The Ideal Servant, or the Servant Ideal

In The Bible As Human Witness to Divine Revelation, I read Stephen L. Cook’s “An Interpretation of the Death of Isaiah’s Servant.” On page 112, Cook states that “the Servant Songs appear much more like a series of poetic meditations on servanthood in the Scriptures than flat reports about a human personage known to the authors.” Consequently, Cook is skeptical about scholarly and religious tendencies to apply the Servant Songs in Second Isaiah to a specific person in history, such as Jehoiachin, or Zerubabbel. Yet, he believes that the Servant Songs were inspired by various figures in the Hebrew Bible, such as Abraham (who was willing to sacrifice his son) and the “other-centered Messiah in Isa 11.” Indeed, scholars have contended that the Servant Songs reflect a lot of things in their language and themes—the suffering of Jeremiah, prophecies about a Davidic king, etc.

Could the Servant Songs be a legend that contains ideals? Cook discusses those sorts of legends in other cultures, such as that of the Aztecs. They stress self-sacrifice. For Cook, in Isaiah 53, the self-sacrifice of the Servant shocks Israel out of her selfishness and challanges the tendency of people to objectify others based on their “worth.” The speakers of Isaiah 53 acknowledge that they considered the Servant to be worthless, and yet they have now changed their mind, in response to the Servant’s death.

At the end of the essay, Cook refers to Albert Schweitzer, who “gave up his missionary chair to become a missionary physician.” Cook states that Schweitzer was having a profound effect upon society by so doing:

“By abandoning his prestigious career for a ministry of healing in Lambarene, Schweitzer envisioned himself making reparation for the harm Europe had inflicted on Africa. His personal self-sacrifice had a profound spiritual influence on his generation, since, learning of his work, his contemporaries came better to appreciate their complicity and guilt in colonialism’s evils. By working this transforming effect on those whom he represented back at home, Schweitzer’s other-centeredness exemplified the sacrificial ideals of Isa 53. His selflessness generated renewal and intimacy among the world’s peoples” (page 124).

For some reason, while reading this, I thought about what Tony Campolo and Philip Yancey said about Henri Nouwen. I heard Campolo speak at Harvard, and he told the story about how Nouwen got tired of being “Dr. Nouwen” at prestigious universities, and so he went to Latin America to help the poor. Nouwen wrote a book expressing his thanks to those he helped, entitled Gracias. Philip Yancey, in one of his books, talks about how Nouwen took care of a man with a disability. Yancey thought that this was a waste of Nouwen’s talents, for Nouwen was a brilliant man. But Nouwen told Yancey that he—Nouwen—was the one who was blessed to take care of the man with the disability.

I think that it’s good to serve. I get a cozy feeling when I think back to the days when Christianity was so basic in my life—when it was about service. Maybe it can be that way again. But I doubt that I’ll serve at the same level of Albert Schweitzer and Henri Nouwen. I’d have a hard time getting by without my Internet, my TV, my books, etc.

Regarding Cook’s essay, I’d like to think that Second Isaiah—or whoever wrote the Servant Songs (since some believe that they were incorporated into Second Isaiah at a later date)—had some figure in mind—that he believed that the Servant was a real person. The Servant Songs talk about the Servant restoring Israel and bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Did the author of the Servant Songs see this as a mission for every Israelite? Or did he have in mind a specific person whom he hoped would accomplish this?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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