Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

The Servant in Isaiah 52-53

Posted on: June 24, 2009

ISAIAH 52, 13 – 53, 12


In Deutero-Isaiah (chapter 40 and following), the prophet is not named as Isaiah.

Bernard Duhm wrote in an 1892  commentary on Isaiah that the book should be divided into three (chapters 56 – 66  forming the third division) rather than two parts, to include a Trito-Isaiah, and Duhm believed that the four Servant Songs had separate authorship from the rest of  Isaiah.

These were the four songs: Isaiah 42, 1 – 4, the second: 49, 1 – 6,the third: 50, 4 – 9, and then there is the song which is in our machzor in the YK mussaf service, 52, 13ff.

The  Substitute King

Assyrian texts of the seventh century BCE, 200 years before Deutero Isaiah, refer to a ritual of the Substitute King, which is relevant to the imagery of Isaiah 53. If the king was threatened by ill-omens, for example an eclipse, a substitute would be chosen to sit on the king’s throne for a designated period of time, in order that the expected misfortune should fall on the substitute and not on the king. John H Walton of Wheaton College, Illinois has written on the parallels between these texts and Isaiah 52 – 53. He mentions seventh century Assyrian texts from the time of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. The royal substitute was not intended to rule but to act as a decoy, to draw misfortune away from the true king. There is some resemblance to a scapegoat or a whipping boy, but the ritual here serves to avert a perceived danger. Of interest  in the Assyrian account is that the substitute had to wear the king’s crown, sceptre and robes and, if the substitute was put to death, to avert the perceived danger to the king, he was given a royal funeral. As John Walton points out, there is no king is involved in the Isaiah text. However,  the servant is considered a lowly person who becomes exalted and, in verse 9 as we shall see, his tomb is among the wealthy. Walton  suggests that the prophet is promulgating an ideal image of kingship

 …portraying the ideal king as a Servant who functions as a humble instrument of God’s will.

Walton contends that the language of the servant songs is consistent with this imagery and contains:

…elements that were reminiscent of other kingship-focused observances from the ancient Near East. [1]

Isaac Avishur, the author of the EJ entry on Isaiah, [2] mentions the view that the prophet has utilised and customised  liturgy in respect of the Mesopotamian god Tammuz.It is interesting that pagan Mesopotamian tradition, Hebrew prophecy and Christian theology all seem to idealise a paradoxical figure who is both afflicted and exalted, lowly and elevated. No doubt this figure is an archetypal reflection of  human sorrow and aspiration in the context of religious striving.

 ‘The Apologetic Impulse’

As the subject of second Isaiah is the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile; not merely the return but the exaltation of the people through the intervention of God, there is a good case for regarding the Servant as a representation of Am Yisrael, rather than an individual.

Gershom Scholem suggests that the tendency to interpret this passage in terms of the destiny of the Jewish people is a sign of:

…an apologetic impulse at work which must not be underestimated. The representatives of the rational tendencies stood in the forefront of the theological defences mounted against the claims of the Church.[3]

If Scholem is right, it would explain why Talmud and Midrash were so much more willing to believe in an individual Messiah than the medieval biblical commentators, who were operating in the face of the hostility of  medieval Christianity.

Hyam Maccoby commented on the earlier development of  the representation of the Messiah in folkloric aggadic literature, believing that this altered significantly after the failed rebellion of Simon Bar Kokhba:

The modern view of the Suffering Servant passage, interpreted as referring to the Messiah, is that this interpretation is not found in the earliest aggadic material, which regards the Messiah as a happy, triumphant figure. It was not until the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (135 CE) and the resulting miseries of the Jewish people that the idea of a suffering Messiah entered Jewish thought and was reflected in aggadah.[4]

Chapter 52, verse 13

Ibn Ezra and Redak took the view that the Servant refers to the Jews in exile. Rashi explains: ‘Behold, at the end of days, My servant Jacob, ie the righteous among him, shall prosper.’

The verb יַשְֹכִּיל is translated variously as he will be prudent, he will be wise, he will prosper, he will be successful. It appears in 1 Samuel 18, 14, in the present tense:

וַיְהִי דָוִד לְכָל דְּרָכָו }דְּרָכָיו{ מַשְׂכִּיל וַיהֹוָה עִמּוֹ

And David was successful in all his ways, and the Lord was with him.

Targum Jonathan uses a synonymous word, צ ל ח, for ‘prosper;’ the Targum has הָא יַצְלַח עַבְדִי מְשִיחָא which is ‘Behold my servant, the anointed, shall prosper.’

שֹ כ ל is often used in the sense of behaving wisely, especially in the book of Proverbs; Ibn Ezra therefore explains the verse: ‘My servant shall understand that he will be exalted and lifted up,’ which is found also in the Septuagint.

Verse 14

ש מ ם can be translated as ‘astonished,’ ‘appalled’ or ‘desolate.’ The Servant arouses a negative reaction which is neither hatred nor pity. Note the shift in this verse from second person to third person. Yamim Norayim  has ‘Many were appalled at him,’ but the Hebrew and many translations say ‘Many were apalled at you…’ before switching to the third person.

Mishhat מִשְחַת is often translated as ‘marred’ and BDB has ‘disfigured’. This usage is a hapax legomenon. It comes from a verb ש ח ת meaning ‘to corrupt’ or ‘to destroy’ and connected also with bowing down. Perhaps this is linked with ש ח ח, the root for bowing down in worship, or with  ש ח ט, as in shechita.The mem is a prefix so the root is not linked with מ ש ח, to anoint. The Targum has a word meaning ‘lean,’ ‘poor,’ ‘reduced’: חֲשִיךְ which is related to חֹֹשֶךְ, ‘darkness’.

There can be no doubt that the appearance of the servant is the very opposite of all those described as having a fair countenance:   Sarah (Genesis 12, 14); Rebecca (Genesis 24, 16); Rachel (Genesis 29, 17); Joseph (Genesis 39, 6); David (1 Samuel 16, 14); also Absalom (2 Samuel 14, 25); and not forgetting Esther(Esther 2, 7), Vashti (Esther 1, 11), the daughters of Job (Job 42, 15) and both male and female speakers in the Song of Songs. Good looks are attributed mainly to good characters – matriarchs, kings etc but also to Vashti and the dubious Absalom.

Why then is the Servant’s appearance insignificant at best and disfigured at worst?

We are familiar with the convention in film of a flattering depiction of  a physically unprepossessing character, whereby the  heroine is depicted by a beautiful actress, given thick eyebrows to denote plainness, or where a male superstar is cast as an historical personage who was not very good looking in real life (eg Richard Harris plays Oliver Cromwell). Portrait artists also are said to have flattered their subjects, not only to be paid by them but because art is enhanced by depicting beauty.

A literary depiction  loses less by failing to create an image of physical beauty because, if there is beauty, it resides in the language rather than the image.

The Servant, being unprepossessing, does not arouse compassion but appalled astonishment, which impedes the ‘many’ from identifying with him. He is therefore particularly isolated.

Verse 15

In this verse, Rashi’s identification of the Servant with Am Yisroel seems more plausible. Rashi interprets: ‘So now, even his hand will become powerful and he will cast down the nations who scattered him.’

The word י ז ה interested the commentators. The root is נ ז ה, to sprinkle or spatter; perhaps scatter, as in the Targum rendering:  ‘He will scatter the peoples…’  The kings are silenced because they have never experienced anything like this; the verse does not say what exactly silences the kings, but it seems to convey their astonishment at the  transformation of  the Servant

Ibn Ezra and Redak both explain that the other nations did not expect to see Israel’s redemption, and are now astonished by their reversal of fortune.

Chapter 53, verse 1

The rhetorical question in 53, 1 emphasises that the elevation of the Servant must be seen to be believed, but what this change reveals is God’s power, the זְרוֹעַ יי which has redeemed Israel before, especially in the Exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2

What do the metaphors of the sapling and the root from dry ground suggests about the rise of the Servant? That it is unexpected, as we have seen, perhaps relatively quick, that it has taken place in discouraging circumstances (dry ground) but that it is nevertheless deeply rooted in these circumstances. One could say that this refers to the Exile, which is in fact the interpretation of Redak, who added that the growth of the sapling in dry ground is miraculous.

The next part of the verse, which alludes again to the Servant’s unimpressive appearance, is interpreted by Redak as still referring to the Exile: ‘As long as he was in exile, he did not have a beautiful appearance.’ בּעוד שֶהיה בְּגלות לא היה לו תאר ולא הדר

The last word in this verse is וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ ‘And shall we desire him?’ or ‘[no beauty] that we should desire him’ – ‘…nothing drew us near,’ in the Days of Awe machzor.   The word ח מ ד occurs in the ten commandments, as ‘Thou shalt not covet…’ (Exodus 20, 14): לֹא תַחְמֹד.

To whom does ‘we’ refer? If the Servant is Israel, then ‘we’ must refer to the other nations.who are shocked at Israel’s redemption.

A comment from Maimonides (Letter to Yemen, 12th century)

“What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . .  Isaiah speaks …of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at his fame of him… and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.”

Verse 3

The word ‘despised,’ here in the passive נִבְזֶה is not unusual; it is the word used when Esau despised his birthright  (Genesis 25, 34), when Michal despised David in her heart (” Samuel 6, 16) and when David says that he is ‘less than human, scorned by men, despised by people.’ (Psalm 22, 7)  לֹא אִישׁ חֶרְפַּת אָדָם וּבְזוּי עָם:

חָדֵל is connected with ceasing or lack so could be translated a forsaken.

The Servant is a lonely figure. He does not have disciples or followers. A man of sorrows: אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת.

In Jeremiah 15,18) Jeremiah’s use of כְאֵבִי  ‘my pain,’  is from the same root as מַכְאֹבוֹת.

Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?

More than once, Jeremiah stood in the courtyard of the Temple, denouncing corrupt and unethical practices. He became an outcast and was punished and later banned from the Temple area.He  was beaten and put in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:16) and later imprisoned (Jeremiah 37, 15 – 16) at least twice (Jeremiah 38, 4ff).

I am not contending that Jeremiah was personally the model for the Suffering Servant, but that his narrative attests the ideal of a righteous and persecuted prophet in Hebrew prophecy. However, there is a precedent for linking the Servant with Jeremiah.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942 CE)  regarded  Jeremiah as a fulfillment of these verses, not the only person to fulfil them but as a representative of many righteous servants.

Perhaps there are thirty-six  in every generation: the lamed-vavniks.

The bible often speaks of God hiding his face, in the sense of punishing someone, eg the Psalmist, or punishing the people, Israel, by withdrawal. It is less often that a person hides his face, although Moses does so in Exodus 3, 6 at the burning bush, and Job, who is most certainly a man of sorrows and acquainted with illness, speaks of hiding his face from God and of God hiding His face from Job:

 Only grant two things to me, then I will not hide myself from thy face:  withdraw thy hand far from me, and let not dread of thee terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and do thou reply to me.  How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.  Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy?  Wilt thou frighten a driven leaf and pursue dry chaff? (Job 13, 20 – 24)

Verse 4

This verse develops a theology of vicarious suffering and atonement. Rashi said ‘…he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering.’

According to this view, ‘we’ are the nations, and ‘he’ is Israel.

Ezekiel took a different view, that each individual bears responsibility only for his own deeds:

 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18, 20)

Redak says that the view expressed in Isaiah 53, 4 does not contradict this, since,  if ‘we’ refers to the other nations, it is the other nations who impute vicarious suffering to Israel.

Ibn Ezra and Abravanel take this a step further, explaining that the Servant Israel bore the pains and sorrows inflicted on him by other nations.

The words חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלֹהִים , ‘[We thought him] plagued, stricken by God,’ are often used in connection with leprosy. This words emphasise that the Servant is an outcast, as we might, in modern usage, use the word ‘leper’ as a metaphor for someone shunned by society.

“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. [Isaiah 53:4].” [5]

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is a ritual, its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.

Verse 5

This verse continues the theme of vicarious suffering but adds that we were healed by his wounds. A burden of guilt falls on ‘us,’ whoever ‘we’ may be. The theme of the righteous making atonement for the unrighteous is a feature of rabbinic literature. Even in the Avodah of the Yom Kippur mussaf service, the High Priest makes atonement for the people.

The possible meanings of the word מְחֹלָל according to BDB are profaned, defiled, pierced and there is a possible link with ח ל ה to be ill.

Verse 6

While the verse builds on theme of ‘our’ guilt, born by the servant, the sheep metaphor suggests that ‘we’ are essentially, innocent, ignorant, and easily led. Rashi, Redak and Ibn Ezra all interpret the first person plural as referring to the other nations.

In the Christian interpretation, ‘we’ refers to Israel which makes a neater metaphor but there is also the Jewish tradition in Talmud and Midrash of regarding the Servant as a person, variously identified as David, Hezekiah, Zerubbabel and the post biblical Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiva believed to be the Messiah.

Verse 7

Note the use of   רחל which means ewe, but does not occur often as a common noun – only in Genesis (31, 38), in connection with Laban’s sheep, and in the Song of Songs (6, 6).  Midrash attributes to Rachel the virtue of silence and discretion, because she did not reveal to Jacob Laban’s deception regarding the marriage to Leah, and this verse may be used as a prooftext. Certainly the silence of the Servant is regarded as a virtue. The sheep metaphor is applied differently as the sheep is not wandering away, but is here the unprotesting victim.

There is another connection with Jeremiah in this verse:

But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” (Jeremiah 11, 19)

Verse 8

Rashi says that ‘the land of the living’ refers to Eretz Israel, and ‘cut off’ means exiled. The medieval commentators (Ibn Ezra, Redak, Rashi)  believed that the speakers are the other nations, confessing that Israel was afflicted, or stricken with plague because of the sins of the other nations, particularly in this case the Babylonians.

Verse 9

Consistently, the medieval rabbis explain that the grave among the wicked was the grave in exile, in Babylon. Rashi also suggests that the grave among the wicked and the tomb among the wealthy means that the Servant was willing to let the ruling power take his life rather than deny the Torah.

Now if the prophet’s imagery  was influenced by knowledge of the pagan practice of the Substitute King, the grave among the wealthy could refer to the practice of killing the Substitute King and burying him in a king’s tomb. ‘Among the wicked’ fits in with this too. The wicked and the wealthy seem to be linked together and the Servant submits in some way to be martyred by them.

Jeremiah’s grave was, as far as anyone knows, in Egypt, perhaps Tahpanes,where he was taken with other refugees, as Nebuchadnezzar advanced on Judah. There is a midrash that he was stoned to death (Midrash Aggadah to Numbers 30, 15).[6] This is also attributed to Tertullian (ca. 155 – 230), a patristic writer who said that the Jews stoned Jeremiah, a hostile interpretation of the Jews being par for the course in early Christian writings.

Nachmanides, who was forced to enter into a disputation with the Christian authorities of Barcelona in 1263, repudiated the view that the Suffering Servant refers to the Messiah, or that the Messiah would be put to death and buried among the wicked:

Friar Paul claimed: “Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and ho he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?

I said to him: “In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call ‘Israel My servant’ or ‘Jacob My servant.’ ”
Friar Paul said: “I shall prove from the words of your sages that it speaks of the messiah.”
I said to him: “It is true that the rabbis in the aggadah explain it as referring to the messiah. However, they never said that he would be killed ,at the hands of his enemies. For you will find in no book of the Jews, neither in the Talmud nor in the Midrash, that the messiah, the descendant of David, would be killed or would be turned over to his enemies or would be buried among the wicked. Indeed even the messiah whom you made for yourself was not buried. I shall explain for you this section properly and clearly, if you wish. There is no indication that the messiah would be killed, as happened to your messiah. They, however, did not wish to hear. [7] 

Verse 10

This difficult use of  ד כ א to crush occurs also in Job (6, 9 and 19, 2). How are we to understand this verse, unless by comparing the servant with Job, who was blameless and upright. (Job 1, 1)?  The crushing of the Servant, according to the verse, serves a Utilitarian purpose: that God’s purpose would be fulfilled by him; that he would see offspring and prolong his days. What does the Servant need to do to achieve this purpose? He has to offer his soul as a guilt offering: א ש ם – and the asham was one of the Temple offerings prescribed in Leviticus.

Verse 11

To whom does tsadik refer? Some translations say ‘The Righteous One,’ meaning that the Servant, through his knowledge, brings many people to God; other translations make ‘righteous’ apply to the Servant. The word order is:

He will justify/ the righteous one/My servant

It could be translated as ‘The Righteous One will justify my servant,’ or ‘My servant will justify the righteous.’ According to the rest of the verse, the Servant is the subject of the verbs.  ס ב ל means ‘to bear a heavy load.’  The Servant  sees, justifies and bears a burden. The Judaica Press translation seems to me better than some others:

From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My Servant would vindicate the just for the many, and their iniquities he would bear.’[8]

The servant song in Isaiah 42,1 ff  throws light on this verse, by its use of the motifs of ‘servant,’ ‘righteousness’ and being silent.

1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

These words are addressed to ‘You, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham who loved me’ (Isaiah 41, 8).

Note that it is through  knowledge that the servant  justifies:

 ‘for Torah will come out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ (Isaiah 2, 3)

Verse 12

The traditional medieval view, also found  earlier in the Targum, is that the nation of Israel will intercede for the welfare of the other nations.

Rashi says ‘Because he did this, I will allot him an inheritance with the Patriarchs.’

Ibn Ezra and Redak said that although Israel suffered at the hands of their oppressors, they prayed for their welfare, giving as prooftext  Jeremiah 29, 7: ‘Seek the peace of the city to which I have brought you.’

‘He poured out his soul to death’ seems to be the figure of speech which often translates  הֶעֱרָה לַמָּוֶת נַפְשׁוֹ but Yamim Noraim has ‘he exposed his soul to death,’ taking into account the connection of  ע ר ה with nakedness.

The last image in this text is a familiar paradigm: one who is martyred and dishonoured but takes on the role willingly while striving for the welfare of his oppressors.  Clearly this is at the heart of Christianity but it originates in a Hebrew context. As Jews suffered martyrdom so many times under the various oppressive empires,  it became a frequent subject of discussion in rabbinic literature. It is not chance that this text appears in the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur mussaf service.

It does not conform to an ideal of the heroic that appeared later in Greek literature, is the opposite of tyranny or hubris, but is consistent with many aspects of Hebrew scripture, especially the Psalms, as in Psalm 113, 7 – 8 for example:

 מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן

 לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ:

He raises the poor from the dust, the beggar from the dunghill, to sit them with princes, the princes of his people – or Psalm 22, אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי , My God, my God, whu hast Thou forsaken me?attributed to David, and used famously in the New Testament but readily applicable to Job, Jeremiah and all the Suffering Servants across the generations.


Gillian Lazarus   Ellul 5767

August 2007

1] The Imagery of the Substitute King Ritual in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Songby John H Walton (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 122, No. 4, 734 – 743)

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica 1971 Vol 9, p 66

[3] The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Gershom Scholem, Schocken Books NY 1971 p33

[4]Judaism on Trial by Hyam Maccoby Associated University Press 1982 p43

[5]Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb. He asked him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’ He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’ R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognise him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’ So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘peace upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When wilt thou come Master?’ asked he, ‘To-day’, was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, ‘What did he say to thee?’ — ‘peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, ‘He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.’ ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ he rejoined, ‘stating that he would come to-day, but has not.’ He [Elijah] answered him, ‘This is what he said to thee, Today, if ye will hear his voice.’

[6]Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol 6 p399  Johns Hopkins UP 1998

[7]  Nachmanides’ report of  The Barcelona Disputation, 1263

[8]Translation by Rabbi A J Rosenberg


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