Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).


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