Excursus: The Suffering Servant Is Israel
52:13See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 14Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—15so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. 53:1Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed? 2For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10Yet it was the will of Yahweh to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of Yahweh shall prosper. 11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 52:13—53:12)
The song begins with the statement that the servant will prosper and be exalted. This exaltation obviously takes place after the servant’s suffering. In vv. 14-15, it says that nations were first astonished by the servant’s suffering, then goes on to say that they will “shut their mouths” when they see the servant exalted. Compare this with the language in the book of Lamentations, a book (like Second Isaiah) written in light of Israel’s experience of Babylonian captivity:
All your enemies open their mouths wide at you: they whistle and gnash their teeth. They say, “We have devoured her. Indeed, this is the day we longed for; we have seen it.” (2:16)
All our enemies have opened their mouths wide at us. (3:46)
Here the nations “open their mouths wide” at Israel, taunting Israel, and gnashing their teeth. In other words, they are “opening wide their mouths” to trash-talk Israel. But in Isaiah 52:15, these nations will now “shut their mouths” because of Israel. This means that in the servant’s exaltation, their taunts have been silenced. “For that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate” (52:15). In other words, they didn’t see it coming.
Now we come to the artificial chapter break, with 53:1: “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed?” Here we have a change of speaker, as commentators all note. In 52:13-15, the speaker is Yahweh. This is clear because the speaker says, “See, my servant shall prosper.” But in 53:1, the speaker changes: “Who has believed what we have heard?” Who is this new speaker? The preceding verses make this absolutely clear: “so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” The speaker throughout vv. 1-10 is “many nations” and “kings,” until Yahweh again becomes the speaker in vv. 11-12.
Thus, “Who has believed what we have heard?” mean, “We didn’t expect this. No one would believe it if we told them.” And “to whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed?” means, “We have witnessed Yahweh’s strength in the exaltation of his people, but no one saw it coming.” The implied answer in both rhetorical questions is “no one.” No one would have believed it. Yahweh’s strength was revealed to no one—until now. In the deliverance and exaltation of the people of Israel, Yahweh’s strength has been revealed. And that agent through which Yahweh’s strength was revealed is of course Israel’s “messiah,” their liberator—the Persian king Cyrus, who conquered Babylon and issued an edict liberating Babylon’s captives.
But look at Psalm 44, where the language of “Yahweh’s arm” is used expressly in contrast with the strength of Israel:
We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old: you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free; for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them. You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob. Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us. In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. (Ps 44:1-8)
The message is that Israel achieves victory not through its own strength, but by “the arm of Yahweh.”
Note also that this psalm uses language that parallels Isa 53:2. The psalm says, “you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them [the ancestors of exilic Israel] you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free.” It says that Yahweh “planted” Israel after effecting their exodus from captivity in Egypt. Likewise in Isaiah 53, the nations continue their song: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Who is the “he” and who is the “him” here? The “he” is the servant, Israel, and the “him” before whom the servant grew up is Yahweh. Let’s compare this language from Isa 53:2 with that of Ps 80:8-11:
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground. (Isa 53:2a)
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. (Ps 80:8-11)
This language found in Pss 44, 80 and Isa 53 is language commonly used to refer to Israel’s humble beginnings and ostensibly innocuous position on the geopolitical scene. But in all cases, Yahweh exalts the humble nation and sees it grow into something the nations cannot but behold in awe.
Throughout the song of the Suffering Servant, the servant is described as oppressed, smitten, stricken, afflicted, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let’s take a look again at Psalm 44:
Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies. You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil. You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way, yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness. If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Ps 44:9-26)
Virtually all the same language used in the post-exilic song of the Suffering Servant is used here in this exilic Psalm to describe the nation of Israel. Moreover, take note that in vv. 4-6 of this psalm (quoted earlier), the speaker alternates between the first person singular (a collective voice of Israel) and the first person plural. In the same way, the song of the Suffering Servant speaks of Israel as a collective.
Note further that Psalm 44 expressly says that Israel is killed and expresses hope for restoration: “Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.” In the same way, Isaiah 53 says that the servant is cut off and buried, only to be restored to prosperity and greatness by virtue of Yahweh’s faithfulness. This same metaphor of death is found in the famous “valley of the dry bones” vision in the exilic Ezekiel 37, where Ezekiel is given a vision of a valley full of skeletons, and is told by the messenger, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (Ezek 37:11), not just the individual Israelites who had died. But in the very next verse Ezekiel is then told to comfort Israel in their captivity, to “prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel” (37:12). This of course does not speak of a literal bodily resurrection of dead Israelites, but of a metaphorical resurrection, a restoration of “the whole house of Israel.” The same thing is seen in Hosea 6:1-2: “‘Come, let us return to Yahweh; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” This image of death and resurrection as a metaphor for Israel’s liberation from oppression is also seen in Isa 26:19. So in Psalm 44, Israel is “sinking down to the dust,” but expresses hope of restoration. In Ezekiel 37, “the whole house of Israel” is a “valley full of dry bones,” but will be “brought up from the grave.” Likewise, in Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant is “cut off from the land of the living” and “given a grave,” but will “prosper” and be “exalted.”
Note also that in Psalm 44, Israel accuses Yahweh, saying, “Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Likewise, in Isaiah 53, “Yet it was the will of Yahweh to crush him with pain.” And again in both cases, Israel is proclaimed to be innocent:
All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way. . . . If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps 44:17-18, 20-21).
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? . . . They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth . . . the righteous one, my servant. (Isa 53:8a, 9, 11b)
“They made his grave with the wicked” means that Israel was “cut off” in Babylon.
Some would argue that the servant is not Israel because the servant is said to suffer for the transgressions of many. After all, Israel is not guiltless, as the servant is portrayed. Rather, Israel is being punished in exile for its sins. But this would be wrong. What is presented here is an idealized portrait of Israel. Remember that just above in Psalm 44, Israel proclaims its innocence to Yahweh and its faithfulness to the covenant. And in fact, this is what the author of Second Isaiah says, in the voice of Yahweh, about Israel expressly, just prior to the beginning of the song of the suffering servant:
Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. Now therefore, what am I doing here, says Yahweh, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers howl, says Yahweh, and continually, all day long, my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore on that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I. (Isa 52:3-6)
Here the author has Yahweh proclaiming Israel’s innocence. He says that Israel was innocent when they were captive in Egypt, that they were innocent when oppressed by the Assyrians, and are innocent now too while in bondage in Babylon. Yahweh’s “name is despised” because his innocent servant, Israel, is suffering.
So whose sins, then, are forgiven on account of the Servant’s suffering? If Israel is, according to Isaiah 52-53, innocent, for whose guilt is Israel atoning? The answer is obvious: remember that the speaker in Isa 53:1-10 is the nations and kings, the ones who taunted Israel, the ones who afflicted Israel, the ones who saw nothing of value in Israel that they should step in to save them. It is for these sins that Israel’s suffering atones. Israel’s suffering and subsequent exaltation effects the very purposes of Yahweh: to make the nations take notice so that they will recognize Yahweh’s power and come to worship him. Israel’s suffering and exaltation makes Israel a light to the Gentiles. This is a pervasive theme throughout Second Isaiah, and is shown in a number of ways.
First, this is what Yahweh says would take place when his anointed one, Cyrus the Persian, accomplishes Yahweh’s purposes for Israel:
Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, Yahweh,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am Yahweh, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I Yahweh do all these things.
Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,
and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
I Yahweh have created it.
Woe to you who strive with your Maker,
earthen vessels with the potter!
Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’
Thus says Yahweh,
the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:
Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?
I made the earth,
and created humankind upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.
I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness,
and I will make all his paths straight;
he shall build my city
and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,
says Yahweh of hosts.
Thus says Yahweh:
The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,
and the Sabeans, tall of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
they shall follow you;
they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will make supplication to you, saying,
‘God is with you alone, and there is no other;
there is no god besides him.’
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Savior.
All of them are put to shame and confounded,
the makers of idols go in confusion together.
But Israel is saved by Yahweh
with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
to all eternity.
For thus says Yahweh,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am Yahweh, and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
‘Seek me in chaos.’
I Yahweh speak the truth,
I declare what is right.
Assemble yourselves and come together,
draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—
those who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.
Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, Yahweh?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.’
Only in Yahweh, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
shall come to him and be ashamed.
In Yahweh all the offspring of Israel
shall triumph and glory.
Here we see clearly the purposes of Yahweh in the suffering and liberation of his “servant, Jacob.” It is to make the whole earth aware that Yahweh alone is God; it is to make it known that the nations must turn to Yahweh and be saved; it is to make “righteousness sprout up” not just in Israel, but over “the earth.” And when the nations come in chains and bow/worship before Cyrus, they will know that his strength comes from Yahweh. “Every knee shall bow” to Yahweh, in the recognition that the only true God empowered Cyrus to execute righteousness and liberate his suffering servant, Jacob.
Thus, the atoning suffering and (metaphorical) death of Yahweh’s servant, Israel, was Yahweh’s plan, according to Second Isaiah, for the very salvation of the world. Second Isaiah makes this clear throughout his composition. Another very clear example is found in Isaiah 49, where Israel speaks in the first person singular of his sufferings. Yahweh then speaks to his Servant, Israel, about the nature of his task and the meaning of his suffering:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
Yahweh called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with Yahweh,
and my reward with my God.’
And now Yahweh says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of Yahweh,
and my God has become my strength—
‘It is not enough that you should be my servant
merely to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
Thus says Yahweh,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of Yahweh, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
It doesn’t get much clearer than this. Israel is identified as the Servant, who suffers, is “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers.” When Israel is speaking, he says that Yahweh’s purpose was to restore Jacob back to Yahweh. But Yahweh responds that this is not enough—that’s a myopic vision. The purpose of Israel’s suffering was so that, when Yahweh liberated and vindicated his Servant, the nations would see. His Servant Israel would be a “light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In the same way, in Isaiah 53, the Servant suffers for the sins of the ones who scoffed and oppressed him, but went on, in his exaltation, “to make many righteous.” “Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11).
There is, after all, a very good reason that the dominant reading of Isaiah 52-53 among Jewish interpreters has always been the collective reading: the reason is, it’s correct. “In the context of Second Isaiah,” John Collins writes, “the Servant must be identified as Israel.”11
The Dying Christ in 11Q13 (Continued)
Now that we understand, unlike Carrier, what the messenger and the arm are, and who the Suffering Servant is, we will continue to examine Carrier’s arguments:
Isaiah says there will come a special day when people will see God’s presence among them, by realizing it is him speaking. Speaking how? Through the messenger who announces salvation and peace and brings “the good news,” and announces that in his coming God now reigns in Jerusalem.
This is correct. As we’ve seen (Isa 52:4-7) Yahweh announces his victory through the messenger who comes to proclaim that Israel is no longer unjustly held captive; Yahweh has defended his honor against those who “despise his name.” Of course, Yahweh speaks through all of his messengers. This certainly doesn’t make the herald of good tidings equivalent to the arm of Yahweh, let alone the Suffering Servant to whom the message is being given. Carrier continues:
Isaiah then says the guards of the city will thus see in this messenger the return of the Lord, and Isaiah calls on them to break into song at this sight. Because it means God has redeemed them. How has he redeemed them? He has “bared his holy arm” before their eyes, and therefore salvation has come. The holy arm is therefore the messenger.
I love watching the logician work. Of course, this is dead wrong. In Second Isaiah, the arm of Yahweh is Yahweh’s strength manifested specifically in the Persian emperor Cyrus. The messenger is simply the messenger, proclaiming that Yahweh has accomplished his purposes, as he promised to do: “It is who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd! And he will perform all my desire.’” Carrier continues with yet more confusion:
The key element of this section is that this messenger comes on a special day, the very day that redemption and salvation come. What happens on that special day? Isaiah goes on to explain that this “arm of God” who brings salvation and redeems Israel will be despised, executed even though innocent, and buried.
As we’ve seen, this is not at all the case. The arm is Yahweh’s strength; it is Yahweh’s strength that liberated the suffering servant, Israel. Carrier continues:
Then he will be exalted and rewarded (by the time this pesher was written, that would most readily be taken to mean that he was resurrected). As Isaiah says (53:12), God will “divide him a portion with the great” such that this dead savior “shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.”
Carrier is saying that “Isaiah is saying,” but he knows full well that there was no belief in individual bodily resurrection at the time of the composition of this text, so he knows (but is obscuring or forgetting) that Isaiah is most certainly not saying that the arm of Yahweh is the resurrected suffering servant who comes back as a messenger. And it’s irrelevant that at the time of 11QMelch they did believe in bodily resurrection, because they would not have shared Carrier’s confused reading of Isaiah (in other literature, the Qumran sect recognized Cyrus as the messiah who liberated Israel from exile), and because (something Carrier continually obscures) nowhere in 11QMelch is either “the arm of Yahweh” or the “servant” who suffers mentioned. Carrier just doesn’t know the first thing about how to read these texts; he gets his own ideas in his head, and runs roughshod over his own reputation with them. He continues:
“yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Thus everyone’s sins are forgiven because of his sacrifice, which is an actual death, that atones for all Israel’s sins. As Isaiah explains (53:10-11), “it was the will of the LORD to bruise him” and put him to grief (by killing him), and “when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand,” amazing things to accomplish if you’re dead (hence by the first century B.C. a Jew would normally infer God will resurrect him, thereby “prolonging his days” and allowing God’s will to prosper “in his hand”), and his death will “make many to be accounted righteous” because “he shall bear their iniquities” and thus Jehovah “will be satisfied.”
First of all, “Jehovah?” Seriously? What is he, living in the nineteenth century? Secondly, as we’ve seen, it was most certainly not an actual death, and it wasn’t for Israel’s sins that it atoned. Isaiah 52:4-6 clearly says that Israel was being punished unjustly, just as Psalm 44 says. As Second Isaiah makes clear, it was for the sins of Israel’s enemies, the nations, that the Servant’s suffering atoned. And what this means is that in their suffering and subsequent exaltation, it gave the nations reason to recognize Yahweh’s true sovereignty and abandon their false gods. And thus, third, just because Carrier hasn’t read all of Second Isaiah doesn’t mean the Qumranites hadn’t done so. Carrier is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he insists against all scrolls scholars that “pesher didn’t take quotes out of context,” and says that pesher intended their readers to be aware of the context and original meaning of the texts quoted to fill in the blanks of the new composition. On the other hand, he’s now arguing that because the Qumranites believed in resurrection, they would have automatically interpreted this text in a way that does violence to its context and original meaning.
Let’s get something clear here though. The fact that pesher more frequently than not took quotes out of context does not mean that didn’t know how to read texts more or less historically-grammatically. The phrase they use when interpreting quotations is variously, “its interpretation is,” and “its interpretation for the last days is.” The latter is simply shorthand for the former. We see this latter phrase in line four of 11QMelch: “its interpretation for the end of days concerns the captives.”12 The point is, when it says, “its interpretation for the end of days,” or just “its interpretation,” and then proceeds to take the quote out of historical or literary context (or both), this doesn’t mean that they didn’t understand the historical and literary context. It simply means that they are finding words in the text and infusing them atomistically with a new eschatological significance.
But the fact is, 11QMelch makes no mention of the arm of Yahweh or of the Suffering Servant, so we have no reason to think that they were taking those terms out of context; in their minds, they were the Suffering Servant. Just as the Servant Israel was captive to Babylon, Israel is now captive to Belial. And, as we will see, just as Israel was held captive in Babylon for 49 years (587-538 BCE), so too 11QMelch speaks of the last days of captivity before the end as a 49 year period. Line seven identifies a period of time between “the first week of the tenth jubilee” and “the end of the tenth jubilee,” which is 49 years. More on that later.