The Servant in Isaiah 53: Collective figure of Israel or an Individual.

Posted by on Jun 24, 2024

The prophecy in Isaiah 53 is apparently not Isaiah’s first prophecy. The Jewish commentators are in agreement that Isaiah’s standing as a prophet is second only to that of Mosheh, for while all other prophets received their prophecies through visions, Isaiah received his directly from the Eternal. Unlike the other prophets, Isaiah composed his prophecies in poetic language, often using obscure words and formulas which we will try to address in this study. This makes the Book of Isaiah of the highest register, rich in meaning and poetic Hebrew. In the most debated chapter of Isaiah, Chapter 53, the servant of the Eternal has been interpreted either as the collective figure of Israel or an individual. But who is this servant the Eternal is speaking of? In this endeavor, we are fully aware that we cannot remove all the difficulties we will come across, but it is worth trying, as the reader will understand below. And even though most commentators (Jewish and Christian alike) have already treated this chapter exhaustively, there is some room left for our comments.

Suffering of the Tsadik in Isaiah 53

Agnus Dei (the lamb of God), Francisco de Zurbarán, 1640

It is not difficult for the Rabbis to interpret the Bible code hidden in Isaiah 52 for this is the language of Kabbalah on a sod level. Agnus Dei (the lamb of God), Francisco de Zurbarán, 1640.

The main theme of Isaiah 53 that goes throughout the narrative from verse 2 to 8 is “a man of suffering”. This theme defines the suffering (sorrows) of a righteous man (Hebrew, tsadik) that has made Isaiah 53 the most debated chapter of the book. Rabbi Ibn Ezra comments on verse 3 that the servant of the Lord is the whole nation of Israel, and the troubles which Israel has to suffer during the exile are meant in the verse.

Rashi comments on verse 4, “he bore our illnesses”, to mean that the servant was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. He says: “The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he (Ed. The servant) bore”. And further: “he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities”. Ibn Ezra likewise states: “The summary of this verse is: We have caused him grief, and he has borne it; he has endured our sorrow, that is, the sorrow which we have inflicted upon him, and we thought that he was stricken. And verse 7 Ibn Ezra commented as follows: “Yet he opened not his mouth”. This is the case with every Jew in exile; when he is insulted, he dares not reply, especially the pious one who devotes himself only to the service of God and does not care for worldly prosperity; nor does he know any prince or chief whom to ask for assistance, when oppressed by man”.

In the words of Steinsaltz Commentary on Tanach: “Indeed, the true explanation for his misery is that he bore our illnesses and carried our pains; he bore the suffering of the entire world. But we regarded him as plagued, struck by God and afflicted. We thought that God struck him due to his own shortcomings, but in truth he suffered in order to atone for the sins of the entire world”. The reader who is acquainted with the Talmud will succeed in finding more texts like these.

Upon reading these commentaries, we feel obliged to note here that Ibn Ezra, Rashi and others view the suffering servant as a collective figure of Israel, not as an individual. And as we proceed in this study, we will see that there are merits in this view. But we cannot escape the question that raises itself at a careful reading of commentaries. The question is: “If the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel, who are the “we”? If the “we” is Israel, as Isaiah speaks in first person plural on the behalf of the nation, it is the subject of the sentence, and the “him” is the object of the sentence. And if the “he” (the servant) and the “we” (Israel) are one and the same, as Rashi teaches, the prophet could not have possibly referred to the suffering servant Israel as “him” and “us” in the same sentence. This issue we addressed in the articles The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 Part 1 and Part 2. Besides, this interpretation is problematic, for the text fails to explicitly mention that the nations are speaking in Isaiah 53 to remove all difficulties.

However, there is another perspective on how to read Isaiah 53 in the style of Hebrew poetry and in the context of Chapter 52. In this study we will view the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 from a different point of view answering the question …

Who is speaking in Isaiah 53?

In the following, we would like to posit another way to look at this, specifically in reference to the major question a textual criticism should address: Who is speaking in Isaiah 53?

It is always important to remember that the division of the Scriptural text into chapter numbers and verses was introduced into the English translation by Stephen Langton (12-13 century), Archbishop of Canterbury. The reader knows that the Hebrew Scripture, the Tanak, is a free-flowing text written on scrolls without divisions, as we have it today. Such is the case of dividing the passage concerning the suffering servant into Chapter 52 and 53. Our textual criticism will begin with the last verses of Isaiah 52, as we read,

Behold, My servant shall work wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up and very high. As many were astonished at you – so the disfigurement beyond any man’s and his form beyond the sons of men – he shall likewise startle many nations. Kings shut their mouths at him, for what had not been recounted (told) to them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall understand. (Isa 52:13-15)

Who is speaking here in verses 13-15? The plain sense of the verses indicates that the Eternal is the One who is speaking here, for it is not befitting anyone else to say, “My servant shall work wisely”.

The division of the chapters in the translations not always coincides with the context of the Hebrew Scripture. In this case, a careful reading of Chapter 52 would lead to the agreement that the words “Behold my servant” commence a new section of prophecy. These words are addressed to the servant whose height of the exaltation is in contrast to the depth of his degradation. Everyone [of the nations] will be surprised at the sight of the servant of the Eternal. The reason why these kings “shut their mouths at him” is specifically stated, namely, what was never related to them now they see, and what was never heard of by them now they understand. The kings’ speechless astonishment, at what is unheard and inconceivable, changes now into reverence, as they come to the knowledge of the servant. And this is the interpretation of Rashi that the kings of the nations will shut their mouths out of great confusion, for what have not been told to them concerning the servant, now they see him. The words that depict a deformation of his face beyond that of a man in Isa 52:15 form the reason for the kings’ astonishment: “Who has believed our report” in Isaiah 53:1. Thus the prophecy in the last verses of Chapter 52 concerning the servant of the Eternal passes now into an address to him in Chapter 53, to which chapter we now turn.

The most debated chapter of Isaiah

Who is the servant the Eternal is speaking of? It is the manner of the prophet to address in a poetic condensation all Israel as one man, as we read: “Israel, My servant, Ya’akov in Isa 41:8, “And now, hearken, Ya’akov, My servant” and “Fear not, My servant Ya’akov” in Isa 44:1-2, “Behold My servant shall prosper” in Isa 52:13, and “You are My servant, O Israel” in Isa 49:3. In this sense what commences in Isaiah 52:13 with the words “Behold, My servant” is pointing to the section in Isaiah 53 regarding this servant. In all these instances, it is the address to Israel as “My servant”, whom the Eternal had chosen at the time when Avraham was chosen. This calling of Avraham was the beginning point of the existence of Israel as the covenant nation, which pre-existed in the patriarch by his merit. And when Avraham was called for service as “My servant” (Gen 26:24), the nation that would come into existence from him, also received the name “My servant” by his merit. These calls in Isaiah towards the nation to return to the position of the servant of the Eternal echoes the intimate relation in which He and Israel were placed at Sinai.

Steinsaltz Commentary on Isaiah 53 states the following: “It would seem that the following prophecy, which discusses the servant of God, concerns an individual; indeed, various traditions understand this servant to be the Messiah, who will one day redeem the nation of Israel. Yet, the context of this prophecy indicates that above all, the servant represents the collective nation of Israel.”

Then the commentary goes on to say that many Jewish commentaries have viewed the servant in Isaiah 53 as a collective image of the nation of Israel partially because the interpretation of the servant as an individual is a central element of Christian theology. Steinsaltz states that the division of chapters 52 and 53 is “meant only to contribute to Christian propaganda”, and it was not done in a manner that truthfully reflects their content. Steinsaltz also makes the point that the servant, as he is described in Chapter 53 as a redeemer, does not fit a description of a single individual who would accomplish such a task in one generation. Rather, the description of the servant matches the description of a collective figure of the nation of Israel, according to the commentary. In the time of the exile, for instance, the servant (the nation of Israel) appears miserable, oppressed, and cursed, while in the time of the redemption he is full of splendor, majesty, and strength. These changes, says the commentary, are not befitting of a single individual, but of Israel in every generation in exile. To make the point even stronger, it is further stated:

“Just as the prophet does not refer to a specific girl when he speaks of the daughter of Zion (see Isaiah 52:2), so too, the servant of God is meant to symbolize the entire nation. The persona of the Messiah as depicted here rests somewhere between reality and dream: On the one hand he is an individual, and on the other hand he represents the redemption of Israel.”

Thus far Steinsaltz Commentary on Isaiah 53.

Suffering and elevated status of the servant in Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 begins with,

Who has believed our report? And to whom was the arm of the Eternal revealed? (Isa 53:1)

What exactly is being described here? Whose report is it that no one has believed? In order to address this question, we face the necessity to raise another question: Who is speaking here in Isaiah 53:1? As we stated above, the artificial division of the chapters not always coincides with the content of what is written in the Hebrew Tanach. With that said, we will read what appears to be the intent of the prophet, namely, an unbreakable line of thought that flows naturally:

Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. According as many were appalled at you, so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men, So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive. (Isa 52:13-15) (Isa 53:1) Who has believed our report? And to whom was the arm of the Eternal revealed?

Two parallelisms need to be address here which will help the reader perceive the intent of the prophet: (1) the statement “kings shall shut their mouths because of him” (verse 14) that couples with the astonishment “Who has believed our report?” (verse 1); and (2) “that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive” (verse 15) that couples with “to whom was the arm of the Eternal revealed?” (verse1). In the former, the question the speaking one is asking, “Who has believed our report?” in Isaiah 53:1, explains the astonishment and confusion of the kings in Isaiah 52. The nations will express their shock when they see the redemptive work of the servant conveyed with the question: Who would believe our report of this redemption? And in the latter, “to whom was the arm of the Eternal revealed?” explains the lack of understanding the kings had prior to the revelation through the arm of the Eternal, when they will see how His power has been revealed through His servant.

If the nations have their mouths shut while witnessing the revelation, in the manner described in Mic 7:16 (read Mic 7:8-16 for context), on account of His servant who was so marred and his visage was unlike that of a man due to his inhuman sufferings, who then is saying, “Who has believed our report?”, and whose report is it? When read in its proper context, the plain meaning of the text is that the kings of the nations are exclaiming: “Who has believed our report?”

But if some say that the speaking one in Isaiah 53:1 is the Eternal, why “our report” and why the astonishment as if He were unaware of a report that was revealed by His arm? And to what report is He referring in His speech further in Isaiah 53? Questions, questions! But if we translate literally the first words of verse 1, as follows, “Who has believed what we have heard?”, then it will be evident for the careful reader who the speaking one is. Here is the whole passage with interlinear comments inserted for clarity:

(The Eternal speaking) Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and raised to great heights. Just as the many were appalled at you, so marred was his appearance unlike that of a man, and his form beyond that of the sons of men. So shall he startle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for they shall see what has not been told them, and they shall perceive what they have never heard. (Isa 52:13-15) (The kings of the nations speaking, Isa 53:1) Who can believe what we have heard? And to whom was the arm* of the Eternal revealed? *The evidence of the Eternal that effects the perception.

Then what follows in Isaiah 53:2-9 is the report itself, namely, what the nations have never heard: “For he has grown … And his grave was set among the wicked … ” (Isa 53:2-9)

Verse 7 reads,

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, but He did not open His mouth. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, but He did not open His mouth. (Isa 53:7)

This requires no explanation”, comments Rabbi Ibn Ezra, “for this is the case with every Jew in exile; when he is insulted, he dares not reply, especially the pious one who devotes himself only to the service of God and does not care for worldly prosperity; nor does he know any prince or chief whom to ask for assistance, when oppressed by man. The phrase “Yet he does not open his mouth”, is repeated to express the continuity of this fact”.

Verse 8 reads in Hebrew,

Isaiah 53:8

He was taken from prison and from judgment. And as for His generation, who considered that He shall be cut off from the land of the living? For the transgression of My people He was stricken.  (Isa 53:8)

According to Klein Dictionary, the Hebrew word לָמוֹ l’amo, the last word in the verse, literally reads “to him”, but in poem it is equivalent to la’chem, “to them”. We read the comment in the dictionary: “לָֽמוֹ is modified personal pronoun meaning “to them” (poetically). Formed from לְ with מוֹ, a suffix used only in poetry”. Rabbi Ibn Ezra respectively has commented on the phrase in question: “Every nation will think: Israel was stricken because of our sins; compare “he was slain for our transgressions” (verse 5). The construction of the sentence is: For the transgression of my people plagues came over them. להם למו “to them”, that is, to the Israelites”.

Therefore, taken into account this translation, the verse means: “For the transgression of my people he (Israel, collective for “my people”) was stricken. While the Christian translations read the phrase literally, perhaps, unaware of the poetic form of לָמוֹ l’amo, the JPS translators seeing the peculiar use of poetry here have translated the verse to read,

By oppression and judgment, he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due. (Isa 53:8 JPS)

Or as Steinsaltz Commentary has stated, the nations say about him, the servant, that he was slain due to their transgressions upon which a plague should have come.

So according to the rabbis’ interpretation, from Isaiah 53:2 through 9, the one who is speaking is not the Eternal but the kings of the nations, who seeing the suffering of the Jews among them, are confessing their sin: “By his (the servant’s) stripes we (the nations) are healed”. Thus far the servant of the Eternal as a collective figure of Israel.

But if we read Isaiah 53:2-9 as the words of the prophet spoken in first person plural. that is, “We, Israel”), then the seeming he-and-us controversy we spoke of in the preceding articles dedicated to the Book of Isaiah will simply disappear. We read a new,

But he (Mashiach) was wounded because of our (Israel’s) transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. (Isa 53:5), etc. …

The verses all agree upon

Then, from verses 10 through 12 of Isaiah 53 the Eternal resumes speaking, for this is made clear to the reader from what is obvious, namely, it is not befitting the nations to speak in first person saying: “My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears” (verse 11), and specifically: “I will give the many as his portion, etc.” (verse 12). In repentance from the sins committed against the Jews, the nations are thus repenting, particularly expressed in the statement: “My servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears”, which explains how he would bear out humanity by his knowledge. Verse 11 states that the servant will have understanding that will enable him to know how to reconcile the peoples with the Eternal.

Many translators tend to flatten out Hebrew grammatical difficulties to create a smoother translation. These difficulties are not always visible in translation. Below is the literal translation by the present author of the end of Isaiah 53 and of the poetic prophecy,

And the Eternal chose to bruise him by sickness,
That, if he shall make* his soul a sin-offering,
He shall see offspring and prolong his days,
And the purpose of the Eternal in his hand shall prosper. 

*Literally, “you shall make”; the use of second person, masculine, singular is unknown.

From anguish of his soul he shall see, He shall be satisfied.
By his knowledge, My righteous servant shall make the many righteous,
And their intentional sin he shall bear;

Therefore, I will divide [him] with the many,
And with the multitude he shall divide the spoil.
Because he who poured out his soul to death
And was numbered among the sinners,
And he bore the guilt of the many
And made intercession for sinners.” (Isa 53:10-12)

The Eternal desired to afflict him with sickness (see the literal meaning of חָלָה chalah in Gen 48:1: “See, you father is sick”), and if he would accept guilt upon himself by his own free will and view his suffering as atonement for the sins of the multitudes of nations, and he will bear their iniquities, he would have descendants and his life prolonged. We have found in these verses above that the Eternal had chosen to afflict His anointed one with sickness. And if he (the servant, that is, the Messiah) makes his soul a sin-offering for forgiveness of sins, he will see offspring (literally, “seed”), and thus his life will be prolonged, meaning, Mashiach can have offspring and a normal human life. The careful reader will notice that this sharply contrasts to a disagreement with the Christian doctrine of “Christ”.

Targum Jonanthan and “My servant, the Messiah”

Targum Jonatan is the official Aramaic translation to the Nevi’im (“The Prophets”). We read in Isaiah 42 concerning the servant of the Eternal thus,

Behold My servant, whom I uphold. My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Ruach upon him, he shall make the right to go forth to the nations. (Isa 42:1)

In Isa 41:8, “My servant” was rightfully applied to the nation of Israel, which was chosen as the servant the Eternal. But “My servant” here in Isaiah 42:1 and what follows is distinct from the nation of Israel, for this servant has so strong personal features that it cannot be merely a collective address but an address to an individual. Nor could the prophet himself be intended here, for what is said of this servant goes beyond what Isaiah or any prophet had ever been called to. “My Servant” here must therefore be a future servant, and this view is thusly stated in the Aramaic translation, where the prophecy commences thus: Ha avdi meshicha, “Behold, my servant, the Messiah”. We will present to our reader first the Aramaic text and then the English interlinear translation,

הָא עַבְדִי מְשִׁיחָא אֶקְרְבִינֵהּ בְּחִירִי דְאִתְרְעֵי בֵּיהּ מֵימְרִי אֶתֵּן רוּחָא דְקוּדְשִׁי עֲלוֹהִי דִינִין לְעַמְמִין יְגַלֵי:

In the words of the Targum:

Behold, my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring, my chosen in whom one delights: as for my Word, I will put my Holy Spirit upon him; he shall reveal my judgment unto the nations. (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 42:1)

Hence, if we read Isaiah 53 in the context of Isaiah 52, as Targum Jonathan does, another picture will illustrate itself for a close consideration. We will present to our reader first the Aramaic text and then the English interlinear translation of Isa 52:13:

הָא יַצְלַח עַבְדִי מְשִׁיחָא יְרוּם וְיִסְגֵי וְיִתְקוֹף לַחֲדָא:

“Behold, my servant the Messiah (Aramaic, מְשִׁיחָא meshicha) shall prosper, he shall be exalted and extolled, and he shall be very strong”.

And below is the Aramaic translation of Isaiah 52:13-53:1. We read from Targum Jonathan:

“Behold, my servant the messiah (Aramaic, meshicha) shall prosper, he shall be exalted and extolled, and he shall be very strong. As the house of Israel anxiously hoped for him many days, (which was poor among the nations; their appearance and their brightness being worse than that of the sons of men) Thus shall he scatter many nations; before him kings shall keep silence: they shall put their hands upon their mouths, for that which had not been told them shall they see: and that which they had not heard shall they consider. (Isa 52:13-15) (Isa 53:1) Who hath believed this our report? and to whom is now the power of the arm of the Lord revealed?”

Bible codes in Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 53

There is a basic rule of interpretation: when there are obscure passages in the Scripture, and they seem to contradict each other, the signet of the Eternal clears the confusion. Now, consider what the Bible code found in Isa 52:10-12 reveals. These are the verses that introduce the reader to the new section that commences in Isa 52:13.

(Isa 52:10) The Eternal shall lay bare His set-apart arm in the eyes of all the nations. And all the ends of the earth shall see the deliverance of our Elohim.

(Isa 52:11) Depart! Depart! Come out from there, touch not the unclean. Come out of her midst, be clean, you who bear the vessels of the Eternal.

(Isa 52:12) For you shall not come out in haste, nor go in flight. For the Eternal is going before you, and the Elohim of Israel is your rear guard.

The Hebrew text reads respectively:

חָשַׂף יְהֹוָה אֶת־זְרוֹעַ קׇדְשׁוֹ לְעֵינֵי כׇּל־הַגּוֹיִם וְרָאוּ כׇּל־אַפְסֵי־אָרֶץ אֵת יְשׁוּעַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ׃

סוּרוּ סוּרוּ צְאוּ מִשָּׁם טָמֵא אַל־תִּגָּעוּ צְאוּ מִתּוֹכָהּ הִבָּרוּ נֹשְׂאֵי כְּלֵי יְהֹוָה׃

כִּי לֹא בְחִפָּזוֹן תֵּצֵאוּ וּבִמְנוּסָה לֹא תֵלֵכוּן כִּי־הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם יְהֹוָה וּמְאַסִּפְכֶם אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃

Starting from the 12th word in Isa 52:12 “your reward”, the second letter of the word, “mem”, and counting every 19th letter from left to right spells me’kippur tela, “from the atonement lamb”. It is not difficult for the Rabbis to interpret this code.

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

(Isa 53:6 JPS) All we like sheep did go astray, we turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.  

(Isa 53:7 JPS) He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth. 

The Hebrew text reads respectively:

וְהוּא מְחֹלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲוֺנֹתֵינוּ מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא־לָנוּ׃

כֻּלָּנוּ כַּצֹּאן תָּעִינוּ אִישׁ לְדַרְכּוֹ פָּנִינוּ וַיהֹוָה הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ אֵת עֲוֺן כֻּלָּנוּ׃

נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח־פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו׃

In verse 5, starting with the 7th letter in the 5th word and counting every 20th letter from right to left spells out in Hebrew: ner YHVH, “light or lamp of the Eternal”. The Rabbis will understand the sod level of interpretation, because this is the language of Kabbalah.

By laying out these factors, a conclusion follows naturally from the Hebrew text. The seeming contradiction that the servant in the prophecy in Isaiah is viewed both as the nation of Israel and as an individual who was destined to bear our iniquities and suffer is resolved when we consider what the prophet is speaking of in Isaiah 53:2-9 in first person singular referring to the nation of Israel as “we” and to the Messiah as “he”. The most pronounced Bible codes to support this view are found in Isaiah 53:5-11 and explained in the articles “Who is the suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Parts 1 and 2. And the question that presents itself before an unprejudiced reader is this: Is it accidental that there so many Bible codes hidden in such a dense space in Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 53 concerning the suffering servant of the Eternal?

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