Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017.
Summary: A study of Isaiah 14:3-23, considering textual and interpretive issues, and focusing on how this passage may be read as Christian scripture today.
How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.
–Isaiah 14:12-15, NIV
This passage, part of a larger text running from Isaiah 14:3-23, has been understood by many Christians, including John Milton in Paradise Lost (the source of this work’s title), as a description of the fall of Satan. This is less the case among recent interpreters, and this raises the question for Christians reading this passage of how we might read and appropriate this in a Christian context.
This work, an outgrowth of a doctoral thesis, offers perhaps the most careful analysis of this text I’ve come across. Bordjadze begins with a verse by verse discussion of the philological issues in the text and how various translators have handled these. Then in chapter 3 he zooms in on the meaning of mašal, which might be understood as parable or proverb but in this context is a kind of grotesque taunt against an egregious form of human exaltation over and against both Israel and Israel’s God.
Chapter 4 considers a reading of Isaiah 14:3-23 in the context of the imaginative world of the ancient Near East. He explores the resonances in the text with other ancient Near East texts from the Enuma Elish to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This sheds significant light on the language of the underworld and particularly the horror of not receiving a proper burial (v. 20). Chapter 5 then turns to questions of myth and history to understand the significance of the “morning star, the son of the dawn” and the possible historical referents to a Babylonian king. There is also the question of how this passage fits into the larger context of Isaiah 13-23 and the collection of Oracles Against the Nations.
Chapter 6 moves forward in history to consider the reception of this text by Christian interpreters in church history. Two key interpreters are considered. First is Origen, who introduces the idea that this text is about the fall of Satan, the origins of evil and the freedom of human choice. Calvin, concerned with portraying the sovereignty and providential care of God reads this passage very differently, recognizing first the historical context of Babylonian invasion, and then seeing this in the light of those enemies arrayed against the church, and God’s sufficiency to deliver. Bordjadze recognizes the common element in both of pastoral concern for the faithful in different contexts.
Finally, Bordjadze considers how the text might be read in Christian churches today. He considers two theological readings, by Walter Brueggeman, and by Christopher Seitz before proposing his own. Brueggeman sees this as the victory of God over a cosmic tyrant while Seitz reads this text in dialogue with Habakkuk 2 and Psalm 82 and the lament of “how long” will tyrants prevail, uttered both by the prophet and in the “council of the gods.” Bordjadze takes a different approach of contrasting the King of Babylon and Jesus as two ways of pursuing the imago dei–one of prideful self-exaltation followed by abasement and the other of obedient acceptance of abasement followed by the vindicating exaltation of the resurrection. He sees this text as a salutary warning against self-exaltation over and against the cruciform way of Christ, exalted by God as sovereign Lord.
In this he identifies more closely with both Origen and Calvin if not following either of their readings. He draws parallels between these ideas of exaltation and abasement with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the ultimate abasements of self-exalting Morgoth and Sauron while humble hobbits and a scorned ranger are lifted up. It is a reading that raises the question for every Christian reader of which path we will choose, as well as comfort for those who choose the path of Christ while observing the apparent success, the raw use of power, and the arrogance of the self-exalting.
The careful textual, contextual, and theological work to arrive at this reading strikes me as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people. There was a kind of “line upon line, precept upon precept” aspect to this work that reflected a scholar working deliberately, and yet with appropriate care, toward a clear conclusion. It both sharpened my own reading of the text, and led me into fruitful reflection on the message of this text for me as a Christ-follower. This is a work that both demands and rewards careful reading.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.