Isaiah 47 paints a specific portrait of Babylon’s evil-doing: indifference to human suffering, cruelty, arrogance – we might even say, a kind of “exceptionalism” – and reliance on “sorceries and enchantments.” The emphasis on sorceries and enchantments, in particular, takes over in Isaiah 47:10-15, our text for Sunday, June 5. [Pentecost, by the way!] A couple of central questions for us, then, are probably: do we understand what makes this evil-doing so evil? And, do we ourselves ever behave that way?
If we do ever behave that way ourselves, this prophetic text probably ought to work on us as a call to repentance and reformation. But we’d have to see what we’re doing first, presumably. So, arguably, the central thing for us is to examine this picture of Babylon’s behavior carefully for “contact points” with our own world.
Some notes on the text are here. Here are a couple more questions we might want to think about, or discuss:
One thing we could do is comb through the text for the specific “charges”: what are the things “daughter Babylon” does, or does not do, that are named in the text? What makes these problems? How do we know that, or how can we tell that? [The fact that they are named in a speech that is accusing Babylon of “evils” is one big clue … but we might want to list all the ways that the assumptions or presuppositions of this prophetic text clash with the assumptions or presuppositions that seem to lie behind Babylon’s behavior or thinking.]
In particular, we might want to think about what “sorceries and enchantments” are about, and how the practice of sorceries and enchantments constitute evil, from the perspective of this prophetic text. What is the problem with these, do we think? Why do we think that? [Something said in the text? Or, from elsewhere? Where?]
The text seems to make a lot of Babylon’s life-long study of sorceries, enchantments, “consultations,” and so on. Why do we think that is? What effect does that part of the text have on us – on our thoughts or feelings about Babylon? Why, do we think?
If we read the whole chapter, we will likely get a clearer impression of the personification of “daughter Babylon.” What effect does that personification, and the description of the “evils that will come upon” Babylon, have on us? Thoughts? Feelings? Why?
[More speculative, maybe, or more theological … but fairly serious, I think] Are there thoughts or feelings we are “supposed to” have about Babylon? According to the text? What are those? What makes us say that?
How are those “prescribed” or “encouraged” thoughts and feelings related to the charges the text brings against Babylon? If Babylon is an example, what is that example supposed to teach us, do we think? Does that teaching apply to what we think and feel about Babylon here? How?
Overall, it occurs to me, this text poses us modern readers with a couple of difficult problems.
One problem is that “sorceries and enchantments” seem a long way from anything we engage in ourselves, most likely. On the other hand, we might want to remember that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that magic and technology share some deep similarities. [My go-to discussion of this is here. Of course it’s by Alan Jacobs.]
Another problem is that the predictable effect of personification in the text is to humanize “her.” The text asks us to visualize Babylon as a woman – really, specifically, as a young woman, and also, really specifically as a young arrogant woman who is being threatened with a come-down that includes sexual humiliation at a minimum and maybe worse (see verse 3), and with devastating personal loss (see verse 9). [Let’s not get too hung up on how virgin daughter Babylon can have a husband and children; I’m guessing we’re supposed to just go with that.] Being human, we will likely have some human response to that image.
Moreover, the text gives voice BOTH to the sense of satisfaction in vengeance exacted (see verse 4) AND to the evil-ness of not caring about what people suffer (see verse 6). AND the text gives us this young arrogant woman’s back story (see verses 10-15), letting us see how she might have gotten to be the way she is. [So much like people in general get to be the way they are for … reasons, having to do with their stories.]
So where does that very complex laying out of the situation leave us readers? What are we supposed to think and feel at that point about what lies in store for “virgin daughter Babylon”? Because it seems to me we are being given a choice by the text. And we ought to take care to make the right one. Because we are the choices we make. (See verse 10.)
Images: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well,” John Linnell, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “Goddess Ishtar,” from Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1916, Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons