The Message of Yeshayahu 20


Who is Yeshayahu's Audience?

Yeshayahu 20 tells of one the more bizarre symbolic acts performed by a prophet, Yeshayahu's walking unclothed and barefoot as a sign of the impending captivity of Kush and Egypt:


(ב) בָּעֵת הַהִיא דִּבֶּר י"י בְּיַד יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן אָמוֹץ לֵאמֹר לֵךְ וּפִתַּחְתָּ הַשַּׂק מֵעַל מׇתְנֶיךָ וְנַעַלְךָ תַחֲלֹץ מֵעַל רַגְלֶךָ וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן הָלֹךְ עָרוֹם וְיָחֵף. (ג) וַיֹּאמֶר י"י כַּאֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ עַבְדִּי יְשַׁעְיָהוּ עָרוֹם וְיָחֵף שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים אוֹת וּמוֹפֵת עַל מִצְרַיִם וְעַל כּוּשׁ. (ד) כֵּן יִנְהַג מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר אֶת שְׁבִי מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת גָּלוּת כּוּשׁ נְעָרִים וּזְקֵנִים עָרוֹם וְיָחֵף...

(2) at that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying: 'Go, and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put thy shoe from off thy foot.' And he did so, walking naked and barefoot. (3) And the Lord said: 'Like as My servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot to be for three years a sign and a wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia, (4) so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt, and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot...

Though the parable is clear, the larger message and intended audience of the prophecy is not. The prophecy's heading speaks of the capture of Ashdod, its body focuses on Kush and Egypt, while verse 6 introduces yet another group, "יֹשֵׁב הָאִי הַזֶּה".

  • Ashdod – Ashdod is never mentioned after the first verse of the chapter; if its capture is irrelevant to the prophetic message, why is it mentioned at all?
  • Egypt and Kush – Though Yeshayahu clearly speaks of the downfall of Kush and Egypt, is he addressing them, or is he telling others about their fate?  Either which way, to what historical event is Yeshayahu alluding?
  • "יֹשֵׁב הָאִי הַזֶּה" – Who are "יֹשֵׁב הָאִי הַזֶּה"' who will be distressed for having put their trust in Egypt? Does the noun "אִי" refer to an island specifically, or might it be used to refer  to any body of land? Finally, does the word "הַזֶּה" suggest that it is this group whom Yeshayahu is physically facing when he speaks?

For which of these three groups was Yeshayahu's visual analogy primarily intended, and what message were they meant to take away?

Prophecies to the Nations

Our prophecy is found in the midst of a entire unit of prophecies aimed at foreign nations (Yeshayahu 13-23).  What is the purpose of such prophecies?  Were they even heard by the foreign powers?  Is one to assume that Yeshayahu traveled internationally to relay his words?  In our case specifically, does it make sense to suggest that Yeshayahu walked around naked in a foreign country?  What import would the nations have given Yeshayahu's words regardless?  If Yeshayahu did not travel to Kush or Egypt, but rather relayed the analogy at home, what lesson was the Nation of Israel meant to learn from the prophecy?

Additional Questions

Though the prophecy is merely six verses long, it contains much which is unclear:

  • "וּפִתַּחְתָּ הַשַּׂק" – Why was Yeshayahu wearing sackcloth to begin with?  Does its removal constitute its own individual sign, or is this just a means to an end (Yeshayahu's walking around unclothed)?1
  • "עָרוֹם וְיָחֵף" – Was Yeshayahu meant to walk around literally naked?  Would that not harm his reputation and ensure that he would not be taken seriously?2
  • "שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים" – Do these words modify the first half of the verse and refer to the length of time during which Yeshayahu was unclothed, or do they refer to the second half of the verse and the duration of Egypt and Kush's downfall?
  • "וְחַתּוּ וָבֹשׁוּ מִכּוּשׁ מַבָּטָם וּמִן מִצְרַיִם תִּפְאַרְתָּם" – Who is the subject of this verse? Are they identical to the "inhabitants of this island" mentioned in verse 6?