In response to our Summer ’92 invitation to send in difficult-to-answer objections to the faith, one brother wrote,

Editor:

Please refer to the enclosed letter from our former rabbi. He is responding to a short note I wrote on the bottom of our Passover card this year, challenging him to reread Isaiah 53 with an open mind.” Can you help me prepare a proper answer? Thank you very much for any help you can give.

Sincerely,
Steve

This is one we wanted to answer, not only for Steve, but also for others who might find the following principles helpful.

To prepare a proper answer to the rabbi’s letter, you need to identify what he is really saying. What is the main idea he wants to communicate, and how do the parts of his letter convey this main idea? Your response may or may not address each issue he brings up to get his main point across, but it should address his main point in some way.

If I had to give a summary sentence to state what I see as the rabbi’s main point, it would be something like this: “It is inappropriate for you to suggest that I revise my thinking about Isaiah 53 and Jesus.” Each part of his letter unites to make that point. You can see it if you begin the summary statement with the word “therefore,” and then tack the whole phrase onto each point he makes.

The Rabbi’s Letter

Dear Steve and Ellie,

My wife and I appreciated the Passover card you sent us. We hope you and your dear ones enjoyed your Holiday season also.

As you know, I have too much respect for every human being’s freedom of conscience to try to convert others to my way of thinking. Therefore as you read this letter, please understand that I am not trying to get you to agree with me. I simply want you to understand my point of view—which, by the way—is also the point of view of the great majority of biblical scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, worldwide.

While there are certain Christians who believe that a person who lived in the late 6th or early 5th pre-Christian century could see four or five hundred years into the future, this is not the generally held notion.

Leading scholars of most faiths maintain that chapters 40 through 55 of the Book of Isaiah are the spiritually uplifting, magnificent poetic artistry of a person whose name we do not know. He is referred to by scholars as “Deutero Isaiah” meaning the “Second Isaiah.” And this only because this unknown author’s work happened to be attached to the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem, who lived some time earlier.

For starters to respond to the questions you pose, it might help you understand what follows here if you will prepare to reread those chapters 40 through 55. When you start with Chapter 40 and proceed, you will, if you read with an open mind, become aware that the author is a master of personification: he speaks of a people in the singular and almost makes his readers (or hearers) experience the group as a single individual. You will come upon several allusions to the “Servant of the Lord.” When the Second Isaiah spoke of the “Servant of the Lord,” he was speaking of the people of Israel. For example: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’; fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God;…” (Isaiah 41:8-10a) or this: “But now hear O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.” (Is. 44.1f) to mention only two of several such references.

And if one studies these texts, he/she will see that this author was saying that the people Israel has a job to do. He assigned to his people a task, a role in the process of deliverance and that is the basic meaning of “servant of the Lord”: that the achieving of the goal of a better, finer world will not be God’s work alone, but that human beings have their task to do as God’s partners.

Now when we turn to the 52nd and 53rd chapters of Second Isaiah, we become aware that all the verbs are in the past tense. “His looks were…marred.” “He was despised.” “He was driven.” This writing is during the Babylonian Exile. Israel has suffered—that’s undeniable, he’s saying. Defeat, destruction, captivity by the Babylonians had been Israel’s lot—were still its lot. There had even been meaning in their past suffering. Now note who is speaking—if you are honest to the Bible—the kings of the nations knew well what it meant: “suffering which could lead to our welfare,” they called it. “Indeed, he was [in fact] wounded because of our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. He experienced the suffering which might lead to our welfare, and there was healing for us in his bruises.” (Is. 53:4a-5.)

This is an unusual and somewhat difficult thought, but it is not unique in the Bible. Perhaps the most graphic parallel is the one in Exodus 14:30f. Israel has just crossed the Red Sea: “So God delivered Israel from Egypt on that day.” And then we read of the suffering which might lead to this people’s welfare: “And Israel saw Egypt dead on the shore of the sea and Israel thus experienced God’s great might, employed against Egypt, and the people both feared God and believed in God and His servant, Moses.” From what Egypt had suffered Israel learned and might derive profit. So with the Second Isaiah—from Israel’s experience others might learn and profit.

Second Isaiah further represents God as saying: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put my spirit upon him; he will publish the truth among the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)

God could say most of that about any of His other prophets, “I have put my spirit upon him, he will publish the truth.” The difference is in the last phrase: “Among the nations.” God put his spirit upon single prophets and sent them to publish the truth among His people Israel. But he sent His servant Israel, a whole prophet people, according to Second Isaiah—He sent this servant to publish the truth among the nations: “He will not fade or be broken until he establishes truth on earth. The coastlands wait for His teaching.” (Isaiah 42:4) And in a similar passage, [he?] has God say, So I will make you a light unto the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

These are the words that drew it all together. Israel, the job, salvation. All the words spoken to Israel, the Servant: “I will make you a light unto the nations that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

So—let the name Israel stand for all men and women who have a sense of dedication, of commitment. Think of salvation not as “pie in the sky when you die” but as a state of blessedness and security here. Then listen again: “I make you a light unto the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Combine a faith that requires doing with an orientation towards life here on earth and the result is human efforts to improve the human state, the service brought by persons dedicated to the achievement of a messianic goal: that every person may enjoy freedom from fear and from want, and enjoy that freedom here.

To repeat: What I have said above is not intended to convert you to my ideas. I have too much respect for every person’s right to believe as their conscience dictates. I only wish that others would respect me and my convictions in the same manner.

Warmly, and with blessings,

Rabbi ________

His first and most important point is:

People who respect one another do not try to change each other’s minds, therefore, it is inappropriate for you to suggest that I revise my thinking about Isaiah 53 and Jesus.

His second and weakest point is:

My understanding of the dating and authorship of Isaiah is more widely held than yours, therefore, it is inappropriate for you to suggest that I revise my thinking about Isaiah 53 and Jesus.

His third point, in which he responds to your specific challenge, is:

If you will be as open-minded as you ask me to be, you will see that the lesson I am giving you on this passage makes sense, therefore, it is inappropriate for you to suggest that I revise my thinking about Isaiah 53 and Jesus.

He then reiterates his first point.

The rabbi doesn’t make his points as bluntly as the above outline. He fleshes out the points with a pastoral tone. His tone is meant to set an example to you as well as leave the door open for you to “return to the fold.”

The temptation before you is to devote most of your reply to countering his third point, with all its sub-points. It makes up the largest portion of his letter and can thus be mistaken for the main point. You might think that by refuting his case point by point, you can help this man come closer to Jesus. But to think that would be to overlook the unifying point of the whole letter. Remember, each point he makes is saying, “It is inappropriate for you to suggest that I revise my thinking about Isaiah 53 and Jesus.”

The rabbi is comfortably armored into his position. The whole Jewish community, and even the larger community, has identified him as an authority on the Jewish religion. Even your desire to persuade him is a tribute and acknowledgment to that authority. Remember, his view of you is that you have no authority and you are misled. The listening he does is to exercise patience so that, should the opportunity arise, he can help you out of your misunderstanding which is so evident to him.

Now that does not mean that you shouldn’t think about what the rabbi is telling you about the passage and how he sees it. It is worth looking into for the strengthening of your own faith. But don’t think that the strength of your reply will be in refuting the Deutero-Isaiah theory. Even if you were to address it point by point, you’d still be left facing his first and last point, which is, “People who respect one another do not try to change each other’s minds.”

If you can see the main point of his letter and how the parts of it support that main point, it will help you to decide what you want as the main statement for your reply. Your statement is going to be built on a fundamental premise—that you believe that truth is objective: that it exists whether or not we comprehend or believe it. It is not position that must be served or tradition that must be maintained. Our first priority in religion is to perceive what is, and relate to it or Him. What refrain (written or unwritten) could reflect that premise and unify the parts of your letter? It’s up to you. But let me give you an example that might help you think it through.

Let’s say that you chose as your summary statement, “It is right to stand up for what you believe is true.” (This is certainly not the only possible statement to make, but had the rabbi’s letter been addressed to me, that is the thought I would convey in return.)

Based on that sample summary statement, you might begin where he began: with respect. Your first point might be, “People who respect each other often disagree and do try to persuade one another; it is right to stand up for what you believe is true.” To make that point, you might explain what respect means to you. When you don’t respect someone, it is easier to ignore that person than to try pointing him or her to ideas that are important and valuable to you. Hoping that people will change their minds does not mean you don’t respect their right to think and believe as they choose. Hoping that people will change their minds implies that they would arrive at their own conclusions—your desire is to remove roadblocks or present facts that might make that conclusion possible.

Your next point could be that you were puzzled by the rabbi’s telling you twice that he was not trying to persuade you. It is understandable only inasmuch as he was showing that he treats others the way he wishes to be treated. As it is, you do not agree with the Deutero-Isaiah theory, but if he’s deeply convinced it is true, you would expect him to wish that you could see it too…not because he wants you to agree with him, but because he wants you to see the truth of the passage. You would not have regarded this as a lack of respect because, after all, it is right to stand up for what you believe is true.

Please Note: You should make it clear that you are not inviting him to be your teacher any more than you would presume to be his. It’s just that you would expect and not be offended by his desire for you to be persuaded by the case he made. Why shouldn’t he hope that you will believe it, if it is the truth? In this section you may wish to state briefly why you disagree with the interpretation he gave.* If you do, avoid preachiness. State what you think simply, without using words such as “obviously” or “of course.”

Keep in mind that when you disagree with someone, it is also good to find those points where you can agree. You certainly can agree with the rabbi’s comment that salvation is not “pie in the sky when you die.” Take a few sentences to explain what God’s salvation means in your daily life. There can be no doubt that confidence in our final destination plays a wonderful part in our lives as believers. But a living relationship with God does not allow us to have a cavalier attitude towards God’s creation, and particularly God’s people.

Your last point could be that you hadn’t meant any disrespect in your card. You might mention that even if you were a little clumsy in asking him to reconsider the passage, the intent was not to lift up your own point of view, but to lift up Jesus. You feel it is right, not only to stand up for what you believe is true, but to speak of matters of import to people who matter to you.

In fairness to the rabbi, it might have sounded a little presumptuous when you asked him to read the chapter with an open mind, though I know you didn’t mean it that way. The request presumes that up till now, he has read it with a closed mind. An apology for that presumption (even if it was a correctly presumed) would help him to let down his guard.

Very few people see themselves as closed-minded. People don’t decide to be closed-minded. They decide to make commitments that require them to shut out ideas that might conflict with their commitment. A rabbi has a commitment to espouse rabbinical teachings. That requires that he not see Jesus as option. He has to believe that he is open-minded, and that his commitments are based on the facts while yours are not. Otherwise, he could not function in his capacity.

When you asked him to read the passage with an open mind, what you really wanted was for him to set aside his commitment to not believing that Jesus is the Messiah. Steve, he probably can’t do that apart from God’s intervention in his heart. Believing in Jesus costs us all a great deal, but remember, the cost for a rabbi is considerably higher. He immediately loses not only his career but the respect of the people to whom he has devoted his life.

You and I know that the intimacy with God and the working of His Holy Spirit in our lives is worth any price…but it’s hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to believe it could be true. Commitment to truth, whatever the cost, is the one commitment that puts all others into proper perspective.

If you write again, please affirm the rabbi as a person; let him know how much he means to you and how much respect you have for him. Maybe you already did, and I just didn’t get to see it.

You don’t have an easy task. You must be more thoughtful, more considerate and more loving than a very thoughtful, considerate and loving unbeliever. Do you care enough to pray a lot? That’s where we win or lose the battle!

Remember that we need to learn to respond to people based on a clear analysis of what they are really saying—as well as what we really want to say. When witnessing, we ought to be compassionate as well as respectful. Most of all, we need to be prayerful.

* See “Deutero Isaiah: A Closer Look and “Israel as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: Why not?” below.

“Deutero Isaiah”: A closer look

One of the principles of the scientific study of written documents is that if you claim a writing is not what it purports to be, you must have an adequate reason and adequate evidence to support that claim. The idea that there was more than one author of the Book of Isaiah topples under its own weight because the so- called evidence to support the theory is so flimsy. Consider the following:

  1. Presuppositions play a major part in this theory. . The attribution of authorship to someone other than Isaiah originated because of the predictive prophecies. The reason to claim the Book of Isaiah is not what it purports to be is that critics presupposed that a prophet living in the 8th century B.C.E. could not possibly have written about Babylon and the captivity that was to take place centuries later. The theory did not arise from evidence that eventually led to a conclusion. It arose from a conclusion, and “evidence” then was sought to support that conclusion.
  2. The general tone and background of the Book of Isaiah is pre-exilic and Judean. One need only compare it with the Babylonian background of an exilic prophet like Ezekiel to see the differences. Further, Isaiah is replete with references to idolatry in Israel, which was a pre-exilic problem, not an exilic or postexilic problem. The locale of idolatry is said to be on mountains which are found in Judah but not in Babylonia (see Isaiah 57:4-5,7, 65:2-4, 66:17). Yet Babylonia is the postulated home of “Deutero Isaiah.”
  3. Much is made of differences in literary style; yet stylistic differences are determined subjectively. Known authors often show variations in style over time (compare early and later Shakespeare). While proponents of the Deutero Isaiah theory are pointing out differences in the Book of Isaiah, they are overlooking the stylistic and conceptual unity between the two parts. Phrases such as “Holy One of Israel” are consistent throughout the book. In addition, the so-called “Deutero Isaiah” has literary parallels to Micah who is agreed to be eighth century B.C.E. He shares no similar parallels with the later exilic and postexilic prophets.
  4. There is a leap in logic regarding the anonymity of the supposed “Deutero Isaiah.” Whoever wrote the second portion of Isaiah is regarded as one of the greatest of all Hebrew prophets. It is not logical that the actual name of that prophet would be forgotten, particularly if he wrote in the exilic or postexilic period when religious traditions were being preserved. It is also unlikely that his work would have been incorporated into the work of an earlier, lesser prophet.
  5. An “Isaiah Scroll” (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) shows chapter 40 beginning on the last line of the column which also contains part of chapter 38 and 39. With no clear indication of a break between those particular portions (chapter 40 is supposed to have been written by “Deutero Isaiah”), the book was plainly understood to be a unity at least as early as the second century.

In conclusion, there are those who do not want to believe that God actually spoke through a prophet to reveal the future with amazing accuracy. To do so would be to accept the fact that there is a God who communicates to us in a real way to reveal truth. That is a very discomforting thought to those who prefer to think of God as a far away, abstract being and truth as a matter of interpretation. Therefore there is certainly adequate motivation behind the Deutero Isaiah theory. But reason and evidence? Not so far.

Israel as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: Why not?

The rabbi’s suggestion that “Deutero Isaiah” was writing about Israel and not the Messiah is more difficult to defend than to refute.

Arthur Kac, in his book, The Messianic Hope, explains why this interpretation of the text is untenable.

1. According to the text, this sufferer “had done no wrong and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9b). Yet Scripture teaches that there is not one person who has done no wrong, much less an entire nation! (Psalm 14:2-3; Psalm 130:3; I Kings 8:46)

Lest a person view the phrase “had done no wrong” as hyperbole, Kac points out that this servant is offering up his life as an offering for sin. A sin offering had to be perfect and unblemished. The fact that God loves Israel and has called Israel His servant is not in dispute. To think that Israel could be the righteous sin-bearer described in Isaiah 53 is another matter. The unrighteousness of our people is a recurring theme in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:4).

2. According to the text, this servant is suffering in order to atone for the sins of others. Where ever did God say or even imply that Israel would receive the punishment that other nations deserved? Yet over and over, God warned Israel what the consequences of her own disobedience would be (e.g., Leviticus 26:14f).

3. Not only does the servant suffer to bear the iniquities of others, but verse 7 says the servant silently endures the undeserved afflictions. Is there reason to believe that Israel suffered silently when we were invaded and carried off by the Babylonians? Not according to Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

4. The suffering servant was poured out to death (Isaiah 53:12). It is astounding that some think it’s barbaric to believe that God required an innocent person’s death as an atonement for the guilty—and then those same people accept that God allowed the sacrifice of an entire nation of people instead! And even so, Israel never died. Always, always, throughout every persecution, the Jewish people have survived, just as God promised that we would.

The people of Israel as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53? How could such an interpretation ever have gained credibility in the Jewish community?

Rashi was the first to suggest that Isaiah 53 refers to Israel. Prior to the eleventh century, the pervasive belief was that the passage refers to the Messiah. Further, Rashi admittedly favored certain interpretations over others for the sake of not giving a foothold to believers in Jesus. For example, regarding Psalm 21, “The Targum renders ‘king’ in verse 1 by ‘King Messiah’; and Rashi observes: ‘Our old doctors interpreted this Psalm of King Messiah, but in order to meet the Schismatics (i.e. the Christians) it is better to understand it of David himself.'”1 Put another way, “In his opening statement on the Messianic Psalm 21 he [Rashi] says, ‘Our rabbis have expounded it of King Messiah, but it is better to expound it of David himself in order to answer heretics.'”2

We should not attribute malicious intent to Rashi’s bias. He felt that he was doing the Jewish people a favor. Most of our opposers today feel that they are protecting the best interests of the Jewish community by teaching that Isaiah 53 speaks of Israel as the suffering servant. What they either cannot or will not see is that they have reduced the passage to nonsense for the sake of preventing the Jewish community from considering the gospel.

Now and then we meet some rabbis and observant Jews who know the Scriptures and are disturbed, very disturbed, by the knowledge that some of these passages really do seem to describe Yeshua. They cannot quite believe the explanations that they were taught to give to others. We can only pray that they will not be satisfied until they can open their minds and hearts to what God, not tradition, requires.


  1. J.J. Stewart Perowne, D.D., The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Introductions and Notes Explanatory and Critical, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI p. 232.
  2. Arthur W. Kac, M.D., The Messianic Hope, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 75.

Recommended reading:

  • Oswald T. Allis, The Unity of the Book of Isaiah: A Study in Prophecy, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.
  • See “Isaiah” in: Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Moody Press.
  • R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans.