Thursday, August 19, 2010

Isaiah 53: May the Real Servant Please Stand Up?

When reading Isaiah 53 upon first glance, you could attribute this passage to the suffering of Jesus, presuming that you read the Christian New Testament first and then read this passage retrospectively. I can understand that from a Christian perspective, this passage is the slam dunk for Christian apologetics. Not only that, but reading the verse in such a manner has a lot at stake. It is the only verse in Tanach that remotely sounds Christian, which sticks a craw in a Jew’s theological backside. For Christendom, this chapter unquestionably talks about Jesus. For Jewry, however, we have to step back, pause, and analyze the text simply because the Christian interpretation of this passage is out of place within the greater context of the Tanach.

This begs the question: who is the suffering servant? Is the servant Jesus, as the Christians purport, or is it somebody else? Do we have any textual or contextual analysis that can be done in order to shed some light on who this servant is? If there is not, then a Christian interpretation is just as good as the Jewish one—both unsubstantiated. Fortunately, we don’t have to take that path since we have ample evidence to give us the answer to this question.

Before going into greater textual analysis, we need to know where in Isaiah we are. At this point, we are in the midst of the “Messages of Consolation," which tells how the people Israel will be restored to its previous status of prominence and will ultimately be vindicated as G-d’s people. The fourth [of four] Suffering Servant passages, i.e. the one in question, actually starts at Isaiah 52:13, not at the beginning of Isaiah 53 because the Tanach initially did not have the modern-day chapter divisions.

Now that we know where in the story we are, we can begin. At 52:13, Isaiah says, “Behold, My servant shall prosper.” Who is the servant? Good question. Are we able to use the text to figure out who the servant is? Fortunately, yes. This is the part that lacks ambiguity. In previous Suffering Servant songs, the servant is already identified as the people Israel (Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3). Just to reiterate this very, very important point: Tanach does not refer to the suffering servant as Jesus, much less the Messiah.  The Suffering Servant is unquestionably the people Israel personified!

In case, for whatever strange reason, the explicit and unambiguous statement that the Suffering Servant as the people Israel is insufficient, let’s dive a bit further into the text:
  • The narrator of this Suffering Servant passage is the gentile nations and their kings, who are speaking through Isaiah’s prophecies. We can confirm this with Isaiah 53:1 that states “who would have believed what we have heard?”
  • Isaiah 53:3 states that the servant would be “despised and isolated from men.” Hatred of the Jew and living in ghettos are predominant motifs of Jewish history. The same cannot be said of Jesus, since he was supposedly a “man loved by all (Luke 4:14-15),” and followed by the multitudes (Matthew 4:25).
  • If there were ever an axe for a Christians to grind in this passage, it would be Isaiah 53:5, where Christendom translates it is “but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” With that translation, it sounds a lot like Jesus. But let’s look at what the actual Hebrew says:
וְהוּא מְחלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ, מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲו‍נתֵינוּ
Prepositions are tiny words, especially in Hebrew when they are denoted by a single letter, but they are nevertheless important in deriving meaning of the text. The Hebrew preposition “for” is indicated by ל, whereas “from” is indicated with מ.  The words "transgressions" and "iniquities" both have מ proceeding them in this verse, thereby making the translation "from," not "for." Now that we have looked at the actual meaning of the prepositions, we can get an accurate reading of the verse: “But he was wounded from our transgressions, he was crushed from our iniquities.” The nations are now realizing that the suffering of the Jewish people was brought upon by them. This theme is further elaborated upon by Jeremiah (10:25, 50:7).
  • Isaiah 53:9 states “and with the rich in his deaths.” Jesus only had one death. The people Israel, on the other hand, have had many. The fact that the word for “deaths,” מתיו, is in the plural reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a collective entity.
  • Isaiah 53:10 says that “he [the servant] shall see his seed.” The Hebrew word for “seed,” which is זֶרַע, always refers to physical descendants. Seeing how Jesus never had children, this verse cannot be referring to Jesus.
  • Isaiah 53:10 also says that “he shall prolong his days.” These words cannot be applied to a divine, infinite being who is the “uncaused cause” whose existence, by definition of being infinite, is eternal. This is yet another facet of the text that cannot be attributed to Jesus.
Postscript: We have explicit statements throughout Isaiah stating that the Suffering Servant is the people Israel personified. We have text proofs showing how these verses could not be applied to Jesus, as well as prooftext reinforcing what Isaiah has told us all along: the people of Israel, as a unit, will suffer, but will ultimately be redeemed when the other nations realize the err of their anti-Semitic ways.  May we see the actualization of this passage sooner rather than later so we can truly know what it means when Isaiah said "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

No comments:

Post a Comment