Ir-ha-heres | Free Online Biblical Library

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IR-HA-HERES, transliteration of Heb. עִ֣יר הַהֶ֔רֶס, lit. city of the Sun.

OT references.

These exact words do not occur in the OT although in Isaiah 19:18 where the reading of the MT is עִ֣יר הַהֶ֔רֶס (city of destruction, KJV) we should prob. read עִ֣יר הַחֶ֔רֶס. This is supported by several MSS as well as Symm. and the Vul., and also by the context of the v. The whole of Isaiah 19 is concerned with Egypt and the judgment which will befall her despite her counselors, but the cities of Egypt will turn to Yahweh and swear allegiance to Him.

One of these is called “the City of the Sun,” i.e. Heliopolis. Strictly, there is textual evidence both for “city of destruction” and “city of the sun.” However, the noun heres may be due to a scribal alteration (common enough in the OT) which was made to eliminate any reference to the sun. Elsewhere in the OT Heliopolis is referred to as אֹ֖ן (Gen 41:45, 50; 46:20) or as בֵּ֣ית שֶׁ֔מֶשׁ (Jer 43:13). One passage in Amos (1:5) referring to Beth Aven (KJV) is prob. a reference to Bēth’ôn a center of sun worship in Syria, possibly Baalbek. However, the main references here are to Heliopolis in Egypt, capital of the thirteenth nome of Lower Egypt in the Nile Delta ten m. NE of modern Cairo. It is marked today by the ruins at Tell Hisn and Matariyeh. The ancient Egyptians called the city ’Iwnw, city of the pillar. This appears in Heb. as אָוֶן (or Aven), in Middle Babylonian cuneiform as Anu, and late Assyrian as Unu.

History of the site.

In ancient times it was a center of Egyp. sun worship where the solar deities of Rē’ and Atum were honored. The Pharaohs from the fifth dynasty onward (25th cent. b.c.) were known as “Son of Re” and the priests of On, or Heliopolis, were comparable in status and wealth to those of Ptah in Memphis or Amun at Thebes during the period 1600-1100 b.c., the period of Israel’s origins from the years preceding the Exodus to the days of the Judges. There is little evidence of serious occupation after the twenty-sixth dynasty (663-525 b.c.). Strabo the geographer states that Cambyses (q.v.) the Pers. conqueror destroyed the city.

The theology and religious symbols of Heliopolis.

The basic form of the doctrines of Heliopolis goes back to the third dynasty (26th cent. b.c.). The chief god was Atum who was combined with Rē’ into Atum-Rē’ the sun god who stood at the head of the nine gods Shu (atmosphere), Tefnut (moisture), Geb (earth), Nut (sky), Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephthys. The priests of Memphis adopted the same system but regarded Ptah as the central figure. At Heliopolis various objects of veneration were found such as the steer god (Mnevis), the stone symbol known as the benben, a tall, tapering monolith, square or rectangular in section, ending at the top in a pyramidal-shaped point, the forerunner of the obelisk; the phoenix, symbol of the birth of Atum; and the iwn pillar, from which the city prob. took its name.

Heliopolis and the Bible.

Archeological discovery.

Sir Flinders Petrie did some excavation at the site about the beginning of the first world war. The remains of a temple of Aton-Re-Harakhte and an obelisk of Sesostris I (twelfth dynasty) are among the most important items he discovered. There is little or no trace of occupation after about 525 b.c. An unusual earth wall identified by Petrie as Hyksos is now regarded as the retaining wall for an ancient mound of sand upon which the benben stood, symbolizing the site where Atum stood when he emerged from the waters of chaos. See Heliopolis


W. F. F. Petrie, Heliopolis, Kafr Ammar and Shurafa (1915), 1-7; T. O. Lambden, “Heliopolis,” IDB, II, 579, 580.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(`ir haherec, according to the Massoretic Text, Aquila, Theodotion, Septuagint, the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American); according to some Hebrew manuscripts, Symmachus, and the Vulgate, `ir ha-cherec): A city of Egypt referred to in Isa 19:18. Jewish quarrels concerning the temple which Onias built in Egypt have most probably been responsible for the altering of the texts of some of the early manuscripts, and it is not now possible to determine absolutely which have been altered and which accord with the original. This difference in manuscripts gives rise to different opinions among authorities here to be noted. Most of the discussion of this name arises from this uncertainty and is hence rather profitless.

The starting-point of any proper discussion of Ir-ha-h is that the words are by Isaiah and that they are prophecy, predictive prophecy. They belong to that portion of the prophecies of Isaiah which by nearly all critics is allowed to the great prophet. Nothing but unfounded speculation or an unwillingness to admit that there is any predictive prophecy can call in question Isaiah’s authorship of these words. Then the sense of the passage in which these words occur imperatively demands that they be accounted predictive prophecy. Isaiah plainly refers to the future, "shall be called"; and makes a definite statement concerning what shall take place in the future (19:18-24). The reality of predictive prophecy may be discussed by those so inclined, but that the intention of the author here was to utter predictive prophecy does not seem to be open to question. For the verification of this prediction by its fulfillment in history we shall inquire concerning:

(1) the times intended: "that day";

(2) the "five cities";

(3) "Ir-ha-heres."

1. The Times Intended: "That Day":

The prophet gives a fairly specific description of "that day." It was at least to begin when "there shall be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan, and swear to Yahweh of hosts" (Isa 19:18), and "In that day shall there be an altar to Yahweh in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to Yahweh" (Isa 19:19). There was to be also some inroad made upon the heathenism of Egypt by the message of the Lord (Isa 19:21 f), and about that time a deliverer should arise in Egypt (Isa 19:20), and all this should take place before the power of the land of Assyria should pass away (Isa 19:23 f) .

2. The "Five Cities":

The first historical fulfillment of these words is found at the period when Onias built his imitation of the Temple of Jerusalem at the place called by the Greeks Leontopolis (Tell el-Yehudiyeh), and the worship of Yahweh was set up at Elephantine, and the Jews were a great power at Alexandria and at Tahpanhes. While any of these latter three might have contained the "pillar," the "altar" would thus be either at Leontopolis or the other one of the "five cities" which cannot be named with much probability. The great deliverer would seem to be Alexander. Some think that the conversion of the Egyptians indicated in Isa 19:21,22 is furthered, though still not completed, in the Christian invasion of the 1st century, and again in the success of modern Christian missions in Egypt.

3. "Ir-ha-heres":

It will be seen that it does not follow from what has been said that Leontopolis was Ir-ha-h as some seem to think. It is not said by the prophet that the place where was the "altar" was called Ir-ha-h, even if it were certain that the altar was at Leontopolis. Nevertheless, Leontopolis may be Ir-ha-h. The problem is not in the first place the identification of the name, but the determination of which one of the "five cities" was destroyed. The expression "shall be called the city of destruction" seems clearly to indicate that Ir-ha-h is not a name at all, but merely a descriptive appellation of that city which should "be destroyed." It still remains to inquire whether or not this was an independent appellation, or whether, more probably, it bore some relation to the name of that city at the time at which the prophet wrote, a play upon the sound, or the significance of the name or both of these, either through resemblance or contrast. If Gesenius is right, as he seems to be, in the opinion that "in the idiom of Isa Ir-ha-h means simply `the city that shall be destroyed,’ " then the original problem of finding which one of the cities was destroyed seems to be the whole problem. Still, in the highly-wrought language of Isaiah and according to the genius of the Hebrew tongue, there is probably a play upon words. It is here that the consideration of the name itself properly comes in and probably guides us rightly. Speculation, by Gesenius, Duhm, Cheyne and others, has proposed various different readings of this name, some of them requiring two or three changes in the text to bring it to its present state. Speculation can always propose readings. On was sometimes called "Heres" and meant "house of the sun," which would be both translated and transliterated into Hebrew ha-cherec and might have `ir ("city") prefixed. Naville, through his study of the great Harris papyrus, believed that the old Egyptian city which later was called Leontopolis (Tell el-Yehudiyeh) was immediately connected with On and called "House of Ra," also "House of the Sun." Thus, this name might be both transliterated and translated into the Hebrew ha-cherec and have `ir prefixed. The difference between this expression and "Ir-ha-h" which Isaiah used is only the difference between "h" and "ch." So that Ir-ha-h is most probably a predictive prophecy concerning the disaster that was to overtake one of the "five cities," with a play upon the name of the city, and that city is either On, the later Heliopolis, or the ancient sacred city about 4 miles to the North of On, where Onias was to build his temple and which later became Leontopolis (Tellel-Yehudiyeh). No more positive identification of Ir-ha-h is yet possible.