Isaiah 19:18 – City of Destruction or City of the Sun?

Bryan Murawski   -  

Isaiah 19:18 presents an interesting text-critical issue.  What city does Isaiah refer to?  The ESV reads, “In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt… One of these will be called the City of Destruction.”  The Hebrew word for “destruction” is הַהֶרֶס (haheres; literally: “The Destruction.”)

The ESV has a note on the word that says, “Dead Sea Scroll and some other manuscripts [read] City of the Sun.”  What this note means is that a few ancient witnesses (manuscripts) have the word “Sun” instead of “Destruction.”  How can this be, since “Sun” and “Destruction” look nothing alike?

Well, not in Hebrew!  In the original language, “Sun” and “Destruction” look almost identical.  The Hebrew word for “the Sun” is הָחֶרֶס (haḥeres).  Notice the difference?  Let’s compare the words side-by-side:

The only difference between these two words is the little line that separates the Hebrew letter from the Hebrew letter ḥet.  That’s it.  Just a little line.  It’s easy to see how the two words might have been confused, either by a writer accidentally going too high on a brushstroke or a copyist accidentally thinking the letter was one or the other.

So which was it, originally?  Which word did Isaiah write?

On one side, the most often-used Hebrew manuscript has “Destruction.”  That’s why we have it translated as such in most modern versions (including NASB; ESV; KJV).  On the other side, the “Great Isaiah Scroll”—the most famous of the Qumran/Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts—has “Sun.”  This reading is also supported by many ancient translations of Scripture, including the Vulgate (Latin), Symmachus (Greek), the Targum (Aramaic) and the Arabic (along with a few other lesser valuable Hebrew manuscripts).

The weight of the DSS manuscript and the other ancient translations probably decides in favor of “City of the Sun,” as several modern version recognize (NET; NIV; NLT).  Helping this translation is the fact that there was a known “City of the Sun” – Heliopolis – but there was no known “City of Destruction.”  If “Destruction” is the correct reading, it must be metaphorical.  After God’s destruction of Egypt, it will rise to be known as a center of worship.  But when the evidence is weighed, it seems to tip slightly in favor of “Sun.”