Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Mistress Forever

Isaiah 47 is a harsh message from the Lord for the “tender and delicate” virgin daughter of Babylon.

Stop and think about that imagery for a bit. If you know anything about the Chaldeans and the city of Babylon from either history or the Bible, the picture of an attractive, chaste young woman is not exactly what it brings to mind. From the never-completed Tower of Babel in Genesis to the “Fallen, fallen” of Revelation 18, Babylon is associated with predatory mercantilism, false gods, colossal hubris and even murder. In Babylon the great is the blood of prophets and saints.

Where symbols go, the “great prostitute” seems more apt than the virgin daughter.

And yet, in speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God uses the symbol of a virgin bride to describe Babylon, and who are we to question his choice? In fact, the fall of the “mistress of kingdoms” puts me in mind of the perils of taking one’s situation for granted.

Concepts and Causes

Have you ever given a thought to the interpersonal dynamics of polygamous households?

I will admit it’s not a subject that comes up a lot, except maybe for readers of the Old Testament from time to time, and the occasional behind-the-times resident of the great state of Utah. But quite a few years ago now I had a novel recommended to me — if I recall correctly, by a Muslim co-worker. It was a mid-twentieth century period piece about the experiences of a brand new Pakistani bride of a much older married man whose first two wives were still very much on the scene.

As foreign as the concept of living with multiple wives seems to us, we can at least understand the circumstances in which such things occur. A rich, powerful married man finds himself captivated by a beautiful teen. In our culture, if he were particularly unwise, he might have an affair. Despite the permissiveness of our society, this would still be frowned on in some quarters, and depending on the age of the teen it might even be criminal. But in other cultures at other times it was quite permissible to marry the object of your desire, and advantageous to the parents of the teenager, who would be greatly enriched as a result of agreeing to the marriage.

A Precarious Situation

Anyway, all to say the book was an eye-opener, not in that it was overt about polygamous sexuality, but because it dealt in prosaic detail with the ins and outs of daily life in an entirely alien family setting, and the realities of learning to navigate a complex set of existing inter-relationships one is too inexperienced to fully understand. Inevitably, the thing a young woman in such a situation is least equipped to grasp is that the unchecked male impulses responsible for bringing her into her new family will almost surely reawaken down the road, inspired by a new and different object of desire, and that the role now being played by the older wife would eventually become her own.

The impression I came away with from the story was this: in patriarchal cultures, the situation of a young woman who is dependent upon the currency of her external appearance for her financial well-being and her place in society is simultaneously very powerful and exceedingly precarious. Her mastery of her fate will end one day — that is a certainty given that even if her older husband never takes another wife, she will certainly outlive him and his protection — but it is the rare young woman who sees the end coming and plans for it. Perhaps Queen Vashti is a biblical example of this apparent blindness to the obvious, or perhaps Vashti had simply grown weary of the trophy wife gig and was looking for something more interesting to do.

Babylon as a Neophyte on the World Stage

So then, Babylon, I think, is pictured as a virgin bride not because of the nation’s chaste, moral behavior, but because in the ancient East the status of a new wife was so exceedingly precarious. When Isaiah wrote, Babylon was a powerful neophyte on the world stage, as immature and predisposed to abuse its growing powers as an overconfident teen plunged into a new set of relationships.

Returning to the new bride analogy, it should be obvious that a wife of many years who had borne several sons to a monarch or great man and reared them to adulthood was well established even if her husband died. One of the boys would take care of his mother, of course. She would never have to worry about doing without. An older woman was also likely to have learned tact and discretion. She could maneuver behind the scenes to get what she needed without causing a stir, and could navigate household politics without losing her grip.

The new bride was not in quite the same position. Taking for granted the eternal nature of the devoted attentions of her older husband, which after all had brought her into her enviable situation as the focus of his favor, she might begin to misbehave, to become self-indulgent and abusive of other family members and the household servants. Her misplaced confidence in the power of her charms might lead her to put a foot wrong. She might say, as Babylon is pictured saying here, “I shall be mistress forever.”

And indeed, so long as her husband lived and she continued to be his favorite, she would do just fine. She might be the object of intense jealousy from other family members and even enjoy the attention. She might give birth to a child who would become the darling of his father and enrage the other heirs, as the affection shown to Joseph by Jacob enraged his other sons.

This was the enviable but dangerous situation in which Babylon would soon find herself: enjoying her spot on top of the world with absolutely no sense of the brutality with which history tends to treat its world powers.

Two Things in a Moment

Picture the scene when the overconfident bride suddenly finds her doting husband is no longer around to protect her, which is exactly what God predicts concerning Babylon:
“Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children’: These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments.”
In a patriarchal society, a young bride who had alienated her husband’s family could expect nothing for herself and nothing for her children if her husband were to die suddenly. No one else had any interest in pampering her or caring for her needs. Without legal rights, she would find herself reduced to the status of slave:
“For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen.”
This would be Babylon’s fate. And the fascinating thing is that through Isaiah, God forecast the fall of Babylon decades before she had even risen, and long before she began to abuse God’s people whom he had committed to her care.

Surprised by Life

Is there a lesson for us in Babylon’s example? I think there is. A large number of my friends and acquaintances have recently been surprised by life. The things they may have taken for granted for many years are suddenly no longer givens. For some, this has been accepted with grace as from the hand of God. For others, especially those who don’t know the Lord, the sudden change in their fortunes has been absolutely devastating, and they find themselves completely bewildered.

When we are young it’s easy to believe the good things we have been given will always be ours, that we have done something to merit them, or worse, that we are intrinsically worthy of the sunshine on our faces, the good meal in front of us, and the friends on every side. But youth and health and the degree of success some of us experience are opportunities to be seized and used for God’s pleasure, not taken for granted and frittered away as if more of the same will always be available when we want it. All too easily our circumstances will change, and we will find to our regret that the opportunities to make something lasting of our stewardship will have escaped our grasp.

Babylon’s sense of security was false, and nobody was more surprised than Belshazzar and his royal retinue to find the Medes and Persians not just at the door but already inside the walls.

Nobody gets to be a mistress forever. That’s worth keeping in mind.

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