I finished Joseph Blenkinsopp’s History of Prophecy in Israel yesterday. Today, I want to comment on the Servant Songs in Second Isaiah (42:-14; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), which Blenkinsopp discusses on pages 190-193. Many Christians have seen these songs as a prophecy about Jesus Christ. This is especially the case with Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which seems to discuss a figure who will die for the sins of others.
Not long ago, on Ken Pulliam’s blog “Why I Deconverted from Evangelical Christianity,” a man named Emet asked me for my take on the servant of Second Isaiah (see The Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb). His contention was that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was the nation of Israel, not Jesus Christ. A reason many support this view is that God calls Israel his servant throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 41:8-9; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20), and God even refers to the servant as “Israel” in one of the Servant Songs (49:3). For Emet, the kings who speak in Isaiah 53 are acknowledging that they sinned when they persecuted the Jewish people, for they now realize that Israel is God’s people because God has delivered her from captivity and restored her to her land. Emet does not interpret v 10 to mean that the Suffering Servant is a guilt offering for the nations, for asham can mean just plain “guilt,” not necessarily an offering. For Emet, v 10 is saying that Israel will see offspring when she acknowledges her guilt.
Other Jewish interpreters whom I’ve read draw a parallel between Isaiah 53 and Ezekiel 37, in which God resurrects dry bones, a symbol for Israel. When Isaiah 53 discusses a servant who will be cut off from the land of the living before he sees offspring and prolongs his days, they argue, that’s talking about the resurrection of Israel as a nation, her restoration to her land after a period of exile.
Those who believe that the Suffering Servant is an individual rather than the people of Israel have some good arguments, and some not-so-good arguments. First, many of them say that the Suffering Servant in the songs is described as an individual rather than as a group. The problem with this argument is that the Hebrew Bible often describes groups as individuals. Israel is likened to a woman, for example (e.g., Ezekiel 23).
Second, proponents of the “individual Suffering Servant view” point to v 10, which says that the servant had done no violence, nor was deceit in his mouth. The prophets, however, often rebuke Israel for her sins, which include violence (e.g., Jeremiah 6:7; 20:8; Ezekiel 8:17; 12:19) and deceit (Jeremiah 5:27; 8:5; Hosea 11:12). This is a fairly decent argument, but Balaam in Numbers 23:10 seems to refer to Israel as “righteous,” even though Israel was quite sinful at the time. There, the idea may be that non-Israelites can call Israel righteous when she is not because she is more righteous than they are (see Habakkuk 1:13).
The third argument is the best one for the individual interpretation: the Servant Songs present the servant as someone with a mission to Israel. Therefore, even though Isaiah 49:3 calls the servant Israel, vv 5-6 shows that the servant cannot be identified completely with the nation, for the servant’s mission is to bring Israel to God and to raise up her tribes, which will result in salvation for all the earth, including the Gentiles. Here, the servant and Israel appear to be separate entities. This is the point that Blenkinsopp brings up. The question then is, “Who is the servant?” And this is debated. Some say it’s a king, since there’s royal language in the Servant Songs. Others say it’s a prophet, such as Deutero-Isaiah himself. And there are many other candidates for the Suffering Servant position.
When I first encountered scholarly interpretations of Isaiah 53, I wondered how scholars placed the Suffering Servant within the overall message of Second Isaiah: God’s restoration of Israel from Babylonian captivity. At the time, the person who made most sense to me was R.N. Whybray, who said that the servant was a prophet encouraging and preparing Israel to return to her land. His problem was two-fold: (1.) many Jews were comfortable in exile and didn’t want to return, and (2.) the servant was angering the Babylonians, who still held Israel in captivity. When Second Isaiah spoke in glowing terms about Cyrus defeating Babylon and restoring Israel, the Babylonians construed that as treason, so they put the prophet in jail (a type of death) and tortured him. But the prophet was vindicated when Cyrus won and Israel got restored to her land. He was released from prison, after which he saw offspring and prolonged his days.
Whybray is controversial because he says that the servant does not literally die, even though Isaiah 53 uses such terms as “deaths,” “like a lamb to the slaughter,” and “cut off from the land of the living.” According to Whybray, death was a fluid concept in the ancient Near East. Moreover, Whybray states that Isaiah 53 couldn’t have concerned the Servant’s resurrection because the concept of resurrection wasn’t around when Second Isaiah was written.
Blenkinsopp takes the Suffering Servant’s death at face value, but he interprets the promise that the servant will see offspring and prolong his days to imply that “he lives on in the prophetic following dedicated to perpetuating his message.” He takes the servant’s death at face value, but not his resurrection.
I disagree with Whybray about the resurrection being a non-existent concept at the time of Second Isaiah. Ezekiel uses bodily resurrection as a metaphor in Ezekiel 37, and dead people come back to life under the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17:17-24; II Kings 4:34-35). But, if Isaiah 53 is talking about the Servant’s resurrection, what’s this mean? That a prophet in the sixth century B.C.E. died and rose again? If the Suffering Servant is Jesus, how’s Jesus relate to the Jews’ restoration from Babylonian captivity, the message of Second Isaiah?