>Rahab Who Sits Still: Isaiah and Egypt

>When Hezekiah became king of Judah in 715 B.C., he began to consider breaking off the Assyrian yoke imposed upon the nation during the reign of Ahaz at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The people of Judah were unhappy with the heavy taxation imposed upon them in order to pay the annual tribute to Assyria.

The first attempt at independence from Assyria happened in 712 B.C. when Azuri, king of the Philistine city of Ashdod, encouraged by Egypt, revolted against Assyria by refusing to pay tribute. In order to deal with the revolt, Sargon, king of Assyria, sent his commander-in-chief to quench the revolt. The Assyrian army came to Ashdod and fought against the Philistines and captured the city (Isaiah 20:1).

In his Annals, Sargon described Azuri’s revolt:

Azuri, king of Ashdod, had schemed not to deliver tribute anymore and sent messages full of hostilities against Assyria, to the kings (living) in his neighborhood. On account of these acts which he committed, I abolished his rule over the people of his country and made Ahimiti, his younger brother, king over them.

It was at this time that YHWH commanded Isaiah to go “naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:2) as a sign that the Assyrians would defeat Egypt and Ethiopia and take them away into exile. The Lord said through Isaiah:

“As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Then they shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast” (Isaiah 20:3-5).

Assyria was able to defeat the Philistines because the promised help from Egypt did not materialize and the Philistines were left in the lurch to fight alone against their oppressors. In his Annals, Sargon accused Hezekiah of having joined the revolt, but since Assyria did not invade Judah, it is possible that Hezekiah heeded Isaiah’s message and did not join the Philistines.

After the death of Sargon in 705 B.C., the vassal nations under Assyrian control believed the time was ripe to break away from Assyrian domination. The Chaldeans, under Merodach-baladan revolted against the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Merodach-baladan sent an embassy to Hezekiah, probably to enlist Judah in the fight against Assyria.

In Egypt, the Pharaoh of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty also sent messengers to Hezekiah to join Egypt in its revolt against Assyrian oppression. Hezekiah was ready to revolt. When the Philistines refused to join the alliance against Assyria, Hezekiah invaded Philistia: “[Hezekiah] conquered the Philistines as far distant as Gaza and its territory, from their smallest outpost to their largest walled city” (2 Kings 18:8).

Isaiah believed that Hezekiah had made a bad decision. During the struggle, Isaiah counseled Hezekiah not to join Egypt in revolting against Assyria. Isaiah was aware of the mighty power of the Assyrian army. He was also aware that Egypt’s promise of help would not materialize.

YHWH sent this oracle to Hezekiah:

“Oh, rebellious children, says the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt; Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation” (Isaiah 30:1-3).

Isaiah was against a political alliance with Egypt because he was convinced that human power could not deliver Judah from the Assyrian army any more than Judah could escape the judgment that was coming upon the nation. Isaiah called Judah’s alliance with Egypt, a “covenant with death” (Isaiah 28:18).

Isaiah also knew that Egypt was an unreliable ally. Just as they failed to help during the Ashdod rebellion, they would fail to help again. Isaiah said: “For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her, ‘Rahab who sits still’”(Isaiah 30:7 NRSV).

Isaiah’s description of Egypt as Rahab is very interesting. The versions disagree on how to translate the word of Isaiah: רַ֥הַב הֵ֖ם שָֽׁבֶת

Below are a few examples of how the English versions have translated the words of Isaiah:

The Complete Jewish Bible: “For Egypt’s help is worthless, pointless; so I call her ‘Arrogance Doing Nothing.’”

The Douay-Rheims: “For Egypt shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this: ‘It is pride only, sit still.’”

The King James Version: “For the Egyptians shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this, Their strength is to sit still.”

The NET Bible: “Egypt is totally incapable of helping. For this reason I call her ‘Proud one who is silenced.’”

JSP Tanak: “For the help of Egypt Shall be vain and empty. Truly, I call this, ‘They are a threat that has ceased.’”

The New Living Bible: “Egypt’s promises are worthless! Therefore, I call her Rahab– the Harmless Dragon.”

By addressing Egypt as “Rahab,” Isaiah was showing his contempt for Egypt. It is clear from his oracles in Isaiah 28-33 that the prophet was against the pro-Egyptian group in Judah who was encouraging Hezekiah to revolt against Assyria. One of the reasons for his contempt was because Egypt was an untrustworthy ally, an ally whose “promises are worthless.”

Egypt’s desire was to reassert dominance in Canaan and to use the people in Philistia, Canaan, and Syria as a buffer between Egypt and Assyria. It is for this reason that Egypt sent ambassadors to Philistia and Judah to encourage rebellion against Assyria by promising military help against their oppressor. However, history has demonstrated that Egypt seldom helped its allies and it is to this situation that Isaiah’s words refer.

In the Hebrew Bible, Rahab was the personification of chaos. Rahab, as well as Leviathan, Yam (Sea), and Tannin (Dragon) represents the water-dragon, the monster of darkness and chaos. Job 26:12 says: “By his power he stills the sea (Yam); by his wisdom he cut Rahab the great sea monster to pieces.”

Rahab symbolizes evil power and Egypt was the evil power par excellence; it was the personification of chaos. It is for this reason that in the Bible, Egypt is called Rahab and Tannin:

Psalm 87:4: “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia.” Here Rahab is a reference to Egypt.

Ezekiel 29:3: “Thus says the Lord GOD: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon (Tannin) sprawling in the midst of its channels, saying, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’” Here “the great dragon” is Egypt. The same title is also applied to Egypt in Ezekiel 32:2.

Isaiah knew that Egypt could not help Hezekiah nor deliver Judah from the hands of the Assyrians:

“Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD! The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together” (Isaiah 31:1, 3 NRSV).

The salvation of Judah was not in Egypt, but in YHWH: “The LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it” (Isaiah 31:5). Thus, in the day of battle, the old and terrifying dragon would not rise, but it would remain quiet, sitting still.

“For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her ‘Rahab who sits still’” (Isaiah 30:7). Isaiah knew that Egypt was totally incapable of helping. Egypt was “the Harmless Dragon.” Egypt was a threatening dragon who roared loud and scared many people, but when it came time to help, the dragon could do nothing.

Egypt roared loud but the salvation of Israel was not in the noise of the dragon. Isaiah said: “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’” (Isaiah 30:15).

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to >Rahab Who Sits Still: Isaiah and Egypt

  1. Anonymous says:

    >While the chronologies of Israel and Assyria should mesh, any reference to that of Egypt is suspect, since Manetho's lists are sequential yet the rulers were often contemporaneous, and the Dark Ages of greece are a scholarly misconstruct.Therefore we should look to the 19th dynasty rather than the 25th for the occupant of the Egyptian throne at this time. Rameses II suffered a defeat at Carchemish, at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, with a surprize ambush that had him fleeing to the North!? as Jeremiah noted. [Ramses II and His Time]After submitting to the beardless Nebuchadnezzar, Ramses II was helpless to assist Israel in any material way, but did in the language of his treaties plead for the well treatment of the prisoners taken. These can be seen in the parallels of the treaty of Hattushilish, and the treaties of Ramses II, recognized as similar in these curious aspects, though usually regarded as separated by centuries, instead of their actual contemporaneous relationship. Consistent with his beardless status, as Nebuchadnezzar, the Hittite king is so pictured on the mural of Ramses II depicting an arranged marriage to the Hittit king's daughter. רַ֥הַב הֵ֖ם שָֽׁבֶת Rahav Hem Shavet is a curious construction in Hebrew, to say the least. Rahav is a singular noun, yet Hem is the plural 'they' and the next word – simmilar to Shabbat – the time of rest – can signify inactivity -it is spelled differently than "Shav" as in 'vain or worthless' from the commandment to Honor G-d's name. Interestingly though, the tense of this verb is singular. A curious passage. Either the discrepancy is due to redaction or scribal error, or this is an example of usage that is beyond my understanding of the language. I would appreciate enlightenment on the grammar of this important passage.It seems in essence though, that the translators got it right. Egypt as a vassal resort state was in no position to help troubled Israel at this time.


  2. Anonymous says:

    >It seems that I have gotten ahead of myself, thinking of the time of Jeremiah, when Isaiah preceded him. I look forward to learning more about these troubled times for Israel and Judah, both when the Assyrians took the North captive [Israel] and when Nebuchadnezzar finished the job, taking Judah captive somewhat later. It will be interesting to compare the status of Egypt over the time span we are discussing, both in the Twenty fifth dynasty, and in the time leading up to the early ninteenth. I believe there will be interesting parallels. These are apparently two times when Egypt was not in position to help, as hoped.


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