Who's the Subject of Isaiah 53? You Decide!
Isaiah 53 is a well-known passage of Scripture to the avid student of the Bible. But most people are not avid Bible students and have not read this controversial passage. A recent informal survey illustrates this point.1 One hundred Jews on the streets of Tel Aviv were asked, Who do you think the 53rd chapter of Isaiah describes?” Most were unfamiliar with the passage and were asked to read it before answering. After doing so, many conceded that they did not know to whom it referred.
Some thought it was Jesus, but when it sunk in that the passage was a citation from the Tenach, they were put off. Others shrugged off the passage as too difficult to understand. Some repeated what they had heard from Jews more religious than themselves: that it referred to the Jewish people or perhaps even the gentile nations. All seemed to think that whomever it referred to, it wouldn’t make much difference in their daily lives.
Have you read it?
Israel is unique inasmuch as it is probably the only place on earth where you can spend a couple of hours on a public street and be assured of getting one hundred Jewish opinions. (Not that our people outside of Israel are adverse to giving opinions, it’s just difficult to find such a high concentration of us in any one place.) But Israel is not unique when it comes to the Jewish response to Isaiah 53. There is really no consensus based on personal knowledge of the passage. People either have not read it or they have accepted a status quo interpretation, or both.
One might think the passage is obscure and irrelevant based on the fact that so many people are unfamiliar with it. That unfamiliarity in part stems from the fact that Isaiah 53 does not appear in the regular synagogue calendar readings. Yet it could be argued that the very fact that it is left out shouts out the importance of this passage. Even the reasons for omitting it point to the uniqueness of this passage. For example, one Jewish scholar, Claude Montefiore, explained: “Because of the christological interpretation given to the chapter by Christians it is omitted from the series of prophetical lessons for the Deuteronomy Sabbaths…the omission is deliberate and striking.”2
Why is the omission so striking? Because when we finish the cycle of readings for the year, we haven’t really finished it. We’ve left out a portion from our own prophets, ostensibly because of what Christians think about it. Since when does the Christian interpretation of Jewish Scripture have a bearing on what is or is not read in synagogues all over the world?
The omission is striking because of what Montefiore does not quite say. It is not simply because of the Christian interpretation that the Isaiah passage is omitted. After all, the services from which it is omitted are not for Christian ears. They are for Jews. What does that imply? The problem is not what Christians think of the passage. The problem (according to those who omitted the passage) is what Jews might think.
Are you ready?
This portion of Scripture is highly controversial. Because contrary to what those surveyed felt, many people have looked into the questions this passage poses and have found that the answers are extremely relevant to their own lives. Are you ready to know why?
If you are willing to explore this “obscure” passage, here it is:
- See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
- Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness—so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
- For what they were not told, they will see, and what they had not heard, they will understand.
- Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.
- He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
- He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
- Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
- But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
- We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
- He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
- By oppression and judgment, he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
- He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
- Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
- After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
- Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressor.
Those words were written over 2700 years ago. Yet many people who read them today find that the words seem to jump off the page. If nothing else, the chapter is packed with incredible drama, heroics and pathos. But many people find a personal challenge in these words that is interwoven with the questions: who is this person and what in the world was he doing?
They are questions worth considering for oneself, but it may also be helpful to see the progression of opinions given by our rabbis.
What do the early rabbis say?
Some of the first written interpretations or targums (ancient paraphrases on biblical texts) see this passage as referring to an individual servant, the Messiah, who would suffer. Messianic Jewish talmudist, Rachmiel Frydland, recounts those early views:3
“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 locum).'”
“We find the same interpretation in the Babylonian Talmud:
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)
“Similarly, in an explanation of Ruth 2:14 in the Midrash Rabbah it states:
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.”
“The Zohar, in its interpretation of Isaiah 53, points to the Messiah as well:
There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel. All of these come and rest upon Him. And had He not thus lightened them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the trangression of the law; as it is written, “Surely our sicknesses he has carried.” (Zohar II, 212a)
The early sages expected a personal Messiah to fulfill the Isaiah prophecy. No alternative interpretation was applied to this passage until the Middle Ages. And then, a completely different view was presented. This view was popularized by Jewish commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki), who lived one thousand years after Jesus.
Views on Isaiah 53 in the Middle Ages
Rashi held the position that the servant passages of Isaiah referred to the collective fate of the nation of Israel rather than a personal Messiah. Some rabbis, such as Ibn Ezra and Kimchi, agreed. However, many other rabbinic sages during this same period and later—including Maimonides—realized the inconsistencies of Rashi’s views and would not abandon the original messianic interpretations.
The objections these rabbis put forth to Rashi’s view were threefold: First, they showed the consensus of ancient opinion. Second, they pointed out that the text is grammatically in the singular tense throughout. For example, “He was despised and rejected…he was pierced for our transgressions…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” and so on.
Third, they noted verse 8 of chapter 53. This verse presents some difficulty to those who interpret this passage as referring to Israel. It reads:
By oppression and judgment, he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
Were the Jewish people, God forbid, ever “cut off from the land of the living”? No! God promises that Israel will live forever:
“Only if these decrees [the sun to shine by day, the moon and stars to shine by night, etc.] vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” (Jeremiah 31:36)
Likewise, it is impossible to say that “for the transgression of my people he was stricken” since “my people” clearly means the Jewish people. If verse 8 refers to Israel, then are we to read that Israel is stricken for Israel because of Israel’s sin? How can the sin-bearer and the sinner be the same? Likewise, how can Israel be the servant, the one who “had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9)? Israel is not now, nor ever has been, without sin—the Scriptures are replete with examples of Israel’s disobedience.
All of these inconsistencies troubled many rabbis and they expressed their opinions of Rashi’s view in no uncertain terms. Rabbi Moshe Kohen Iben Crispin of Cordova, who lived in the fourteenth century, said of the Israel as servant interpretation, it “distorts the passage from its natural meaning” and that Isaiah 53 “was given of God as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when any should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non-resemblance to it whether he were the Messiah or not.”4
The Rabbinic View of Isaiah 53 Today
Yet to this day, many rabbis persist in citing Rashi as the definitive word on how to interpret the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53. Others admit the weakness of this view and say that the passage applies to an individual. They usually cite the prophet Isaiah himself, King Cyrus, King Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Moses, Job or even some anonymous contemporaries of Isaiah as the one spoken of by the prophet.5
As you go through the proposed list of people this passage describes, ask yourself: which one was totally blameless throughout his life? Which one died for the sins of others? Which one lives today? What do I think? Am I willing to dismiss Jesus as the one whom the prophet foretold? Then ask yourself again, why is this passage omitted from the regular synagogue readings?
Could it be because countless Jewish followers in Yeshua (Jesus) have come to believe in him after studying this very passage? If you were to survey one hundred Jews who believe Yeshua is the Messiah, you’d get a very different opinion about the identity of this servant in Isaiah. And you would probably find that a large percentage of them found this passage extremely influential in their thinking.
Leah is a 25-year-old Jewish woman who was searching for answers to her spiritual questions. When faced with the question, Was Jesus who he claimed to be? she wanted the answer to be no. Leah confessed, “I’m starting to see that Jesus is the Messiah, but if I accept it, I’m also rejecting my father, who did not believe in Jesus. I loved him more than anyone else in this world—I can’t do it.”
When challenged to read Isaiah 53, Leah found her dad’s old, faded Tenach. Opening it to the passage in question, she made two astounding discoveries. First, the passage really did sound like it was describing Jesus. And second, her father had circled the entire chapter. And in the margin he had written: “messianic prophecy—Yeshua is Messiah.”
Leah just had to ask…”Who is Yeshua?” When she understood that Yeshua is the Jewish way to say Jesus, it dawned on her. It was a convincing passage, indeed, and even her father had not been able to dismiss it. Within two weeks, she acknowledged that Jesus fit the description of the suffering servant.
What do you say?
In 1922, the late David Baron, a British Jewish believer in Yeshua who was well-versed in rabbinics, wrote in the preface to his exposition of Isaiah chapter 53:
…it is beyond even the wildest credulity to believe that the resemblance in every feature and minutest detail between this prophetic portaiture drawn centuries before his [Jesus’] advent and the story of his life, and death, and glorious resurrection as narrated in the gospels, can be mere accident or fortuitous coincidence.6
The chart below offers more striking evidence about how Yeshua, and only Yeshua, could fulfill this very important part of the Jewish Scriptures. Can it be true? Ask yourself, if you have the courage to believe it.
Endnotes 1In the spring of 2000, Efraim Goldstein and several Jews for Jesus staff members conducted an informal, “non-scientific” survey of passersby on the streets of Tel Aviv.
2Rabbinic Anthology, C.G. Montefiore & H. Loewe, (New York: Schocken Books, 1974) p. 544
3Frydland, Rachmiel, ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective, Vol. 2:5, p. 2
4Baron, David, The Servant of Jehovah c. 2000, Jerusalem: Israel Keren Ahvah Meshihit, p. 13
5Encyclopedia Judaica, article on Servant of the Lord, Vol. 14, p. 1187
6Baron, The Servant of Jehovah c. 2000, p. viii
THAT THE SERVANT…
|700 YEARS LATER, YESHUA…|
|would be disfigured by suffering
|was struck, spat on and mocked (Mark 15:17-19)|
|would come from humble beginnings
|grew up in Nazareth, a city with a very (53:2) poor reputation; and not where the Messiah was expected to come from (Luke 2:39-40, 51)|
|would be rejected by many
|while on the cross, was mocked, blasphemed and reviled, even by those who were crucified with him (Matthew 27:39-44)|
|would bear our sins and suffer in our place (53:4-6,11)||“…himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)|
|would heal many (53:4-5)||healed many (Matthew 8:16-17)|
|voluntarily took our punishment upon himself (53:6-7)||said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11)|
|remained silent during his suffering (53:7)||did not defend himself to Herod, Pontius Pilate or the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:62-64; 27:11-14; Luke 23:9)|
|would die (53:8,12)||died on a cross (Mark 15:37; John 19:33-34)|
|would be buried with a rich man (53:9)||was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man (Matthew 27:57-60)|
|would not remain dead, but see his seed, prolong his days andbe exalted (53:10-11)||rose from the dead three days after the crucifixion and still lives today and millions of people see themselves as his spiritual seed (Matthew 28:1-10)|
The Musaf (additional) Service for the Day of Atonement, Philips Machzor (20th c.)*
Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.
*A. Th. Philips, Machzor Leyom Kippur/Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement with English Translation; Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931), p. 239. The passage can also be found in, e.g., the 1937 edition. Also, Driver and Neubauer, p.399.