restricted access The Cryptic Meaning of the Isaiah 14 Māšāl
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The Cryptic Meaning of the Isaiah 14 Māšāl

The poem about the fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14) follows the classical structure of biblical qînôt, or laments. It starts with the locution איך ("How?" v. 4b); its verses display a typical qînâ meter (3/2); and the climactic verse, which generally expresses the most painful lamentation, is positioned at about the middle of the poem.1 This song, however, is recorded in the book of Isaiah not as a qînâ but rather as a māšāl (v. 4: ונשאת המשל הזה, "you will raise this taunt"), referring to the final deliverance of Israel (v. 3). This suggests that, beyond the "elegy" [End Page 643] about the death of a specific Babylonian tyrant, this song encompasses a larger dimension of meaning.

The term māšāl refers to a wide range of literary genres in the Bible. It may designate a satire, a proverb, an epic poem, a parable, a fine wordplay (שנינה), and even a riddle (חידה).2 Wisdom literature also is referred to as māšāl, and this term can even designate a prophecy.3 In Biblical Hebrew, the verb משל means "to equal" (passive נמשל, "becoming as/being equal/homologous to," "being identified with").4 This meaning is encountered in the māšāl of Isaiah 14 (v. 10: אלינו נמשלת, "You have become like us" [NRSV]), suggesting that the choice of this term to introduce the poem (v. 4) points to the existence of parallels/homologies in the song. Four types of parallels may justify such a position:

Mašal as parody

The Isaiah 14 poem combines two contrasting features: a form (qînâ pattern) appropriate to elegy and lamentation and a content expressing the revival of the earth following the death of a tyrant. The parody emanates from the antithetical bonding of form and content, justifying the use of the term māšāl to designate it.5

Mašal as archetype

The name of the dead tyrant is not mentioned in the poem.6 This intentional omission may reflect a wish to forget him, his fathers, and his future lineage (as suggested in v. 20). In this case, the death of the current tyrant, a true historical event, serves as an archetype (= māšāl) for the end of tyranny as a whole. [End Page 644]

Mašal as parable

The tyrant is called הילל בן־שחר ("day star, son of dawn," v. 12), a name interpreted as an allusion to pagan mythological figures.7 This links the fall of a terrestrial king to that of "foreign gods," justifying, here again, the denotation of the poem as māšāl.

Mašal as riddle

Biblical riddles contain many forms of wordplay that derive from paronomasia, alliteration, assonance, parallelism, and syllabification.8 In Isaiah 14, a wordplay is typically observed with respect the term māšāl itself. In v. 10, the rĕpāʾîm address the tyrant: אלינו נמשלת. The first meaning is obviously that the tyrant has now become one of them (māšāl = equal to). But another meaning arises: the tyrant previously reigning over all the kings of the earth is now placed under their government (נמשלת) (v. 11).9 In Psalm 49, a wordplay involving the meaning of māšāl is explicitly related to the solving of a riddle.10 This similarity suggests the existence of a riddle in the Isaiah song.

In this form of māšāl, the meaning is hidden in a riddle. It remains to be discovered by the audience, and success depends on the listener/reader's intelligence, understanding, wisdom, and knowledge of the language. It is the aim of this paper to explore the existence of such a cryptic dimension in the Isaiah māšāl.

I. The Cross-responsa Key of Reading

In Psalm 49, the riddle is solved by the pairing of distant verses through a fixed pattern of bonding.11 This invites us to look for a similar process in the Isaiah māšāl. The literary development of the Isaiah 14 poem is strikingly reminiscent of that of David's lament (2 Sam 1:19-27).12 For this reason, Gale Yee suggested that [End Page 645] the Isaian poet "deliberately parodied the solemn dirge...