Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Isaiah 19: The "Burden of Egypt" and Neo-Assyrian Imperial Policy

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Isaiah 19: The "Burden of Egypt" and Neo-Assyrian Imperial Policy

Article excerpt

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:


   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:

a) 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

b) whether the motif is out of place in its current literary context. …

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