By Menashe Dovid (מנשה דוד בן אברהם)
©by Menashe Dovid ben Avraham
The “tour de force” of the Messianic Jew or Christian missionary is often the use of Isaiah chapter 53 in the conversion of Jews to ‘Yeshua’ or “Jesus” respectively. The use of Isaiah chapter 53 sometimes works on the unsuspecting secularized Jew in the culturally ‘Christian’ western world. The use of Isaiah chapter 53 only sometimes works because of the Messianic Jew’s or Christian missionary’s basis for proof lies squarely in the evidence and validity of the New Testament (NT) or Brit Chadashah, which even those most assimilated Jews with a good amount of self esteem knows to avoid like the plague. Christians’ lack of successes in converting Jews are often because of taking the NT statements at face value without asking in what particular sense Isaiah’s prophecies of the servant of the L-rd apply to Jesus which is a next phase in the missionary approach. The next phase in the missionary approach teaches that the death of Jesus is the universal vicarious substitution for the death penalty which all sinners deserve. The earliest ‘biblical’ expression of a vicarious substitution for universal sin ONLY occurs within New Testament and not within the Hebrew Bible. It is however, the Christian’s prior doctrinal commitments projected onto and applied to the Hebrew Bible in general and Isaiah 53 in particular which Christians assume is G-d’s message to every sinner and to the Jews especially.
“Yet it was our sickness he was bearing, our sufferings he carried. But we accounted him plagued, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced on account of our rebelling, crushed on account of our iniquities, the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All of us like a flock had gone astray, we had turned each to his own way, and the L-rd interposed on him the iniquity of all of us.” [53:4-6]
If the first person plural language in the above is taken universally, then the servant of the L-rd necessarily must be Jesus, because nobody else but Jesus bears universal sin. But within the biblical context of the prophecy, the “we” is not universal. In context, the “we” is in the mouth of the non-Jewish kings who have despised and taken advantage of Israel in exile. The kings whose report of Israel’s success would not have been believed had the kings (see chapter 52) not seen Israel’s ultimate success with their very own eyes.
“Kings shall shut their mouths at him. For what was not told them, they shall see. And what they did not hear, they shall observe. ‘Who would have believed our report? Upon whom has the arm of the L-rd been revealed?’ He arose before him like a sucker, like a root out of dry ground. He had no visage and no majesty. ‘We saw him, and there was no appearance that we should find him pleasing. He was despised and shunned by men, a man of sufferings and familiar with sickness; like one who hides his face from us. He was despised, and we held him of no account.’” [52:15b-53:3]
In view of context, if the “we” of the prophecy is not referring to all sinners ever born on planet earth, then the suffering servant is not Jesus or necessarily any would be messiah. Israeli kids learn Isaiah 53 in school, along with all the rest of Isaiah. Israelis know chapter 53 goes with the rest of the book! It may well be only people unfamiliar with the Book of Isaiah, ‘Christianized’ people who have read only chapter 53, who jump to the conclusion that this is all about Jesus because secular Jews who participate in Western civilization are for all intents and purposes culturally Christian. Some Jews who are won over to the Christian understanding of Isaiah 53 are therefore, being won over to majority Christian culture, rather than to fulfillment of Bible prophecy or simply because of a lack of self esteem and/ or lack of Jewish identity.
Taking a look at context, Isaiah 53 obviously prophesies that non-Jews will someday repent of their mistreatment of Israel, recognize that in God’s mysterious plan Israel’s sufferings have been to the benefit of others, and acknowledge that Israel has been the true servant of God all along. The problem however, is with those ‘Jesus glasses’ on, seeing Israel as the true servant of God certainly is not obvious to many non-Jews!
Certain of the prophetic specifications, which Christians often view as pointing exclusively to Jesus, are in fact borrowed from biblical descriptions of Israel’s experience. For example, in Isaiah 53:7 the servant of the L-rd is said to be like a flock led to the slaughter. In Psalms 44:22 Israel is said to be like a flock led to the slaughter.
“For on your account we are killed all the day; we are considered as a flock for the slaughter.”
To give another example, Isaiah 53:11 says “my righteous servant shall make many righteous.” We have just such an expression in the Book of Daniel regarding Daniel’s people Israel. Daniel 12:1b-3.
“At that time your people will escape, everyone found written in the book. Many among those sleeping in the dust of the ground will awake, some to the life of eternity and others to shame and to the contempt of eternity. And the prudent will shine like the brilliance of the firmament, and those who make many righteous like the stars, for eternity and ever.”
To give another example, Isaiah 53:11 says “my righteous servant shall make many righteous and carry their iniquities.” This language comes from the operation of Israel’s sanctuary. It was the duty of Israel’s priests to carry the iniquity of others. Leviticus 10:16-17.
“Concerning the goat of the sin-offering Moshe diligently inquired. There it was ― ablaze. He was angry with Elazar and with Itamar the surviving sons of Aaron. He said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin-offering in a sacred place, for it is most holy? And it was given you in order to carry the iniquity of the congregation, to make expiation on them before the L-rd.’”
Numbers 18:1 is also explicit in this connection.
“The L-rd said to Aaron, ‘You, your sons, and your father’s house with you shall carry the iniquity of the sanctuary; you and your sons with you shall carry the iniquity of your priesthood.’”
Carrying the iniquity of others is also a prophetic gesture. Ezekiel 4:4-6.
“And you shall lie on your left side and place the iniquity of the house of Israel on it, the number of which you lie on it you will carry their iniquity. I have given you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of days, three hundred and ninety days. And you shall carry the iniquity of the house of Israel. And you shall finish these, then you shall lie on your right side, and you shall carry the iniquity of the house of Judah, forty days, a day for a year, one day per year I have imposed on you.”
During the exile, the children of Israel complain that their punishment is too severe, because they’re carrying the iniquity of previous generations.
“Our fathers sinned and they are no more, and we are carrying their iniquities.” [Lamentations 5:7]
In order to end the exile, the L-rd calls his righteous servant to resume Israel’s original mission task of carrying the iniquity of others. This is what priests do, and Israel is a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).
In addition to the prophetic specifications borrowed from biblical descriptions of Israel, certain of the prophetic specifications do not seem applicable to Jesus at all. For example, Isaiah 53 verse 3 describes the servant of the L-rd as,
“A man of sufferings and familiar with sickness; like one who hides his face from us. He was despised, and we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness he was bearing.”
Verse 10 adds,
“Yet the L-rd was pleased to crush him with sickness.”
The New Testament accounts relate numerous instances of Jesus healing people, but never is it told in the NT that he got sick in their place. If his work load and hiking itinerary is anything to go by, Jesus seems to have been a robustly healthy individual. If Jesus was characterized by sickness, the gospel writers do not note the fulfillment of prophecy.
Another particular which does not easily fit Jesus is in Isaiah 53:3,
“like one who hides his face from us.”
Hiding the face from others is the behavior proscribed by the Torah for a leper (Leviticus 13:45). We have no record of Jesus hiding his face. In fact, Christian teaching emphasizes the opposite: that Jesus is the disclosure of God; that in seeing Jesus’, God’s face is seen.
Another particular which does not easily fit if the servant of the L-rd is Jesus comes in verse 8. It is evidently one of the astounded non-Jewish kings who confesses,
“On account of my people’s rebellion he plagued them.”
Within the framework of standard Jewish interpretation the statement makes good sense. If “my people” refers to the said king’s misbehaving subjects and “them” refers to the children of Israel, the prophecy is then saying that the L-rd plagued his servant Israel on account of these other people’s rebellion. But if, as Christians commonly claim, “my people” refers to Israel, who then can the antecedent of “them” be? Can Israel be both the referent of “my people” and the antecedent of “them?” Of course, it is a biblical truism that when God’s people Israel misbehave he punishes them, but why would the prophecy bring that up in connection with vicarious substitution? It is not vicarious substitution when people get what they deserve. Unless Jesus is the antecedent of “them,” it is difficult to construe this statement as referring to Jesus.
Another particular which does not easily fit, if the servant of the L-rd is Jesus, comes in verse 10.
“Yet the L-rd was pleased to crush him with sickness, that should he make his soul a guilt-offering, he would see offspring, he would prolong his days, and the pleasure of the L-rd would prosper in his hand.”
Unless you believe Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Jesus did not produce offspring and he did not enjoy a full lifespan. Some Christians have argued that since Jesus is God and God is infinite, that Jesus enjoys prolonged days. Infinity however, is not what the Bible means by prolonged days. The Bible never attributes prolonged days to God. Furthermore, in the prophecy the servant’s prolonged days are predicated on the L-rd crushing him with sickness and making his soul a guilt-offering. God’s infinity is not predicated on what he does to his servant.
The above difficulties give at least a plausibility to the Jewish position that the servant of the L-rd in Isaiah 53 is Israel rather than Jesus.
1. See Acts 8:35, Luke 22:37 and Matthew 8:17.
2. Romans 5:18; John 1:29 and 1 John 2:2.
3. The goat [of the Day of Atonement] that was sent [into the wilderness] (Ley. xvi. 20, seq.) served as an atonement for all serious transgressions more than any other sin-offering of the congregation. As it thus seemed to carry off all sins, it was not accepted as an ordinary sacrifice to be slaughtered, burnt, or even brought near the Sanctuary; it was removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a waste, uncultivated, uninhabited land. There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible. CHAPTER XLVI, THE GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, BY MOSES MAIMONIDES.
4. 2 Corinthians 4:6; John 14:9; 1:18