WHO IS GOD’S SUFFERING SERVANT? THE RABBINIC INTERPRETATION OF ISAIAH 53 - Page 3

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(Talmud, Shabbat 105b)

In order to shed much needed light on the famed Servant Songs, numerous rabbinic commentators hold up Jewish heroes as a paradigm of Isaiah 53’s “servant.” Accordingly, while on one hand the Talmud, Zohar, and other ancient rabbinic texts state explicitly that the “servant” of Isaiah 53 refers to the faithful of corporate Jewry, the same sources frequently point to renowned saints of Israel as an archetype of the Suffering Servant. These virtuous individuals include saints such as Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, the messiah the son of Joseph and David – each of them embodies perfect examples of God’s servant, the righteous remnant of Israel.

Bear in mind that the rabbinic commentary on Isaiah 53 is not dualistic or multilateral. Meaning, the sages of old did not suggest that Isaiah 53 refers to either the righteous remnant of Israel, Moses, Jeremiah, or an anointed leader. Rather, the servant in all four Servant Songs are the faithful descendants of Abraham. Isaiah 53 attests to an unprecedented worldwide repentance of all of mankind – a redemptive achievement accomplished by no other saint in history. Therefore, rabbinic commentators tend to lift up the messiah’s name more frequently than the names of other faithful servants of God.
While the bulk of rabbinic commentary seeks to provide the pshat – the principal analysis which illuminates the plain meaning of sacred literature – there is, broadly speaking, a second, and distinct stream of rabbinic commentary which explores the drash. In general terms, the drash delves into the deeply profound, yet often less precise homiletic method of exegesis used to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. This sacred material is often referred to as midrashic, literally “derived from a drash.”

In Jewish thought, the pshat conveys the foundational understanding of any text in Tanach; this is the commentary which elucidates the clear and basic meaning of a verse. As the sages declare in the Talmud, “A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning.” (Shabbat 63a; Yev. 11b, 24a). Accordingly, the midrashic interpretation of a biblical verse is never intended to nullify, contradict, or injure the natural sense of a text. On the contrary, thepshat always supplies the primary meaning of a passage. Moreover, it is impossible to fully grasp the inspirationalmidrashic commentary without first comprehending the simple meaning of a text.
On the other hand, without the sublime illumination of the Midrash, seminal, seemingly-disconnected principles throughout various regions of Tanach can be challenging to harmonize and fully comprehend. In other words, with only the pshat commentary, Biblical principles when studied independently, can only be understood on a fundamental level.Yet the separate, straightforward commentaries of the pshat may appear incompatible and disjointed from other regions of scripture without the midrashic commentary. Midrashic literature, generally speaking, weaves together and painstakingly merges Judaism’s Written and Oral tradition into a transcendent revelation. Because the Midrash illuminates rabbinic thought to its fullest, holistic expression, it stands out as a vital tool for the student of sacred literature.

Few chapters in Tanach better illustrate the vital role the Midrash plays in expounding Biblical texts than Isaiah 53. The straightforward rabbinic approach to elucidate Isaiah 53 begins by identifying the astonished speakers in Isaiah 53:1-9 and the “Servant” in Isaiah 52:13 and 53:11. The rabbinic annotations, i.e. the pshat, convey the clear and essential commentary. They describe how these passages record the reaction of the astonished and contrite kings of nations when they discover that the faithful members of Israel were always God’s true servant. As mentioned, the identities of the speakers and the servant are evident from the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53.

The Midrash, however, illuminates a most profound, yet often overlooked central theme of Isaiah 53; never before in history has any servant of God brought about the mass repentance of the gentiles. Whereas the patriarch Abraham redeemed only 70 souls in Haran, the future scion of the House of David will usher in an unprecedented epoch, where gentile kings of nations will repent, as vividly described in the fourth Servant Song. In other words, the messiah will bring about an age when the most important feature of Isaiah 53 will materialize – the worldwide repentance of the gentiles. Whereas Moses drew only a single nation from Egypt into the service of God, the messianic king will redeem the other nations as well. At this epic, redemptive moment in the future all the nations will perceive that Judaism is the only true faith, as it is written:

“For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord.”

(Zephaniah 3:9)

Thus, in the messianic age, the gentiles will confess aloud the remorseful and repentant words sketched in Isaiah 53. In essence, the sequence of events outlined in the fourth Servant Song will be an unparalleled occasion in history. Never before throughout the annals of time have “the gentiles come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3).

Consequently, although various rabbinic literature highlights numerous Biblical saints whose lives exemplify the Suffering Servant of Israel in Isaiah 53, the future messiah is held up more frequently and prominently than any other pious Jew in this startling context; for the future anointed Davidic king will usher in this dramatic epoch in which the gentiles will repent, as outlined in Isaiah 53. In other words, the stunning narrative of the fourth Servant Song will be made possible by the reign of the messiah, the foremost member of God’s Suffering Servant, Israel. Only the messiah will accomplish this global achievement in the final redemption, which neither Abraham, Moses, or Jeremiah were able to accomplish. Only the messianic age will spawn worldwide repentance of the nations. Therefore, the rabbis teach,

“My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly – he will be higher than Abraham, more exalted than Moses, loftier than the angels."

(Midrash Tanchuma)

In short, the messiah will ignite the contrition of Israel’s neighbors as outlined in Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song.

Because of the deeply esoteric and widely elastic nature of midrashic writings, these millennia-old texts are vulnerable to misuse by opponents of the Jewish faith. Isaiah 53 – the chapter in the Bible which has for ages formed one of the principal battlefields between Jews and their Christian opponents – is no exception to this rule.

Under ordinary circumstances, traditional Church apologists regard rabbinic commentaries with sneering derision, casting them at best as damaging to spiritual enlightenment. However, ancient midrashic annotations on Isaiah 53 which can be ripped out of context and portrayed as supportive of Christian teachings are wildly quoted and cheerfully paraded by missionaries with the hope of winning more unclaimed souls to the Cross. The fact that the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 is not supported by the chapters that surround it, only adds to the Church’s desperate feeding frenzy on these ancient rabbinic texts. It is astonishing that missionaries would use rabbinic texts to support Christian doctrines given that each and every one of the rabbis that they zealously quote utterly rejected the teachings of Christianity.

The most frequently quoted rabbinic text in Christian literature is, without doubt, the second-century Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 53. Although the word “Targum” literally means a “Translation,” the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel is not at all a word-for-word translation of Tanach. Rather, this unique, highly-regarded Aramaic annotation on the Hebrew Scriptures fuses together both drash and pshat – the homiletic and plain meaning of a text – in its running, dynamic commentary on the Prophets. Accordingly, it is the messiah who is raised up as God’s ideal servant in the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:13, yet on the following verse, the Targum identifies the faithful of Israel who suffer vicariously (Isaiah 52:14).

As expected, missionaries selectively quote the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:13, which identifies God’s servant as the messiah.

The Targum’s rendering of Isaiah 52:13 is as follows:

“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceedingly strong.”

Yet the Targum’s commentary on the following verse, Isaiah 52:14, identifies Israel as the long-suffering and humiliated servant:

“As the house of Israel looked to him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion (darkened) beyond the sons of men.”

As expected, the commentary of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:14 is nowhere to be found in Christian missionary material. There is not a single Church apologist who quotes the Targum’s elucidation on Isaiah 53:10. For it is upon these words of Isaiah, “He is crushed and made ill,” where the Targum identifies the suffering servant as the nation of Israel who suffers unbearable chastisement in the following commentary:

“But it is the Lord’s good pleasure to refine and cleanse the remnant of His people in order to purify their souls from sin; they shall see the kingdom of the messiah, they shall increase their sons and daughters, they shall prolong their days; and those who perform the Law of the Lord shall prosper in good pleasure.”

Although the above quotation from Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 53:10 is deliberately ignored by Christendom’s missionaries, this two-millennia-old message remains immortal. The nation of Israel, God’s servant, suffered unimaginable torment at the hands of her gentile neighbors so that her sins would be washed away.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her: Her term of service is over, her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.”

(Isaiah 40:2)

Simply put, there are 15 verses in the Targum’s annotation on Isaiah 53 (52:13-15 and 53:1-12), yet with surgical precision, missionary conversionist tracts selectively and deliberately ignore almost all of them with the exception of the first verse on Isaiah 52:13. This is a well-worn technique of wielding rabbinic literature as an evangelical sledgehammer, in order to drive home the well-crafted message to unlettered Jews that ancient rabbis concealed the truth that Isaiah 53 is speaking of Jesus, and not the nation of Israel. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

  • Midrash Rabbah (Numbers XXIII.2), Zohar (Genesis & Leviticus), Talmud (Brochos 5a), Rashi, Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Joseph Kimchi, David Kimchi, Nachmanadies, Abarbinbanel, et all
  • Ibn Ezra on Isaiah 53 <-
  • Origen, Contra Celsum, Chadwick, Henry; Cambridge Press, book 1, chapter 55, page 50
  • Isaiah 41:11; Micah 7:15-16; Jeremiah 16:19-20
  • Isaiah 41:8-9; 43:10; 44:1; 44:21; 45;4; 48:20; 49:3
  • The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 788-789. See also the Revised Standard Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 889.
  • Acts 8:28-34
  • Luke 22:37
  • John 12:38
  • I Peter 2:22
  • The Christian New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, annotation on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 explains:

The “fourth Servant Song, the Suffering Servant, Israel, the servant of God, has suffered as a humiliated individual. However, the servant endured without complain because it was vicarious suffering (suffering for others). 52:13-15: Nations and kings will be surprised to see the servant exalted. 53:1: The crowds, pagan nations, among whom the servant (Israel) lived, speak here (through verse 9), saying that the significance of Israel’s humiliation and exaltation is hard to believe (page 788-789). See also the Revised Standard Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 889

Walter Brueggemann Ph.D., Isaiah 40 – 66 (Louisville: Kentucky, 1998), p. 143, states:
“There is no doubt that Isaiah 53 is to be understood in the context of the Isaiah tradition. Insofar as the servant is Israel – a common assumption of Jewish interpretation – we see that the theme of humiliation and exaltation serves the Isaiah rendering of Israel, for Israel in this literature is exactly the humiliated (exiled) people who by the powerful intervention of Yahweh is about to become the exalted (restored) people of Zion. Thus the drama is the drama of Israel and more specifically of Jerusalem, the characteristic subject of this poetry. Second, although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.”

  • Talmud, Sotah 14a and the Sifri on Deuteronomy 355 applies Isaiah 53:12 to Moses
  • Rabbi Sadyah Gaon (tenth century), Oxford Ms. (Poc 32
  • Jerusalem Talmud, Shkalim V.I.
  • Ezekiel 18:20-23
  • Midrash Rabbah (Numbers XXIII.2), Zohar (Genesis & Leviticus), Talmud (Brochos 5a),
  • Yalkut, ii, 571 on Zachariah 4:7

 

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