2007-04-06

For fundamentalists only: Isaiah 53 in context

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s as good as a fact among so many Christians that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of Jesus Christ:

1 Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.

3 He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

4 Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
6 We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.
7 Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.
8 Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny? When he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people,
9 A grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, Though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.
10 (But the LORD was pleased to crush him in infirmity.) If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
11 Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.
12 Therefore I will give him his portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, Because he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked; And he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.

This interpretation is a shame and a tragedy. It perpetuates the theft of Jewish scriptures from the Jews, relegating the Jewish originators of these texts to dispossessed ignoramuses who do not even understand their own literature. The interpretation also perpetuates a mix of literalist and mantic interpretations of the bible that in too many cases breeds intolerance of those with reasoned or refined counterviews. (I know, because I used to embrace this interpretation myself passionately.)

Who is the Servant? What is the context?

It is widely assumed among fundamentalists that the Servant of Isaiah is a prediction of Jesus. But what does the context tell us about the identity of Isaiah’s Servant? It is one thing to extend the context to a verse either side of a passage, yet another to extend it to the larger book as a whole.

Isaiah 41

8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham my friend
9 You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth and summoned from its far-off places, You whom I have called my servant, whom I have chosen and will not cast off–
10 Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God. I will strengthen you, and help you, and uphold you with my right hand of justice.

Isaiah 42

1 Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, Upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
2 Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.
3 A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
4 Until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

Surely this must refer to Jesus? Who else could be a teacher to the nations? Maybe, if we are quick to run with these words and not take the trouble to study their larger context. But compare the second chapter of Isaiah and see who is understood to be the teacher there. It is Zion:

Isaiah 2:

1 This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 In days to come, The mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it;
3 many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.
5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Continue with Isaiah 42

5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spreads out the earth with its crops, Who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk on it:

6 I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations
7 To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
8 I am the LORD, this is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the earlier things have come to pass, new ones I now foretell; Before they spring into being, I announce them to you.
10 Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth: Let the sea and what fills it resound, the coastlands, and those who dwell in them.
11 Let the steppe and its cities cry out, the villages where Kedar dwells; Let the inhabitants of Sela exult, and shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the LORD, and utter his praise in the coastlands.
13 The LORD goes forth like a hero, like a warrior he stirs up his ardor; He shouts out his battle cry, against his enemies he shows his might:
14 I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in; But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.
15 I will lay waste mountains and hills, all their herbage I will dry up; I will turn the rivers into marshes, and the marshes I will dry up.
16 I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These things I do for them, and I will not forsake them.
17 They shall be turned back in utter shame who trust in idols; Who say to molten images, “You are our gods.”
18 You who are deaf, listen, you who are blind, look and see!
19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like the messenger I send?
20 You see many things without taking note; your ears are open, but without hearing.
21 Though it pleased the LORD in his justice to make his law great and glorious,
22 This is a people despoiled and plundered, all of them trapped in holes, hidden away in prisons. They are taken as booty, with no one to rescue them, as spoil, with no one to demand their return.
23 Who of you gives ear to this? Who listens and pays heed for the time to come?
24 Who was it that gave Jacob to be plundered, Israel to the despoilers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? In his ways they refused to walk, his law they disobeyed.
25 So he poured out wrath upon them, his anger, and the fury of battle; It blazed round about them, yet they did not realize, it burned them, but they took it not to heart.

Who is the Servant here but Israel? Israel has been called to be a light to the nations but she has become blinded and plundered because of her sins. Yet God still holds out a promise of redemption for his Servant — Israel.

Isaiah 43

1 But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine.
2 When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you.
3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in return for you.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you, I give men in return for you and peoples in exchange for your life.
5 Fear not, for I am with you; from the east I will bring back your descendants, from the west I will gather you.
6 I will say to the north: Give them up! and to the south: Hold not back! Bring back my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth:
7 Everyone who is named as mine, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
8 Lead out the people who are blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they have ears.
9 Let all the nations gather together, let the peoples assemble! Who among them could have revealed this, or foretold to us the earlier things? Let them produce witnesses to prove themselves right, that one may hear and say, “It is true!”
10 You are my witnesses, says the LORD, my servant whom I have chosen To know and believe in me and understand that it is I. Before me no god was formed, and after me there shall be none.

Again the Servant is Israel, created for a godly purpose but who are metaphorically blind and deaf through sin.

Isaiah 44

1 Hear then, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.
2 Thus says the LORD who made you, your help, who formed you from the womb: Fear not, O Jacob, my servant, the darling whom I have chosen.
3 I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, and streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing upon your descendants.

There can be no doubt whom Isaiah means to identify as the Servant.

Continue with Isaiah 44

21 Remember this, O Jacob, you, O Israel, who are my servant! I formed you to be a servant to me; O Israel, by me you shall never be forgotten:
22 I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.
23 Raise a glad cry, you heavens: the LORD has done this; shout, you depths of the earth. Break forth, you mountains, into song, you forest, with all your trees. For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and shows his glory through Israel.
24 Thus says the LORD, your redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens; when I spread out the earth, who was with me?

Again, there can be no doubt about the identity of the Servant. More than that, we also see how Isaiah personifies this Servant nation as a single person. It is one who is sometimes blind and deaf, and here it is one who has been brought forth from a single womb. The Servant Israel is personified as a Servant man. But the meaning from the context is clear. The metaphorical servant man represents the nation Israel.

Isaiah 45:4

For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.

Isaiah 48

20 Go forth from Babylon, flee from Chaldea! With shouts of joy proclaim this, make it known; Publish it to the ends of the earth, and say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.
21 They did not thirst when he led them through dry lands; Water from the rock he set flowing for them; he cleft the rock, and waters welled forth.”

The Servant is not Jesus but Jacob, the same nation that was led through the wilderness and drank from the rock.

Isaiah 49

1 Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples. The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
2 He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.
3 You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.
4 Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, Yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God.
5 For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, That Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; And I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!
6 It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
7 Thus says the LORD, the redeemer and the Holy One of Israel, To the one despised, whom the nations abhor, the slave of rulers: When kings see you, they shall stand up, and princes shall prostrate themselves Because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.
8 Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I answer you, on the day of salvation I help you, To restore the land and allot the desolate heritages,

Again, the poetry is clear and so is the identity. Israel is the servant, the servant being born from the womb, being despised and made a slave, is a metaphor for Israel, who is to be restored, not with a resurrection from the tomb but with lands and dwelling palces. Israel is to fulfil the glory promised her at Sinai and earlier still at the time of Abraham.

Isaiah then describes a time when he will restore Israel and make her righteous, without sin:

Isaiah 49

22 Thus says the Lord GOD: See, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples; They shall bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
23 Kings shall be your foster fathers, their princesses your nurses; Bowing to the ground, they shall worship you and lick the dust at your feet. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, and those who hope in me shall never be disappointed.
24 Thus says the LORD: Can booty be taken from a warrior? or captives be rescued from a tyrant?
25 Yes, captives can be taken from a warrior, and booty be rescued from a tyrant; Those who oppose you I will oppose, and your sons I will save.
26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with the juice of the grape. All mankind shall know that I, the LORD, am your savior, your redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 50

4The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, That I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;
5 And I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
6 I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
7 The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
8 He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let him confront me.
9 See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong? Lo, they will all wear out like cloth, the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the LORD, heeds his servant’s voice, And walks in darkness without any light, Trusting in the name of the LORD and relying on his God?

Israel has been redeemed and now is the source of light to the world. She speaks the words of God and her former enemies now are either destroyed or obedient to her.

Isaiah 52

13 See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
14 Even as many were amazed at him– so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals–
15 So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless; For those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it.

By now it should be clear. The poetic servant is the personification of Israel. The nations that once enslaved Israel now stand startled at her rise to glory.

So now when we come to Isaiah 53 and read there of the servant in verse 11, surely we are bowdlerizing the original if we insist on a reading foreign to every other meaning of the Servant up till now. We are reading in Isaiah 53 of the time when Israel has emerged from the punishment of her sins, metaphorically told as if of a man servant who is sometimes deaf and blind, sometimes enslaved and mistreated, and who has been cleansed to fulfil the mission originally ordained from the time of Abraham, when Israel is to be the blessing and salvation of the world by the light she gives to all. The nations God has used to punish Israel will be saved through Israel. They will not have to bear their own guilt but will be justified by the light and mercy of the redeemed Israel.

Isaiah 53

1 Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.

3 He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

4 Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
6 We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.
7 Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.
8 Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny? When he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people,
9 A grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, Though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.
10 (But the LORD was pleased to crush him in infirmity.) If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
11 Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.
12 Therefore I will give him his portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, Because he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked; And he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.
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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “For fundamentalists only: Isaiah 53 in context”

  1. Neil,

    I agree with you that the prophets do not contain mantic ‘predictions’ or codifications of the life of Jesus. But early Christians engaged in the same kind of ‘loose’ interpretation as other Jews of the time did (see for example Habbakuk pesher, in which the Qumranites saw in Habbakuk the ‘prediction’ of real events which had taken place recently in Israel and the community), adapting Scripture to make sense of the story of Jesus. In fact, this is something which tends to undermine the suggestion that the Gospels used the Old Testament to ‘create’ a life of Jesus out of thin air. The interpretation which the early Christians gave to OT Scriptures was such that you basically couldn’t have come up with it were it not for the actual events of Jesus’ life. Judaism did not know, as you rightly point out, the idea of a single, suffering servant. The only reason it shows up in early Christianity is that Jesus’ followers had to scramble to rationalize somehow the ‘scandal’ that they revered as Son of God one who had come under God’s curse and was executed like a common criminal.

    And how could this be ‘stealing’ Jewish scripture from the Jews? It was Jews who originally came up with this interpretation, according to established exegetical practices of the time!

  2. Jeffrey Siker “Disinheriting the Jews” is one of many who observe that early Christians in effect denying the Jews their scriptures by taking for themselves and denying the Jews understood them and had therefore forfeited any just claim to them. It’s an old idea. Not mine.

    There is simply no evidence that disciples of Jesus went around looking for scriptural rationalizations to explain the historical event they had just witnessed. None.

  3. “There is simply no evidence that disciples of Jesus went around looking for scriptural rationalizations to explain the historical event they had just witnessed. None.”

    What about the fact that I just mentioned (and which you acknowledge) that nowhere else in Ancient Judaism do we find Isaiah’s suffering servant being interpreted in terms of a single person? Or that Paul had to find someway to get around the scandal of the crucifixion?

    See R. Galambush, “The Reluctant Parting” for a nuanced discussion of how the early Christians broke away from Judaism.

  4. There is no evidence there was a series of historical events or a biographical set of experiences for disciples to rationalize with scriptures. The closest we have to any such evidence is the gospels themselves.

    Not sure what you mean by the Isaiah suffering servant bit, sorry. Isaiah itself is using the metaphor of a single person.

    I don’t see Paul anywhere struggling with embarrassment over the crucifixion. He comes across as quite boastful about the whole thing, including its ‘scandalous’ status!

  5. Paul is boastful about the whole thing, but only from the standpoint of his encounter with the risen Jesus! He still realized that Christianity faced an uphill struggle to convince Jews and Gentiles that a crucified man really was the exalted Son of God. Actually, Paul’s letters provide a perfect example of a devout Jew struggling to fit his new experience of Jesus into his previous monotheistic (and anti-Christian!) beliefs.

  6. This is the modern interpretation and message put out by many of the mainstream churches. But passages like I Cor.2.2 suggest no hint of shame or embarrassment over the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Paul glories in the foolishness and weakness of God (the crucifixion). He identifies as much with the death of Jesus as he does with is life. Where does he hint at any shame or embarrassment over the crucifixion? This was my point in my reply — see the last para there.

    What parts of his letters illustrate a devout Jew “struggling to fit his new experience of Jesus into his previous monotheistic (and anti-christian) beliefs”? The letters assert that the author counted all his experience as mere dung and worthless by comparison with his knowledge of Christ. I don’t detect any struggle there. It’s a fait accompli!

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