You are on page 1of 5

Does the Tanach Really Teach That Israel is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

If you consider what many within the Jewish community are saying
today - that the Suffering Servant found in Isaiah 53 actually refers
not to the Messiah, but to the nation of Israel - one cannot help but
wonder where such an idea arose? Moreover, is this a belief that has
been held since the writing of Isaiah, or is this some new
interpretative twist on Scripture?

I ran across a web site on the Internet that purports to educate its
members (mainly those of the Jewish faith) against those they
consider to be evanglizers; people who are attempting to convince
orthodox Jews that the Messiah has already come (in the form of
Jesus Christ) and that salvation is only found in Him. What I find troubling is what this
particular group defines as Christianity. In short, what they have done is group roughly
30,000 distinct groups of Protestantism (and even cults) under one heading: Christianity.
This of course, is not only incorrect, but it simply shows that their understanding of
Christianity is severely lacking. Be that as it may, this article is about how these particular
individuals view aspects of their own Bible, referred to as the Tanach. They would not of
course, call their Bible the Old Testament, because for them, there is only one testament
and to refer to it as the "old" would imply a "new." This is what the Christian does for the
Christian Bible, but for the Jew, the Tanach is their book, which contains the Torah.

Orthodox Christianity asserts that the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah, the prophet,
refers to the Messiah, and in this view, that Messiah is the very one that the leaders of
Israel rejected - Jesus Christ. It is not at all that difficult to read through Isaiah and note
the similarities of this Suffering Servant with that of Jesus and what He experienced not
only during His life, but on the cross as well. Are the many unique fulfillments of Isaiah by
Christ merely a coincidence, or could it be that the Suffering Servant motif points to and is
fulfilled in Jesus? It certainly depends upon who you ask and how it is explained.

What I would like to do for this article is quote from the source here on the Internet, and
most of the following quotes are taken from MessiahTruth.com, unless otherwise noted.

Quote: "...the Christian claim is that Jesus (Yeshua, as he is called in Jewish sources such
as the Talmud) was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy dating back five hundred years
and more prior to his birth. There are several logical arguments against this contention."

The author of the above statement - Mr. Levy - goes on to attempt to tear apart the New
Testament applications that point to the Messiah. Looking objectively at the book of Daniel
for instance, it is not at all difficult to prove that Christ was the Messiah from that book
alone; forget the New Testament completely. Beyond this, there are plenty of Messianic
prophecies found within the entirety of the Tanach - this should be obvious since it is the
Jews who have been looking for the promised Messiah for centuries, so where else would
the original prophecies be contained concerning the Messiah, if not the Tanach?

It is unfortunately quite apparent that Mr. Levy has absolutely no clue about which he
speaks. Whether it is an article on the Seed of the Woman, the passages on Isaiah 53, or
anything else found on their particular website, Mr. Levy's exegetical qualifications are
severely lacking. I have to apologize for my candor, but since this particular website I refer
to has appointed themselves judge and jury against Christians and Christianity, then they
have essentially "called us out."

Probably the most ridiculous belief that is found within that website is the apparent belief
that the nation of Israel - not the Messiah - is the Suffering Servant. If it was not so sad
that this is actually believed, it would be comical, yet the statement above is taken from an
article on just such a subject, by Mr. Levy. One simply has to ask: since WHEN did Israel
actually start believing that this section of Scripture - Isaiah 53 - refers to Israel and NOT
the Messiah?

At this juncture, it would be wise to step back in time to determine if and/or when this
interpretative position was actually espoused and/or held by rabbis. After all, if it can be
shown that previous rabbis and their literature indicated a belief that the Suffering Servant
of Isaiah 53 sees the Messiah and not the nation of Israel in view, then Mr. Levy's article (as
well as others like it) becomes moot.

According to the earliest Targum ("an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh)
written or compiled from the Second Temple period until the early Middle Ages; late first
millennium"[1]), - of Jonathan ben Uzziah dating from the first century AD - it says of
Isaiah "Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper..." These Targum were heavily quoted by
early rabbis and were certainly considered an authority on the Jewish view of Scripture.
Without doubt the writer/translator considered the Isaiah passage in question to speak of
the Messiah, not Israel.

Others like Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (circa 1500) admitted that the majority of rabbis
of the Midrashim took the passage to speak of the Messiah, even though he personally did
not. How about the Zohar from the 2nd century BC (or possibly the 13th, depending upon
who it is believed to have written it)? References are made to the vicariousness and
suffering that the Messiah took upon Himself that was due Israel.

What about the Babylonian Talmud? Rabbi Yuda the Saint said "The sick one," asi it is said,
"Surely he hath borne our sicknesses" (Sanhedrin 98b).

In the Midrash Thuhumi we read "Rabbi Nahman says, The word "man" in the
passage...refers to the Messiah, the son of David.

How about the Sepher Ha-Gilgalim? Referring to the Isaiah 52:13 passage it says "He shall
be high and exalted, etc." or as the Rabbis say "He shall be higher than Abraham,
exceedingly above Adam!" This does NOT describe the nation of Israel. Anyone who
attempts to identify the Suffering Servant with the nation of Israel is either allegorizing, or
fully stretching the truth to the breaking point.

The Midrash Cohen is another evidence of the fact that this passage was viewed as
belonging to the physical Messiah, not the nation of Israel.

If that isn't enough, how about the Mahsor and the Musaf Prayer found within? Written by
Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around the 7th century AD and in part reads as follows: "Messiah our
righteousness is departed from us...He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our
transgressions and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his
shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the
time that the Eternal will create him as a new creature..." Is it not obvious that this prayer
of Yom Kippur speaks clearly of the Messiah and the fear that he has departed from the
people (Israel)?

That the above view is seen as the dominant one among Jewry in the 10th century cannot
be disputed, and can be seen from the commentary by Yepheth ben Ali who said, "As to
myself, I am inclined, with Benjamin of Nehawend, to regard it as alluding to the
Messiah...The expression "my servant" is applied to the Messiah as it is applied to his
ancestor in the verse, "I have sworn to David my servant."

Even after Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi as he is commonly known), decided that this
particular passage referred to Israel and not the Messiah, his views were hotly disputed by
other rabbis, like Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known by his shortened name, Rambam). He
and others understood this passage to refer to the Messiah, not to Israel. Yet, on the
Messiah Truth website, it is asserted that Christians lying by stating that this apparent new
view of the Suffering Servant was made up by Rashi. However, the facts speak for
themselves and there is ample evidence that prior to Rashi, the normative viewpoint among
Jewry was that the Suffering Servant was indeed referring to the Messiah. Christians have
made up nothing. In fact, Christian interpreters have gained tremendous meaning from
rabbinic literature of old, which has allowed us to understand what in some ways might not
be so easily understood. To say that we have lied about results, or beliefs in an attempt to
evanglize Jews is an argument that is itself based on a lie.

Do I need to continue? There is SO much evidence out their that disproves what Mr. Levy is
attempting to show that it is disheartening that he would refer to Christians as liars as he
does, yet it is obvious that Mr. Levy and many of the articles written by him or others on
your site practice absolute deceit, all in the name of attempting to educate Jews to the
"truth."

To sum up, regarding the Suffering Servant motif of Isaiah 53 and its application to the
Messiah (from Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum's "Messianic Christology" book):

• This was the view of all the ancient rabbis


• the distinctive pronouns we, us, our, must refer to Isaiah and his Jewish
audience, while he, him, his refer to the Messiah
• throughout the passage, the Servant is portrayed as a singular personality and
not a nation; there is no allegory or personification of the Servant as Israel -
none
• In verse 9, the Servant's suffering is voluntary, willing and silent, which has
NEVER been true of Israel
• In verse 8, the Servant dies for "my people" Isaiah's people were Jews; the
Servant and Israel are therefore CLEARLY distinguished
• the Servant is an innocent sufferer (verses 4-6, 8-9), but Israel ALWAYS suffers
for its own sins as Isaiah himself stated in 1:4-8
• The Servant suffers a vicarious and substitutionary death (verses 4-8, 8, 10, 12)
while Israel does NOT suffer on behalf of the Gentiles, but because of the
Gentiles
• The sufferings of the Servant bring justification and spiritual healing to those who
accept it (verses 5b, 11b), but Israel has not done this for the Gentiles
• The Servant dies (verses 8, 12) but the people of Israel always survive
• the Servant is resurrected (verses 10-11), but since the people of Israel have
never passed away, they have no need of a resurrection
Who cares that if someone looks hard enough, they can find find some Christian
"theologian" who agree with the errant position espoused on Messiah Truth? What does this
really have to do with anything? This short article has just proven that within Judaism there
is a history of those who would vehemently disagree with Messiah Truth. It does not matter
what people believe about Scripture. It only matters what is actually being stated and
meant by God.

In conclusion, it cannot be ignored that just about all of Isaiah that specifically deals with
the Servant, points to the Servant (Messiah), yet all of a sudden when we get to Isaiah 52 -
53, we are asked to believe that the context changes with Isaiah now referring to Israel?
That may work for folks who are unable to think for themselves, but for those who can
think, discern and interpret Scripture, it simply does not hold water. An honest individual
must admit that.

The facts of history speak for themselves; ancient rabbis and rabbinical literature have
declared for centuries that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah.
However since Rashi's appearance and writings (circa A.D. 1100), everything has changed.
Now, we are told that not only is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 referring to the nation
of Israel, but apparently this is what was always taught even long before Rashi! Fortunately
(or unfortunately, depending upon which side you find yourself), history proves otherwise.

The real sticking point for the orthodox Jew is not that the Suffering Servant points to the
Messiah, but that the Messiah is understood by Christians to be Jesus Christ; an individual
who was "despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and
as one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we esteemed him not."[2]

It makes perfect sense why any orthodox Jew would not want the Suffering Servant to be
equated with Jesus. If it is true that Jesus was/is the Messiah that the Jews were looking
for, then they are guilty of rejecting Him to His death. If it is not true, then they are still
looking for their Messiah. In either case, there is no need to destroy the original meaning of
the text of Isaiah 53 in order to be convinced that Christ was not the individual He claimed
to be. All that needs to be done is to state that He was not the Messiah and continue to look
for another, while leaving the text alone.

The problem though is that for far too many Jews, being Jewish is simply a social or political
position. Wanting a Jewish homeland is to yearn for political autonomy. Nothing has really
changed since the days of Christ. Then the Jewish leaders were looking for an emancipator
who could free them from the rule of Rome. They were not concerned about spiritual
freedom, or renewal, or necessarily a right relationship before God. They wanted the world
to leave them alone. Unfortunately, since the Messiah comes from the nation of Israel, they
will never be left alone, until God in Christ brings all things to a culmination.

Today, modern Jews who want their own land, want it on their terms. They want freedom
from harassment. They want freedom from trouble and they want freedom to worship as
they wish to worship. They forget that God created them to be a nation yes, but a nation
with a purpose - His purpose - and that purpose was to be a light shining in a dark world, in
order to call many from that darkness. They were created to literally evangelize a world that
lived outside the safety of God's salvation. They were created to bring people from all
nations to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in order that those people from various
cultures and nations would enjoy the same salvation that the nation of Israel would have
also enjoyed.
The nation of Israel stumbled and was unable to do what she was created to do. She failed
during the time of Christ and she is failing today. When all is said and done, what is to be
the outcome? God has a plan. He has not left His wife (Israel) barren, nor has He despised
them to the point of a final and utterly complete rejection. God has set them aside for a
time, until as Paul says, the fullness of the Gentiles comes in (Romans 11:25-26). Once the
last Gentile comes into God's fold, He will once again turn His attention back to Israel and
He will deal with them and when that time of dealing with them is over, never again will
they fail to complete God's will. Never again will they stumble at reflecting the Light of the
world.

Today, the orthodox Jew can re-translate the Tanach until it hardly resembles its original
meaning, but that does not change the fact that the Bible says what it says and means what
it means. The Suffering Servant is indeed referencing the Messiah. This truth cannot be
intelligently disputed. It can be rejected, but not disputed. Would that God would open the
eyes of those who reject His Word in favor of a meaning that suits their itching ears. May
they see that not only is Christ the Savior of the Gentiles, but He is also the Messiah of the
nation of Israel. In doing so, salvation will come to that nation and God Himself will be fully
glorified.

[1] Wikipedia
[2] Isaiah 53:3 (ESV)