by Amos Wittenberg
August 20, 2015
In this note I want to explore how the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 could actually be Jesus the Nazarene – and what this would mean.
We will see that we need to separate reason from emotion, very carefully. So, reader, if you have already made up your mind that you are not going to be interested in reason but will rely on your emotional attachment to the worship of Jesus the Nazarene, my advice to you is to just stop reading. If on the other hand you believe that texts need to make sense in the interpretation you use to understand those texts, please do read on. I am pretty sure that you will see a few things that you never even thought about – and that you will discover in the process that those very same things underlie the view of Jews that is ubiquitous among Christians, the more evangelical, “Israel-loving”, “messianic” or “Hebrew Roots”, the stronger.
We will begin with quoting the text in Hebrew and then give a translation that may not be the most elegant but will stick to the Hebrew original as much as I can muster.
הִנֵּה יַשְׂכִּיל עַבְדִּי יָרוּם וְנִשָּׂא וְגָבַהּ מְאֹד׃ כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמְמוּ עָלֶיךָ רַבִּים כֵּן־מִשְׁחַת מֵאִישׁ מַרְאֵהוּ וְתֹאֲרוֹ מִבְּנֵי אָדָם׃ כֵּן יַזֶּה גּוֹיִם רַבִּים עָלָיו יִקְפְּצוּ מְלָכִים פִּיהֶם כִּי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־סֻפַּר לָהֶם רָאוּ וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא־שָׁמְעוּ הִתְבּוֹנָנוּ׃ מִי הֶאֱמִין לִשְׁמֻעָתֵנוּ וּזְרוֹעַ ה’ עַל־מִי נִגְלָתָה׃ וַיַּעַל כַּיּוֹנֵק לְפָנָיו וְכַשֹּׁרֶשׁ מֵאֶרֶץ צִיָּה לֹא־תֹאַר לוֹ וְלֹא הָדָר וְנִרְאֵהוּ וְלֹא־מַרְאֶה וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ׃ נִבְזֶה וַחֲדַל אִישִׁים אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת וִידוּעַ חֹלִי וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ נִבְזֶה וְלֹא חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ׃ אָכֵן חֳלָיֵנוּ הוּא נָשָׂא וּמַכְאֹבֵינוּ סְבָלָם וַאֲנַחְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלֹקִים וּמְעֻנֶּה׃ וְהוּא מְחֹלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא־לָנוּ׃ כֻּלָּנוּ כַּצֹּאן תָּעִינוּ אִישׁ לְדַרְכּוֹ פָּנִינוּ וַה’ הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ אֵת עֲוֹן כֻּלָּנוּ׃ נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח־פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו׃ מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת־דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמוֹ׃ וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־רְשָׁעִים קִבְרוֹ וְאֶת־עָשִׁיר בְּמֹתָיו עַל לֹא־חָמָס עָשָׂה וְלֹא מִרְמָה בְּפִיו׃ וַה’ חָפֵץ דַּכְּאוֹ הֶחֱלִי אִם־תָּשִׂים אָשָׁם נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה זֶרַע יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים וְחֵפֶץ ה’ בְּיָדוֹ יִצְלָח׃ מֵעֲמַל נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה יִשְׂבָּע בְּדַעְתּוֹ יַצְדִּיק צַדִּיק עַבְדִּי לָרַבִּים וַעֲוֹנֹתָם הוּא יִסְבֹּל׃ לָכֵן אֲחַלֶּק־לוֹ בָרַבִּים וְאֶת־עֲצוּמִים יְחַלֵּק שָׁלָל תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱרָה לַמָּוֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְאֶת־פֹּשְׁעִים נִמְנָה וְהוּא חֵטְא־רַבִּים נָשָׂא וְלַפֹּשְׁעִים יַפְגִּיעַ׃
See, My servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and he shall be very high. As many wondered about you, “How marred his appearance is from that of a man, and his features from that of people!” 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 what they had not heard they understood.
Who would have believed what we heard, and to whom was the arm of Hashem 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? 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. Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains – he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by Gd and oppressed. 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. We all went astray like sheep, we have turned, each one on his way, and Hashem accepted his prayers for the iniquity of all of us. 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 a ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he would not open his mouth. 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. And he gave his grave to the wicked, and to the wealthy with his kinds of death, because he committed no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
And Hashem wished to crush him, He made him ill; if his soul makes itself restitution, he shall see children, he shall prolong his days, and G-d’s purpose shall prosper in his hand.
From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My servant would vindicate the just for many, and their iniquities he would bear. Therefore, I will allot him a portion in public, and with the strong he shall share plunder, because he poured out his soul to death, and with transgressors he was counted; and he bore the sin of many (or mighty ones), and interceded for the transgressors.
Now, I can totally understand why Jesus worshippers recognise the Nazarene in these words. They have a mental image of him, hanging on a cross, sad face, pain pouring out of every orifice of his body, blood streaming down his chest, the image of total degradation of a human being. And not just any human being: this is the man about whom their scripture says: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:11)
So, when you, Jesus worshipper, read in Isaiah “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.” (Isaiah 53:3), you cannot help yourself. You immediately think “Yes! That is true! He was rejected by his own! They held him of no account! And they still do…”
Oh, I know that you will add immediately that the whole of humanity has “rejected” the Nazarene because “he bore the sins of the world” but all the water in the sea cannot wash away the simple truth that when you think about the crucified messiah of Christianity, you associate that image with his rejection by his own people. Or by the corrupt leaders of his own people, if you belong to a slightly more sophisticated branch of Jesus worshippers. But then in your own mind you identify those corrupt leaders with “the rabbis” and go on to accuse “the rabbis” of rejecting your saviour even today and hiding “the truth” from the misguided Jews.
And then you get into discussions with Jews or, more likely, ex-Christians about Isaiah 53 and you cite “Jewish sources” that “clearly show” that the “real original Jewish understanding” of Isaiah 53 was totally messianic and that the real Jews in the time of the Nazarene did expect a suffering saviour who would atone for all the sins of mankind by pouring out his blood unto death.
Have you ever thought about that? Not emotionally, but logically?
Let us assume that these claims are correct, that in the first century of the common era the Jews expected someone to come and die for not only their sins but for the sins of all of mankind.
How do you explain that the closest disciples of the Nazarene, according to your scriptures, were completely clueless about this? Had never heard such a thing?
And how rejected and despised was your Nazarene saviour precisely? He died on a Roman cross which must have earned him the sympathy of many of his fellow Jews. He had a relatively easy death, hanging on that cross for barely six hours where death by crucifixion normally takes days of almost unimaginable suffering. And, according to you, he knew very well that he was a divine being and would rise from the dead in a matter of maximally 72 hours. Is that called “despised and rejected”?
Was he abandoned “by his own” in the hour of his death? Not according to Luke 23:48 “And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.”
Oh, I know. Your thoughts go immediately “Those were the disciples and the followers; the Jews rejoiced in his death because they plotted against him.” But are you so sure? That is not what “Luke” is saying. At all.
“Matthew” and “Mark” have different stories with mocking priests but there is none of that in “Luke”.
And “a man of pains and accustomed to illness” (Isaiah 53:3)? Which illnesses did the Nazarene suffer? What pain did he experience in his life, apart from those six hours on that Roman cross?
Reading your Christian scriptures I see a man who did not go hungry, could conjure up food and wine at will, and seemed in rude health. He was immensely popular and was followed by huge crowds wherever he went. He had a hiccup in his home town but otherwise he seemed to have been the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers and the zebra’s pyjamas all rolled in one.
So where does your mental image of the suffering saviour come from? It does not come from the Christian scriptures. They do not paint such a man. Who paints this image? Your Christian tradition does, that’s who. Your church fathers, reformers and passion play writers and directors do. Mel Gibson does. And you do, in your mind.
Because all you can think of are those haunting words “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:11) and that is the poison you have swallowed.
Think about this, logically and not emotionally. Turn this statement around! Let’s say that “the Jews” had “received him”. According to your beliefs the Nazarene had to die on the cross for the sins of the world. Now, in our hypothetical scenario “the Jews” enthusiastically embraced their “saviour”, in the full understanding that he was to suffer and die in order to atone for the sins of the world. After all, their “scribes and Pharisees and high priests” in this scenario are all on Jesus’ side.
What next? Are they going to go to Pilate and say “Pilate, do us a favour! We have here our Messiah who is god in the flesh, sent by his heavenly father to die for our and your sins. Can you please crucify him for us?” Or were they to bring the sacrifice themselves? How exactly, in your interpretation of Isaiah 53, could “the Jews” ever “receive him”?
And if “the Jews” were somehow predestined to reject their own king, what kind of god do you believe in who plays such dirty tricks on the people he covenanted to be his witnesses in this world?
Please note that I do not offer an alternative interpretation of Isaiah 53. If you are curious how Jews read this chapter, there are plenty of resources to inform you. And, yes, although the plain meaning is that it speaks about the faithful remnant of Israel which is called the servant of Hashem all through the book of Isaiah, it has been applied by some homiletically to the King Messiah or to Messiah ben Yosef. This is neither here nor there.
It just cannot consistently be applied to the Nazarene without demonising “the Jews” in the same breath.
Think about this.