Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Isaiah's Suffering Servant

As a companion to my recent post on Daniel's "Seventy Weeks" prophecy, this post will cover the other major passage from Jewish scriptures that Christians claim as an amazing prediction of Jesus: the "Suffering Servant" prophecy of Isaiah 53.

Not So Crackpot

The interpretation of Daniel 9 that I covered last time is popular among evangelicals--especially American evangelicals--but does not enjoy nearly the breadth of acceptance of the Isaiah 53 interpretation that I will be covering here. For example, I won't be able to set Catholics and evangelicals against each other, since they are teamed up on this issue. Nor will I be able to poke fun of the kind of numeric shuffling carried out by Left Behind and Scofield Bible fans.

I don't think Christians who accept the traditional view of Isaiah 53 are making a ridiculous mistake. Given their religious beliefs, it may well be the most reasonable conclusion for them to make.

Instead, what I hope to show is that there is another reasonable interpretation, at least for those of us who aren't convinced Isaiah is the work of a God. It might even be an interpretation open to less fundamentalist Jews and Christians.

Isaiah 53 in Early Christianity

I don't consider the Gospels or Acts to be reliable histories, but they do preserve early Christian beliefs. Let's look at some of those beliefs. In Matthew, Jesus is shown healing disease and casting out demons, followed by:
"This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: 'He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.'" Matt 8:17 (NASB) in reference to Is 53:4
Acts 8 tells of an Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah 53:7-8 on his chariot when Philip came along and explained that this passage and others were written about Jesus. The eunuch became a Christian on the spot. No wonder Christians have long considered Isaiah 53 to be a powerful evangelical tool!

Other explicit or likely references to Isaiah 53 are found throughout the New Testament writings.

Explaining a Crucified Messiah

Why was this passage in Isaiah so important to early Christians? First century Jews were hoping for a messiah: a king to free them from foreign rule and re-establish the glory days of King David and Solomon. Jesus established a following, but was executed by foreign rulers. How could he possibly be the hoped-for messiah? Christianity's answer was that Jesus will do all of that in the future, but first he came to suffer and die as a much more potent version of traditional, Jewish sin sacrifices. Isaiah 53 describes a figure who suffers because of the wrongdoing of others, and whose suffering brings healing to the guilty:
"But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed." Is 53:5, NASB
Even without the bias from this being a Christian translation, you can see why the general ideas here would be appealing to early followers trying to explain the crucifixion.

What Matches What?

If we start from Christian theology, Isaiah 53 looks like a pretty good match. That is why I said the traditional Christian view might be the most reasonable one for a Christian to take. But put on your outsider hat for a minute and think: what if Christian theology was invented to match up with Isaiah 53? It might have gone like this:
  1. Jesus' followers believe he is going to lead a successful uprising against Rome and become the new king of Israel.
  2. Instead, Jesus is executed by Romans.
  3. Rather than accept this as a disconfirmation, some followers "search the scriptures" for anything that might relate to a slain-but-triumphant figure.
  4. They find Isaiah 53, decide this is what must be going on, and take the passage as a guideline for crafting theology.
I'm pointing this out to deflate some of the feeling that "it's just obvious Isaiah was talking about Jesus." It's not obvious to me, and it hasn't been obvious to the many generations of Jews since the first century.

If Not Jesus, Then Who?

According to Jewish apologist (or counter-apologist) Tovia Singer, the suffering servant represents all faithful Jews who have suffered at the hands of outsiders. When the true messiah comes and everyone sees that the Jews were right all along, these outsiders will also recognize their own guilt for mistreating Jews. Still, this shocking revelation to the nations will be a positive thing for them; they will be "healed" through their contrition. From then on, the whole world will look to Jerusalem for guidance:
So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."' - Zech. 8:22-23, NASB
The view that the servant represents the Jews (or the whole nation of Israel) is well established. It's even accepted by Christians in some other passages nearby that talk about God's servant.
"But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts and said to you, 'You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.'" Is 41:8-9, NASB
Similar explicit identifications of Israel as God's servant can be found in chapters 44, 45, 48, and 49. Why not chapter 53 as well? It's at least the best first conjecture about the suffering servant's identity.

Now That We're Talking About Context...

Just as a Jesus-based view of Isaiah 53 might make the most sense for Christians, a coming-vindication view might make the most sense for today's Jews. After all, there has been no shortage of Jewish suffering in medieval and modern history. But there is another, non-religious view I want to outline. It's possibly the one that gives the most respect to contents of the source text, even as it gives the least respect to traditions about the source text.

Isaiah 40-55 is often called Deutero-Isaiah (i.e. second Isaiah) because many scholars today believe it was written later than Isaiah 1-39 and by someone other than Isaiah himself. When was it written? Likely around the end of the Babylonian exile, since Cyrus is mentioned by name as the conqueror anointed by God to free the Jews from Babylon. It's not clear that the author knew what would happen after the return from exile. If we found a document attributed to Thomas Jefferson that included details up through the Civil War, but nothing so definite afterwards—and no antebellum copies—it would be reasonable to suspect Jefferson was not the author.

Let's keep going with the Deutero-Jefferson analogy. Suppose most of this document is concerned with the civil war and its immediate aftermath. It correctly predicts that the North will win, but it also talks about the United States annexing Canada and Mexico. It's 2013 and we still don't have any senators from Ontario in Congress. Does this mean the document was written about far future events? Nope! It could just mean the author hoped (or feared) that Washington would follow up the re-absorption of the southern states with a more-or-less immediate expansion into Canada and Mexico. We wouldn't reinterpret the document to mean something else just to rescue it from being wrong.

Likewise, the "messianic age" passages in Deutero-Isaiah may be reasonably understood as nothing more than high hopes for Israel's future immediately following the end of their exile in Babylon.

In short, I believe that all of Deutero-Isaiah was written during and about the end of the Babylonian exile. This makes great sense of the text as a whole. I encourage you to take an hour or two and read through Isaiah 40-55 in one sitting. Here are a couple of modern, recommended translations:
New American Standard Bible (Christian)
New JPS Tanakh (Jewish)
Through this exercise, you might also come to see these chapters as a unity rather than a temporal patchwork.

The Suffering Servant At Exile's End

I don't think it's controversial to say that the chapter break for Isaiah 53 was badly placed by medieval Christians. It should have started with Isaiah 52:13. So I'll start there with the JPS translation and give commentary.

First, however, take a quick look at what comes just before 52:13: an announcement about returning from captivity as compared to the return from Egypt, only this time "you will not depart in haste." The Jews wouldn't have to run away without even time to let their bread rise, as is celebrated with matzo during Passover. (This time they would have official, willing permission from Cyrus.) Unless there is strong reason to think otherwise, why not take the "servant song" that follows as a continuation of the same topic?
“Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights. Just as the many were appalled at him—so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, his form, beyond human semblance—just so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, for they shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard.
Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: no charm, that we should find him pleasing. He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account.
Here, I take the standard Jewish view that God's servant is Israel. Considering Israel's defeat and captivity, the metaphor of an undesirable man is apt. (Think leper or dirty beggar that everyone tries not to notice.) It would also be astonishing for this undesirable to suddenly be "exalted."

Notice the switch from third person to first person plural where the chapter changes. On Singer's view, the "we" are the kings just mentioned. So far, that would make sense. But I'm going to diverge from that a little and suggest—for reasons I'll get to shortly—that the "we" might be unfaithful Jews at the end of the exile commenting on the Jews who remained faithful despite apparent abandonment by their God. The only justification I can give for suspecting this change in viewpoint so far is that the kings were described as seeing what they had not heard, and the "we" are described as disbelieving in what they had heard.
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; but he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the Lord visited upon him the guilt of all of us.” 
This is the strong justification for thinking "we" refers to the unfaithful Jews. The entire reason given for the exile was that Israel had become unfaithful to God. A generation later, some Jews would still be worshiping this God who (apparently) failed to protect his people. Other Jews would have moved on, taking Jerusalem's defeat as further evidence of their old God's irrelevancy. What would Jews in this second category think of the crazy hold-outs? Perhaps as people to be shunned, ignored, and forgotten. It would seem stupid to worship a God who treats his own worshipers so poorly. But...as this passage points out, the faithful Jews were only suffering so badly because of the sins of the unfaithful Jews. The faithful didn't deserve this and yet accepted their fate without cursing God.
"He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; Like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth.
By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment. And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death—though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood." 
It's this quiet suffering on account of the sins of the guilty that creates a temporary injustice. If God had just left all of Israel to rot in Babylon, it would have been an overall injustice on God's part. But Israel's God is a just God, so (obviously!) this has all been part of a larger, entirely just plan:
But the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the Lord’s purpose might prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see it; He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion.
“My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.” 
Merely allowing the righteous Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem would not be just because the exile had never been a punishment for their sins. Instead, the suffering and selfless prayers of God's servant—his faithful remnant—would set the sinners free as well. Israel as a whole would be restored because of this heroism, and the whole next chapter describes how Israel's children would greatly multiply and foreign nations would not control them. "In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love." History tells a different story, but I can see how it was a good dream to have at the time.

Great Literature, But Mere Literature

Religious people treat their own scriptures as something special, not to be compared with other writings. And they should. But what they shouldn't expect is for everyone else to approach these texts in a reverential way. Nor should they expect outsiders to reject interpretations that conflict with insider doctrines. As far as I'm concerned, Isaiah is a human text or an amalgamation of human texts. It's not hard to explain why such a text would contain accurate prophecies when all remaining copies post-date the clear historical fulfillments, such as Cyrus conquering Babylon. Neither is it hard to explain why religious believers would interpret vague, poetic passages like Isaiah 53 in different ways that fit their group's needs. For Christians, this means Jesus. For Jews, this means a future vindication against Christians.

Meanwhile, I chalk the whole thing up to a point in time centuries or millennia before any of that. Why not? It works just as well.

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