Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 19
"The burden of Egypt ." (v 1). The prophet continues his series of prophecies about how the various nations that surrounded and oppressed Israel would fall, foretelling in this and the following chapter the downfall of Egypt . The classical rabbinic Bible commentators (Rashi, Metzudas David and RaDaK) take this prophecy of the coming downfall of Egypt to refer not to the End of Days (although End of Days prophecies may be embedded in it) but rather to the disaster that struck Egypt at the hands of Sennacherib at the time of his campaign against Jerusalem . On his way to Judea he heard that Tir'hakah king of Kush (= Ethiopia ) was coming to make war against him and went down to fight against Kush and Egypt , conquering both of them. Sennacherib then returned to Judea bringing their captured populations with him in chains (RaDaK on Isaiah 20:1; see Rashi on verses 4 & 18 of our present chapter).
According to this interpretation, the "swift cloud" upon which HaShem rides to come into Egypt (v 1) would be the army of Sennacherib, sowing panic and civil strife among the Egyptians (vv 2-3).
"And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up." (v 5). This and the following verses (vv 5-10) depict the calamity to Egypt as a colossal ecological disaster in which the waters of the Nile - upon which the country is completely dependent, having no rainfall - dry up causing all the vegetation, food crops and flax etc. to wither and the fish that were an essential part of the national diet (cf. Numbers 11:5) to disappear. However the opinion of RaDaK (on v 5) is that all of this is an allegory, and that precisely because of the great importance to Egypt of the Nile , the prophet depicts the destruction of the country wrought by Sennacherib as if the flow of the river had ceased.
"Surely the princes of Tzo'an are fools, the counsel of the wise counselors of Pharaoh has become brutish." (v 11). The Egyptian defeat at the hands of Sennacherib is portrayed as a massive blunder on the part of its ruling elite. This would appear to be because they sought to contain the rising star of Assyria in the hope of restoring Egyptian primacy over the entire region. Like drunkards reeling in their own vomit (v 14) the Egyptian princes and sages misread the geopolitical situation and misled their own people, taking them out to a war that would prove to be disastrous.
"And the land of Judah shall be a trembling to Egypt : everyone to whom it is mentioned shall be afraid because of the counsel of HaShem of hosts." (v 17). RaDaK (ad loc.) explains that those Egyptians remaining in their own land would be stunned when they would hear of the downfall of Sennacherib's armies at the very gates of Jerusalem, and having witnessed the destruction of Egypt at his hands they would know that only HaShem could have cast him down and that their own downfall could only have been brought about through His counsel.
"On that day five cities in the land of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan ." (v 18). To explain this verse, Rashi cites Seder Olam (ch 23), which states that after the fall of Sennacherib, King Hezekiah arose and released all the captives from Egypt and Kush that the Assyrian king had brought with him in chains to Jerusalem. They then took upon themselves the kingship of Heaven [i.e. the Seven Universal Laws of the Children of Noah] and returned to their own lands, building an altar to HaShem in Egypt in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in verse 19. RaDaK (on v 18) explains that because Mitzrayim and Canaan were brothers (Gen. 10:6) and the land of Canaan fell to Israel , the Egyptians viewed the Israelites as aliens. But after witnessing the miracles done for them they would speak their language as if it was the language of their own brother - the "language of Canaan " - because they would then see the Israelites as brothers. [The Talmudic sages saw in the prophecy of an altar to HaShem in Egypt an allusion to the altar of Beit Honyo built there by Honyo, the son of Shimon HaTzaddik, Menachos 109b).
Vv 20-22 prophesy the great sanctification of the Name of HaShem that would come about through the recognition by the Egyptians of His dominion and saving power. When the Egyptians would repent and pray to God, He would heal them.
"On that day there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. and Egypt shall serve with Assyria " (v 23). The Egyptians would know God's power from having heard what had happened to Sennacherib's armies, while the Assyrians would know it through their firsthand experience of the blow dealt to them by God's angel (Metzudas David).
"On that day Israel shall be the third with Egypt and Assyria , a blessing in the midst of the land." (v 24). Rashi (ad loc.) explains: "At that time there was no other people in the world more important than Egypt and Assyria, while Israel were lowly in the days of Ahaz (king of Judah) and Hosea ben Elah (the last king of Israel), and the prophet says that through the miracle that would be performed for Hezekiah the name of Israel would be magnified and they would be as prestigious as any one of these kingdoms on account of the blessing and greatness they would enjoy."
"Whom HaShem of Hosts shall bless saying, Blessed be My people [from] Egypt and the work of My hands [from] Ashur, and Israel My inheritance" (v 25). The insertions in this translation of the present verse reflect the commentary of Rashi (ad loc.) who explains that the verse means that God chose Israel for His people when they were in Egypt, and that they would become "the work of His hands" as a result of the mighty deeds He would perform against Assyria, because through the miracles they would witness they would repent and it would be as if God had made them anew just now so as to become His inheritance.
According to the rabbinic sages, Sargon king of Assyria is Sennacherib, who had eight names (Sanhedrin 94a). Tartan was the name (or title) of one of his chief officers, whom he sent to campaign against Ashdod while he himself fought against Egypt and Kush before returning to Judea for his abortive assault on Jerusalem (see RaDaK on verse 1 of the present chapter).
"At that time HaShem spoke by the hand of Isaiah son of Amotz saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off your loins and put off your shoe from your foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot" (v 2). According to Metzudas David (ad loc.) the reason the prophet was instructed to "loose the sackcloth" from off his loins is because he had been wearing it as a sign of mourning over the exile of the Ten Tribes, which had taken place some years earlier. Now he was instructed to display an even more demonstrative sign of calamity by going naked and barefoot like a captive. As explained in verses 3-4, this was as a sign that Egypt and Kush would be carried into captivity.
RaDaK (on v 2) states that we cannot take the words "he did so and went around naked and barefoot" literally, because it is unthinkable that God would command the prophet to do such a thing (just as God did not literally command the prophet Hosea to take an immoral woman as his wife, Hosea 1:2). Rather, Isaiah received this "command" in his prophetic vision, and saw himself in his vision going naked and barefoot.
"And they shall be afraid and ashamed on account of Kush, their expectation and of Egypt , their glory, and the inhabitant of this coast land shall say on that day." (vv 5-6). The "inhabitant of this coast land" (the literal meaning of the Hebrew is "island") refers to the people of Israel , specifically those in Jerusalem who were counting on Egypt and Kush to come to their rescue from the clutches of Sennacherib. Witnessing their terrible downfall, they would finally understand that they were broken reeds and that without the help of God no-one on earth could save them.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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