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Many Christians believe the "Man of Sorrows" or the "Suffering Servant" to be a reference to the prophecy of the Ministry of Jesus, which became a common theme in medieval and later Christian art. The passage of 'Isaiah 53' is known for its interpretation and use by Christian Theologians and Missionaries, many of whom identify the servant to be Christ Jesus. Many Christians view the entire chapter, and particularly this passage to refer to the Passion of Christ as well as the absolution of sins believed to be made possible by his sacrificial death.
Jewish scripture in Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12 describes the servant of the Lord as the Nation of Israel itself: "My Servant..." (Isaiah 53:11), "... a man of pains and accustomed to illness ... " (Isaiah 53:3). "The theme of Isaiah is jubilation, a song of celebration at the imminent end of the Babylonian Captivity". Judaism sees this passage, especially "God's Suffering Servant", being written over 2500 years before nowadays, without a reference to the king Mashiach. Jewish teaching also does take note of the historical context in which God's Suffering Servant appears, particularly because it speaks in the past tense. The Jewish nation has borne unspeakable injustices, under Assyria, Babylonia, Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, which are all gone, and bears persecution and targeted mission to this day. Jewish scripture in Isaiah speaks in the light, when it says:
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The servant songs were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. The songs are four poems taken from the Book of Isaiah written about a certain "servant of YHWH". God calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly repressed. In the end, he is rewarded.
The fourth of the "servant songs" begins at Isaiah 52:13, continuing through 53:12 where it continues the discussion of the suffering servant. There is also a rather clear identification for the "servant" within this song. In the context of its surrounding verses, Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 54, one can deduce that the song refers to the Nation of Israel, rather not to an individual. Although, as Franz Delitzsch has noted in his commentary on Isaiah, there is not a consensus even amongst the Midrashim on whether The Servant is a reference to the Messiah or to Israel.
It is argued that the "servant" represents the nation of Israel, which would bear excessive iniquities, pogroms, blood libels, anti-judaism, antisemitism and continue to suffer without cause (Isaiah 52:4) on behalf of others (Isaiah 53:7,11–12). Early on, the servant of the Lord is promised to prosper and "be very high". The following evaluation of the Servant by the "many nations, kings", and "we" Isaiah 52:15 is quite negative, though, and bridges over to their self-accusation and repentance after verse 4 ("our"). Then, the Servant is vindicated by God, "because he bared his soul unto death". On the other hand, it is argued that the "servant" in this song might be an individual. And because of the references to sufferings, many Christians believe this song, along with the rest of the servant songs, to be among the Christian-messianic prophecies of Jesus. The anti-missionary rabbi Tovia Singer argues, by textual analysis, that the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is not referencing an individual Christ Jesus.
The word servant is used 23 times in the book. 19 in chapters 41 to 53. Israel/Jacob is called the servant at least 11 times: the first 2 in chapter 41. Servant is used 4 times in the previous 40 chapters referring to Isaiah, Eliakim, servants in general, and David. Many of these verses such as 43:10 You are My witnesses, said the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen, 44:21 You are My servant Israel, 49:3 You are My servant Israel, and others, clearly show the nation referred to by the singular "servant". The word messiah ("anointed one") is found twice, referring to Cyrus Isaiah 45:1, and in chapter Isaiah 61. The word "servants" is used 9 times in chapters 54 to 66. Prior to ch 54 it is last used in ch 37. All 9 references in ch. 54 to 66 are to Israel.
The passage survives in three versions, from three autonomous and parallel manuscript traditions: the Masoretic text that is the most familiar one, the Septuagint text, and the Qumran community's Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to the 2nd century BCE
Much of the meaningfulness of Joseph of Arimathea's role (q.v. for discussion) hinges upon the words of Isaiah 53:9, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth."
Jewish and Christian scholars both agree that Isaiah 52:13 is the natural beginning of the section, which is reasonable when one considers that the original Hebrew does not have the modern chapter breaks. The speaker from Isaiah 52:13 to the end of chapter 52 is God himself, whereas from the beginning of 53:1 through 53:9 the gentile kings of nations are speaking in their numbed astonishment. This narrative expressed by the surprised leaders of the surrounding gentile nations is referred to in 52:15. This alternation in speakers is evident in that verses Isaiah 52:13 and Isaiah 53:11 speak of "My [i.e. God's] servant", while the intervening verses refer to "our transgressions" (i.e., in the Jewish view of this chapter, the transgressions committed by the gentile nations against God's servant, Israel, or, in the Christian view of this chapter, the sins of individuals against God).
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The Talmud refers occasionally to Isaiah 53:
Both the Talmud and Midrash apply Is 53 to the sick:
Six things are a good sign for a sick person, namely, sneezing, perspiration, open bowels, seminal emission, sleep and a dream. Sneezing, as it is written: His sneezings flash forth light.15 Perspiration, as it is written, In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.16 Open bowels, as it is written: If lie that is bent down hasteneth to be loosed, he shall not go down dying to the pit.17 Seminal emission, as it is written: Seeing seed, he will prolong his days.18 Sleep, as it is written: I should have slept, then should I have been at rest.19 A dream, as it is written: Thou didst cause me to dream and make me to live.20 (15) Job XLI, 10. (16) Gen. III, 19. (17) Isa. LI, 14. E.V. "He that is bent down shall speedily, etc." (18) Isa. LIII, 10. (19) Job. III, 13. (20) Isa. XXXVIII, 16. V. p. 335, n. 10.
Midrash Rabbah—Genesis XX:10 five things which are a favourable omen for an invalid, viz.: sneezing, perspiring, sleep, a dream, and semen. Sneezing, as it is written, His sneezings flash forth light (Job XLI, 10); sweat: In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread3; sleep: I had slept: then it were well with me (Job III, 13)4; a dream: Wherefore make me dream [E.V. 'recover Thou me'] and make me live (Isa. XXXVIII, 16); semen: He shall see seed [i.e. semen], and prolong his days (Isa. LIII,10)
The midrashic method of biblical exegesis, is "... going more deeply than the mere literal sense, attempts to penetrate into the spirit of the Scriptures, to examine the text from all sides, and thereby to derive interpretations which are not immediately obvious":
Midrash Rabbah—Exodus XIX:6 In this world, when Israel ate the paschal lamb in Egypt, they did so in haste, as it is said: And thus shall ye eat it, etc. (Ex. XII, 11), For in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt (Deut. XVI, 3), but in the Messianic era, we are told: For ye shall not go out in haste, neither shall ye go by flight (Isa. LII, 12).
Midrash Rabbah—Numbers XIII:2 Israel exposed (he'eru) their souls to death in exile-as you read, Because he bared (he'era) his soul unto death (Isa. LIII, 12)- and busied themselves with the Torah which is sweeter than honey, the Holy One, blessed be He, will therefore in the hereafter give them to drink of the wine that is preserved in its grapes since the six days of Creation, and will let them bathe in rivers of milk.
Midrash Rabbah—Ruth V:6 6. And Boaz said unto her at meal time: come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar. And she sat beside the reapers; and they reached her parched corn, and she did eat and was satisfied and left thereof (II, 14). R. Jonathan interpreted this verse in six ways. The first refers it to David.... The fifth interpretation makes it refer to the Messiah. Come hither: approach to royal state. And eat of the bread refers to the bread of royalty; And dip thy morsel in the vinegar refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions (Isa. LIII, 5).
"The Lord trieth the righteous" (Ps. XI, 5). For what reason? Said R. Simeon: "Because when God finds delight in the righteous, He brings upon them sufferings, as it is written: 'Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him by disease'" (Is. LIII, 10), as explained elsewhere. God finds delight in the soul but not in the body, as the soul resembles the supernal soul, whereas the body is not worthy to be allied to the supernal essences, although the image of the body is part of the supernal symbolism.
Observe that when God takes delight in the soul of a man, He afflicts the body in order that the soul may gain full freedom. For so long as the soul is together with the body it cannot exercise its full powers, but only when the body is broken and crushed. Again, "He trieth the righteous", so as to make them firm like "a tried stone", the "costly corner-stone" mentioned by the prophet (Is. XXVIII, 16).
R. Simeon further discoursed on the text: Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high (Is. LII, 13). "Happy is the portion of the righteous", he said, "to whom the Holy One reveals the ways of the Torah that they may walk in them."
Observe the Scriptural text: "And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah" (Gen. xxv, 1). Herein is an allusion to the soul which after death comes to earth to be built up as before. Observe that of the body it is written: "And it pleased the Lord to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, and prolong his days, and that the purpose of the Lord might prosper by his hand." (Is. LIII, 10). That is to say, if the soul desires to be rehabilitated then he must see seed, for the soul hovers round about and is ready to enter the seed of procreation, and thus "he will prolong his days, and the purpose of the Lord", namely the Torah, "will prosper in his hand". For although a man labours in the Torah day and night, yet if his source remains fruitless, he will find no place by which to enter within the Heavenly curtain.
R. Simeon quoted here the verse: "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because they were not" (Jer. XXXI, I5). 'The Community of Israel is called "Rachel", as it says, "As a sheep (rahel) before her shearers is dumb" (Isa. LIII, 7). Why dumb? Because when other nations rule over her the voice departs from her and she becomes dumb. "Ramah"
When the Messiah hears of the great suffering of Israel in their dispersion, and of the wicked amongst them who seek not to know their Master, he weeps aloud on account of those wicked ones amongst them, as it is written: "But he was wounded because of our transgression, he was crushed because of our iniquities" (Isa. LIII, 5). The souls then return to their place. The Messiah, on his part, enters a certain Hall in the Garden of Eden, called the Hall of the Afflicted. There he calls for all the diseases and pains and sufferings of Israel, bidding them settle on himself, which they do. And were it not that he thus eases the burden from Israel, taking it on himself, no one could endure the sufferings meted out to Israel in expiation on account of their neglect of the Torah. So Scripture says; "Surely our diseases he did bear," etc. (Isa. LIII, 4). A similar function was performed by R. Eleazar here on earth. For, indeed, beyond number are the chastisements awaiting every man daily for the neglect of the Torah, all of which descended into the world at the time when the Torah was given. As long as Israel were in the Holy Land, by means of the Temple service and sacrifices they averted all evil diseases and afflictions from the world. Now it is the Messiah who is the means of averting them from mankind until the time when a man quits this world and receives his punishment, as already said. When a man's sins are so numerous that he has to pass through the nethermost compartments of Gehinnom in order to receive heavier punishment corresponding to the contamination of his soul, a more intense fire is kindled in order to consume that contamination. The destroying angels make use for this purpose of fiery rods, so as to expel that contamination. Woe to the soul that is subjected to such punishment! Happy are those who guard the precepts of the Torah!
"It has been taught in the name of R. Jose that on this day of Atonement it has been instituted that this portion should be read to atone for Israel in captivity. Hence we learn that if the chastisements of the Lord come upon a man, they are an atonement for his sins, and whoever sorrows for the sufferings of the righteous obtains pardon for his sins. Therefore on this day we read the portion commencing 'after the death of the two sons of Aaron', that the people may hear and lament the loss of the righteous and obtain forgiveness for their sins. For whenever a man so laments and sheds tears for them, God proclaims of him, 'thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged' (Isa. Vl, 7). Also he may be assured that his sons will not die in his lifetime, and of him it is written, 'he shall see seed, he shall prolong days (Isa. LIII, 19).'"
When God desires to give healing to the world He smites one righteous man among them with disease and suffering, and through him gives healing to all, as it is written, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... and with his stripes we are healed" (Isa. LIII, 5)
Why is Israel subjected to all nations? In order that the world may be preserved through them.
One of the first claims in the New Testament that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of Jesus comes from the Book of Acts, in which its author (who is also the author of Luke), describes a scene in which God commands Philip the Deacon to approach an Ethiopian eunuch who is sitting in a chariot, reading aloud to himself from the Book of Isaiah. The eunuch comments that he does not understand what he is reading (Isaiah 53) and Philip explains to him the teachings of Jesus. "And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? Of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus." This has been the standard Christian interpretation of the passage since Apostolic times.
Isaiah 53:4 is also quoted in Matthew 8:17, where it is used in context of Jesus' healing ministry:
Citing a number of Biblical verses that refer to Israel as the "servant", many of them from the Book of Isaiah such as 49:3 He said to me, "You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will display My splendor." Jewish scholars, and several Christian scholarly books, like Revised Standard Version Oxford Study Edition Bible, The Revised Standard Version tell us that Isaiah 53 is about national Israel and the New English Bible echo this analysis. Judaism, teaches that the "servant" in question is actually the nation of Israel. These scholars also argue that verse 10 cannot be describing Jesus. The verse states:
Taken literally, this description, is inconsistent with the short, childless life of Jesus. But there is interpretive room to argue that a resurrected Jesus has prolonged his days indefinitely and that his "seed" are those who become Christians.
The reason that the Servant is referred to in the third person may be that these verses are written from the point of view of Gentile nations amazed at Israel's restoration, or it may simply be a method of figurative description. Supporters of this theory argue that the reason for the use of past tense is based on the differences between Proto-Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah. Chapters 40–55 of Isaiah are referred to as "Deutero-Isaiah" because the themes and language are different from the rest of the book, leading some scholars to believe it was written by another author. Deutero-Isaiah differs from Proto-Isaiah in that it refers to Israel as already restored, which could account for the past-tense of the passage.
The Servant passages in Isaiah, and especially Isaiah 53, has to be compared with Psalm 44. Psalm 44 directly parallels the Servant Songs, it is probably the best defense for reading Isaiah 53 as applicable to the nation of Israel.
The earliest known example of a Jew and a Christian debating the meaning of Isaiah 53 is the example from 248 cited by Origen. In Christian church father Origen's Contra Celsus, written in 248, he writes of Isaiah 53:
In 1263 at the Disputation of Barcelona, Nahmanides expressed the Jewish viewpoint of Isaiah 53 and other matters regarding Christian belief about Jesus's role in Hebrew Scripture. The disputation was awarded in his favor by James I of Aragon, and as a result the Dominican Order compelled him to flee from Spain for the remainder of his life. Passages of Talmud were also censored. In a number of other disputations, debate about this passage resulted in forced conversions, deportations, and the burning of Jewish religious texts.
The use of Isaiah 53 in debates between Jews and Christians still often occurs in the context of Christian missionary work among Jews, and the topic is a source of frequent discussion that is often repetitive and heated. Some devout Christians view the use of the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 in targeted conversion of Jews as a special act of Christian love. The unchanged common view among Jews today still is that Jews are threatened by fundamentalist Christian organizations which aggressively target Jews for conversion.
International Jewish counter-missionary organizations, like Outreach Judaism, founded by Rabbi Tovia Singer, or Jews for Judaism, respond directly to the issues raised by missionaries and cults, by exploring Judaism in contradistinction to fundamentalist Christianity and establishing lasting connections between Jewish families and Judaism. Hence, many Jewish lectures, speeches and debates, concerning Isaiah 53, are freely available online.