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The "Suffering Servant" in ch.53 of Y'shayahu
by Prof. Mordochai ben-Tziyyon, Universitah Ha'ivrit, Y'rushalayim
Chapter 53 of Y'shayahu's book, as it appears in "King James's Per-Version" and other christian "Per-Versions", certainly seems to be a clear and explicit prediction of the career, and most particularly the death, of the christian man-god. But of course it does: christians deliberately write their translations to make it look that way. Is this what the prophet was really talking about, though? Let's examine the chapter, translate it honestly, and find out.
The very first point to note is that the Hebrew prophet Y'shayahu − whose prophetic career spanned the reigns of four kings of Y'hudah: Azaryah-Uzziyahu (reigned 810-759BCE), Yotam (758-743BCE), Aḥaz (742-727BCE) and Ḥizkiyyahu (726-698BCE) − describes his book in its opening verse as "the Visions that he saw concerning Y'hudah and Y'rushalayim". He was not sent to speak to all the nations of the World, or even to all of Yisraél, although the Northern Kingdom was still in existence throughout most of his life − it was overthrown by the Assyrian king Sargon II (reigned 721-705BCE) in the 6th year of Ḥizkiyyahu's reign, i.e. 721BCE (M'lachim Beit 18:10).
By the way, there is no suggestion that Y'shayahu's prophetic career lasted from 810BCE (when Azaryah-Uzziyahu succeeded his father Amatz'yahu) until 698BCE (when Ḥizkiyyahu died), a period of 112 years; indeed, chapter 6 (which describes how he had volunteered himself to serve as God's Prophet and was first commissioned by God to bring His messages to the people of Y'hudah) begins "In the year of King Uzziyahu's death..." This begs the question: how, then, could he say in the opening verse of the book that he prophesied during Azaryah-Uzziyahu's reign? I have no idea how christians would respond to that (or if they would even care), but our understanding of it is that King Uzziyahu's "death" that Y'shayahu mentions in 6:1 refers not to the end of his life, but to the time when he was stricken with the "living death" of tzara'at (or Levitical "leprosy"), as described in Divrei Hayamim Beit 26:16-23. This is entirely consistent with Hebrew culture; compare Aharon's anguished plea to his brother Mosheh on behalf of their sister Miryam, who had just been stricken with the same affliction − "Please don't let her remain like a dead person..." (B'midbar 12:12). The passage in Divrei Hayamim gives no indication of when during Azaryah-Uzziyahu's 52-year reign this occurred, but M'lachim does−
|"Azaryah son of Amatz'yahu, king of Y'hudah was [already] reigning in King Yarov'am [the Second] of Yisraél's 27th year... when Adonai struck the king with the 'Plague'..." (M'lachim Beit 15:1-5)|
The Hebrew word נֶֽגַע nega' (a "plague") is often used in the T'nach as a synonym for the the contaminative disease properly called צָרַֽעַת tzara'at ("Levitical leprosy"), on account of D'varim 24:8 (הִשָּֽׁמֶר בְּנֶֽגַע הַצָּרַֽעַת "be careful about the plague of tzara'at...") and also because of the many instances where the two terms are used together in chapters 13 & 14 of Vayikra.
King Yarov'am II of Yisraél's 27th year (not counting the 3 years of his co-regency with his father Y'hoa'sh) was 783BCE, so that is when Y'shayahu's prophetic career actually started. According to Hebrew tradition, he was murdered by the wicked king M'nasheh, whose reign began in 697BCE − so his prophetic career lasted for at least 86 years.
The next point to be considered is where exactly the "Suffering Servant" passage begins. It does not start at the verse numbered 53:1. The illustration below shows chapter 53 as a scribe writes it in a scroll used for ceremonial readings on Shabbat and Holy Days; the "Suffering Servant" passage begins at the break in the third line of this extract (which is the verse numbered 52:13 in modern Bibles) and ends at the break in the last-but-one line (53:12):
It is widely recognised that Y'shayahu's book is really two books in one (chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-66) − some christians even assert that it's actually the work of two different authors, and call the second half by the name "Deutero-Isaiah" − so I need not cover that topic at any length here. Suffice it to say that the whole tone and language of the book changes at the start of chapter 40.
Whether the two halves of Y'shayahu were written by the same author or by two different authors, the writer in the second half was very fond of the term "God's servant", which he uses many times as a metaphor for Yisraél − that is to say, the whole Hebrew nation, not the individual named Yisraél, i.e. the patriarch Ya'akov. Here are some examples:
"But you, Yisraél − My servant Ya'akov, whom I chose − My beloved Avraham's zera...." (41:8)
"You are My witnesses," says Adonai, "My servant whom I chose...." (43:10) [the whole of chapter 43 is addressed explicitly to Yisraél in its opening verse]
"And now, listen, Ya'akov My servant, and Yisraél whom I have chosen...." (44:1)
"....Don't be afraid, My servant Ya'akov, Y'shurun whom I have chosen...." (44:2)
"Remember these things Ya'akov, Yisraél : you are My servant − I made you to be a servant to Me, Yisraél...." (44:21)
"For the sake of My servant Ya'akov − Yisraél My chosen one...." (45:4)
"Adonai has redeemed His servant Ya'akov!" (48:20)
"You are My servant, Yisraél...." (49:3)
Having used the metaphor "God's servant" so many times in chapters 41-49, and made it so abundantly clear that by it he meant the nation of Yisraél every time he used it, I guess the writer didn't feel he needed to spell it out yet again when he reached chapter 53; but of course he didn't reckon with christianity coming along and twisting his words. Maybe, if he had realised what was going to happen, he would have spelt it out again, in words of one syllable, in the "Suffering Servant" chapter. But in any event, the evidence of his many previous usages of the metaphor is there for all to see, and there is no indication that the intended meaning in the "Suffering Servant" chapter is any different. Can anyone deny that Yisraél has suffered through the ages? The consequence is that whenever the writer refers to the "servant" using the pronouns he, him or his, we must take into account when translating his poetic metaphors that he is talking about an entire nation rather than an individual person, so that it is actually more appropriate in a translation to use the plural forms they, them and their. Verse 53:8 confirms that this is indeed the correct reading, because it uses the plural form לָֽמוֹ lamo (a poetic variant of לָהֶם lahem, "to them"), so it cannot be the author's intention for the "servant" to be understood as an individual.
Many christians claim that "the Rabbis of the Talmud" believed the "Suffering Servant" to be a reference to "the Messiah" − but that assertion is a gross misrepresentation. While it is certainly true that a few of the Talmudic authorities were of that opinion, they were very much in the minority. The 11th century French Bible commentator Rashi (who lived a mere 500 years after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud) drew the majority of his explanations of the Scriptures from the Talmud, and he definitely did not see the "Suffering Servant" as a reference to "the Messiah". The simple truth is that Y'shayahu 53 is a "messianic prophecy", but it's about what will happen in King-Messiah's time, not about King-Messiah himself.
The first three verses of the chapter (i.e. the three that are transplanted to the end of chapter 52 in modern printed Bibles), which segue seamlessly into the beginning of "chapter 53" in the original Hebrew text, read as follows:
|My "servant" will succeed in becoming uplifted, and will become exalted and very powerful. Just as many used to marvel about you and say "Their appearance is too hideous to be human," so [in the future] many nations will exclaim the same thing − their kings will be speechless because [suddenly] they will see things that were never talked about and will realise things that were never heard of [before]! "Who would have believed our report?" [they will say.....]|
The "kings of the gentile nations" continue speaking throughout most of "chapter 53" (apart from the last two verses where God Himself responds to them): looking back on the events of the past from their vantage-point in the distant future, they confess their own guilt for the part the gentile nations have played in the unjust persecution that we, Yisraél, have endured at their hands throughout history − how we, God's "servant", have suffered because of the "sins" that they committed against us. It is the several remarks of that nature in this passage which, because they are deliberately mis-translated in christian "Per-Versions" with the preposition for cunningly substituted in place of through or because of, are mistaken by naïve and unsuspecting christians for references to their man-god who (or so they are taught) suffered and died "for" their "sins".
Click here for a full translation (with optional commentary) of the whole passage.
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