Isaiah says a few times that God is alone, and there is none else beside him. The scholarly view is that “none beside me…” in the rhetorical monotheism chapters of Isaiah is an idiom essentially meaning “I am the best” or “I am superior”. This statement does not deny the existence of other deities. Meanwhile, fundamentalist Evangelicals still aren’t able to grasp the simple argument used for this view.
When it is pointed out that the same phrase is placed in the mouth of Babylon (as quoted below, and as for other cities elsewhere) fundamental Evangelicals generally mumble something about the fact that Isaiah was a prophet, and Babylon was a just a wicked city, and so it is blasphemous to compare the two. Here is an example from CARM:
Are you serious? Are you comparing God’s statement to this wicked one? You guys will stop at nothing.
I recently had the opportunity to try and neatly spell it out for some of them. The following is what I came up with.
Isa 47:8 & 10
Therefore hear now this, thou that art given to pleasures, that dwellest carelessly, that sayest in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me; I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children:
For thou hast trusted in thy wickedness: thou hast said, None seeth me. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee; and thou hast said in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me.
When Isaiah writes “there is none beside me” in regard to God, and then writes “there is none beside me” in regard to Babylon, we are justified in concluding that the phrase means the same thing in each case. They mean the same thing, even if in one instance it is a true statement (God’s case) and in the second instance it is not a true statement (Babylon’s case).
1. God says, “there is none beside me.”
2. Babylon says, “there is none beside me.”
The phrase must mean the same thing in each instance, even if #1 is true and #2 is false. This isn’t yet about whether or not the phrase is true, this is about what the phrase means in the first place. I hope you agree with me that the phrase must be interpreted consistently. Do you? That is important.
What do you think it means? I assume you believe “there is none beside me” the speaker is claiming that he is the only instance of his kind. For example:
A. Yahweh is the only entity in the universe that possesses the attributes of divinity.
B. Babylon is the only entity in the universe that possesses the attributes of “city.”
While A may be true (in your view), you can’t sanely maintain that B is true. You also can’t suggest that Babylon actually believes that it is the only city in existence. So, we are left to find a different meaning for what Babylon means by “there is none beside me.”
I, and most biblical scholars, agree that “there is none beside me” is an idiom essentially meaning “I am the best”, or “I am supreme.” It is similar to taunting one’s opponent by saying “You are nothing.”
This seems to make good sense. When Babylon claims to be the “best” or “superior” in Isa 47: 8 & 10, Yahweh chastises him thusly:
9″But these two things will come on you suddenly in one day:
Loss of children and widowhood
They will come on you in full measure
In spite of your many sorceries,
In spite of the great power of your spells.
11″But evil will come on you
Which you will not know how to charm away;
And disaster will fall on you
For which you cannot atone;
And destruction about which you do not know
Will come on you suddenly.
So, we see that after claiming to be the “best” or to be “superior” to all other cities (cities which actually do exist), Yahweh threatens Babylon with disaster.
If Babylon had been arguing that it is the only city in existence, as you seem to maintain (by virtue of how you interpret the exact same phrase when in Yahweh’s mouth), we would expect Yahweh to correct Babylon by saying, “No, there are other cities all around you…like Jerusalem or Ashur.”
But, that isn’t what Yahweh says. Yahweh doesn’t say that because that is not what Babylon is claiming. Instead, Babylon is claiming merely to be the best city among cities, and Yahweh replies to threatening it with downfall. That is a an appropriate response to a wicked city claiming to be the best city, and this response only makes sense if Babylon’s claim is interpreted the way I’ve suggested.
Now, if Babylon is only claiming to be the most supreme, the very best, city among cities, we can now properly interpret that same phrase when Yahweh himself uses it. Yahweh is claiming to be most supreme, the very best, of all the gods.
Furthermore, most biblical scholars recognize that Isa 40 depicts a divine council. It wouldn’t make sense for Isaiah to depict the divine council of gods in chapter 40 and then turn around and deny the divine council of gods a few chapters later.