Isaiah 53: The puzzle


Is it about Messiah, or Jesus, or neither one?

The book of Isaiah includes four passages about a “Servant” of G-d.  The fourth one, Isaiah 52:13—53:12, portrays the Servant as undergoing severe humiliation, even death, before finally being “highly exalted.”  The standard Jewish view is that the Servant is the Jewish people.  Most Christians, however, have believed that the Servant is the Messiah, or, in that view, Jesus.

There have been many discussions of this chapter at Messiah Truth.  Till now, I have not been able to make heads or tails of them; in that they have focused on disproving the Christian view as opposed to setting forth the Jewish view.  On the one hand, what I have been able to gather is that the Jewish view is convoluted, inconsistent with the text (The text itself is problematic at some points.), and requires significant twisting of the author’s words.  On the other hand, when I read the whole chapter for myself, one verse after another brings recall of some feature of Jesus’ passion, the story of the last Thursday and Friday of his life, beginning with his seder and ending with his burial.  I respond, “This is about Jesus,” and there is a very strong emotional tug to believe that way, given the emotional import of the passion story.  I also jump back and forth between less familiar and more familiar verses.

It will be seen that there are countless New Testament references to this chapter.

Christians also find basis in this text for their belief in vicarious atonement, the doctrine underlying their understanding of the passion story.

I decided to go through the text one verse at a time, and see what the Jewish view is.

Verse by verse — The Jewish view

On the lefthand side, as to each verse, I will display a Jewish translation, the Judaica Press Tanakh (JPT), provided by http://www.chabad.org.  On the righthand side, I will display a Christian translation, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), provided by http://bible.oremus.org.  I will also rely heavily on Prof. Uri Yosef’s article, “Who is the Suffering Servant in “Isaiah 53”?  Part I – The Jewish Interpretation: Valid or Not?”  I present the complete text, in both translations, at the end of this post.

Verse 13

JPT

13 Behold My servant shall prosper;
ooohe shall be exalted and lifted up,
oooand he shall be very high.

NRSV

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
ooohe shall be exalted and lifted up,
oooand shall be very high.

Until the current discussion, I had not taken account of this verse.  After his humiliation, the Servant will be exalted.  This comes up again in the final verse 12.

The final exaltation of Zion is foretold at many other places also, such as Isaiah 2:2 and its duplicate at Micah 4:1.

The speaker here is G-d, who will continue to speak in verses 14 and 15.  At 53:1, the speaker will shift.

Verse 14

JPT

14 As many wondered about you,

ooo“How marred his appearance is
oooooofrom that of a man,
oooand his features from that of people!”

NRSV

14 Just as there were many who were ooooooastonished at him
ooo—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
oooand his form beyond that of mortals—

I had pretty much the same classmates from kindergarten through grade 12.  Before the start of first grade, it had been decided among us that two of us were to be pariahs, outcasts, whom one could bully, insult, abuse with impunity.  The boy was Fred McGinnis, and the girl Sandra Schartiger.  Call them stupid, call them ugly, throw things at them, mock them, hit them.  Until seventh grade, I myself never questioned this state of affairs.

Much of Isaiah 53 is about the Servant, the Jews, being a pariah nation in the eyes of the gentiles who abused them.

So, as to these translations of this verse, the quotation marks make all the difference.  This is neither G-d, nor the author, saying the Servant was marred; rather, those who say that are the gentile nations who have persecuted him.  This sort of thinking on their part will come back in later verses.

Verse 15

JPT

15 So shall he cast down many nations;
oookings shall shut their mouths because ooooooof him,
for, what had not been told them
oooooothey saw,
oooand [at] what they had not heard
oooooothey gazed.

NRSV

15 so he shall startle many nations;
oookings shall shut their mouths because ooooooof him;
for that which had not been told them oooooothey shall see,
oooand that which they had not heard oooooothey shall contemplate.

The gentile persecutors will be utterly astonished when they see the Servant’s exaltation, …

Verse 1

JPT

1 Who would have believed
ooooooour report,
oooand to whom was the arm of the Lord oooooorevealed?

NRSV

53 Who has believed
oooooowhat we have heard?
oooAnd to whom has the arm of the Lord oooooobeen revealed?

… and will say things like this.

The gentile nations will continue to speak, from here till midway through verse 8.

Verse 2

JPT

2 And he came up
oooooolike a sapling before it,
oooand like a root from dry ground,
he had neither form nor comeliness;
ooooooand we saw him
ooothat he had no appearance.
ooooooNow shall we desire him?

 

NRSV

2 For he grew up before him
oooooolike a young plant,
oooand like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty
oooooothat we should look at him,
ooonothing in his appearance
oooooothat we should desire him.

The gentile nations find nothing in the Servant’s appearance to admire.

Verse 3

JPT

3 Despised and rejected by men,
oooa man of pains
ooooooand accustomed to illness,
and as one who hides his face from us,

ooodespised
ooooooand we held him of no account.

 

NRSV

3 He was despised and rejected by others;
oooa man of suffering
ooooooand acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their
oooooofaces
ooohe was despised,
ooooooand we held him of no account.

More of the same.  It will be seen that the pains and illness result from the abusers’ abuse.

Verse 4

JPT

4 Indeed, he bore our illnesses,
oooand our pains—he carried them,
yet we accounted him as plagued,
ooosmitten by God and oppressed.

 

NRSV

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
oooand carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
ooostruck down by God, and afflicted.

Here’s where things start getting difficult.

There are differences between the two translations.  Each will use the same language again when the same Hebrew occurs in later verses.

The Jewish view might restate it thus:  “We made him bear our illnesses; we imposed our pains (or grievances or irritations) on him.  But he is accursed by G-d, and so deserved it.”

Uri Yosef says, “The (Gentile) nations have held that the Jewish people are cursed by God, and  they were (and many still are) determined to see that they suffer the consequences of this alleged curse.”  The prophecy being disconnected from the prophet’s own time, I can see now that the reference is to Christian nations regarding Jews as accursed for having “rejected Jesus.”

Related:  Transference, BLM and anti-Semitism

Verse 5

JPT

5 But he was pained because of our
ooooootransgressions,
ooocrushed because of our iniquities;
the chastisement of our welfare
oooooowas upon him,
oooand with his wound we were healed.

 

NRSV

5 But he was wounded for our ooooootransgressions,
ooocrushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment
oooooothat made us whole,
oooand by his bruises we are healed.

If it has not yet been made clear in this discussion, the holding is that the text means, in effect, “Our transgressions pained him; our iniquities crushed him.”  It’s all about the gentiles’ abuse of the Jews.

In that case, why not just say,  “Our transgressions pained him; our iniquities crushed him?”  If “with his wound we were healed” means, “His wound pleased us,” why not just say that?  Unless the author has merely chosen a more artistic, or poetic, form.

Uri Yosef says, “[The four] Servant Songs are considered as passages of exceptional
expressive beauty (especially in the Hebrew language) and great religious depth.”  One of the things the author does is juxtapose similar words, as in the case of אִם־תָּשִׂ֚ים אָשָׁם֙, which comes up in verse 10.  A great deal is lost in translation.

Verse 6

JPT

6 We all went astray like sheep,
ooowe have turned, each one on his way,
and the Lord accepted his prayers for
ooothe iniquity of all of us.

 

NRSV

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
ooowe have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
ooothe iniquity of us all.

As different as they are, “accepted his prayers for” and “has laid on him” are both acceptable translations of the underlying Hebrew.

Verse 7

JPT

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
oooyet he would not open his mouth;
like a lamb to the slaughter he would be
oooooobrought,
oooand like a ewe that is mute before her ooooooshearers,
oooand he would not open his mouth.

 

NRSV

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
oooyet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

oooand like a sheep that before its ooooooshearers is silent,
oooso he did not open his mouth.

The verse speaks for itself.

Verse 8

JPT

8 From imprisonment and from judgment
oooooohe is taken,
oooand his generation who shall tell?
For he was cut off from
oooooothe land of the living;
ooobecause of the transgression of my
oooooopeople, a plague befell them.

 

NRSV

8 By a perversion of justice
oooooohe was taken away.
oooWho could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from
oooooothe land of the living,
ooostricken for the transgression of my
oooooopeople.

In the Christian translation, “by a perversion of justice” could certainly apply to Jesus.

Rashi, the foremost Jewish commentator, says “the land of the living” refers to the land of Israel.  That interpretation would refer to the Babylonian Exile, which was in progress at the time Second Isaiah said this, and was attributed to the sinfulness of a portion of the Jewish people.

Verse 9

JPT

9 And he gave his grave to the wicked,
oooand to the wealthy
oooooowith his kinds of death,
because he committed no violence,
oooand there was no deceit in his mouth.

 

NRSV

9 They made his grave with the wicked
oooand his tomb with the rich,

although he had done no violence,
oooand there was no deceit in his mouth.

“To the wealthy with his kinds of death” refers to extortion by gentile thugs (or nations) on the threat of death.

Related:  Worth a Jew’s eye

That “kinds of death” is plural means the Servant cannot refer to just one individual, such as Jesus.

“There was no deceit in his mouth” is construed to mean the Servant expressed no fealty to false gods.  Rabbi Akiva comes to mind.

Verse 10

JPT

10 And the Lord wished to crush
oooooohim, He made him ill;
oooif his soul makes itself restitution,

he shall see children,
oooooohe shall prolong his days,
oooand God’s purpose shall prosper
ooooooin his hand.

 

NRSV

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush oooooohim with pain.
oooWhen you make his life
ooooooan offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring,
ooooooand shall prolong his days;
ooothrough him the will of the Lord shall
ooooooprosper.

Again, the gentiles regard the Servant as being under a curse.

“If his soul makes itself restitution” involves an obscure Hebrew expression, “אִם־תָּשִׂ֚ים אָשָׁם֙,” and might be better rendered, “If he will acknowledge guilt.”  The reference here is to the sins of a portion of the Jewish people, as opposed to those of the gentile oppressors.

Note that Jesus’ days were short, and he had no children.

Verse 11

JPT

11 From the toil of his soul he would see,
ooohe would be satisfied; with his
ooooooknowledge
My servant would vindicate the just for oooooomany,
oooand their iniquities he would bear.

 

NRSV

11   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
ooohe shall find satisfaction through his ooooooknowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall oooooomake many righteous,
oooand he shall bear their iniquities.

The verse is confusing in itself; the differences between the two translations are confusing; and Rashi and UriYosef seem to take their interpretations in different directions.

Rashi allows as the Servant will become a judge, and as a judge, vindicate the righteous.

Uri Yosef’s interpretation seems actually closer to the Christian translation, saying that by virtue of teaching Torah to the nations, the Servant will make them righteous.

Verse 12

JPT

12 Therefore, I will allot him a portion
ooooooin public,
oooand with the strong he shall share ooooooplunder,
because he poured out his soul to death,
oooand with transgressors he was oooooocounted;
and he bore the sin of many,
oooand interceded for the
ooooootransgressors.

 

NRSV

12 Therefore I will allot him a portion oooooowith the great,
oooand he shall divide the spoil with the  oooooostrong;
because he poured out himself to death,
oooand was numbered with the ooooootransgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
oooand made intercession for the ooooootransgressors.

Here we come back to the Servant’s future exaltation.

As to “He poured out his soul to death,” I am surprised to find the two translations here the same, given that it suggests he died.  Uri Yosef proposes, and justifies, a different wording,
“He bared his soul to death.”

The Christian view

… can be summarized by one verse from the New Testament, Mark 10:45:  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I decided some time ago that the Son of Man sayings are inauthentic; and this puts me in the uncomfortable position of questioning the entire (very significant) story, Mark 10:35-45.

When and why …

… the Christians came to believe their way is only partially knowable by me. The earliest Christian texts are the letters of Paul. The Christian belief apparently was established earlier than Paul, since in Philippians 2:5-11 he quotes a hymn that already speaks of Jesus as a suffering servant destined for exaltation.

Why the Christians came to attach this chapter to Jesus is simple and deep. It gave them an explanation for the Cross; before which, they had none, and this had been a crisis for that community. This man, to whom they had attached such high aspirations — They took him for Messiah. — was abruptly taken from them, subjected to a corrupt trial, and put to death in the most shameful way possible. This chapter, to their minds, explained it all.

The pickle for me …

… begins with trying to sort out at least four different considerations: the author’s intent, G-d’s intent (which may not be same as the author’s), what “actually” happened, and What Is. The text may not actually be prophecy at all, as I understand prophecy. And then there is the question of how I will relate to the New Testament.

Prof. Yosef identifies these New Testament references to each verse; I don’t necessarily agree with every one:

Isaiah 52:15 Romans 15:21
Isaiah 53:1 John 12:38, Romans 10:16
Isaiah 53:3 Luke 18:31-33, Mark 10:33-34, John 1:10-11
Isaiah 53:4 Matthew 8:17
Isaiah 53:5 Romans 4:25, 1 Corinthians 15:3, Hebrews 5:8, Hebrews 9:28,
1 Peter 2:24
Isaiah 53:6 1 Peter 2:25
Isaiah 53:7 Matthew 26:63, Matthew 27:12-14, Mark 14:61, Mark 15:5, Luke 23:9,
John 19:9, Acts 8:32-33
Isaiah 53:9 Matthew 27:57-60, 1 Peter 2:22
Isaiah 53:10 John 1:29
Isaiah 53:11 John 10:14-18, Romans 5:18-19
Isaiah 53:12 Matthew 26:38-39,42, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 2:9-11

If the Jewish view is “correct,” and this text is not at all about Jesus — every time I read the Gospels, and every time I come across one of those dozens of references elsewhere in the New Testament, I am going to have to re-evaluate my estimation of that text.  Where that will lead, I have no idea now.

The testimony

And what does this say about my community?

I grew up among religious Christians.  They were everywhere around me: my family, my classmates, my neighbors, my church family. I spent twenty years among them.  All of them believed that this story is about Jesus.

These were all profoundly good people.

Do not their lives vindicate their beliefs?

“Faith,” as I believe Jesus used that term — Jesus, not Paul, not the author of Hebrews, nor any one else, but Jesus — refers not to the content of one’s beliefs, not the set of concepts that one says “Yes” to, but whether one’s beliefs correspond to the way one lives one’s life; whether one “walks one’s talk.”  From this view, the content of one’s beliefs is neither here nor there. The hard work is making one’s walk match one’s talk, or vice versa.

The folk I spoke of, their walk matched their talk.

Your testimony will not be the concepts you mouth out when asked. Instead, your testimony is the life you live.

The whole text

JPT

13 Behold My servant shall prosper;
ooohe shall be exalted and lifted up,
oooand he shall be very high.

NRSV

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
ooohe shall be exalted and lifted up,
oooand shall be very high.

14 As many wondered about you,

ooo“How marred his appearance is
oooooofrom that of a man,
oooand his features from that of people!”

14 Just as there were many who were ooooooastonished at him
ooo—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
oooand his form beyond that of mortals—
15 So shall he cast down many nations;
oookings shall shut their mouths because ooooooof him,
for, what had not been told them
oooooothey saw,
oooand [at] what they had not heard
oooooothey gazed.
15 so he shall startle many nations;
oookings shall shut their mouths because ooooooof him;
for that which had not been told them oooooothey shall see,
oooand that which they had not heard oooooothey shall contemplate.
1 Who would have believed
ooooooour report,
oooand to whom was the arm of the Lord oooooorevealed?
53 Who has believed
oooooowhat we have heard?
oooAnd to whom has the arm of the Lord oooooobeen revealed?
2 And he came up
oooooolike a sapling before it,
oooand like a root from dry ground,
he had neither form nor comeliness;
ooooooand we saw him
ooothat he had no appearance.
ooooooNow shall we desire him?
2 For he grew up before him
oooooolike a young plant,
oooand like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty
oooooothat we should look at him,
ooonothing in his appearance
oooooothat we should desire him.
3 Despised and rejected by men,
oooa man of pains
ooooooand accustomed to illness,
and as one who hides his face from oooooous,
ooodespised
ooooooand we held him of no account.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
oooa man of suffering
ooooooand acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their
oooooofaces
ooohe was despised,
ooooooand we held him of no account.
4 Indeed, he bore our illnesses,
oooand our pains—he carried them,
yet we accounted him as plagued,
ooosmitten by God and oppressed.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
oooand carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
ooostruck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pained because of our
ooooootransgressions,
ooocrushed because of our iniquities;
the chastisement of our welfare
oooooowas upon him,
oooand with his wound we were healed.
5 But he was wounded for our ooooootransgressions,
ooocrushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment
oooooothat made us whole,
oooand by his bruises we are healed.
6 We all went astray like sheep,
ooowe have turned, each one on his way,
and the Lord accepted his prayers for
ooothe iniquity of all of us.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
ooowe have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
ooothe iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
oooyet he would not open his mouth;
like a lamb to the slaughter he would be
oooooobrought,
oooand like a ewe that is mute before her ooooooshearers,
oooand he would not open his mouth.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
oooyet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the
ooooooslaughter,
oooand like a sheep that before its ooooooshearers is silent,
oooso he did not open his mouth.
8 From imprisonment and from judgment
oooooohe is taken,
oooand his generation who shall tell?
For he was cut off from
oooooothe land of the living;
ooobecause of the transgression of my
oooooopeople, a plague befell them.
8 By a perversion of justice
oooooohe was taken away.
oooWho could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from
oooooothe land of the living,
ooostricken for the transgression of my
oooooopeople.
9 And he gave his grave to the wicked,
oooand to the wealthy
oooooowith his kinds of death,
because he committed no violence,
oooand there was no deceit in his mouth.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
oooand his tomb
oooooowith the rich,
although he had done no violence,
oooand there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 And the Lord wished to crush
oooooohim, He made him ill;
oooif his soul makes itself restitution,he shall see children,
oooooohe shall prolong his days,
oooand God’s purpose shall prosper
ooooooin his hand.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush oooooohim with pain.
oooWhen you make his life
ooooooan offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring,
ooooooand shall prolong his days;
ooothrough him the will of the Lord shall
ooooooprosper.
11 From the toil of his soul he would see,
ooohe would be satisfied; with his
ooooooknowledge
My servant would vindicate the just for oooooomany,
oooand their iniquities he would bear.
  11   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
ooohe shall find satisfaction through his ooooooknowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall oooooomake many righteous,
oooand he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will allot him a portion
ooooooin public,
oooand with the strong he shall share ooooooplunder,
because he poured out his soul to death,
oooand with transgressors he was oooooocounted;
and he bore the sin of many,
oooand interceded for the
ooooootransgressors.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion oooooowith the great,
oooand he shall divide the spoil with the  oooooostrong;
because he poured out himself to death,
oooand was numbered with the ooooootransgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
oooand made intercession for the ooooootransgressors.

 

 

 

 

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