The Rational Believer

A Five Volume Series on Jewish Faith

Vol. 3, Jewish Objection to the New Testament

Isaiah 53—The Suffering Servant

Overview: This proof-text is by and large the most popular and most successful of all proof-texts. Speaking of the suffering of an unidentified servant for the sake of cleansing the sins of others, this chapter is associated with Jesus, who suffered at the Cross allegedly for the sake of mankind. But does this chapter really refer to the Messiah, and if it does, what does that signify?

It is the top-quoted proof-text that missionaries love using. The chapter, which essentially begins from V. 13 of Ch. 52, describes the suffering of a “servant of G-d,” a despised man ashamed by all. The Christians connect it to Jesus’ suffering at the Cross for the sake of mankind’s sins.

Here is a translation of the chapter in discussion. It is accurate with being loyal to the Hebrew by avoiding as much interpretation as possible (as Christian translations tend to interpret). Brackets are added for the key Christian interpretations and claims on this chapter:

13 “Indeed, My Servant [Christians claim this Servant to be the Messiah and therefore, in their opinion, Jesus] shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights. 14 Just as the many were appalled at him— So marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, form, beyond human semblance— 15 Just so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, For they shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard.” 1 “Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, Like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: No charm, that we should find him pleasing. 3 He was despised, shunned by men [they apply this to the general objection of Jews to their “saviour” Jesus], a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account. 4 Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by G-d; 5 But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed [a key Christian doctrine is believing that Jesus’ suffering and death at the Cross was the atonement for our sins—see proof-text Leviticus 17 for more on this]. 6 We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the Lord visited upon him the guilt of us all.” 7 He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth [they claim that Jesus was submissive to his death by willingly entering Jerusalem]. 8 By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? for he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment. 9 And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death [the New Testament records/claims that Jesus burial was in a rich/wicked man’s tomb] — though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood. 10 But the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the Lord’s purpose might prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see it; he shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion. “My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; 12 Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.”

It is important to note, that many Christian Bibles deliberately mistranslated the beginning of V. 5 of Ch. 53. It says: “but he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities.” But to add some flavor to their interpretation of the passage they define “wounded” more particularly as “pierced” to make it appear to be describing Jesus.[1]

For argument’s sake (and because a minority of Jewish commentators explain these passages as Messianic), let’s assume for the time being that indeed these passages are Messianic.

But who is to say that it’s referring explicitly to Jesus? As a matter of fact, there were many historical figures and claimed-Messiahs who had torturous deaths, as their followers claim “for the sake of forgiving sins.”

It must be noted that the rejection in Isaiah 53 isn’t that of the Jews but of the Gentiles as seen in the last verse of Ch. 52 (which Ch. 53 is clearly a continuation of[2]): “So shall he cast down many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for, what had not been told them they saw, and [at] what they had not heard they gazed.” Hence, no reference to the Jewish objection to the Jesus. Moreover, even if it was referring to the Jews rejecting this servant, every single other claimed-messiah throughout history was rejected as well by the Jewish nation.

Many missionaries will assert that Jesus was submissive to his death thereby fulfilling verse 7. This is hardly true after one takes a look at the New Testament records of the account. “My G-d, my G-d, why has thou forsaken me?!” was Jesus’ last cry on the Cross,[i] hardly a fitting candidate for yet he would not open his mouth; like a lamb to the slaughter he would be brought, and like a ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he would not open his mouth.”

Furthermore, it is written that “he shall see children [lit. seeds] and live long years.[3] But Jesus was void of both these descriptions. If the missionaries are to interpret “long days” in a spiritual sense as referring to the World to Come, then this is already a belief of theirs—not a proof! For anyone as well can interpret the entire chapter in spiritual terms as referring to themselves. We cannot either interpret “long days” to be referring to the Resurrection, for if so, it should have said “eternal days” not “long days.” As a matter of fact, wherever in scripture it uses the term “long days,” it is always mortal, never eternal.[4]

The term “children” used here is highly unlikely to be disciples, for the term “seed” (zera) is used (and the very definition of “seed” denotes physical children). Only “children” (banim) are found to often be interpreted metaphorically in the Torah. While if the term zera can be interpreted metaphorically occasionally is arguable, one thing is clear: it almost always means physical children, unless the context proves otherwise. So here, where it says “seed” (zera), we are to assume it means literal as it does usually, and assuming otherwise is a leap of faith.

Furthermore, in addition to elaborating on the shock of nations and their kings on the coming of Jesus, the Prophet should have mentioned (if not emphasized) the shock of the Jews themselves who rejected their very own Messiah! But of course, it doesn’t.

No one fits the Isaiah 53 servant description better than the Jews. Throughout their long exile, they were suppressed and tortured—despised by all—by their neighboring Christians and Muslims and all others, as the Jews were deemed to be under the curse of the New Testament and Quran.[5] When G-d shall redeem His peoples, the entire world will indeed be in shock as Isaiah 52:15 describes.

The preceding and proceeding contexts and chapters of Isaiah 53 both speak of the Jewish Nation. It would be ridiculous to assume this chapter is different. In addition, the term “My Servant” (avdi) used in the chapter is a term used exclusively for the Jewish Nation in Isaiah (brought up nine times since Isaiah Ch. 41). In Isaiah 52:10, which is just three verses before the servant is introduced (in Isaiah 52:13), the Prophet says “the Lord will bare His holy hand…” by the Redemption, and it’s clear that this is going on the Jewish People. What does the prophet have to say here about the servant? “And the hand of the Lord upon whom has it been revealed” (53:1). Do you not think there is a connection between these verses? To me is seems obvious that there is.

Of course, this whole discussion is all under the assumption and premises that Jesus actually existed and actually died at the Cross etc., something which there’s valid speculation about, as we have discussed in chapter “The Resurrection Myth.”

 

Now here’s the proper understanding of the chapter as it describes the Jewish Nation. We’ll take it verse by verse:[6]

Chapter 52 of Isaiah discusses the Redemption of the Jewish people. Verse 10 continues:

The Lord will bare His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, And the very ends of earth shall see the victory of our G-d.

Notice how the verse says that the nations will see “the holy Hand of the Lord” drawn out to the Jewish People. This will be relevant for later when the same exact term is used later regarding that the Lord will bare His holy Hand to the Servant.

Only three verses later do we begin the discussion of the Servant. Up until now it was talking about the Jewish Nation being redeemed from their exile, and it would seem that this is a direct continuation of that. One chapter flows right into the next one. It should be noted that the chapters weren’t split by the author of Isaiah himself it is rather the invention of a Medieval pope.[ii]

 

Verse 13:

“Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights.”

Who is this “servant”?

Isaiah mentions a “servant” in Isaiah 37:35 referring to King David.[7] Yet from there and on (from the second half of Isaiah which is known to have different terminology than the first half) the term is used (starting from chapter 41) nine times in total, and every time it is referring to the Jewish Nation as seen from the context there.[8] So why should here be any different? It must be going on the Jewish Nation. In addition, the very chapter before and after Isaiah 53 talk about the redemption of the Jewish People. The word avdi became synonymous with the Jewish Nation.

 

But why is it singular if referring to a multitude of people?  Well as seen, apparently it was nothing new to Isaiah’s terminology. The reason is probably because he is referring to the nation as a whole. Even in English we usually say “the nation is” in contrast to “the nation are.” Also, the chapter proceeding ours in discussion refers to the Jews in singular.

 

What did classical rabbinic interpretations think about interpretation this chapter on the Jews?

Although there are minorities of Jewish commentators that explain this chapter as messianic, it does not fit too well.[9] This is besides for the fact that even these few Jewish commentators only do so in light of the Midrash[iii] which, as it frequently does, explains the chapter metaphorically. This is in fact what the Ramban says right before explaining the chapter as Messianic.

It is often said by missionaries that Rashi, an eleventh-century scholar and known as the greatest Jewish commentator, was the first one to raise this interpretation of Isaiah going on the Jewish People. The claim continues that he did so in order to contrast the popular Christian interpretation of the chapter. Well it first needs to be noted that he was the first scholar to officially write up a commentary regarding the literal interpretation of the Bible. Up until his times, there were only the world of Midrashic commentating which focuses primarily on metaphorical and homiletical interpretations generally far from the literal understanding of the verse. Besides, there was a Midrash which mentioned the Suffering Servant in reference to the Jewish Nation much before Rashi did (see Bamidbar Rabbah 13:2).

 

Just as the many were appalled at him— so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, form, beyond human semblance—

 

The Jews throughout exile were looked upon as repulsive and subhuman just as the verse describes.

 

Just so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, for they shall see what has not been told to them, shall behold what they never have heard.”

 

It is clear that chapter 53 describes the kings of the world talking of their amusement. The flow goes very well that way and also can be seen from verse 8 (“because of the sin of my peoples”). Notice how it only mentions the nations and kings of the world and says nothing of the Jews being amazed of this Servant. Also, if one of the primary objectives of this chapter is to describe the rejection to Jesus, then the Jews—his very nation and the ones who rejected him the most—should have been mentioned, if not focused on.

 

“Who can believe what we have heard? upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

 

Does the term “Hand of the Lord” ring a bell?  Remember it from verse 10 of chapter 52?

 

For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: no charm, that we should find him pleasing.

 

This passage is clearly not to be taken literally as being physically ugly is no good reason for him to be despised, rejected, and considered afflicted by G-d for his sins. Rather he has no beauty means that there was no reason to like him because he was hated, and he came from dry land also brings out same theme that he wasn’t glorious or noble but was instead considered subhuman and treated like an animal. This was the Jewish nation.

 

He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account.

 

This as well isn’t literally sick but rather rejected and despised just like a sick ugly cripple.

Alternatively, it may be referring to literal sickness. Amongst the list of curses prophesied to happen to the Jewish Nation when they transgress is found in Deuteronomy 28:27:

“The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.”

Perhaps the illness mentioned in our verse in Isaiah 53 is referring to this part of our sufferings. This may have happened while other pre-exilic curses happened (such as destruction of the land, the fields not producing its fruits and the capturing of many slaves. This happened from about 30-250 A.C.E.). Another possibility when this curse may have happened was in the ghetto where illness and diseases were widespread.

 

Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten, and afflicted by G-d;

 

The gentiles believed we were put under the Curse of the New testament and the Quran. They thought that we were hated by G-d and therefore plagued, smitten, and afflicted by Him. But in fact, continues the Prophet, it was their sins that the Jewish people were bearing.

Really? I am suggesting that the Jews suffered for the Gentile’s sins and it wasn’t for their own sins as Deuteronomy 28 tells us? Deuteronomy 28 clearly says that we will be exiled and put under the Curse of suffering for our sins!—?

The idea is like this. The Jewish Nation was appointed to be an ambassador of G-d’s message. We were appointed to be a light unto the nations of the world by teaching them morality. This is done primarily thorough us acting as true moral examples. If we fail to act the way G-d instructed us and to live moral lives, then we in effect have failed to be a light unto the nations and an ambassador of morality.

Being an ambassador is a heavy responsibility and comes with a heavy price upon failure. [Yet of course it has a major benefit as well, as the very end of Isaiah 53 explains.] Being responsible for the gentiles means that if they sin, we are responsible. But perhaps they are sinning on their own accord independently of the Jewish message of G-d? That’s precisely why G-d looks at our sins. If we transgress and don’t represent morality, then the gentile’s sins are casted upon us because we should have been a good example for them so perhaps they would repent. If we were at least doing our part, then the Lord can’t blame us; but if we ourselves are sinning then our responsibility bears its consequences.

Hence, the suffering of the Jews was indeed a result of their own transgressions, but it embodied the suffering that the gentiles were spared of (for the most part having not been exiled and persecuted throughout the generations). This responsibility and suffering, though, eventually leads to a great reward, such as the glory that Isaiah 53 mentions for this faithful Servant. Comes out, that Deuteronomy 28 and Isaiah 53 actually complement each other.

 

But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed.

 

Of course, the gentiles don’t get totally healed by our suffering and are at large responsible for their own actions. Just like the sacrifices didn’t fully atone but require repentance as well.

The word mechulal also means disgraced or considered inferior. The word meduka means crushed, either physically or in spirit.

 

We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the Lord visited upon him the guilt of all of us.”

He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth.

 

The Jews were slaughtered yet for the most part remained humble and loyal to the Lord. Think of the Jews singing ani maamin, an emotional song of faith, before entering the gas chambers.

 

By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.

 

So many Jews were killed due to the sins of my people, declare the kings of the nations.

 

And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death— though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood.

 

The Jewish victim’s corpses were often laid in waste or buried amongst evil gentiles. [Alternatively, the wicked put him to death (referred to as burial), and the rich (the government) aided in or encouraged his death.] And they did it for no good reason, simply out of hate, there was no justice there, for they didn’t kill him for any evil actions he has done nor because he spoke falsehood.[10]

 

But the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the Lord’s purpose might prosper.

 

If the Jews would remain loyal, as they were (and G-d knew it and therefore predicted the Redemption and universal recognition of this Servant), they would live long. Indeed, the Jews are the oldest religion and culture surviving.[11] They should have been extinct based on their astonishing history, yet they bore offspring that are still thriving today.

Indeed the purpose of the Lord has prospered, as the Jews have changed the world for the better throughout our exile.[12]

 

Out of his anguish he shall see it; he shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion. “My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears;

 

The Jews indeed impacted the world and made many considered righteous through their influence on society as a whole with the belief in the One True G-d who dignifies every human being.

 

Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.”

 

We hope and pray for the fulfillment of this verse speedily in our days with the redemption!


[1] About half of the Christian translations admit to this mistranslation and properly translate as “but he was wounded for our transgressions,” while the other half mistranslate to “but he was pierced for our transgressions.”

The word meduka (used in the verse) comes from the word daka, which specifically means “crushed” or “degraded” (or in modern Hebrew “depressed”). Usually in Scripture, it’s crushing of the heart (one’s spirit). [But even if it’s physically crushed that bears no significance to the piercing at the Cross.]

The word chalal, which is the mistranslated word, has various definitions. First, it means “desecrate,” as seen numerous times throughout scriptures. The Suffering Servant was looked at as a “disgrace” unto humanity (as a whole) as seen in verses 3 to 6. Similarly, weekday (in contrast to Shabbos) is called chol (mundane). Many laws in the Torah are regarding the mechalel bakodesh, one who degrades a holy object. The word chalal can also mean “killed” or “slain”—as is the word most times in the Bible, again with no specific reference to piercing at a cross. The word is also sometimes used as the name for a specific flute-type instrument—this obviously having no relevance to our context. Although not found anywhere in the Bible, chalal can also mean a “hole” (a relative of the “slain” translation), which is what they found to be quite similar to “pierce.” [It seems that the root translation is “void” and from there all sub-translations are derived. Even the instrument is called so because it is void in its interior.] Here are some problems with their interpretation of mechulal in Isaiah 53 to literally be a “hole”:

(1) There are other highly likely interpretations to chalal, such as: disgraced, made mundane, killed, or slain. So, their interpretation would be categorized as “belief”—which is not to be imposed on others. The Jewish interpretations would also be categorized as “belief”—however, it’s fine if one doesn’t choose the Jewish interpretation, because it is not attempting to “prove” anything about anyone from this verse.

(2) The fact that chalal is never found in the Torah as “hole” illustrates how unlikely it is for the word to be used by Prophet Isaiah. Especially since chalal is used so many times on the Bible for the other translations. How unlikely is their translation here?

(3) A much more specific word to illustrate “piercing” should have been used. The word dakar (stab), although it too doesn’t specifically demonstrate “piercing,” would have been a far better word to use as it illustrates a clear act of physical brutality by a weapon of destruction (as opposed to chalal which can also mean “desecrate” and the like). But even more so, the word nokav should have been used. The word clearly means “pierced” and is used many times in the Bible. Did Prophet Isaiah not go to Hebrew class according to the Christian missionaries?

[2] The separation by chapters was an invention of a Christian pope well after Isaiah was written.

[3] Verse 10.

[4] Missionaries point to the fact that earlier in the chapter it records that he will die, so if he is now alive (long days) with children, etc., it must be a resurrection. This approach of theirs is extremely weak. If Isaiah intended a resurrection, he would have said so! It’s not a side-point or minor detail, but it would be the greatest and most essential aspect of the Suffering Servant. So why couldn’t Isaiah spell it out clearly rather than put it as a hint? The answer is: he didn’t intend for a resurrection.

The obvious contradiction is indeed only properly understood if interpreting the Suffering Servant on the nation of Israel as a whole (while many of them die and are persecuted, etc., their descendants who will repent shall see children and live long years (as in the Blessings of Deuteronomy Ch. 30).

Alternatively, even if the Suffering Servant is the Messiah, perhaps he got saved at last minute from his killers and didn’t actually end up dying. [Verse 8 seemingly implies otherwise by stating “…for he was cut off from the Land of the living”; but one may rightfully interpret the latter as being the decree or intentions of his murderers, but not what actually happened (imagine it as an expression after one was convicted in court and sentenced to death “he was separated from the living by the court” even though it wasn’t actually done yet.). In fact, the word gazar (nigzar), which we just translated as “cut off,” may also mean “decreed,” as it is used many times throughout Scriptures. Similarly, regarding the phrase in the next verse “and his grave was set among the wicked, that it was only the designation of his grave, not the actual burial.]

[5] Or in modern times it would be the world’s highly anti-Israel agenda.

[6] Isaiah 53 in Haftarah: Many missionaries will point out the fact that this chapter (labeled by them as “the forbidden chapter”) is neglected from the post Torah-reading ceremony, known as Haftarah, in which it is the custom to recite specific chapters from the Tanach. Of course, only a very small percentage of the Tanach is recited throughout the year. All the neighboring chapters surrounding Isaiah 53 are mentioned within the Haftarah (as they all portray positive messages and prophecies about the Messianic era). Note, however, that the chapters aren’t recited in a sequence one after another but are spread apart in a mixed order. Ironically, chapter 53 is never recited in the Haftarah.

The missionaries poke at this claiming that the rabbis knew good and well that this chapter is visibly speaking of Jesus and they therefore deliberately hid it from the public. This claim is frail because it is a secondary argument that can easily be avoided. For example, if there were to be an argument regarding what a lecturer said by a speech, it would be rather ridiculous to bring evidence from a reporter’s account who was there if there is clear and accessible footage of the speech. So instead of bringing proofs from the actual chapter of Isaiah, they need to poke issues from an implication from a rabbinic law on Haftarah—how unprofessional!

And in response to their issue: It is known how cautious the rabbis were in keeping the public away from any possible or potential hazardous material which is related to foreign beliefs and heresy. For example, Halacha usually forbids viewing the New Testament, Quran, or any other heresy (and obviously it wasn’t because the rabbis saw that there’s objective truth visible in those writings—and the proof is that each of these “holy” books contradict the other etc.). Similarly, the rabbis were extra cautious when it came to the Haftarah. Any chapter of the Tanach was able to be chosen, and out of the many, only select few (generally positive, Messianic chapters) were chosen. So, if there’s an option between choosing Isaiah 53 or any other random positive/Messianic chapter—why not choose the other chapter?! It’s just being extra cautious!

[7] The context suggests that it cannot be referring to the Messiah who is occasionally called on his ancestor David.

[8] We will now go through a thorough discussion and analysis on the verses and contexts in Isaiah that mention “servant” or “My Servant” to see how they are always speaking of the Nation of Israel.

It should be noted that here when we speak of Isaiah, we speak of Deutero-Isaiah—the second half. The differentiation is based on a famous scholarly observation that the context and terminology of the second half of the book of Isaiah (starting from chapter 40) is clearly and significantly different from the first half. This even led many Bible Scholars to believe that there were two authors for the book of Isaiah. Therefore, we are going to analyze the terminology of Isaiah the way he expresses himself (alternatively the way the second author of Isaiah expresses himself) in the second half, starting from chapter 40.

So, there are 9 times Isaiah uses the term avdi, “My Servant,” besides for our chapter (53) in discussion. See Isaiah 41:8, 9; 42:1, 19; 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 49:3. Isaiah uses the general word “servant” including but not limited to the singular, plural, passive, and active, a total of 17 times (including the aforementioned 9). The argument we present here is that every time it mentions the Servant it is referring to the Jewish Nation. Most of them are indisputable and are unanimously accepted to be on the Jewish Nation as it is clear from the context. Here we will discuss the few controversial once and provide support of how they are going on the Jewish Nation as well.

It should be noted at the onset that I have not come here to defend rabbinic commentators’ interpretations on the verses, and by no means am I bound to them (just like a missionary isn’t bound to Christian interpretations). In many instances where I attempt to prove that the Servant is referring to the Jewish Nation will there be rabbinic commentators who disagree and hold that it is going on an individual or the Messiah. Moreover, the fact that there are so many arguments within the rabbinic commentators regarding the identity of the Servant in these verses leaves me with free space to make a good case for my argument without being heretical to my support of rabbinic commentary. It is a known fact that even rabbinic commentators may be, and commonly are, erred in their interpretations, which explains why there are so many arguments amongst themselves.

Some missionaries object to the assertion that all Servants mentioned in Isaiah is regarding Israel because sometimes the description of the Servant is critical and sometimes it is positive. They therefore insist that the Servant cannot be a specific description bound to one individual (or nation as a whole). A simple response to this is that positive and negative are both relative. The Jews were well-behaved and moral relative to the Gentile nations but were sinners and were criticized for not living up to their expectations G-d has for them (which is why they were sent to exile). A parable for this is a father who is properly disciplining his child. He will use both compliments and criticism for the sake of the child realizing what’s expected from him and the realization that the good he does is appreciated. G-d is no different than this in his treatment of His child, the Jewish Nation. Having said all this, we will now begin our discussion on the controversial chapters that mention the Servant and provide evidence for the “National Model” over the “Messianic/Individual Model” of the Servant.

49:1-6—Even though the Jews overall failed in their mission and were therefore exiled, they later fixed up, repented, and began doing their mission. This is what the Babylonian-exile’s redemption, which is what Isaiah’s second half talks of, was all about. Verse 4 is the Jewish nation thinking that their work was in vain because they are in exile. G-d therefore tells them that they have succeeded and are therefore going to be redeemed (see verses 5 and 6). G-d further tells them that it’s not enough though for them to only work on themselves (referred to in the third-person—Jacob/Israel—in verse 5) but they must be a light unto the nations as well (verse 6).

[The idea of G-d talking to the Jews themselves in third-person is found, among other places, just a few verses later in this very same chapter. See verses 8 and 9 (from the fact that the “to do”s of verse 8—“to inhabit desolate lands,” which is obviously not going on G-d but on the Jews—continue into verse 9 with complete, uninterrupted continuation, implies that it’s the same party acting in both verses).]

The verse must be referring to the Jews as indicated from verse 3. Similarly, all 8 previous times it mentions avdi, My Servant it is referring to the Jewish Nation. Additionally, the very surrounding chapters are focused on the Jews and the Babylonian-exile’s redemption. Hence, here should be the same. [This contrasts the missionary view that this chapter is going on Jesus.] Also, literally three verses before chapter 49 begins, there is a clear reference to Israel (Jacob) as being The Servant of the Lord.

Missionaries will generally explain that the reason the Servant here is described as “Israel” and “Jacob” is because he is equal to and represents the Jewish Nation. This argument sounds ridiculous, to say the least, and it definitely doesn’t override the far better interpretation brought earlier that the Servant is going on Israel. Especially considering all the support for Israel as the Servant, as discussed earlier. Another beam in support of this Servant being Israel is the phrase “you are My Servant, Israel, in whom I take glory” (verse 3). This phrase parallels 44:23—which is undoubtedly speaking of Israel—which says that “the Lord has redeemed Jacob, glorified Himself with Israel.” This idea of glory is apparently a description of Israel. “I will put you as a light unto the nations because My salvation shall reach (i.e. be heard) at the ends of the earth.” [The Messianic/Individual Model will offer an alternative valid translation for the end of this verses slightly differently: “so that My salvation can reach the ends of the earth.”]

This idea parallels the very next prophecy of Isaiah (49:7), just four verses later, which reads: “kings shall see and stand up, nobles and they shall bow to the Honor of the Lord” (which is a description of the redemption from the Babylonian exile and clearly speaking of Israel). Don’t you think there is a connection there? The evidence for the Servant in chapter 49 is quite overwhelming and it’s hard to see an objective objection of the National Model.

50:10 “Who amongst you fear the Lord and listen to His Servant.” The Servant here seems clearly to be going on the Lord’s prophet, Isaiah. I won’t argue with that. Except that I would suggest that this reference is different than the remainder in order to make this reference of the Servant fit in light of all the other 17 times it mentions the Servant. All other references to the Servant are G-d’s words in a word-for-word quote from His prophecy and thus His terminology. Here however, it is clearly not a word-for-word quote from G-d (that is why the term “His Servant” is used; also see the previous verse’s wording). It is Isaiah’s choice-of-wordings and therefore doesn’t need to be aligned with G-d’s choice-of–wording throughout the rest of Isaiah. When G-d spoke of “My Servant” it was certainly about the Jewish Nation as seen in all the contexts mentioning the Servant.

44:1-5—Although this is quite clearly speaking of Israel, I have seen missionary literature that claims this passage is about the Messiah (or an individual). We will therefore briefly address it. Verse 1 explicitly speaks of Israel and Jacob. Additionally, verses 3 and 5 seem to be regarding the general Nation of Israel and not merely to an exclusive individual. I fail to find even any space to dispute this assertion.

44:26So said the Lord, your Redeemer… He fulfills the word of His servant, and the counsel of His messenger He completes; Who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be settled,” and of the cities of Judah, “They shall be built, and its ruins I will erect.” At first glance this seems to be a reference to a prophet of the Lord, but because of all the other times it talks of His servant it is about the Jewish Nation, here too as well I will interpret it on the Jewish Nation. When the Jews were in exile, they would tell the nations of the prophecy of the Redemption only to cause laughter and mockery from the gentiles. In this prophecy, G-d tells us that He will uphold and fulfill the words of His Servant Israel regarding the Redemption.

Alternatively, the phrase “His Servant” here is the words of the Prophet Isaiah (though this is not conclusive, for it is possible for someone to say for example, “I am the one who does so and so to his friends.” This is even the more so with poetic writers). As explained earlier, the terminology of Isaiah may have been different than the Lord’s. Yet even besides for these interpretations for the National Model, it would be unlikely that chapter 53’s servant isn’t Israel precisely because of this singular chapter’s Servant isn’t Israel. The odds are just 1/17 (or 1/16 if we exclude 44:26).

42:1-4—At first glance this would seem to be validly and equally interpreted either on the Messiah or on the nation of Israel. But internal evidence in the terminology and choice-of-wording reveal that it is probably speaking of the Jewish Nation. What are surrounding descriptions that are used regarding this Servant? So, we have the word bechiri, “My chosen one,” which ironically is used regarding the Jews on multiple occasions together with the description of “Servant” (see 45:4; 43:10; 41:8, 9; 44:1, 2). The word bechiri, My chosen one, became synonymous with the Jewish Nation (it is never mentioned on anyone else in Tanach), especially when brought together with avdi, My Servant.

Moreover, another reason to interpret this chapter with the National Model is because the very surrounding contexts, both before and after speak of Israel. Additionally, the phrase “He shall give Law (Justice) unto the Nations… and to his teachings the coastlands will await” (verses 1 and 4) parallels a similar statement brought in the very next prophecy (verse 6) regarding the Jewish nation. There it says “He will be a light unto the nations.”

But how do we know that the second prophecy is truly regarding the Jewish Nation? Because this second prophecy parallels yet another one that is indisputably going on the Jewish Nation, 49:7-9. They bear resemblance due to the striking similarities in substance, in both terminology and context. [Even though Ch. 42 includes “being a light unto the nations”—something which isn’t written clearly in Ch. 49, still the idea of being a light unto the nations is mentioned in Ch. 49. Ch. 49 says “kings shall see and rise, princes and they shall bow” (in verse 7 regarding the redemption from exile).]

Comes out, that every time it says avdi, My Servant, it is going on the Jewish Nation, a total of nine times. The general mention of eved, servant, is done 17 times. 12 of them are undisputedly on the Jewish Nation. We have shown that another three of them (42, 49 and 53) are most probably on the Jewish Nation. Another one is possible to interpret with the National Model (44:26) and yet another one (50:10) we explained how it can be the terminology of Isaiah which can contrast the terminology of G-d when He is quoted in a word-for-word prophecy. The odds seem to indicate that the Servant mentioned in Ch. 53 is speaking of Israel, particularly because “My Servant” is used.

One might ask why we need to come to hints and other passages to conclude that it is going on the Jewish Nation? If it was referring to them, wouldn’t it write so clearly? This question bears no substance, though, as the facts are that indeed for whatever reason it isn’t clear who the Servant is. It isn’t clear who it is at all, so any opinion would bear the same question.

A more valid question one can ask is if the Jewish Nation are described as “Jacob… Israel… Servant… My chosen,” then if Isaiah 53 and 42 don’t mention all those descriptions, wouldn’t that tell us that it is obviously not going on the Jewish Nation? Don’t we see that we need all the descriptions in order for it to be going on the Jewish Nation as it is all the other times? The answer to this would be that no, not every time it mentions the Jews in Ch. 40-53 does it say all the descriptions (see e.g. every time it says “Holy One of Israel” and 41:17, 44:6, 49:7, 48:1-2, 45:25, 41:21, 49:20, 43:10, 44:2) proving that not all descriptions are needed. It would seem that the choice of descriptions is based on the surrounding words as the literature of Isaiah (especially Ch. 40 and on) is highly poetic.

 

Some missionaries will attempt to bring internal terminology within Isaiah 53 that he speaks of their claimed Messiah. Verse 1 says that the Servant is uplifted (yarum) and exalted (nasa), a phrase which is used four more times in Isaiah, all in reference to G-d Almighty. Their claim continues that Jesus, being G-d to one extent or another, is obviously the character of Isaiah 53. An easy objection to this is no Jesus isn’t G-d. Even if they shall insist that he is, that is solely a belief. So it’s one baseless belief of theirs that strengthens their case for Isaiah 53. How unprofessional. We can equally believe that the Jewish nation is actually the one with G-dly aspects to him (especially when they refine themselves as will be at the time of the redemption and Isaiah 53). In fact, Kabbalah and Chassidus does indeed attribute G-dliness to the Jewish soul.

Another string they try to pull in favor of the Jesus interpretation of Isaiah 53, is the word “root” (shoresh) mentioned in verse 2. The word is also mentioned in Isaiah 11:1, 10 in an explicit reference to Messiah. Doesn’t the shared terminology point to a shared context?

No, in our case it doesn’t. Shared terminology would indeed suggest a shared context, but only if the wording is said by the same person/people in the same manner. If Jack writes the phrase “he was angry at Moe” in one book and Peter writes the phrase “he was angry at Bill” in another book, would that suggest a shared context? Obviously not.

Let’s interpret the parable into our case. In Ch. 11 we have Isaiah saying that messiah is like a root (an offspring) from the house of Jesse (a positive “root” and one regarding lineage). In contrast, Isaiah 53 is the words of the Gentiles saying that he was a “root” from a dry land (which is a negative attribution to the phrase “root” and is regarding a seemingly, but not definitively, geographical location. [And if it isn’t a geographical area but rather one of lineage, then that only makes things even worse for them. In Isaiah 11 he is said to have a prominent lineage in contrast to here where he is said to have “dry land” lineage]).

[9] For a lengthily refute to this minority view see Abarbanel on the chapter.

[10] Notice how no one said the Jews are totally innocent of these transgressions but that they weren’t killed for those transgressions rather out of hatred. Alternatively, relatively the Jews are innocent of those evil actions and their killings were therefore unjustified to their relatively innocent character.

[11] Although Hinduism is usually regarded as the oldest religion followed by Judaism, by many standards it can be argued that Judaism is the oldest religion. While the origins of Hinduism precede Judaism, the religion as a whole significantly developed over the years. In addition, Hinduism has no supposed Revelation or Word of G-d, thus not regarded as a religion by many theologists. But this is a topic well beyond the scope of our discussion.

[12] The Jews had influenced the world, whether directly or indirectly, to believe in the One True G-d, and arguably the basis for a democracy—a discussion far beyond the scope of this writing.


[i] Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34.

[ii] https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_273.cfm

[iii] Midrash Rabbah Ruth 2:14, Sanhedrin 98b, Midrash Tanhuma, parasha Toldot, end of section.

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