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No. 116: Five Cities and Isaiah 19

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 116
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons
April, 1999

There were five cities at the center of the Canaanite culture in the circle of the Jordan, a place like the Garden of Eden, like the land of Egypt, before it became the Dead Sea at the destruction of the cities (Genesis 13:10). Genesis 14:2 tells us their names: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (or Zoar). God destroyed four of these cities, but spared Zoar, where evidently the corruption of the Canaanites had not yet matured to its fullness (Genesis 15:16).

Five cities: One spared while the other four are destroyed.

As our essay on Lot notes, Lot in the land of Sodom and Zoar parallels Abraham in the land of Gerar. Gerar was Philistine, a branch of the Egyptians according to Genesis 10:13-14. The exoduses of Abraham and Isaac from Philistine Gerar (Genesis 20-21; 26) parallel the earlier exodus of Abraham from Egypt (Genesis 12), and anticipate the later exodus from Egypt under Moses. Later there were five Philistine cities also: Ekron, Ashkelon, Amnon, Gaza, and Gath. The exodus of Israel from Philistine rule in the days of the Judges and early Kings parallels the exodus from Egypt under Moses. In this case also, four cities were eventually destroyed and one was saved (Zephaniah 2:4). The city of Gath was saved because it allied itself with David, and evidently became a converted city-state (1 Samuel 27; 2 Samuel 15:18).

Five cities: One spared while the other four are destroyed.

The five Amorite cities that briefly appeared at the beginning of the story, "became" the five Philistine cities that plagued Israel for centuries in the middle of the story; five cities in an area like Egypt "became" five cities that were cultural extensions of Egypt. But that is not the end of the story. Isaiah prophesies the future, the end of the story:

In that day five cities in the land of Egypt will be speaking the lip of Canaan and swearing to Yahweh of Armies; the one will be called the City of Destruction. In that day there will be an altar to Yahweh in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to Yahweh near its border — Isaiah 19:18-19.

The "lip" of Canaan is the religious confession of Canaan, not the language of Canaan. "Lip" always means religious confession, though a confession spoken aloud in some language. The idea is not that the Egyptians will speak Hebrew, but that they will confess the religion of the Hebrews, which occupies the land of Canaan. Perhaps "Canaan" is used instead of "Judah" or "Israel" to allude back to the five original cities.

One city is called City of Destruction. By changing the Hebrew letter heth to the letter he, which looks and sounds like it (a heavy aitch sound versus a light aitch sound), one of the Dead Sea Scrolls changes City of Destruction to City of Sun, a positive rather than a negative idea. This alteration is favored by many modern expositors of Isaiah, but I think our present study is against it. The City of the Sun is Egyptian Heliopolis, and it is more likely that the original Hebrew was making a pregnant pun: The City of the Sun (heres) becomes the City of Destruction (hheres).

Older commentators assumed that six cities are in view: five saved and one destroyed. Since Egypt has many cities, they argued, the prophecy is giving us a proportion: for every wicked city there will be five faithful cities. Again, I think our thematic study moves against this view.

I submit that we have five cities. All five employ the religion of Yahweh and swear allegiance to Him, but one gives only feigned allegiance. One city is hypocritical.

The pattern is what persuades me. Through Isaiah, God alludes to the previous two sets of five cities. The first set, in the Jordan Valley, was like the land of Egypt. The second set, the Philistines, were extensions of Egypt. Now we have five cities in Egypt herself, the symbolic cities of prophecy, representing the whole of Egypt (and through her, the whole world).

And prophetically, Isaiah gives us the last word. The course of history will be inverted when the Kingdom fully comes.

Five cities: Four saved while only one is destroyed.