Book Write-Up: Darkness Visible, by Karlo V. Bordjadze

Karlo V. Bordjadze.  Darkness Visible: A Study of Isaiah 14:3-23 as Christian Scripture.  Eugene: Pickwick, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Karlo V. Bordjadze has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Durham University and teaches at Ashland Theological Seminary.  This book is part of the Princeton Theological Monograph series.

Isaiah 14:3-23 prophesies the fall of the oppressive king of Babylon, at which the nations will rejoice.  The fallen king does not receive an honorable burial.  Of particular interest in the history of biblical interpretation is Isaiah 14:12-15.  This passage describes the fall of a being called Helel ben Shachar, translated in the KJV as “Lucifer, son of the morning,” after he attempted to become like the Most High.  Many Christians have interpreted this passage to be a description of the fall of the angel Lucifer, as he became the evil Satan.

The book pursues a variety of tasks.  It engages in a highly-technical analysis of the language used in Isaiah 14:3-23, warning beforehand that readers may wish to skip that section and get to the meat of the book, if they are so inclined.  The book then proceeds to mention and evaluate options for the reference points of Isaiah 14:3-23.  What king of Babylon, or Assyria (which controlled Babylon at some point), is discussed in Isaiah 14:3-23?  What possible mythological sources are there for Helel ben Shachar, a supernatural being who overreaches in an attempt to overthrow or become like a high God?  Bordjadze discusses ancient Near Eastern options and also Greek options that some claim may have influenced the ancient Near East.  Bordjadze finds many of the proposals for the identity of the king and the sources for Helel to be wanting.

The book talks about the approaches of Origen and John Calvin to Isaiah 14:3-23.  Origen applied the passage to the fall of Satan, as that myth came to supplant the sons of God sleeping with human women (Genesis 6) as the explanation for the origin of evil.  Bordjadze states that the latter story declined in influence in the third century C.E. because many Christians did not accept I Enoch, which contains the story, as Scripture.  According to Bordjadze, part of Origen’s agenda in interpreting Isaiah 14:12-15 as he did was to respond to those who claimed that matter was evil, that God created the devil, or that people lacked free will.  Origen asserted that God did not create the devil but created Lucifer, an angel, who sinned through free will; the same choice is available to all people, Origen exhorted.  Tertullian and Augustine also interpreted Isaiah 14:12-15 in reference to the fall of Satan.

John Calvin, however, interpreted Isaiah 14:3-23 in reference to the king of Babylon, rejecting the idea that it related to Satan.  For Calvin, the king of Babylon sought to exalt himself above God by attacking the Jerusalem Temple, and he is a paradigm of all enemies of the church, who will fall.

Bordjadze then describes and evaluates the perspectives of Walter Brueggemann and Christopher Seitz.  Both employ different methodological approaches, as Brueggemann draws from Paul Ricoeur and Seitz follows the canonical criticism of his mentor, Brevard Childs.  Still, both prioritize the view that Isaiah 14:3-23 concerns the king of Babylon, affirming that its message is that God is sovereign against the ambitions of human tyrants.

Bordjadze places Isaiah 14:3-23 in dialogue with the New Testament’s interpretation of the passage.  Jesus in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15 apply the passage to the city of Capernaum, which rejected Jesus’ message, averring that it will meet the end of the pagan king of Isaiah 14.  Bordjadze briefly engages Luke 10:18, in which Jesus states that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  Bordjadze also contrasts the king of Babylon with Jesus Christ, as the former selfishly sought to be like God in power, while the latter selflessly relinquished power for the benefit of others.

Bordjadze then discusses how Isaiah 14:3-23 influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the fall of Morgoth.

The assets of this book are many.  My description above highlights key points, but these key points emerged within the context of fuller discussions.  Bordjadze, for example, extensively detailed the methodologies of Bruegemann and Seitz, as well as the motivations of Tolkien in crafting the story that he did.

The book is especially informative in surveying scholarly interpretations of Isaiah 14:3-23, specifically the attempts to identify the king and the mythological source for Helel.

Overall, Bordjadze effectively demonstrated that Isaiah 14:3-23 could be about the king of Babylon seeking to become like God.  For instance, in discussing the rejoicing of the cedars of Lebanon at the king’s downfall, Bordjadze referred to the concept of Lebanon being considered a garden of God.  The notion that the king of Babylon sought to be like God through oppression, especially oppression of God’s people, is also plausible.

In Bordjadze’s treatment of Isaiah 14 as Christian Scripture, he focuses on the passage being about the king of Babylon, without really doing anything with the Christian application of the passage to Satan.  I am ambivalent about this.  This marginalization of the “Satan” interpretation is understandable.  Bordjadze wants to respect the historical-critical meaning of Isaiah 14, while allowing that historical-critical meaning to dialogue with the New Testament.  Saying that Isaiah 14 is about Satan is considered anachronistic by many biblical scholars.  Still, can a treatment of Isaiah 14 as Christian Scripture legitimately marginalize the “Satan” interpretation?  It appears in Luke 10:18 and, arguably, Revelation 12 (and, as far as I can recall, Bordjadze did not engage the latter).  Is there a way to respect the historical-critical meaning of Isaiah 14, while also giving the “Satan” interpretation more prominence?  Perhaps one could say that the New Testament sees Satan as being behind oppressive powers, or claim that the New Testament developed themes from Isaiah 14.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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