oppressor’ who ‘ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting oppression’. And, as the king suffering in 14.19–20 indicates, Sargon did not receive a proper burial.34

Isaiah 14:19 reports that the king in question had been “cast out, away from [his] grave, like loathsome carrion, clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword.” Whereas this description is quite compatible with what we know about the sad end of Sargon, who had died on the battlefield and whose body had not been recovered, no such tradition is attached to a king of Babylon.35

The use of an astrological myth to criticize an Assyrian king is also fitting, since Assyrian kings employed astrological symbolism to identify themselves as ‘the rising sun’, indicating ‘their status as "living images" of the sun-god’.36 Isa 14.4b–21 turns this common image on its head: Sargon imagined himself rising like the sun, but he was instead thrown down for his hubris, humiliated without burial.


Conclusion

Let’s summarize our findings on Isa 13.1–14.21. The passage in question appears to be made from several layers of redaction.

The earliest layer would be Isa 14.4b–21. This was an anti-Assyrian poem, adapted from an astrological Canaanite myth, and still contains a polytheistic worldview of El ruling the council of gods atop Mount Zaphon. The poem was definitely written before the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, but probably comes from the time of Sargon II. This would make the poem contemporary with the historical Isaiah, though we can’t say for certain if it comes from him specifically.

Later, sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE but before the conquest of the Medes by the Persians in 549 BCE, the prophecy in Isa 13.1–22 was written. The author believed, as Jer 50–51 also did, that Babylon would be conquered by the Medes in retaliation for Babylon conquering Jerusalem.

At some point during the Babylonian exile, or shortly after it, verses 14.3–4b and 22–23 were added to the first layer. This changed the poem from one against Assyria into a condemnation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Later still, verses 14.1–2 were appended to 13.1–22, probably with the intention of bridging chapter 13 to chapter 14. This would have happened around the same time other anti-Babylonian redactions were made throughout Isaiah 1–35. As the exile came to a close, First Isaiah had taken the shape we are now familiar with.


Footnotes

1 A. Joseph Everson, ‘Serving Notice on Babylon: The Canonical Function of Isaiah 13–14’, Word and World 19.2, 133.

2 Ibid., 133.

3 Ibid., 135.

4 Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 13–27, 33.

5 Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13–39: A Commentary, 10.

6 Wildberger, 13.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 123.

10 Wildberger, 53; Percy van Keulen, ‘On the Identity of the Anonymous Ruler in Isaiah 14:4b–21’, Isaiah in Context: Studies in Honour of Arie Van Der Kooij on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, 116.

11 Wildberger, 54.

12 Van Keulen, 113.

13 Ibid., 114.

14 Wildberger, 55.

15 Childs, 126.

16 Wildberger, 55.

17 Wildberger argues that אל should be understood as ‘God’ in reference to ‘Yahweh’ from Isa 14.5 (45), but he also admits ‘Yahweh’ is probably from a redactive layer (43).

18 Ibid., 45.

19 Ibid., 55.

20 Eckart Frahm, Rising Suns and Falling Stars: Assyrian Kings and the Cosmos, 110–111.

21 Childs, 126.

22 Van Keulen, 117.

23 Everson, 138–139.

24 Van Keulen, 117.

25 Matthijs J. de Jong, Isaiah Among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets: A Comparative Study of the Earliest Stages of the Isaiah Tradition and the Neo-Assyrian Prophecies, 141–142; Van Keulen, 111–112.

26 Van Keulen, 117.

27 Ibid., 116.

28 Frahm, 111.

29 Childs, 123.

30 Van Keulen, 118.

31 Ibid., 121–122.

32 De Jong, 142.

33 Van Keulen, 109; de Jong, 141; Childs, 127.

34 Stephen Cook, Ezekiel 38–48: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 83.

35 Frahm, 111.

36 Ibid., 112.

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