Isaiah 19
A Temple Built in Egypt

This chapter is divided into two sections. The first is from verse 1 through 18 and the second is from verses 19 to 25. Isaiah calls the first section an "oracle." Thirteen of the 16 times Isaiah uses the word "mas'a" (burden or oracle) it has the meaning of a coming series of calamities rather than simply a load to carry. See Isa 13:1 where there are links to most verses where this form is used to indicate a new or separate vision. The first section is therefore a description of troublous times for Egypt within the time context when there was a strong Jewish state (verse 17) that is described in the chapter and the extension of Jewish worship with a temple in the heartland of Egypt. The last part of the chapter may very well have been fulfilled in the Macabbean period which is the opinion of this writer. In that case the first part of the "Mas'a" is said to take place "in that day." See verse 17 below for a historical condition that will limit the context to the period just previous to and following the Helenization of the nation under Antiochus the Great and Antiochus Epiphanes and the Hasmonean period which followed. Judah had regained independence and military strength under the protection of a rising Roman power.

The outline of the sequence of events after Alexander the Great was: Judah was at first under the extended political oversight and relatively gentle patronage of the Ptolemies in Egypt from 325 BC. That was changed when the control over all of Palestine passed to the Selucids under Antiochus the Great about 180 BC and Helenization of the Jewish state was pursued in earnest. After the Macabbean revolt (circa 160 BC) the Jews reclaimed religious freedom first and political freedom followed shortly after the Hasmonean dynasty was established and an appeal by the Macabbees to the Roman Senate for protection brought recognition of an independent Jewish state which lasted about 100 years. It is during this period of regained political power that the events forecast in this chapter were fulfilled. Much of human life matches the paradoxes in Egypt in this passage. The period predicted is one in which Egypt will be weakened from a number of internal disorders and natural disasters. Paradoxically, at the same time the prophecy says Egypt will be visited with spiritual blessings. They will have a form of true religion introduced to them and there will be a consequent decline in idolatry at the same time. Finding spiritual blessings during trying times is an experience that all humans can identify with. Egypt experienced these things during the period of the Hasmonean Jewish state.

Josephus records the following history about 160 BC:

Onias, son of Onias the high priest, was forced by a usurper to abandon his rightful claim to the high priesthood in Jerusalem, and he fled to Egypt, where he built an alternative Temple in Egypt over 150 years before the Christian era. He convinced Ptolemy king of Egypt that this was predicted in this prophecy given 500 years previous to his time. The prophecy indeed speaks of the not yet (in Isaiah's time nor when Onias moved to Egypt) built Temple in Egypt. It would have been easy for Onias to convince himself that this prophecy meant him. To that end I insert concurrent historical circumstances in the Scripture text that would have helped lead Onias to that conclusion.

Historical Review of the Period of Building the Alternative Temple in Egypt.

The prophecy in verses 19-25 below, that there would be an altar on which sacrifices would be offered to the God of Israel in the land of Egypt was literally fulfilled by Onias and the Ptolemies.

In the days of Antiochus Epiphanies (about 165 BC) Onias (father of the aforesaid Onias, and also called Jason) the High Priest was supplanted by Menelaus the defector during whose priesthood the sacrifice ceased because he cooperated with the Hellenizing of the Jewish traditions. Menelaus was later put to death after the death of Antiochus Epiphanies. Alcimus, not of the family of the priests, was then placed in the office by the Greeks who still ruled the area from Antioch. It was at that time that Onias, son of the previous Onias who had been deposed, fled to Egypt and received permission to build a Temple near Alexandria. The new Temple was loosely patterned after the Temple in Jerusalem, and was served also by priests and Levites who offered sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. Alcimus, also called Jacimus, the High Priest at Jerusalem appointed by the Greeks of Antioch, survived only three years and there followed seven years during which there was no High Priest in Jerusalem. How much more that would convince Onias that he was correctly viewing this Isaiah passage! Ptolemy and Cleopatra, his wife-sister, were induced by the above prophecy in Isaiah to grant the permission to build the Temple. The Temple was duly built and Josephus says it survived for 343 years, when it was destroyed at the command of Vespasian after the suicidal end of Masada. Josephus must be mistaken on the length of time the Temple served, however, since Onias could not have fled to Egypt sooner than 160 BC.. and the Temple in Egypt closed no later than 79 C.E.--Vespasian, still being the Caesar, gave the order to close the Egyptian Temple. He died June 23, 79. That period would contain about 240 years, rather than 340, which is still a considerable time for an alternative Temple to survive along side the one in Jerusalem. For this history see Josephus Antiq. XIII:3 and for a discussion on the chronology see Josephus Diss. V:3. This material appears in the Author's work,Zechariah and Jewish Renewal

Isaiah 19

1. The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst.

Verse 1: Idols moved: The announcement of the coming of YHWH into the land of Egypt may have its fulfillment in the increase in a faithful Jewish population which began before the large exodus back to Egypt coincident with the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar. That community increased and experienced a revival when Onias son of Onias received permission from Ptolemy and Cleopatra to build an alternative temple in Egypt. (See below) The consequences of the revival of the worship of the true God "moved the idols of Egypt," that is, decreased interest in them, but did not remove them.

2 And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom. 3 And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst of it; and I will destroy their counsel: and they shall seek to idols, and to charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to wizards. 4 And I will give the Egyptians over into the hand of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, says the Lord, the LORD of hosts.

Verses 2 -4: The internal discord and disorder in the ruling classes during the Hasmonean period led to a Roman intrusion into the affairs of Egypt and finally to a domination of Egypt before 65 BC. Julius Caesar had established himself as the "protector" of Egypt before the death of Pompey and became a dictatorial ruler with a submissive Cleopatra before his death which was passed on to Antony. Finally in Octavian (Augustus,) by 31 BC, the rule of Rome in Egypt was absolute.

5 And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up.

Verse 5: Waters Fail: The LXX sees the word that is translated "fail" as coming from a different root. The form "ve-nish-shetu" is taken by the KJV and others to be from the root "nashat" (to become dry or fail) while the LXX has it from the root form of "shatah" to drink and rendered it "piontai," (they drink) Thus the LXX carries the idea for this verse that the river will dry up, forcing the Egyptians to drink sea water. The verses that follow may have influenced the LXX scholars to choose "dry up" instead of fail since each of the verses following contains consequences of the river "drying up."

6 And they shall turn the rivers far away; and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up: the reeds and flags shall wither. 7 The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more. 8 The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast lines into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish. 9 Moreover they that work in fine flax, and they that weave networks, shall be confounded. 10 All that make sluices and ponds for fish shall be broken in their purposes

Verses 6 - 9: The consequences of a drought which caused the river to "fail" or "dry up" are listed. They will be forced to go far for water and use up those resources as well. All the swamp grass will wither, including that cultivated for paper making, fisheries, both in the river itself and in man made ponds used to raise fish, shall be destroyed, industries associated with weaving cloth and net making will disappear and the canal system will be destroyed and broken down. These natural calamities accompanied the political disorders and further weakened the nation and left it ripe for the Roman take-over.

11 Surely the princes of Zoan are fools, the counsel of the wise counselors of Pharaoh is become brutish: how can you say to Pharaoh, I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings? 12 Where are they? where are your wise men? let them tell you now, and let them know what the LORD of hosts has purposed upon Egypt. 13 The princes of Zoan are become fools, the princes of Noph are deceived; they have also seduced Egypt, even they that are the support of their tribes. 14 The LORD has mingled a perverse spirit in the midst of it: and they have caused Egypt to err in all their work, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. 15 Neither shall there be any work for Egypt, which the head or tail, branch or rush, may do. 16 In that day shall Egypt be like women who are afraid and they shall fear because of the shaking of the hand of the LORD of hosts, which he shakes over it.

Verses 11 and 13: Zoan: a major trade center in the northeast delta of the Nile about 70 miles northeast of Cairo.

Verse 13: Noph or Memphis: Memphis which was about 15 miles south of Cairo was known as a seat of learning and culture. It is also one of the cities mentioned by Jeremiah as having a large Jewish population which, during the Hasmonean period, would have been sympathetic with Roman interests. Both of these places were under threat of the Romans and because of the calamities (internal political and natural disasters) they were in decline and suffered confusion as to how to face the Roman incursion.

17 And the land of Judah shall be a terror to Egypt, every one that makes mention of it shall be afraid in himself, because of the counsel of the LORD of hosts, which he has determined against it.

The military strength of Judah prevailed during this period when at the beginning of the period the Romans protected the Hasmoneans and entered into a military alliance with them and afterward the Romans, first by Antony and later confirmed by Augustus, raised Herod the Great to be King of the whole region of Syria-Palestine. Thus Judah was a threat to Egypt during the Roman period of expansion .

18. In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the LORD of hosts; one shall be called, The city of destruction.

Verse 18: Five cities: Many Jewish exiles lived in Egypt. Beside those who had, previous to 600 BC immigrated for mercantile reasons, there was a mass immigration of the remnant of Jews who joined this dispersion after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 585 BC. According to Jeremiah they joined cities that were already largely inhabited by Jews. See Jeremiah 44. Almost 300 years later Ptolemy I moved large numbers of Jews to Alexandria and imported the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament which resulted in large numbers of non Jews being able to read the Scriptures for the first time. Thus the Word of God was made known to the Egyptians and Alexandria became an important Jewish city. Over 100 years later about 160 BC Jews who fled from Antiochus Epiphanes and within a few years those who fled with Onias joined the large community previously started over 400 years earlier in the days of Jeremiah. Of the cities that were altogether Jewish Jeremiah 44:1ff names four of them as Tahpanhes, Noph, Migdol and Pathros. Papyri found at Elephantine indicate a thriving trade emanating from these cities. To these earlier settlements Onias and his compatriots fled and thus a large third wave of immigration was brought about with many following Onias to the area near Heliopolis where Onias built his alternative temple. Thus a large Jewish community, well dispersed through all Egypt abounded. By the first century of the Christian era Philo is said to give the number of Jews in Alexandria alone at nearly one million.

Verse 18: The City of Destruction: Heliopolis/On, located near the first juncture of the Nile delta on the east side, means in Greek: "City of the Sun." In Hebrew that name is Beth Shemesh (House of the Sun) and without doubt Jeremiah makes reference to Heliopolis/On in Jeremiah: 43:13 "He shall break also the images of Bethshemesh, that is in the land of Egypt; and the houses of the gods of the Egyptians shall he burn with fire." The Egyptian name of the city is On. It is one of the cities of Egypt that Ezekiel 30:17 says will be punished and there is called AVEN in the KJV which in Hebrew has the same spelling as On. This may be a "play on Words" in Ezekiel because the word for iniquity or evil is also the same spelling and pronounced Ah-van or Ah-von. "Ah-von" is also a synonym for idol and is so used in Isaiah 66:3 (as if he blessed and ""aven" or idol. Thus, following the precedent set by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah may be using alliterations to refer to Heliopolis and its idols to Ra the sun god. Jeremiah calls it Beth Shemesh which is Hebrew for Heliopolis and Ezekiel calls it "evil" (Ah-van) which are the Hebrew letters for On. This name and spelling is found in many Bible references (beginning with Gen 41:50 which refers to Joseph's father in law who was priest of On or Heliopolis and was a priest of Ra the sun god as his name indicates,.-- Potephe-Rah. He was priest of the Sun God in the "City of the Sun" or "ir ha-cheres" which is Isaiah's "play on words."

Revelation in a Play on Words

Now as for Isaiah's "play on words." It should be obvious to all acquainted with Isaiah that alliteration or "play on words" is more frequent with him than any other prophet. Thus the different readings in some codices of "ir ha cheres" instead of "ir ha haras" as an interpretive insertion by later scribes. (Codices did not appear until after the mid first century of the Christian era.) That is, they were explaining what Isaiah meant when he used the term "ir ha- haras," (city of destruction), so that by the "play on words" he may have meant to refer to the "City of the Sun"

Can you see the difference?
The first is "ir ha-cheres" and the second "ir ha-heres.
City of the Sun -- or -- City of Destruction

The only difference in the use of these words is with "heth" in the first example that we transliterate "ch"and of "he" or "h" in the second which is the reading in the Masoretic of Isaiah. "Heres" means destruction while "Charas" or "Cheres" is a reference to the sun, although not the ordinary word for sun which is "shemesh." "Cheres" is translated "sun' in Judges 14:18 "before the sun went down;" and in Job 9:7 "Who commands the sun and it rises not." Thus in Isaiah 19:18 he names one of the 5 cities and identifies it through a "play on words" as Heliopolis, city of the sun. That city is first mentioned over a millennium before as an important city in Gen 41:50 and it was still an important city at Isaiah's writing. It was destroyed by the Persians and never rebuilt but a city was rebuilt close by in the actual environs of Heliopolis by Onias who built his Temple there and it became another refuge for Jews where people worshipped YHWH for more than 200 years. Thus the city of the Sun ('ir ha-cheres) was the city On (Aven) whose evil or idols (Ah- von) to the "Sun God" were destroyed physically by the Persians and spiritually by Onias. The textual proximity of the naming of this city should not be lost as the very next few words prophesy the building of the altar which was accomplished by Onias at or near Heliopolis.

19 In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border of it to the LORD.

An Altar: This was to be accomplished by Onias and was actually done. Josephus gives a detailed account of the building of the Temple in Egypt at "Nomas," near or actually within the "city limits" of Heliopolis where Onias also built a fortress. The Temple was the center of worship for the large Jewish community in Egypt and was active as an alternative temple until approximately 77 AD. See Josephus Wars Book VII x 3

20 And it shall be for a sign and for a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry to the LORD because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a savior, and a great one, who shall deliver them.

Onias was the rightful successor to the High Priesthood that was given by Antiochus Eupator to Alcimus (who did not come from the family of priests). Onias fled and built his alternative Temple for a witness that the one in Jerusalem was led by a corrupt priesthood.

The Great One Onias son of Onias felt that he was the great one spoken of. Josephus says that Onias relied on this prophecy in Isaiah and felt that he fulfilled it. Josephus said

"But then the son of Onias the high priest, who was of the same name with his father, and who fled to king Ptolemy, ....out of a desire to purchase to himself a memorial and eternal fame, he resolved to send to king Ptolemy and queen Cleopatra, to ask leave of them that he might build a temple in Egypt like to that at Jerusalem, and might ordain Levites and priests out of their own stock. The chief reason why he was desirous so to do, was, that he relied upon the prophet Isaiah, who lived about six hundred years before, and foretold that there certainly was to be a temple built to Almighty God in Egypt by a man that was a Jew."
Josephus Anitq. Book XIII:3:1

Savior and Great One: This verse has some interesting original language variations and the LXX adds an interpretation to indicate that they did not think it was a messianic prophecy. The Hebrew text says "He will send them a savior (moshiy'a) and a high one." "High one" is from (Rab), the word for Rabbi .The LXX reads: (Kai apostelei autois, kurios anthropon hos sosei autous, krinon sosei autous] Which means: "And he shall send to them a human lord who will save them, one judging will save them." The LXX is an interpretive translation and it indicates that the Hebrew translators in 285 BC did not think the passage refers to the Messiah and they made it clear that the one spoken of here is not a divine personage like the Messiah. They did this by adding words to the text. The LXX was translated more than 100 years before Onias built the altar in Egypt. For more detail of Onias as the "deliverer" spoken of here see note under verse 25.

21 And the LORD shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the LORD in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow to the LORD, and perform it.

Do sacrifice: The Mosaic sacrificial system was established for Jews with Egyptian converts also taking part in offering sacrifices through the priests and Levites and continued until the Egyptian Temple was destroyed shortly after 70 A.D

They shall vow: Lest they anger the LORD, Ptolemy and Cleopatra fulfilled this part of the prophecy for their own protection from the heavenly powers.

22 And the LORD shall strike Egypt: he shall strike and heal it: and they shall return even to the LORD, and he shall be entreated of them, and shall heal them. 23 In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.

Peace between Assyria and Egypt: This promised peace which was to result from building the Temple would be of particular appeal to Ptolemy because just then Assyria and Egypt were in an interminable adversarial relationship, the end of which would be a blessing indeed. Thus these passages were used by Onias to convince Ptolemy that God had called him directly to build the alternative Temple. Peace was imposed on these former competitors by the Romans.

24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land:

Verse 24: Futurists all see this as a part of the so-called Millennial Kingdom of 1000 future years which is fancifully attached to the "Pretribulation-Rapture Dispensational Premillenialism" doctrine that they have troubled the Christian religion with since 1830. Although the doctrine did not become popular until the end of the 1960's. Its popularity is part of the philosophical season of the existential abandonment of the past as relevant to the present. In the season of existentialism history becomes irrelevant. One of the continuing factors in this doctrine is the reestablishment of the Jewish State in Palestine which is a harbinger, to the Premillenialists, of the imminence of the "rapture" when they, the so-called true believers, will all disappear, in an unseen second coming of Jesus As fantastic as this doctrine is it has many adherents in the Evangelical Christian World and is looked on with approval by Zionists, who use the religious motives of the "Pre-Mils" to gain sympathy for their Zionist goals. This is not to criticize the political interests of Zionism, but to call attention to the motivation behind the "Pre-Mil" backing of the Jewish state. They believe its establishment is a necessary precursor of their supposed "secret" Rapture which, according to them, will be followed within seven years by the setting up of the Millennial Kingdom in Jerusalem with Jesus literally ruling on planet Earth for 1000 years with headquarters in West Jerusalem. It is small wonder that the Christian religion is held in such disrepute by educated unbelievers. Their problem is not unbelief it is rather being appalled at such credulity.

This passage speaks of the first recovery of the nation which was fulfilled during the time of the second commonwealth when Israel, all twelve tribes, was restored in the nation of Judah. They then were the Zion of God. They went on to a period, during the silent years, of religious purity. Idolatry was purged away and the nation, all twelve tribes, enjoyed religious prosperity and complete freedom to practice their religion under the Persian rule. The intellectual religious center was at Babylon while Judea was the center of the religious life of the people. Many Jewish communities in Egypt flourished and incorporated many in that nation into the Jewish worship even to establishing an alternative Temple in Egypt that flourished for hundreds of years. See this author's commentary "Zechariah and Jewish Renewal" pub. Moellerhaus, 1993, for details about flourishing religious life of this period and the interaction between Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Golden Age of the Silent Years. This section of Isaiah was fulfilled at that time. A fuller commentary of the passage showing a fulfillment during and shortly after the "silent years" is in the next footnote.

The second recovery is described first in Isaiah earlier in chapter 11; particularly in Isa 11:10,11. The second recovery is obviously messianic. See the notes on 11:10 and Notes on Isa 11:11. It is mentioned first as a part of the assurance to the "remnant" of believers in Israel and Judah that God's ultimate purpose would be accomplished in the nation despite the terrible losses they would suffer. Loss of statehood permanently for the "ten tribes" and calamities to be inflicted by Babylon to the remaining kingdom of Judah would not thwart God's purpose in blessing all mankind through his people Israel.

25 Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.

Since Israel was the source of most of the friction between Egypt and Assyria, When the Romans were able to bring a relative peace to the area beginning in 64 BC the time fit the prophecy very closely.

Return to Commentary Directory

Go Back to Moellerhaus Homepage