Isaiah 53 does not actually say the servant would die.

Isaiah 53 does not actually say the servant would die.

This objection actually contradicts two of the previous objections (specifically, 4.10 and 4.12), both of which understand that according to Isaiah 53, the servant of the Lord would die. Many standard Rabbinic interpretations recognize this, either interpreting the text with reference to Israel’s suffering and death at the hands of their enemies or with reference to the suffering and death of the Messiah (either Messiah ben Joseph or Messiah ben David).

Some years ago, I was invited by Christian students at Yale University to speak at an open forum titled “Will the Real Messiah Please Rise?” The object of the forum was to have me compare the Messianic qualifications of Yeshua with those of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. (The forum took place in 1993, when many of Rabbi Schneerson’s followers were expecting him to miraculously rise up from his paralysis, caused by a stroke he suffered in 1992. At such time, they believed he would declare himself to be the Messiah.) When I finished my presentation, I opened the floor for questions and arguments. Leading the way in this discussion and debate were representatives of the Lubavitch community, including the campus Lubavitch rabbi, who was quite aggressive in his presentation.

At some point in the evening, the discussion turned to Isaiah 53, and the Lubavitch leader and I engaged in a lively debate, going back and forth on the interpretation of the text until something fascinating became apparent to the listening audience: When I argued that Isaiah 53 spoke of the death of Jesus the Messiah, the Lubavitch leader adamantly denied that the text spoke of the death of the servant of the Lord. Then he turned around and argued that the text should be applied to the many deaths suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of their adversaries. How revealing! (Of course, I immediately pointed out this contradiction, and no defense was offered.)

This incident reminds us of the obvious: The text of Isaiah 53 explicitly speaks of the death of the servant of the Lord, using numerous expressions to make this perfectly clear, and there is no valid reason to deny this unless one is trying to evade the obvious sense of the chapter. In addition to the clear expressions describing the servant’s suffering (see above, 4.10 and 4.12), note the following: 53:7 says he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter; 53:8 says he was cut off from the land of the living; 53:9 speaks of his grave and death(!); 53:10 says he will be offered up as a guilt offering; 53:12 says he poured out his life unto death. What could be clearer?

Not surprisingly, when reading the text in terms of Israel, the three most respected Rabbinic commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, saw numerous references to the servant’s death(s). Radak, for example, claimed that 53:8 spoke of the fact that the people of Israel “used to be put to death in many ways: Some were burnt, some were slain, and others were stoned—they gave themselves over to any form of death for the sake of the unity of the Godhead.”152 This again reminds us that the text points explicitly to the death of the servant of the Lord, not only to his suffering and pain.

It’s also interesting to note that after the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s death, his followers pointed to Isaiah 53, claiming that it spoke of his death, which is not surprising, given the clear sense of the original Hebrew. Thus, they rightly interpreted it as a prophecy of the death of the Messiah but wrongly interpreted the identity of the Messiah.153

[1]

 

152 As rendered in Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:53–54.

153 See the relevant discussion about Messiah son of Joseph in vol. 2, 3.23.

[1]Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (74). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

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