Isaiah 19: the 'burden of Egypt' and Neo-Assyrian imperial policy.

Author:Aster, Shawn Zelig
Position:Critical essay

The "Burden of Egypt" in Isaiah 19 has been the focus of much scholarly attention because of its unique theology. (1) It envisions a future in which Egypt, Assyria, and Israel will enjoy divine protection, in which Egypt will become God's chosen people. Although the uniqueness of the theological message is well recognized in scholarship, the same cannot be said for the unique way in which this chapter draws on several literary and artistic motifs found in Assyrian royal inscriptions of the late eighth century. Recognizing this literary dependence allows for a more informed discussion of the redactional history of this chapter, and of how its message relates to the ideological contexts in which it was shaped.

On stylistic grounds, the chapter is usually divided into two sections: a core consisting of vv. 1-15, and a series of five "On that day" oracles in vv. 16-25, which are seen as literarily dependent on the core. Because the latter sections refer to specific events, most discussions of the date of the chapter suggest identifications for these events, while confining themselves to linguistic and thematic discussions in vv. 1-15. (2) This bifurcated focus diverts attention from the consistent use of Neo-Assyrian royal motifs throughout the chapter, motifs which are borrowed, subverted, and adapted to fit the prophet's message. Clearly identifying these sources can aid in understanding this message.


The strongest evidence for borrowing motifs from Assyrian royal inscriptions appears in the third of the five "On that day" oracles, in 19:19-23.1 will briefly review the established scholarship on this oracle, and then present the methodological reasons to prefer a Neo-Assyrian background for this passage. Verse 19, which opens the oracle, is routinely interpreted as referring to an actual altar, and is therefore used as a basis for dating the chapter:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] On that day, there will be an altar to YHWH inside the land of Egypt and a monument near its border to YHWH. Since the early twentieth century, scholars have interpreted this verse as referring to the Temple of Onias at Leontopolis, built in the first part of the second century B.C.E. (3) One serious problem with this interpretation is noted by Wildberger, who remarks on the very short gap between the period of Onias and the copying of the 1Q (a) Scroll:

There is no doubt that the text of Isaiah had been so consolidated into a fixed form by this time that an insertion which would justify the sanctuary in Leontopolis would have fomented open rebellion--certainly in Jerusalem, where the text that has come down to us was preserved. (4) For this reason, both Wildberger and Blenkinsopp have suggested that the verse may refer to temples established by Jewish exiles in Egypt in the late seventh or sixth centuries, of which the one mentioned in the Elephantine papyri may be only the most famous example. (5)

But there is a clear methodological problem with the tendency to identify this verse as a reference to any of these temples. As Wildberger notes (p. 274), "it might be just by chance that we know something about temples only in Elephantine and Leontopolis." Is our knowledge of these temples' existence a sufficient reason to consider 19:19 a vaticinium ex eventul

Methodologically, the determination that the verse is based on a historical event is similar to other claims of literary borrowing and should be governed by similar considerations. Just as in evaluating a standard case of literary borrowing, we must determine whether the text under consideration borrows a motif from an earlier text, we must determine here whether Isa. 19:19 borrows from a real occurrence. Evaluating standard cases of literary borrowing requires us to determine:

  1. whether the motif that is allegedly borrowed is unique (since a unique motif is less likely to have emerged independently in two literary corpora); and

  2. whether the motif is out of place in its current literary context. (6)

Similar methodological considerations must obtain in determining whether the motifs in Isa. 19:19 are borrowed from historical events. I first consider the question of uniqueness vs. commonality. (7) In considering whether a text refers to a historical occurrence, our first consideration ought to be whether the motif recurs in history multiple times, or is unique to a particular period. A motif that recurs repeatedly, whether in history or in literature, may well be known to the author of the passage under consideration, and his use of this motif may draw on this reservoir of common knowledge, rather than on a specific occurrence of this motif.

As Wildberger and Blenkinsopp note, the motif of "an altar to YHWH in the Land of Egypt" is a recurrent one, because refugees from the Land of Israel repeatedly established such altars in Egypt. A known historical tendency can become a literary trope, without reference to a specific historical event. Therefore, the recurring establishment of such altars makes it less likely that the altar motif in Isa. 19:19 refers to a specific historical occurrence.

Furthermore, the motif of the altar fits contextually into vv. 19-22, which describe Egypt's conversion to worship of YHWH:


(19) On that day there shall be an altar to YHWH within the Land of Egypt and a monument near its border to the Lord. (20) And it shall be a sign and a witness to the Lord of Hosts in the Land of Egypt, when they will call out to the Lord from before their oppressors, and He will send them a deliverer and a leader, and he will remove them. (21) Then, the Lord shall become known to Egypt, and Egypt shall know the Lord on that day, and they shall perform an offering and a gift-offering, and they shall vow a vow to the Lord and fulfill it. (22) And the Lord shall smite Egypt, smiting and pardoning, and they will return unto the Lord, and He will respond to their plea and pardon them. (8)

The motif of the altar in v. 19 is a logical part of the conversion described in vv. 19-22, since sacrifice and altar construction are an integral part of biblical narratives of gentiles who become worshippers of YHWH (as can be seen from Jonah 1:16 and 2 Kings 5:17-18). Since the altar is not out of place in verses discussing a process of conversion, and is an expected part of that process, it seems unnecessary to interpret the altar as a reference to a specific historical reality.

The truly unique motif in Isaiah 19:19 is not the construction of an altar within ("pro) the land of Egypt, but the monument established "near its border" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The phrase "near its border" refers to the border between Egypt and the Land of Israel, which is called [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 5:1 and in the parallel in 2 Chron. 9:26). (9) There are no literary parallels to a monument at such a location within the biblical corpus, and to the best of my knowledge, there is only a single clearly attested case of establishing such a monument. (10) Scholars have recognized the unusual nature of a monument in such a wilderness location, and have found it difficult to identify parallels precisely because they are so rare. (11) The unparalleled nature of the motif of a monument on the border suggests that it is unlikely to have developed without borrowing from a historical occurrence. Yet, much of the scholarly discussion revolves around the relationship of this object to the prohibition against the cultic [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Deut. 12:3-4. (12)

Further underscoring the unusual nature of the motif is the lack of any functional purpose for such a monument. Monuments in border locations were highly unusual in the pre-modern period. Borders between pre-modern kingdoms typically ran in inhospitable terrain, (13) and the border between Egypt and the land of Israel was no exception. (14) Border markers were most frequently used in the ancient Near East to indicate borders between adjoining vassal states or between private householders' land. (15) An empire would typically extend to the utmost limit of settled territory, and since the empire ended where settled territory ended, there was no functional need to delineate the empire's border by means of a monument. On the contrary, "Like central cities and temples, the Empire's frontier was in no need of physical demarcation: the setting up of monuments at the edges of the world was intended to serve ideological and political-propagandist rather than administrative-governmental purposes." (16)

We find monuments on borders in unsettled territory used only to advertise the extent of a suzerain's conquests. Thus, Shalmaneser III established monuments in the Land of Nairi, in the mountains near the source of the Tigris, and on Mount Baali-raasi, somewhere on the Levantine coast in the area of Tyre, each of which marked the limits of his conquests. (17) Centuries earlier, Thutmoses III described how he established monuments to mark his borders to the north (the swamps on the Euphrates) and to the south (the Nubian desert). (18) A monument on the border cannot possibly refer to a cultic object, but to a monument which broadcasts the sovereignty of a suzerain over territory.

The oracle in vv. 19-22 fits well with a monument designed to broadcast sovereignty. More specifically, the two actions described in v. 19 reflect the two stages of a process described in v. 21. Verse 21 describes a process through which the Egyptians first come to "know YHWH" (a phrase which indicates acknowledging YHWH as Sovereign, as in Exod. 5:2 and 14:4), and then worship Him (v. 21) with sacrifices. (19) This process results directly from God's rescuing Egypt from a foreign oppressor (v. 20). The altar in v. 19 serves as the platform for the cultic worship of God described in v. 21, while the monument...

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