Friday, June 24, 2016

Tyre and Babylon in Bible prophecy

I. I was asked to give some examples of fulfilled non-Messianic prophecies. 

1. Before discussing examples, we need to back up. For the argument from prophecy to work, the oracle must take place before the event. And there must be something uncanny about the fulfillment. Something that can't reasonably be chalked up to a coincidence or lucky guess.

These conditions can pose a dilemma of sorts inasmuch as unbelievers who think the description is too accurate to be lucky or coincidental will use the correspondence to date the oracle. They will say that just goes to show it must be after the fact! Of course, that becomes a circular, unfalsifiable posture. 

2. As I've remarked before, predicting the future can present something of a paradox. If the terms of fulfillment are too recognizable in advance, that can tip people off, which enables them to thwart the prediction. So the description must be puzzling to readers ahead of time. It is necessary to make the terms of fulfillment recognizable after the fact, but not beforehand. 

It's kind of like a spy who knows his communications may be monitored, so he must speak in coded terms that are recognizable to his case officer, but not to eavesdroppers. 

3. We must rule out self-fulfilling prophecy, where an agent reads the oracle and sets about to make it happen. That's where knowledge of the oracle influences the outcome. That's not be a case of foresight, but imitation. 

II. The fall of Babylon 

27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry; I will dry up your rivers’; 28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’ (Isa 44:27-28).

1. Liberals don't think this oracle issued from the preexilic prophet Isaiah. Rather, they think Isa 40-55 is exilic. However, even on a liberal timeframe, the reference to Cyrus (v28) is anachronistic since he's a borderline postexilic figure. So even on a liberal dating scheme, this would still involve a genuine prediction about someone who'd be unknown to the original audience. Therefore, liberals salvage their position by stipulating that "Cyrus" must be a subsequent scribal interpolation. There is, of course, no textual evidence for that hypothesis. It's a necessary postulate to shore up the liberal position. 

2. Another complication is the meaning of v27, and its relation to v28. Here's what one liberal commentator proposes:

As a whole, vv26b-28a work in the reverse of historical order, from Yhwh's ultimate intention (v26b) via the event that will make it possible (v27) to the means of that event's taking place and the intention's being fulfilled (v28a). In that context, v27 can hardly be simply a reference back to creation or Red Sea…nor is it merely a general statement. While it no doubt indicates that Babylon can be overcome, it would be prosaic to refer it simply to Cyrus' famous alleged diverting of the Euphrates to facilitate his capture of Babylon, referred to by Herodotus (I, 191) and Xenophon (Cyropedia 7). J. Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55 (T&T Clark, 2005), 258-259. 

i) He concedes that this is a prediction about the fall of Babylon.

ii) He concedes that v27 can't simply be stock imagery about the creation or Red Sea crossing.

iii) Although he discounts a reference to Cyrus diverting the Euphrates, he cites two ancient historians who say that's what Cyrus did. Should he be so dismissive of multiple, independent attestation? 

iv) Given that the reference to Cyrus occurs right on the heels of Yahweh's threat to "dry up the rivers" of Babylon, in the context of an oracle about the impending downfall of Babylon, surely the inference is irresistible that it does, indeed, refer to Cyrus diverting the Euphrates upstream so that his troops could use the dry river bed (or drained canals) to walk right under the defensive walls of Babylon. 

v) He says a reference to Cyrus diverting the Euphrates would be "prosaic". Well, if you think the viewpoint of the passage is retrospective, then that might be prosaic. If, however, you think the viewpoint of the passage is prospective, then it would be astounding that a prophet could not only anticipate (and name!) the rise of Cyrus, but anticipate the ingenious tactic he used to sidestep Babylon's reputedly impregnable defensive system.   

There is, moreover, corroborative evidence to support the accounts of Herodotus and Xenophon:

As part of the rebuilding of the new palace area on the citadel Nebuchadrezzar cleared and rebuilt the main canal…The location of more than twenty named canals in and around the city is currently a subject being studied…This site [Opis] for the northernmost defense wall for the Babylonian area suits the operation by Cyrus when he diverted the River Euphrates at such a distance as not to arouse immediate suspicion. This allowed the element of surprise for the attack on the city along the dried-up river and canal beds which gave access under and through the walls into the citadel itself. D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon (Oxford, 1991), 61-62.  
Herodotus (1. 191) indicates that the Persians gained entrance into Babylon by diverting the Euphrates River. Some scholars find this difficult to accept. But as Herodotus accurately described it, and as the excavations of Robert Koldewey confirmed, the city of Babylon was not only bisected by the Euphrates but was also penetrated by many canals. The height of the Euphrates would have been at its lowest level at this time of year, normally about twelve feet deep. If the famine (mentioned in more than one text) was caused by a dry year, the level would have been even lower. E. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible (Baker, 1990), 86. 

Not only is the rise of Cyrus naturally unforeseeable, but the stratagem he used to circumvant Babylon's defense system is naturally unforeseeable. 

IV. The fall of Tyre

26 In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar[ king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters (Ezk 26:1-12). 

i) Even a liberal commentator like Allen defends the basic accuracy of Ezekiel's prediction. Nebuchadnezzar's campaign against Tyre was successful:

The siege was successful and Tyre did pass into Babylonian control. In a list of royal hostages at Nebuchadnezzar's court, to be dated about 570 BC, the king of Tyre has the initial place…About 564 BC, Baal, Ethbaal's successor as king of Tyre, was replaced by a Babylonian High Commissioner. L. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word, 1990), 109. 

ii) However, that's not the most impressive feature of the oracle. The oracle would be baffling to the original readers due to its detailed description of siege warfare. Because Tyre was an island fortress, it would normally be impervious to the techniques of siege warfare. That's a land-based operation. 

Moreover, it's not as though Ezekiel was ignorant of Tyre's geography. He repeatedly mentions its marine setting. Hence, we'd expect Ezekiel to describe a naval bombardment rather than siege warfare. On the face of it, then, his description is nonsensical and technically infeasible. 

Yet natural expectations to the contrary notwithstanding, it turns out that Ezekiel was prescient. 250 years later, Alexander the Great built a causeway from the mainland to the island. That enabled him to bring siege works to bear on fortified city. 

But historians were still perplexed at how Alexander could build a causeway across a kilometer of ocean. Only in the late 20C, after scientific investigation, was it discovered that a submerged sandbar connected Tyre to the mainland. Alexander was able to construct his causeway on that natural platform:

Although Nebuchandezzar initiated the fulfillment of the oracle, Alexander completed the fulfillment of the oracle. Yet it would be naturally impossible to foresee Alexander's engineering feat. 


  1. Here's an index page that links many of our posts on Biblical prophecy. It includes links to material we've written in defense of the traditional dating of books like Isaiah and Daniel. See my post on Daniel here, for instance, which gives some examples of both Messianic and non-Messianic prophecies in that book that have been fulfilled.

    Keep in mind that Messianic and non-Messianic prophecies are often tied together. Predictions of Abraham and Israel's influence on the world, for example, have been fulfilled largely through Jesus. See here and here.

    An example of modern prophecy fulfillment that could be brought up, though the use of it would vary depending on your eschatological views, is the reemergence of Israel as a nation and the prominence of the city of Jerusalem in world affairs. That situation aligns well with what we see in the closing chapters of Zechariah and other Biblical passages. You don't have to believe that Jesus' second coming is going to occur in your lifetime or any other time soon in order to make such observations. Even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that Israel will cease being a nation again in, say, fifty years, the survival of the Jewish people this long and the widespread ongoing interest in a Jewish nation and the city of Jerusalem would be significant anyway. Even if the complete fulfillment of eschatological passages won't take place until many years from now, it's significant that some of the steps leading up to that fulfillment have occurred already. And the prominence of Israel and Jerusalem in modern times is relevant to the predictions of Abraham and Israel's influence on the world, as discussed in the paragraph above.

    Though people tend to focus on the Old Testament when issues of prophecy come up, the New Testament includes some prophecies as well. Both the internal and the external evidence suggest that Luke and Acts were written no later than the mid sixties, and Luke seems to have used Mark as a source, so we have good evidence that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. was predicted. Critics often argue that the eschatology of the Synoptics contains some false prophecies related to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which would be difficult to explain if those gospels were written in 70 A.D. or later. I don't think there are any false prophecies in the Synoptics, and we've argued to that effect in previous threads, but the fact that the Synoptic authors didn't present their material as we'd expect somebody writing in 70 A.D. or later to present it is evidence for the earlier dating of the material.

  2. Steve,

    There a some commentators who try and evade 44:27 as have any reference to Babylon because it does not come into sight until chapter 47. How would you defend the interpretation that this does refer to Babylonian judgment at the end of chapter 44.

    God bless,


    1. i) I'd defend it by saying liberal scholars typically think Babylon comes into view beginning in chap. 40. That chaps 40-55 are written from an exilic perspective. They reflect the exilic experience.

      ii) Likewise, I quoted the current standard commentary on 40-55 by a liberal scholar who thinks Babylon is the crosshairs of this verse.

      iii) Finally, when liberal scholars say the naming of Cyrus is a scribal interpolation, that's a backdoor admission that the body of the text is exilic. The original viewpoint is exilic. The name was (allegedly) added later.

      Even the postulate of redactional activity takes for granted that the source material is exilic.

      So it seems to me that I'm operating on liberal assumptions (for the sake of argument). And even on liberal assumptions, my argument goes through.