Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 47 10-15

We’ve started on a new set of lessons, this time with the unifying theme of “new creation.”[*] This week, however, begins with destruction – the destruction of Babylon, the prelude to the redemption and restoration of Israel from exile, as described in second Isaiah. The text this week is Isaiah 47:10-15. [Some discussion questions are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The long book of Isaiah is a work of prophecy. It incorporates several different genres, including some narrative, and a lot of poetry. Our text this week is poetry. It fits the paradigm of prophetic speech as speech in the name of God that presents itself as coming directly from God. [See Foucault’s analysis of prophetic speech as one of the four “modalities of truth-telling”.]

We’re in the portion of the book scholars think of as “second Isaiah,” Isaiah 40-55. [Although it’s more complicated than that.] So, we think: addressed to the Judahite exiles in Babylonia, shortly before Babylonia’s defeat by the Persians and the opportunity to return to Judah in 538 BCE. The larger message of the section is comfort and restoration for God’s people.

Not much comfort for the Babylonians, however. All of chapter 47, our focus, is an announcement to Babylon of its imminent destruction. Babylon is personified as a female character, “virgin daughter Babylon,” and the imagery of the coming disaster is graphic and gendered (vv1-3).

The reason for the destruction seems to be Babylon’s disregard for the suffering of Israel, and the Babylonians’ [arrogant or heedless] obliviousness to their own vulnerability to disaster. Verse 4 – which might seem out of place, but this is the text we have – reads like a rhubarb from the Judahites on the sidelines. Or else, compare Psalm 137.

The context of the speech in vv10-15 really seems to need its beginning in v8, with God’s [the speaker’s, we assume] renewed “now hear this,” the identification of the disaster about to befall Babylon as the loss of her children and her “widowhood,” and the invocation of the theme of sorcery as a source of false security.

No part of Isaiah 47 appears in the Revised Common Lectionary for reading in church, making it one of those things you won’t know is in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees take note.

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CLOSER READING: Verse 10 repeats the self-talk of daughter Babylon (v1), what she says “in her heart.” The wickedness or evil in which she feels secure probably means, here, the sorceries and enchantments named in verse 9. These are referred to again in v10, and are labeled as wisdom and knowledge. That’s ironic, since they are not true knowledge. “Knowledge” – or, rather, its absence, what Babylon does not know – will be repeated again (v11) and again (v13 – the “knowers” of stars etc.).

The verb in v10 translated as “led astray” or “warped” is familiar; in other contexts we sometimes translate it as “repent.” Most simply, “turn.” So Babylon’s turning is not the good kind. Babylon has been turned by this practice of magic, really in a way turned in upon herself.

Verse 11 emphasizes the inadequacy of Babylon’s knowing or charming, and of prediction. This evil (repeated word from v10) that will come upon Babylon is different from the evil in v10. You don’t know it when you see its rising star; you don’t have the power to avert it; you don’t know this. The word translated “ruin” is shoah – these days, an alternative to “Holocaust” to refer to the murder of European Jews by the Nazis.

V12 is a sarcastic encouragement to “go ahead, stand in your enchantments and sorceries,” maybe they will help …

Your enchantments and sorceries which you have worked so long and hard to learn (v12, v15).

When v13 says “you are wearied with your many consultations” – again, it seems to be a reference to the inordinate time and work Babylon has invested in learning all this magic.

It’s all for nothing. The purveyors of magic knowledge will burn up like straw or stubble (v14). Not in a nice, gentle, warming or illuminating fire. They will be useless – they won’t be able to save themselves, and will stagger off, leaving Babylon with no one to save her.

Maybe of interest … the word translated “before” [NRSV], with the image of standing “before” the firelight, is the same word that shows up in Genesis 2:18. There, it seems to have posed a terrible problem for translation, historically. Here, it seems pretty obvious. Context is everything.

So – this speech amounts to prophecy vs. prognostication, revelation vs. divination. The prophet asserts the truth of a disaster – at this point, we gather, yet to come – that cannot be discerned or predicted or envisioned by the dominant mode of knowledge that operates in Babylon.

This might not only be a word of caution for magicians and astrologers. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Whether Horatio, or we, are Babylonians, or Elizabethans, or post-moderns.

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[*] Actually, we’ve decided to go on hiatus for the summer. This is something we’ve done before. This time, however, as we are actively working out the kinks of what the new job/call is going to mean for my participation in this class, it feels a little different. I have said that I would keep on reading the texts and making notes, though; mainly because I love it, and besides, after all this time, I can’t imagine not doing it.

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Goddess Ishtar
(not actually “daughter Babylon”)

Images: Valentin Bousch, The Prophet Isaiah, 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.; Goddess Ishtar, Evelyn Paul, Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Studying Isaiah 47 10-15”

  1. Excellent exegesis as always. It’s really too bad that the lectionary compilers didn’t find space for this chapter because this chapter will preach. Thank you for another enlightening explication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Steve! [It just goes to show that we sometimes need to color outside the lines of the lectionary! Which is, let’s face it, more of a helpful suggestion than it is holy writ, anyway, at least for us Presbyterians.]

      Liked by 1 person

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