Isaiah 19 The “Burden of Egypt” and Neo-Assyrian Imperial Policy

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Shawn Zelig Aster

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This essay dates portions of the “Burden of Egypt” prophecy in Isaiah 19 to the Neo-Assyrian period, based on its borrowing of motifs from Assyrian royal inscriptions. These include the unique motif of the establishment of a monument on the border with Egypt and Assyrian attempts to dominate Egypt by controlling its trade. The essay also demonstrates the dependence of parts of Isaiah 19 on material in Exodus 1–15, integrating specific phrases from these Exodus chapters with motifs known to us from Assyrian royal inscriptions. This integration could only have taken place during the Assyrian period (late eighth–early seventh centuries), and this has obvious implications for the dating of the Exodus text.


The essay understands the prophecy as a re-envisioning of the Assyrian campaign of 734, part of which was directed at Egypt. In this re-envisioned campaign, YHWH Himself is directing the Assyrian attack (Isa. 19:1–4) on Egypt. The essay focusses on 19:19–25, which describe how the Egyptians suffer as a result of the Assyrian attack. In their despair, they acknowledge the sovereignty of YHWH. This recognition is based on the Assyrian model of recognizing the Assyrian king as universal sovereign, and the monument described in v. 22 is based on the monument established by the Assyrians on the Egyptian border. The behavior of the Egyptians in vv. 20–22 provokes the unique theological statements of vv. 23–25, in which Egypt and Assyria join Israel in the triad blessed by YHWH.


This passage demonstrates Isaiah’s use of a sort of “replacement theology” in which the universal sovereignty of YHWH is imagined and described based on Assyrian claims of universal dominion.




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