Judean Captives by King Sennacheric of Assyria
A few days ago, a reader asked me to explain Isaiah 52:4 in relation to Exodus 1:8. The issue in question is the oppression of Israel by both Egypt and Assyria. The reader writes that after reading commentaries on Isaiah 52:4, “I am really still not satisfied with the explanations I am getting because Isaiah seems to be clear that it was an Assyrian who oppressed Israel without reason.” Then, when he compares Isaiah 52:4 with Exodus 1:8, he writes, “It seems clear the ‘new’ Pharaoh was of Assyrian origin or something to do with Assyria.”
Although Isaiah 52:4 mentions Israel’s oppression in Egypt and Babylon, the reader’s conclusion that the new Pharaoh was an Assyrian is not correct. This conclusion is not based on a proper reading of the text. The proper reading of the text requires a knowledge of the historical context of the prophet when he spoke those words to Israel. As Drumheller writes, “To read Second Isaiah without knowledge of the historical context would lead only to a partial understanding of the passage” ( Drumheller 2021: 146).
The Historical Context of Isaiah 52:4
The book of Isaiah has gone through a long process of redaction. Without going into much detail about the composition of the book (I may do so at a later time), the book of Isaiah is divided into three sections, each referring to a different time in the history of Israel.
Isaiah 1– 39 was written by the prophet Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem and whose ministry occurred during the reigns of three kings of the Southern Kingdom: Jotham (742–735), Ahaz (735–715), and Hezekiah (715–687).
Isaiah 40–55 was written by a disciple of the prophet Isaiah in Babylon. This prophet is known as Deutero-Isaiah and he was called to announce to the exile in Babylon that their time of servitude had ended (for more detail read my post “Deutero-Isaiah: The Prophet of the Exile”).
Isaiah 56–66 was written by another prophet who was also influenced by the prophet Isaiah. He is generally known as Trito-Isaiah and his ministry was in Jerusalem after the people of Israel had returned to Jerusalem after the edict of Cyrus allowing the captives to return to their country.
Isaiah 52:4 was written by a prophet who lived in Babylon. The call of Deutero-Isaiah is found in Isaiah 40: “A voice rings out: ‘Proclaim!’ And I said, ‘What shall I proclaim?’ . . . All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Isaiah 40:6, 9).
Deutero Isaiah was called to proclaim the end of Israel’s exile in Babylon: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1– 2).
Thus, the proper understanding of Isaiah 52:4 must be understood from the context of Israel in exile. In addition, Isaiah 52:4 must be understood in the context of the prophet’s words in Isaiah 52:1–12. Reading Isaiah 52:4 in isolation does not provide the information needed to understand the mention of Egypt and Assyria in Isaiah 52:4.
The Oppression of Israel
When reading Isaiah 52:4, three words in the large context of verse 4 refer to the oppression of Israel in different epochs in its history. These words are “Egypt,” “Assyria,” and “here” (Isaiah 52:5). The word “here” refers to Babylon.
Israel and Egypt
When God made a covenant with Abraham, God told him that his descendant would be slaves in an alien land, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). This is what Yahweh said to Deutero-Isaiah, “Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens” (Isaiah 52:4).
The first descendant of Abraham to go to Egypt was Joseph. Then Jacob and his family went down to Egypt. The total number of people who went to Egypt with Jacob was seventy (Exodus 1:5). When Joseph entered the service of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Genesis 41:46), Egypt was ruled by a group of people who had invaded Egypt. These people were known as the Hyksos. The Hyksos were a group of Semitic people who ruled Egypt for 150 years.
The people of Israel were Semitic people, like the Hyksos. It is here that Exodus 1:8 comes into view. The new Pharaoh in Exodus 1:8 belonged to a new Egyptian dynasty. The new Egyptian dynasty replaced the Hyksos dynasty. After 150 years, the Egyptians had forgotten Joseph because Joseph was made a ruler of Egypt by the Hyksos, the oppressors of Egypt. Thus, Joseph and the Israelites were identified with the Hyksos, the oppressors of Egypt.
This new Pharaoh and the Egyptian people were afraid that this new group of Semitic people, the Israelites, was going to join the enemies and conquer Egypt again. The new Pharaoh said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (Exodus 1:9–10). The new Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor (Exodus 1:11).
Israel and Assyria
While Isaiah 52:4a speaks about Israel’s oppression by the Egyptians, Isaiah 52:4b speaks about Israel’s oppression under the Assyrian yoke. Many people from the Northern Kingdom were taken into exile by Tiglath-pileser: “In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29).
Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, invaded all the land of the Northern Kingdom and came to Samaria and “for three years he besieged it” (2 Kings 17:5). “In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” (2 Kings 17:6). The deportation of the Northern Kingdom occurred in 722 BCE. According to Assyrian records, Sargon II deported 27,280 people (read my post, “The Deportation of the Northern Kingdom”).
When Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded Judah, according to the Sennacherib Prism, Sennacherib said that he captured forty-six cities of Judah and took 200,150 people into exile, placing them throughout the Assyrian empire.
Israel and Babylon
Deutero-Isaiah writes, “what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing that my people are taken away without cause?” (Isaiah 52:5). The word “here” refers to Babylon. God’s words, “what am I doing here” affirms God’s “presence in exile together with His nation” (Paul 2012: 388). Yahweh says that his people were taken to Babylon “for nothing.” With these words, Yahweh is comparing the present oppressive situation of Israel with Israel’s oppression in Egypt and with Israel’s subjugation under Assyria.
The reference to God’s people and a people “taken away” refers to a people in captivity who are being oppressed by the Babylonians in the same way they were oppressed by the Egyptians and in the same way they were oppressed by the Assyrians.
The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the deportation of the people of Judah to exile in Babylon did not come suddenly, without a warning. Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the people that Babylon would destroy the nation unless they repented.
The exile of Judah occurred in 597 BCE, in 587 BCE, and in 582 BCE (read my post “The Fall of Jerusalem and the Exile of Judah”). In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar took 10,000 people into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon.
The second deportation of Judah took place in 587 BCE. According to Jeremiah 52:29, 832 people were taken to Babylon in the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar.
The third deportation of Judah took place when Gedaliah was governor of Judah. After the assassination of Gedaliah, according to Jeremiah 52:30, the Babylonians took an additional 745 people to Babylon in the 23rd year of Nebuchadnezzar.
The End of the Exile
The purpose of the oracle of Deutero-Isaiah in 52:1–12 is to announce the end of the exile of Judah. First, the Lord urged the people to prepare to leave their land of captivity, “Shake the dust from yourselves. Get up, captive Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains around your neck, captive people of Zion” (Isaiah 52:2).
Second, God’s messenger announced the deliverance of God’s people, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ . . . Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:7, 9).
Third, the Lord gave order for the people to leave the land of their captivity, “Get out! Get out and leave your captivity, where everything you touch is unclean” (Isaiah 52:11 NIV). This is the second call to go out of Babylon. The first call is found in Isaiah 48:20, “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’”
When the Israelites left Egypt, “the Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land” (Exodus 12:33). Israel “came out of the land of Egypt in great haste” (Deuteronomy 16:30), but their return from Babylon will not be in haste, “For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12).
When Isaiah 52:4 is studied in the context of Deutero-Isaiah’s message in 52:1–12, it is clear that the prophet is speaking about the oppression of God’s people. This oppression occurred in three different periods in the history of God’s people. Israel was oppressed by Egypt during the days of Moses. Israel was oppressed by the Assyrians during the exile of the northern tribes. Israel was oppressed by the Babylonians as they lingered in exile for more than sixty years.
The text mentions one interesting thing about the oppression of Israel. When Yahweh speaks about the Assyrian oppression, Yahweh said, “ Assyrian oppressed them without cause” (Isaiah 52:4). When Yahweh speaks about the exile of Judah he says, “my people were taken away without cause” (Isaiah 52:5). According to Blenkinsopp, the word hinnam “without cause,” is used “to refer to Israel as the innocent victim of aggression” (Blenkinsopp 2003: 341).
The concept that Israel was an innocent victim of aggression is an interesting idea that deserves a thorough investigation. But this investigation must wait for another day.
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on the book of Isaiah, read my post, Studies on the Book of Isaiah.
Claude MariottiniEmeritus Professor of Old TestamentNorthern Baptist Seminary
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Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 56-66. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Drumheller, Claire George. “Isaiah 52:1–7.” Interpretation 75 no 2 (2021): 146–.148
Paul, Shalom M. Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Israel in Babylon (Isaiah 52:4).