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Archaeology sheds new light on Isaiah 21

Archaeology sheds new light on Isaiah 21

This chapter of the bible is filled with geographical references. Bible translators have long struggled with putting these references together in a way that makes sense.

The chapter deals with a number of separate visions. First, a vision of an army marching up through the Negev and over to Elam (Persia) and Media (Iraq). Eventually, this army destroys Babylon and smashes all their idols. Second is a vision of Dumah and Seir. This is about the Edomites and specifically the city of Petra. Third is a vision about the thickets of Arabia, specifically Dedanim and Tema, and bringing water to a thirsty army. Fourth is a vision of the glory of Kedar fading and disappearing in the period of one year.

In the last 10 years, archaeological discoveries in the Middle East are revealing hitherto misunderstood assumptions about the history of early Islam, and I believe these verses can be seen in new light, as references to Islam. First, let’s look at the geographical names and clues in this chapter.

Word Study of Isaiah 21

Word Study of Isaiah 21

Interpretation Regarding the desert of the sea. This is a reference to a Middle Eastern desert that runs right into the sea. The deserts of Saudi Arabia run into the sea on all three sides of the Arabian peninsula, and so Arabia seems to be the focus of these visions.

Note that a whirlwind or invading army is coming into Israel from the south, passing up through the Negev. From the rest of the chapter, we can deduce that this is an armed invasion into the land of Israel. This invading force is described as a treacherous spoiler which will sweep through Israel and go as far as Elam and Maday (ancient names of Persia). The army is described in verses 7-9 as having large groups of horsemen, asses, camels, and men. Verse 9 tells us that the army will sweep through Babylon, and will break all of their graven images.

I believe this was fulfilled when the first Muslim armies marched north from Petra, into the Negev and north to Jerusalem. After destroying Jerusalem, they marched east and conquered the lands of Persia. This army had several distinctives. First, the Arabs became famous for having two archers on each horse or camel.

Nabataeans archers riding double

Nabataeans archers riding double

This was unique to the Muslim armies, and the earlier Nabataean Arab camel archers. The reference In Isaiah to horsemen, donkey riders, or camel riders in teams or yolk seems to be a reference to archers fighting in this way, unique among the armies of the Middle East. Second, this army came smashing idols. Up until this time, most armies captured idols and placed them in their own temple. However, this army is unique, in that it smashes idols. This is a good description of the Muslim armies, who were monotheists, and very much against paganism. There are many records of them smashing idols and destroying pagan temples as they marched.

Isaiah 21:1-9 seems to tell us of this army, coming up from the deserts of Arabia, through the Negev, attacking unsuspecting Jerusalem, then turning east and conquering Persian, forcing people to turn from paganism to Islamic monotheism.

Verse 11 moves on to tell us about the burden of Duman and Seir. This gives us a clue to the army’s origin. Duman is in northern Arabia, and Seir is the ancient name for Petra. To clarify this, verse 13 speaks twice of the Arabs. Verse 14 adds to this the origins of Dedanim and Tayma. From these places will come the sword and grievous war to Israel.

The prophet Muhammad of Islam would rise more than a thousand years after Isaiah wrote. He would be a descendent of Kedar, Ishmael’s second son, and would gather the sons of Ishmael from northern Arabia and unit them. In 636 AD, the Muslim armies poured out of Arabia and conquered the Holy land and the land of the Persians. Isaiah foresaw all of this more than a thousand years earlier.

This interpretation of Isaiah 21 could not be understood until quite recently. Muslim history has always been shrouded in some mystery, as Islamic records do not start until some 200 years after Islam began. By that time, the religion of Islam was already well established in Iraq and Iran.

In the last ten years, new archaeological research has slowly uncovered the history of the first 200 years of Islam. Using the ruins of ancient mosques from the first 300 years of Islamic history, Dan Gibson, a Canadian historian of the Middle East has assembled a database of the construction of over 200 of the earliest mosques ever built. Each of these mosques were constructed so that the faithful faced a holy direction, known in Islam as the qibla. This is fundamental to Islam. Muhammad preached that every Muslim must pray towards, and sacrifice towards, and pilgrimage towards, the qibla.

For the last thousand years, Muslims have always understood that this holy direction was towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Gibson, however, has demonstrated that the first mosques faced towards Petra or biblical Seir in southern Jordan. Mecca did not become a focal point of Islam until after the second Islamic civil war. At that time several new qibla directions emerged until Mecca was eventually accepted as the universal qibla.

Now, what about verses 13-15? This is a story, set in Northern Arabia, and is about carrying water to the thirsty. I believe this is a reference to the Arabs bringing water to the invading Babylonian army under Cambyses II, (6th century BCE). Cambyses was an Achemenid king of Persia (reigned 529–522 BCE), who conquered Egypt in 525. He was the eldest son of King Cyrus II the Great, by Cassandane, daughter of a fellow Achemenid. This event seems to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 21:13,14,15, written between 742 BCE and 687 BCE.

In this account, an Arabian leader helps Cambyses when he is trying to cross the Arabian desert. The Arabs of central Arabia (Tema was a leading city) assisted Cambyses on his invasion of Egypt by bringing him water using caravans of camels with water skins. This is the one time that caravans are mentioned brining water. Caravans usually carried trade items of great value. Loading hundreds or thousands of camels with water is unknown in Arabian history.. Isaiah 21:14 mentions Tema bringing water to him that was thirsty. Below is an accounting of this by Herodotus. Having then pledged himself to the messengers who had come from Cambyses, the Arabian planned and did as I shall show: he filled camel-skins with water and loaded live camels with these; which done, he drove them into the waterless land and there awaited Cambyses’ army. This is the most credible of the stories told; but I must relate the less credible tale also, since they tell it. There is a great river in Arabia called Corys, issuing into the sea called Red. From this river (it is said) the king of the Arabians carried water by a duct of sewn ox hides and other hides of a length sufficient to reach to the dry country; and he had great tanks dug in that country to receive and keep the water. It is a twelve days’ journey from the river to that desert. By three ducts (they say) he led the water to three several places. Herodotus Book III:9
Note: The first tale is credible and is most likely what happened. The second tale involves a non-existent river in Arabia flowing into the Red Sea, and a very long aqueduct. It is true that the Nabataean Arabs had aqueducts that collected rain-water, and they stored water in cisterns in the desert. This is probably what is meant by the second story… and the camel caravans with water skins loaded up water and brought it to Cambyses, therefore helping the Arabs to avoid being attacked and conquered by the Babylonians. At the same time, the Arabs kept the location of their hidden water cisterns a secret.

Arabia in Isaiah's Time

Arabia in Isaiah's Time

Finally, the chapter ends with the glory of Kedar fading. This happens very quickly, within the time frame of one year. While we don’t know a great deal of the prophet Muhammad’s early life, many Muslim homes have a wall chart of his family tree, starting with Abraham, then Abraham’s second son Kedar, and then on down to Muhammad. Today Muhammad is the ‘glory of Kedar.’ However, I believe that this prophecy is yet to be fulfilled. From these verses, I deduce that Kedar and the Muslim religion are about to fail. The collapse of Islam will happen quickly and dramatically. The scene is now set. Everything is falling into place for this event.

Isaiah 60 also foreshadows this event. Verse 6 tells us that the camels of Midian, Ephah, Sheba, the flocks of Kedar, and the rams of Nabajoth will come and glorify the house of God. Verse six specifically tells us that these north Arabia tribes will come and worship the Lord Jehovah. The Bible is very specific with the name of God here. So there is no mistaking the fact that in the last days, the Arabs of northern Arabia will be followers of Jehovah. That day has not yet come, but I believe it will happen in the near future. And Isaiah saw it all, two thousand seven hundred years ago.

Gibson’s research can be accessed online at

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