The Suffering Servant
To Christians, there can be no more concrete evidence that Jesus was truly the Messiah than Isaiah 53. Missionaries have, for centuries, proclaimed the Hebrew prophet Isaiah foretold of the advent of Christianity long before Jesus’ birth. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion conveniently follow the Isaiah 53 outline. Christian missionaries hold this as proof text for their belief…some, such as those who follow the “Kenneths” (Hagan and Copeland), stating that this passage gives us some sort of blanket claim complete supernatural healing. Others claim that the Jews, in fear of a mass run on the baptismal pool, have purposely omitted Isaiah 53 from the Haftorah rotation. Let’s look at some of these claims.
First, does this passage truly point to the future death of Jesus? Despite obviously strong objections from conservative Christian apologists, the rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 ascribes the “servant” to the nation of Israel who silently endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of its gentile oppressors. The speakers in these verses are the stunned kings of nations who will bear witness to the messianic age and the final redemption of the Jewish people following their exile. “Who would have believed our report?,” the world leaders wonder aloud in utter disbelief. (53:1)
In reality, this is the last of four Servant Songs which each of which is unquestionably linked to the preceeding chapter. The “Servant” in each of the other three Servant Songs is openly identified as the nation of Israel.
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.”
But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I called you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.
Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
According to rabbinic tradition, the leaders of nations will cry in astonishment to discover Israel has not, as has been taught, suffered because of its own stubborn “blindness”, but as a direct result of “our own iniquity” (vs. 5). That is the nation of Israel’s suffering is due to the anti-Semitism of the nations. In fact, Israel’s redemption will contradict everything the gentile nations will have anticipated. The leaders will ask, ‘If Israel did not suffer because of their own stubborness, why did they suffer?” “Who is really to blame for Israel’s long suffering in exile?”
They issue their conclusion in the stunning words of Isaiah 53:8 – “for the transgressions of my people [the gentile nations] they [the Jews] were stricken.”
This agrees with the surrounding chapters which depict the nation of Israel as “despised afflicted” (Is. 54:6-11), and “oppressed without cause” (Is. 52:4).
The identification of Israel as G-d’s servent throughout the four Servant Songs is prevalent throughout ancient rabbinic commentaries. Rabbinic sources from the Talmudic period clearly identify the nation of Israel as the subject of the Servant Songs. (Talmud Berachos 5a).
Isaiah 53 Omitted in Haftorah Readings:
The haftorah, Hebrew: הפטרה; “parting,” “taking leave”, is a series of selections from the books of Nevi’im (“Prophets”) of the Hebrew Bible (Tanach) that is publicly read in synagogue as part of Jewish religious practice. The Haftarah reading follows the Torah reading on each Sabbath and on Jewish festivals and fast days. Typically, the haftarah is thematically linked to the parasha (Torah portion) that precedes it.
The origin of haftarah reading is lost to history, and several theories have been proposed to explain its role in Jewish practice, suggesting it arose in response to the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes which preceded the Maccabean revolt, wherein Torah reading was prohibited or that it was “instituted against the Samaritans, who denied the canonicity of the Prophets (except for Joshua), and later against the Sadducees.” The Talmud mentions that a haftarah was read in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who lived c.70 CE, and in the Christian New Testament several references suggest this Jewish custom was in place during that era. (Wikipedia)
Isaiah 53 is never read simply because it has no relevance to any of the weekly parsha readings from the Pentateuch, and has no relationship to any holiday or historically significant date on the Jewish calendar. Isaiah chapters 3, 13, 23 or 33 are also never read. Any charge of “hiding” or “avoiding” scriptures should be laid to rest by the fact that Isaiah 9:5-6 is read in the Haftorah (another Christian “biggie” we will address next week).
This argument is particularly preposterous when we consider that the custom to read the Haftorah was implemented more than 2,150 years ago. Why are missionaries unaware of this fact when the custom to read the Haftorah is mentioned quite clearly in the New Testament (Acts 13:14-15), long before the Jewish people could have an inkling that a heretical sect would emerge to twist the words of this chapter?
This unsubstantiated charge, that the Jews expunged Isaiah 53 from the Haftorah, is further evidence of the anti-Semitic argument used by missionaries. It perpetuates the medieval Christian concept of the Jews — a cunning, scheming, diabolical bunch — who reject Jesus (though they really believe in him) and have conspired to make sure that every other Jew rejects him. This accusation sets the Jews on the side of “the devil” (another mythical being we will study in a future post). This personification of the Jew as the Devil (John 8:44) is as old as Christianity itself.
The idea that, despite my personal responsibility in maintaining my health, I will be given a “free pass” if I utter the words, “by his stripes we are healed”, runs counter to Jewish understanding of the nature of illness. Jews know that their is an accountability to G-d for every thought and action. The reward for fulfilling a Mitzvah is not known, neither is the punishment for a transgression. The understaning is that those things suffered in this world will not be suffered in the World to Come and those rewards given in this world will not be expienced in the World to Come.
The Christian idea, that suffering comes from another “deity” they call Satan, will be addressed later. But it is central in the idea that getting a “free pass” from our afflictions is some sign of a higher spirituality. This is evident in the claims of the “Kenneths” that it is simply a person’s lack of “faith” that keeps them from being healed. In reality, the use of “incantaions” (see above) is simply the elevating of self to the stature of G-d.
While every effort is made to alleviate suffering, and prolong life (as Mitzvahs can only be fulfilled while living), the burden of disease or affliction is recognized as an atonement. Jews recognize that affliction, as well as reward, is from G-d. He tells us in Isaiah 45:7, “I make peace, and create evil.”
The evidence rightfully concludes that it is Israel, not some future “Jesus” that Isaiah is referencing in chapter 53. To believe otherwise is, at best simply foolish. At its worst it belies blatant anti-Semitism and, in the extreme, idolatry.
And That’s What the Bible Really Says.