Who is the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53? Part I

Posted by on Nov 23, 2016

There is no lack of commentaries as to who the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is. Modern Judaism considers and teaches that this suffering servant is the nation of Israel. However, has this been the view of the sages throughout the centuries?

As we will see in this study, the Sages of blessed memory had correctly commented on Isaiah 53 in their own writings in Talmud, which no Rabbi has the sufficient authority to change. Sadly, the Sages’ teaching was changed.

On the other side of the controversy is the Christianity that teaches that the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is none other than the Messiah of Israel who came and suffered for the sins of His people Israel and the world.

The present author will not make an exception, as he will give his critique on Rashi’s commentaries on Isaiah 53 regarding the suffering servant, who changed the prophecy of the coming Messiah. But first who is Rashi?

Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105), was a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and Tanak. Today he is known by the acronym Rashi ( RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki) and is acclaimed for his ability to present the basic meaning of the Biblical text. Some of his commentaries on Isaiah 53 we will analyze below, as they appear at the official website of Chabad. The reader is strongly encouraged to read all of them for the sake of objectivity; objectivity which Time of Reckoning Ministry (TORM) values a lot.

Isaiah 53 begins thus concerning the suffering servant,

Who has believed our report? And to whom was the arm of Yehovah revealed? And he came up like a sapling before it, and like a root from dry ground, he had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him? (Isa 53:1-2)

In response Rashi says: “This people [Israel], before this greatness came to it, was a very humble people, and it came up by itself like a sapling of the saplings of the trees. And when we saw him from the beginning without an appearance, how could we desire him?”

From the very beginning of his commentaries on the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Rashi goes straight forward to identify that the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel.

If Rashi is correct in his supposition, we must start asking questions and the first question is:

If the “he” in the verses above is the nation of Israel, as Rashi interprets herein, who are the “we” like in the phrase, we saw him that he had no appearance that we should desire him? Most evidently, the “we” above is Israel, as Isaiah speaks in first person plural on the behalf of the nation, and Rashi himself acknowledges.

In such a case, the “we” is the subject of the sentence, then who is the “him”, the object of the sentence? Because, if the “he” (the servant) and the “we” (Israel) are one and the same, as Rashi teaches, the prophet could have used the reflexive pronoun “ourselves” and the phrase should have read: “we saw ourselves that we had no appearance that we should desire ourselves”. But this is not what is found in the verse.

In other words, Isaiah could not have possibly refer to the suffering servant Israel as “him” and “we” in the same sentence.

Despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, and as one who hides his face from us, despised and we held him of no account. (Isa 53:3)

Rashi says: “So is the custom of this prophet: he mentions all Israel as one man… Because of their intense shame and humility, they were as one who hides his face from us, with their faces bound up in concealment, in order that we not see them, like a plagued man who hides his face and is afraid to look.”

Rashi goes on in his comments using a metaphorical “equilibrium” to balance between the text in Isiah 53, which he could not change, and his intent to divert the prophecy to a wrong direction.

Again, despite Rashi’s comments, we must ask, “If the “he” is the nation of Israel, who are the “we”?” 

Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed. (Isa 53:4)

Rashi says: “But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he bore… We thought that he was hated by the Omnipresent, but he was not so, but he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities.”

We may question Rashi’s theology as to how a nation, as righteous as it could be, can atone for the sins of all nations. Isaiah 53 clearly says regarding the suffering servant: “he bore our illnesses, and our pains he carried them”. And again, if the “he” is Israel, who are the “we?” Surprisingly, here Rashi switches from the “we” being Israel to the “we” “all the nations (Gentiles) atoned for with Israel’s suffering”. This inconsistency of Rashi should not have been left unnoticed.

We should admit, we were not righteous neither in Egypt, nor in the Land, nor in exile. An unrighteous person cannot possibly atone for sins, much less an unrighteous nation. Only a righteous person can atone for sins as the prophet Ezekiel suffered for the crookedness of the house of Israel and the house of Judah. And this we studied in Chapter The prophecy of Ezekiel and dividing the kingdom from the present author’s book Reckoning of Time. 

Here is the moment to bring up the question of how the ancient Sages had seen this verse. In Talmud Sanhedrin 98b we read:

What is his [the Messiah’s] name? — The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. Sanhedrin 98b

Undoubtedly, by quoting Isaiah 53:4, the Rabbis interpreted it to be referring to the suffering servant the Messiah.

But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wound we were healed. (Isa 53:5)

Rashid comments on “the chastisement of our welfare was upon him”: “The chastisement due to the welfare that we enjoyed, came upon him, for he was chastised so that there be peace for the entire world.”

We all went astray like sheep, we have turned, each one on his way, and the Lord accepted his prayers for the iniquity of all of us. (Isa 53:6)

Rashi comments on “We all went astray like sheep”: “Now it is revealed that all the heathens (nations [mss.]) had erred.” Again, Rashi’s inconsistency switches to the “we” being the nations of the world.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he would not open his mouth; like a lamb to the slaughter, he would be brought, and like an ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he would not open his mouth. (Isa 53:7)

Rashi says: “He would suffer and remain silent like the lamb that is brought to the slaughter, and like the ewe that is mute before her shearers… This refers to the lamb brought to the slaughter.”

If Rashi means here the Messiah being the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, that would have been a wonderful interpretation, but he refers to the nation of Israel being like a lamb led to the slaughter for the forgiveness of the whole world.

From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken, and his generation who shall tell? For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them. (Isa 53:8)

Rashi says: “The prophet reports and says that the heathens will say this at the end of days, when they see that he was taken from the imprisonment that he was imprisoned in their hands and from the judgment of torments that he suffered until now… The tribulations that befell him, for from the beginning, he was cut off and exiled from the land of the living that is the land of Israel for because of the transgression of my people, this plague came to the righteous among them.”

What can we say in conclusion of Who is the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 Part I?

In 1070’s Rashi began to teach that Isaiah 53 was not about Messiah but Israel. Before him, the common interpretation among the ancient sages was that the suffering servant of YHVH was indeed the Messiah. But in order to counteract the Christianity, Rashi came up with the foreign idea that that was Israel.

We cannot judge Rashi’s motives as to why he had given a diametrically opposed to Sanhedrin 98b interpretation of the prophetic chapter 53 of Isaiah concerning the suffering servant. Yet, we can quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902 – 1994), who is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. In his Commentary on Isa 53, Gutnic Edition Chamash, Vol. 3, p. 111, he says “… The Messiah is the tsarah sufferer for us …”

In Part II of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, we will continue to study this controversial topic, wherein we learn his name hidden in the text of Isaiah. Continue here.

May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.