The Rabbis' Dilemma: A Look at Isaiah 53

Le prophète Isaïe sous l'inspiration divine (Isaïe, LXIV, 6 11) by Marc Chagall

The subject was never discussed in my pre-war-Poland Hebrew school. In the rabbinical training I had received, the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah had been continually avoided in favor of other, weightier" matters to be learned. Yet, when I first read this passage, my mind was filled with questions:

Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted, and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonished at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

Who would have believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he had no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne griefs inflicted by us, and suffered sorrows we have caused: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded through our transgressions, bruised through our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his wounds we were healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon him.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: as a lamb which is brought to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken away from rule and from judgment; and his life who shall recount? for he was cut off out of the land of the living; through the transgressions of my people was he stricken. And one made his grave among the wicked, and his tomb among the rich; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

But it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief; if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my servant justify the righteous before many, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong because he hath laid open his soul unto death, and was numbered with transgressors; and he took off the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.*

Who is this chapter speaking about? The words are clear—the passage tells of an outstanding Servant of the Lord whose visage is marred and is afflicted and stricken. He has not deserved any pain or wounds, but was wounded through our transgressions, bruised through our iniquities, and with his wounds we are healed. The text presents the suffering Servant of the Lord who dies as a korban, a recompense for guilt. He is then buried with the rich and wicked, but is gloriously resurrected to life. God permits His afflicted and, at the end, exalted Servant to endure this suffering in order to remove the sins of many.

But who is this Servant? Our ancient commentators with one accord noted that the context clearly speaks of God's Anointed One, the Messiah. The Aramaic translation of this chapter, ascribed to Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel, a disciple of Hillel who lived early in the second century C.E., begins with the simple and worthy words:

Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men. (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 53, ad Iocum)

We find the same interpretation in the Babylonian Talmud:

The Messiah—what is his name?…The Rabbis say, the leprous one; those of the house of Rabbi say, the sick one, as it is said, "Surely he hath borne our sicknesses." (Sanhedrin 98b)

Similarly, in the Midrash Rabbah, in an explanation of Ruth 2:14:

He is speaking of the King Messiah: "Come hither" draw near to the throne "and dip thy morsel in the vinegar," this refers to the chastisements, as it is said, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities."

In the same manner also in a later midrash, the Midrash Tanhuma, parasha Toldot, end of section, it says:

"Who art thou, O great mountain?" (Zechariah 4:7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him the "great mountain?" Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, "My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly." He will be higher than Abraham who said, "I raise high my hand unto the Lord" (Gen. 14:22), lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, "Lift it up into thy bosom" (Numbers 11:12), loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, "Their wheels were lofty and terrible" (Ezekiel 1:18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.

These are a few of the ancient interpretations attributing this chapter to the suffering and exalted Messiah.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) and some of the later rabbis, though, interpreted the passage as referring to Israel. They knew that the older interpretations referred it to Messiah. However, Rashi lived at a time when a degenerate medieval distortion of Christianity was practiced. He wanted to preserve the Jewish people from accepting such a faith and, although his intentions were sincere, other prominent Jewish rabbis and leaders realized the inconsistencies of Rashi's interpretation. They presented a threefold objection to his innovation. First, they showed the consensus of ancient opinion. Secondly, they pointed out that the text is in the singular. Thirdly, they noted verse eight. This verse presented an insurmountable difficulty to those who interpreted this passage as referring to Israel. It reads:

He was taken away from rule and from judgment; and his life who shall recount? for he was cut off out of the land of the living; through the transgressions of my people was he stricken.

Were the Jewish people, God forbid, ever cut off out of the land of the living? No! In Jeremiah 31:35-37, God promised that we will exist forever. We are proud that Am Yisrael Chai—"The people of Israel are much alive." Likewise, it is impossible to say that Israel suffered for the transgressions of "my people," which clearly means Isaiah's people. Surely Isaiah's people are not the Gentiles, but the Jews.

Moshe Kohen, a 15th-century rabbi in Spain, explains the section:

This passage, the commentators explain, speaks of the captivity of Israel, although the singular number is used in it throughout. Others have supposed it to mean the just in this present world, who are crushed and oppressed now…but these too, for the same reason, by altering the number, distort the verses from their natural meaning. And then it seemed to me that…having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined "after the stubbornness of their own hearts," and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah.**

For the same reason, Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, Rabbi of Safed, late 16th century, points out this fact saying:

I may remark, then, that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah.**

Much to the point is the commentary of the great Jewish educator, Herz Homberg (1749-1841), who says:

According to the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, "He was wounded for our transgressions"? Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried out the sickness and bare the pain? The fact is that it refers to the King Messiah.**

One of our greatest Jewish religious poets, Eliezer HaKalir, paraphrased this chapter in the 9th century into rhyme and metric poetry. It is recited in the Yom Kippur prayer of Kether:

Messiah, our righteousness, hath turned from us: we are in terror and there is none to justify us! Our Iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions He did bear for He was wounded for our transgressions: He carries our sins upon His shoulders, that we may find forgiveness for our iniquities and by His stripes we are healed. O eternal One the time is come to make a new creation: from the vault of heaven bring Him up, out of Seir draw Him forth, that He may make His voice heard to us in Lebanon, a second time by the hand of Yinnon.**

The words of the prophet Isaiah are words of hope. We have a glorious future and an abundant present if we appropriate the salvation made possible by the One who "was wounded through our transgressions and bruised through our iniquities."


*(Editor's note: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, from the English translation of The Holy Scriptures, Revised in Accordance with Jewish Tradition and Modern Biblical Scholarship, by Alexander Harkavy, published by the Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1916)

**Quotes from: Driver, S.R. and Neubauer, A. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1969.

***One of Messiah's names will be Yinnon according to rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 72:19.

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Comments

+2

yohanna

the arm of the lord in chapter 53 which revealed is the same arm that Isaiah told us in chapters 51,52 that will be revealed, in chapter 51 we see a commander with instruction for lord's people and light , salvation and judge the people, isles wait this arm (king messiah), and we see the arm awake to make miracles as Moses time, all Jews know the the prophet in Deuteronomy only will look like Moses (as his miracles, lead and instruction), verse 11 Transfer Isaiah literally sanitation 35 and this is proof that he intended to have the same meaning, and if we go back to chapter 35 know that he speaks of the Messianic time and the miracles of Christ, so this arm is messiah, in chapter 52 speaks how God return the people, but from verse 7-10 speaks of good, peace news which is Gospel and they will see lord eye to eye and its as face to face which its mean Incarnation of God as in the cloud, and to prophets, holy arm Term in Psalm 98 speaks of the Messianic time to save the all world
+6

yohanna

Jews say that the servant is Jewish people, but if we read verse 3, we find that the text says, He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of pains, we find here two words ..Men and man in the original Hebrew word men came (eshim) and the word man came (esh) The formula (im) is the plural form, which means that the first word is a plural of the second word.. So this servant is a single person banished from a group of men, The same verse says we esteem him not, the original Hebrew says (Hashbanhow), which means we count him not ,Isaiah says that the Jewish people despised and did not count this servant, so how this servant is the Jewish people?, And verse 9 says he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth, and this description never does not apply to people component of all ages and both genders,This servant carries the sins of others, the book says that no one carries the guilt of the other Ezekiel Chapter 18, which carries the guilt of others only a sin offering.
-2

Mordechai Allen

To assume that all of the exeges of the Rabbis and the compilation of notes and comments by Rachmiel Frydland point to the Christian messiah, is to overlook three critical omissions, and make one highly questionable supposition. Omission #1: if the passage refers to the corban provided by the death of a particular person, there is no name provided or indicated; #2: no reference whatsoever is made to a requirement that we “appropriate the salvation made possible by the One” in order to be “saved”; and #3) if the servant of this passage is, indeed, a man and not Israel, then he is also a man…and not God. The questionable supposition is the blithe insertion of the name Jesus into a prophetic equation that does not include the factors of “name”, “belief” or “deity”.
+9

Cory Moesta

#1. You're making the supposition that Isaiah's prophecies of Israel's coming redemption were not all referring to the same redeemer. Jewish commentators were divided as to whether or not the Messiah would be a conquering hero or a suffering servant so some actually believed there would be 2 Messiahs. None considered that God could fulfill all the prophecies in a single person. Your Omission #1 can only stand if Isaiah's Messianic prophecies are divided up and not considered as a whole. #2 This is just false. "...by his stripes we are healed. ... [he has] made intercession for the transgressors." These words name the servant as a sin offering. Every sin offering in the Law requires the people and the priests to admit their guilt and act accordingly. This is the reason for the unintentional sins it states, "when their guilt is realized". The appropriation of the offering for sin is understood. #3 Christian doctrine states that Jesus was fully man. This objection carries no weight.

jon

It can't possibly refer to Jesus. Jesus was "praised by all" (Luke 4:15). The "servant" is "despised and rejected by men" - unless Luke is wrong about Jesus, Jesus is not being discussed in this chapter. Many Christian scholars agree tha this passage is referring to Israel! Why would Jews for Jesus use this passage as a proof text if it is so hotly debated? Because if they twist the words of the Prophets, you might just believe their story! Instead of being honest, and saying, "You can't be Christian and Jewish at the same time!", they turn Judaism into an ethnicity - basically a race - and then say you can be ethnically jewish and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
+10

messianicmatt

Jon,
Have you ever read through the entire four Gospels? If you have, I don't know how you could have failed to see the rejection that Jesus experienced, culminating in his horrible beating and humiliation and death on the cross.
+4

bboy

Did not the Elite treat Jeremiah, Isaiah and the rest of the Prophets with similar rejection, verbal abuse --- one even sawn into ? Jesus was the last Jewish Prophet ... and he too treated just as poorly --- even unto death. He was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 .... not the Nation Israel.

Why has the Jewish nation lacked another great prophet for 2000 years ? Elijah has come ... as the 'Baptist' John. He annointed the Messiah King with water and directed his disciples to follow Jesus. And, we are living in the Kingdom Age that his Death/Resurrection ushered in.

Who is a True Jew ? ---- he/she who worships Messiah King lifted up on High.... and they who have received his Baptism and eat/drink of his Eucharistic Todah/Passover Meal.

Christianity is Jewish ! All its early followers were Jews. Paul the Pharisee the 13th Apostle ... and carrier of Gospel to both Jews and Greeks... as Christ directed him to do.
+2

Jazmine

Salvation is for all MEN regardless of race or ethnicity you can indeed be a Jewish person and have the grace of GOD open up your heart and the holy spirit reveal the truth that Jesus the son of man was GOD here on earth he died for all of the sins of all of the MEN that God created and through him we are made worthy before the lord and through him we receive salvation and enter all life AMEN!
-2

sandra murdoch

sometimes we can made plenty interpretations but the Holy Spirit of GOD LET US REVEAL with open hearts,when we talk about a town of ISRAEL, i include myself because in God eyes is all people journey also, without exeptions, ,GOD OUR lORD TRYING MADE A SPECIAL TOWN LIKE LATER ON EXPRESS THIS LOVE FOR Him,that GOD AND LORD IN JESUS , was the perfect inspiration of love, that made Divine and Human, was GOD born to be with us and be permanent with us,all us , is to said all world carry the sin, all we are who constantly denied Him, who crucified, who hurts , forgive us wow,are no men and perfect God DO THAT, is only GOD TROUGH HIS HOLY SPIRIT reveal us,to teach us, to save us and healing us, HIS compassion, care for us,and with same love forgive our trespass, and forgIVE OTHERS, BUT He talk al us

sandra murdoch

GOD was born men becuse HIS love, was promise of care for all us no only JEWS , BECAUSE God wants all world recognize HIM LIKE THE ONLY GOD BUT NEED MADE THE TIME PERFECT FOR THAT,WHEN WE TRYING FIND ANSWERS YOU CANT FIND IS ONLY GOD HOLY SPIRIT TO TALK, AND FALLOW ,God mades another town, HIS TOWN, to spread HIS LOVE ALL WORLD,LET GOD OR LORD OPEN OUR HEARTS ,THE GOD OF ISRAEL IS THE GOS ALL NATIONS , CHRISTIAN MEANS MESIAH SAME THING
+2

B Louvenia Azzan

Have you read Rabbi Toviah Singer's "Let's Get Biblical"? He has a very different take on this and Jews for Jesus.

Carmine Fragione

The Jews today are about 80% Atheists , and so they can't be the Good Servant of Yahweh God. Thus the attempt to describe the Jews are Messiah, in the sense of a national identity, is not working. The Jewish idea of a Messiah is more of a Napoleonic figure, some worldly conqueror who will destroy all the nations and give some occult group of Jews , the gold and silver, making a Utopia , based on the Idolatry of self worship, not sacrifice to God.

David Martin

Mathew 8:17 Did Jesus take or sickness on the cross. Maybe I'm wrong. I don't think he did according to Isaiah 53.

Jimbo

You refer to the ancient Jewish commentators as noting that the context of Isaiah 53 clearly speaks of the Messiah, but ignore the fact that not a single one of those commentators believed that Jesus was that Messiah. i.e. why would you rely on them for their interpretation but not for their conclusion? That's trying to have your cake and eat it to, a/k/a selective quoting to prove your point while ignoring an overall conclusion. Either the commentator are reliable or not.
As any first year law school student will tell you, it is a failing argument to quote a good excerpt from a case whose conclusion ultimately goes against the point you're trying to prove.
+1

Matt Sieger

The main point of the article is to show that, unlike most rabbinical interpretations in more recent times of Isaiah 53, many ancient rabbis interpreted the passage as referring to the Messiah. Many people are not aware of this. We are not saying, and I trust you do not believe, that the rabbis are infallible. If they were, why would there be different conclusions as to who (or what, if it is Israel) Isaiah 53 is referring to? So just because the ancient rabbis we quoted may not have said that the Messiah is Yeshua, it doesn't mean that he is not. It just opens the discussion to consider the possibility that the passage refers to Messiah. When criminologists develop a profile of a killer, for example, they are able to develop the characteristics that the police detectives should look for. They don't yet know who the killer is. But once the detectives find the person who most closely matches those characteristics, they can be pretty certain they have found their man (or woman). We are asking our readers to consider who most closely resembles the characteristics of Messiah described in Isaiah 53. Can you find someone who more closely matches the description than Jesus?
+1

Merry Taylor

Read the gospels in the King James Bible. All the prophecies of Isaiah 53 point to one person...JESUS
+1

Tyrone

Of course it points to Jesus! Read Psalm 22! His crucified hands and feet were prophesied! Look at the following Prophecy from King David!
A Psalm of David. The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies. Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth. The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries. He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.
Psa 110:1-7
NOW CLEARLY DAVID KNEW YHWH HAD A SON, AND ALSO HOW CAN A NEW PRIESTLY ORDER BE PROPHESIED!
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