Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Isaiah 21: The Fall of Babylon

In the Bible, prophecy is a thankless task. Though we generally think of prophets as sweet-ass Dumbledores who can tell the future, Biblical prophets have a less flashy role to play. Most often, their job is to rain on the Israelites' parade.

Prophets are like the ref who calls back the game-winning touchdown on a holding penalty. When things seem to be going well, they step in and point out that no matter how much fun we're having, we're also breaking the rules.

Therefore, it's not surprising that prophets are chastised (almost all of them), thrown to the lions (Daniel), threatened with death (Jeremiah), hunted (Elijah), and occasionally killed (John the Baptist) just for doing their jobs.

But every once in a while, a prophet gets to deliver a message that the Israelites want to hear. Like in Isaiah 21.

From the eighth to the sixth century B.C.E., the nation of Israel is a small raft buffeted by big winds. Imperial world powers amass at its doorstep, besieging the tiny nation and occasionally lopping off pieces of the state. First the Assyrians then the Babylonians relentlessly attack Canaan, and in 586 B.C.E., the capital city of Jerusalem falls, along with the Temple of the Lord.

That year marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, a nearly five-decade span during which time the remnant of Israel is forced to live away from the Promised Land. But as time passes, rumors spread that the Babylonian empire is weak; the Persians are rising and the enemy of Israel is itself in danger.

And the author of Isaiah is eager to forecast Babylon's fall:

"Then the watcher called out:
'Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed throughout the night.
Look, there they come, riders, horsemen in pairs'.
Then he responded, 'Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods lie shadowed on the ground'.
O my threshed and winnowed one,
what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel, I announce to you" (21:8-10).

Finally, God gives the prophet news for which the people yearn. The Babylonians will be defeated, and the exile will end. And the Isaiah author tells truth. For Babylon does fall in 539 B.C.E., and by the end of the century, many Israelites will return to the land they thought they had lost forever.

Now, most contemporary scholars do not believe that this is a "true" prophecy--that it is written before 539 and actually tells the future. The chapter was likely written after the event, a celebration of the accomplished fact.

But the Isaiah author probably doesn't care; he finally gets to speak some good news.

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