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The Suffering Servant of Isaiah

I’ve been writing up a storm on my Bible Introduction. It’s a god awful amount of work, but I’m making really good (OK, disgustingly good) progress. Here’s a chunk I wrote up today, when dealing with the post-exilic prophets. It’s obviously (maybe too obviously for you!) just a rough draft.

Brief context: at this point I am discussing Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), almost universally thought by scholars to be written by a different author from chapters 1-39 (themselves written by Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th c. BCE). Second Isaiah was writing after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (including the temple) in 586 BCE, while the leaders of the people and many of the elite had been taken into exile in Babylon, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity.

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No passage of Second Isaiah has intrigued readers and interpreters – especially among Christians – more than the four passages that are dedicated to describing a figure known as the “Suffering Servant.” Some scholars have called these passages “songs,” or “songs of the suffering servant.” The passages are Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12. It is not known whether the author of 2 Isaiah has inherited these passages from an earlier tradition that he has incorporated into his book or if they are his own creation.

In these passages, the Servant of Yahweh is said to have suffered horribly for the sake of others; but God will vindicate him.  He, in fact, is the delight of Yahweh and will be used by him to accomplish his will on earth:  “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations … He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth (42:1, 6).

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RG959  August 15, 2018

    Bart,

    I’ve heard several Jewish scholars and rabbis say that “they were wounded FROM our transgressions or because of our transgressions and by his wounds (Israel) we are healed. They make the point that the gentile nations are speaking in this verse. What is your take on this interpretation? And is the wording FROM instead of FOR a Christian alteration of the text or has it always been FOR our transgressions. It seems like a train wreck though to say it’s Jesus. He will see the light? I thought Jesus was the light. Much thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2018

      I”m afraid I’m out of town and away from my books — so I can’t say. Don’t actually remember the Hebrew. Maybe someone else on the blog can tell us?

      • Avatar
        RG959  August 17, 2018

        http://whatjewsbelieve.org/prooftext10is53.html

        Bart,

        In this article by a Rabbi, he lays out the following:

        In verse 5, the text is translated as ‘But he was wounded FOR our transgressions, he was bruised FOR our iniquities.’ The mistake is that the prefix to the words meaning ‘our transgressions’ and ‘our iniquities’ is the Hebrew letter mem. This is a prepositional prefix meaning ‘from’ and not ‘for.’ A more accurate translation would be, ‘But he was wounded FROM our transgressions, he was bruised FROM our iniquities.’ This means that Isaiah 53 is not talking about a man who died ‘for our sins,’ but rather it is about a man who died ‘BECAUSE of our sins,’ or ‘AS A RESULT of our sins.’ In other words, they died because we sinned against them by murdering them. This, indeed, is the Jewish understanding of Isaiah 53: the nations of the earth will finally understand that the Jews have been right all along, and the sins committed against the Jews by the nations of the earth resulted in the death of countless innocent Jews.

        It seems here the verses are the gentile nations speaking. For our transgressions is a mistranslation according to the Rabbi but from your interpretation it’s the Jewish people speaking that they were wounded for their own transgressions. Whose speaking? The gentile nations or the Jewish people? Is it FROM or FOR? I know this is getting into the weeds but a simple word change can have a dramatic effect on something so powerful as Isaiah 53 and it just be nice to know if the Hebrew actually means FROM.

        Once again, thank you for this great website and tool.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 19, 2018

          I think “because of our sins” is how it is often taken — because of the sins of others, the servant died. But I don’t know of any passage in the prophets where it is gentiles being represented as speaking. In any event, the identity of the servant is clear. Isa 49:3 tells us that it is Israel. Or part of Israel. Given everything else in Isa 40-55, it appears to be that part of Israel taken into captivity.

          • Avatar
            RG959  August 19, 2018

            It makes sense that it’s the Jewish people talking in those 3 verses. They finish by saying, “by his wounds (Israel) we are healed or we were healed. Do you know of the exact Hebrew for the word healed and what exactly is meant by that word? Are the Jews now mentally healed? They understand now because of their sins Israel will now prosper? Is there any good book that you or someone else has written that explains how the Christians manipulated certain Hebrew texts to prove the messiah or take stories like Isiah 7:14 completely out of context to try and show Jesus was the messiah like Mathew did. I’m finding that a simple word change like in Zechariah 12 about who was pierced can really alter ones understanding. That would be a great read. Thank you as always Bart. What a resource this amazing website is. What I would have given to know what I know now when I was being raised a fundamenlist.

          • Avatar
            RG959  September 14, 2018

            Bart,

            Who is speaking in Isiah 53:1?

            Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

            This is the NT version. In the Jewish Tanakh it’s quoted as:

            Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?

            Notice the change in text? It seems that the Tanakh implies whoever is speaking is more surprised or confused and the NT version not as much.

            Have you heard/read of Gerald Sigal “who is the suffering servant of Isiah 53”

            He makes the point the gentile nations are speaking from 53:1-8 but you (I believe) are saying the Jews are speaking in these passages.

            And in 53:2- it says “he grew up before him” who is he and who is him. If he
            Is Jesus than who can him be?

            Is there a non-biased book out there from any scholar who can’t just clearly state what’s going on and not try to push a theological agenda.

            Much thanks!

          • Bart
            Bart  September 16, 2018

            The speaker is the narrator of the text; the person referred to is the Servant of the Lord; and the Servant of the Lord, according to Isaiah 49:3 (just three chapters earlier) is explicitly said to be Israel. For good commentary, an excellent place to start is the HarperCollins Study Bible

          • Avatar
            RG959  September 21, 2018

            Bart,

            The Harper Collins study bible says Isaiah 53: verses 1-6, it is the Gentiles being represented as speaking, how they wounded the servant from their sins or because of their transgressions and because of that they are now healed or made aware that Israel suffered unjustly due to them and they now recognize their error. I know I’ve been getting into the weeds on this with you but it’s for peace of mind good sir. Your thoughts on their interpretation?

            Thank you

          • Bart
            Bart  September 23, 2018

            You must have a different edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible from mine. Mine doesn’t say that at all. It simply indicates that the “servant appears to have been exiled Israel” The interpretation of the passage in the notes is pretty much just mine as well.

  2. Avatar
    RG959  August 15, 2018

    Appreciate the quick response as always. In regards to psalms 22-16. Like lions my hands and my feet. You think king David was worried that his enemies were coming to chop of his hands and feet because he ordered his men to do so and hang their bodies in 2nd Samuel. The Assyrians also cut off the toes and thumbs of their enemies. Was this a common threat that Jewish Kings were worried about? Also in 1 judges it refers to this type of barbaric behavior. The historical context behind this would be great to know because as you know, this is considered by Christians to be foreshadowing Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2018

      I think it’s probably metaphorical, in part because I don’t think David himself actually wrote the Psalm. The attributions to him are from much later, and in a number of instances they cannot be right (think Psalm 23, which speaks about spending one’s life in the Temple. Wasn’t built yet!)

      • Avatar
        RG959  August 28, 2018

        I’m terms of metaphors, what would “marks on their foreheads” mean? I’ve seen this in the Old Testament and famously in revelation with 666 mark of the beast. Is it implying a belief in ones mind? I’ve always wondered if the author of revelation was just copying people from the Old Testament and he himself never understood the meaning? Ezekiel 9:4 it talks about going into Jerusalem and putting a mark on ones forehead and also in Exodus and Deuteronomy it refers to marks on hands and for heads as well. What Is your interpretation of the mark on the forehead as found in Revelation? I’ve heard some people say the Roman money changers wore marks on their foreheads so people from outside the city knew where to exchange money. Also loved your debate with Mike Licona. Keep up the great work Bart!

        • Bart
          Bart  August 29, 2018

          I think it’s like the “seal” given believers: a physical marking showing to whom they belong, like a tattoo or a brand.

  3. Avatar
    RG959  August 17, 2018

    Is there any historical evidence at all that the Jewish people were crucified before Jesus? Did the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and so on crucify Jewish people like the Romans? Trying to find this information seems to be harder than one would expect. My evangelical friend claims no Jewish person was crucified until after Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2018

      Yes indeed. Even Jewish leaders crucified other Jews.

      • Avatar
        RG959  August 19, 2018

        Wow! So in regards to psalm 22:16, one could easily make the argument that whoever wrote, like lions my hands and my feet (whatever the correct verb is?), was referring to the crucifixions of Jews well BEFORE the time of Jesus. My evangelical friend also thinks that the Romans invented crucifixions. Ignorance is an understatement

        • Bart
          Bart  August 20, 2018

          I’m not sure it refers to crucifixion necesarily; but in any event it is veryhard to date most individual psalms. Most were almost certainly written long before the Roman period.

  4. Avatar
    RG959  September 25, 2018

    The HarperCollins Study Bible—Student Edition By Harold W. Attridge, Ph.D. is the one I’m reading from.

    Maybe I’m confusing the situation here (sorry if I am) but it says in Isaiah 53:1-6, it’s the gentile nations speaking or being represented, and they now are shocked and amazed that Israel is now flourishing or will flourish and they (the nations that persecuted the Jews) now see because of their (gentile nations) sins, they made Israel suffer and they are now healed because of this experience and see the wrong of their ways, is what’s being communicated in these 6 verses according to my book.

    What edition do you have? Sounds like everyone can be at odds on this but I’d really love your take on these 6 verses and what exactly is being communicated in your book since that’s the interpretation you agree with.
    I promise you I’m almost done bothering you Bart 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Ah. I think I’m using the earlier edition. It’s an interesting interpretation. I’ve always thought that the speaker was some kind of generic Israelite marveling at what had happened.

      • Avatar
        RG959  September 26, 2018

        Bart,

        Do you think this is a contradiction in itself. In one verse the servant is esteemed and the other he’s not. Isaiah 53: 3-4.

        He was despised, and forsaken of men, A man of pains, and acquainted with disease, And as one from whom men hide their face: He was despised, and we ESTEEMED him not.

        Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; Whereas we did ESTEEM him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.

        In one verse they don’t respect the servant and the next verse they respect his suffering? Very odd and confusing.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2018

          I guess “esteeming him” is different from “recognizing that he was stricken”

      • Avatar
        RG959  September 26, 2018

        Marveling at the fact they (the Jewish people) are now free to return to Israel and god has rewarded them after their suffering and they will go Israel to build it up; sing o barren woman! Who would have believed our report?

      • Avatar
        RG959  September 26, 2018

        I also think it could be both. The Israelites and both the gentile nations are marveling at the coming messianic age or the fact Israel is flourshing back to their homeland?

  5. Avatar
    RG959  October 25, 2018

    Bart,

    A lot of scholars have different interpretations of the word “For” or “FROM” or “ Because” from Isaiah 53:5 when it talks about being wounded for/from/because our transgressions.

    The septugiant has it translated to “Because” as well, which is way before Jesus.

    Can the Hebrew here be translated into these 3 words from the original word in the text through different translations or is it strictly one word? The Jewish Bible has it “because” as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      I’m afraid I’m on the road, away from my books just now. Maybe someone else on the blog who knows Hebrew can answer?

      • Avatar
        RG959  October 26, 2018

        No problem. Answer when you can. Safe travels Bart.

  6. Avatar
    RG959  October 31, 2018

    According to a Christian scholar from an Ivy League school, the Hebrew preposition found in Isaiah 53:5 is “mn” and can have numberous translations into English.

    Hence why most Jewish translations have “from” or “because” implying the gentile nations inflicting pain on the servant (Israel). This interpretation (according to my research) is of most if not all Rabbis. It’s even the interpretation in one of the editions of the Harper Collins study Bible.

    Most Christian translations give the word “for” to show the servant (Jesus) died for the sins of the world. The only question is now, what was the original Hebrew word found in Isaiah 53? For? From? Because?

    Know you’re on the road Bart but this question would be great to have answered.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      The Hebrew word, of course, was not “for” “from” or Because” — it was “min.” And it could mean a wide range of things, depending on context. Interpreters would have to engage in a detailed exegesis in order ot justify one translation or the other, including the way “min” — a very, very common word — gets used regularly in this part of Isaiah and throughout the Hebrew Bible generally. I have to admit, I’ve never done so myself, but if I were intent on arguing for one translation or the other, I would have to do so. But I will say that the Greek version (so-called Septuagint) — which is the version virtually all ealry Christians read — uses the Greek preposition DIA with the accusative, which means “‘because of’ or ‘on account of’ our transgressions.”

  7. Avatar
    RG959  November 2, 2018

    Ah very good! It made sense to me the Jewish translation (“because of”) seemed to be the most accurate, or consistent throughout history until after the life of Jesus. Nearly every Christian Bible has “for”, which is not the historically accurate translation, given the evidence of the Greek Septuagint translation “because of” which most early Christians read.

    Paul never even cites this verse Isaiah 53:5 in his writings either, which is a pretty good indicator as well at the time nobody construeded “min” to mean “for”.

    One has to ask why Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ rendered “he was wounded FOR our transgressions” so vividly at the beginning of that movie? Wouldn’t he want to show the historically correct translation??

    You Bart are a scholar and a gentlemen! Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful response as always. It’s amazing how one word can change the meaning of such a important chapter like Isaiah 53. Safe travels home.

  8. Avatar
    RG959  November 2, 2018

    Gentleman and a Scholar 😉

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