| |

SIDIC Periodical XIX - 1986/1
The Last Servant Song of Isaiah (Pages 04 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Suffering Servant Hymn and its Sequel: a new translation
Asher Finkel


A. The Hymn in biblical criticism and exegesis

The Hymn of the Suffering Servant in -Isaiah 52:1353-12 attracts particular attention in the history of biblical interpretation in the church and in the synagogue as well as in recent scholarship. The interpretation varied already in the First Century when the Ethiopian eunuch raised the question: "Concerning whom does the prophet speak, of himself or of someone else?" (Acts 8:13). The early Christians already saw in the suffering and death of Jesus the very meaning expressed in the hymn and therefore the church continued to stress a messianic and individualistic interpretation. The synagogue differed not only in its messianic meaning, but also offered a collective interpretation pointing to the history of Israel.1

Since the days of Bernhard Duhm (Das Buch Jesaia iibersetzt and erklart, 1892) biblical scholarship focused on different sections in Deutero Isaiah, where references to the servant are made, and it views them as a literary unit of Servant songs. Opinions differ on the number in the group of hymns, their meaning and authorship, but all agree that the suffering servant song doses the cycle.' Scholarship has limited the scope of study to the literary and exegetical understanding, and to whether the messianic interpretation prevailed in the period prior to the rise of Christianity.' However, the prophetic dynamics of Second Isaiah must be first examined in view of the fact that he introduced new teachings affecting Jewish life following the destruction of the first Temple. In the time of Exile, Deutero Isaiah is known to have introduced new lessons on immortality, proselytes and the Temple as "house of prayer" (Is. 56:1-7), on the spiritual significance of the Sabbath and fasting, as well as an account of corporal acts of mercy (Is 58). These lessons came to guide the religious life of Jewry during the Second Temple period when monotheism prevailed among the people after a long struggle of the prophets with polytheistic idolatry. These teachings deeply affected Judaism and early Christianity as they were promoted by the Rabbis and Jesus. Clearly the uniqueness of the servant lies in the theodicean meaning of vicarious suffering, a new lesson on righteousness. No wonder the suffering servant hymn assumed such a major role in understanding the messianic purpose of Jesus in the life of his Jewish disciples.

B. The phenomenological approach and the sequel to the Hymn

The theodicean teaching comes to reaffirm God's purpose in the world that faces anomie forces endemic to the human condition. For the phenomena of suffering, evil and death intrude upon the individual and collective experience and must be legitimized in view of God's righteousness.' The recent events of destruction and death, suffering and exile became the special concern of the prophet, especially when his personal life assumed the same condition of suffering, imprisonment and death. This is the sympathetic expression of prophetic mission that by his own example the divine pathos is manifested? From the human perspective, the individual converges with the many, and the exemplary life of the prophet offers new meaning to the people's existence. Prom the divine perspective, the death of the righteous prophet reveals a new dimension of God's righteousness in view of the prevailing evil.

The Suffering Servant hymn indeed offers a lesson on vicarious suffering as response to human sinful existence, the former concern. However, the death of the righteous servant welcomed by God in light of the prevailing evil, the latter concern, is presented later in a sequel (56:957:2). Phenomenologically, this sequel completes the lesson; this item, however, is usually dismissed in contemporary scholarship, for the sequel relates the rejection of future reward and spiritual meaning of life by the prophet's contemporaries (56: 12). This is contrasted with Second Isaiah's new theodicean teaching that focuses on the eschatological significance of the righteous one's death. The sequel is concerned in the first place with personal eschatology, the posthumous life on the righteous servant (57:2) and also with the collective historical eschatology in view of the impending evil (57:1). Thus, the eschatological thrust allows eventually for the messianic interpretation of the suffering servant hymn to emerge, for the death of the righteous servant assumes special significance in view of evil and sinfulness that exists in the world. During the latter part of the Second Temple period, both the lessons of resurrection as future reward and the expiatory, purificatory meaning of suffering in the world became principal teachings of Pharisaic Judaism and early Christianity.6

A careful reading of these two texts indicates that the hymn .is speaking of a person who is called the righteous one (hasaddiq) and My servant (abhddi). In Is 53:11 the two designations are brought together andthus the sequel and the hymn are bridged. Moreover, these two texts betray common elements and features. A parabolic and theriomorphic imagery appears in both. The hymn refers to the servant as a "plant in parched land" and as "a lamb led to the slaughter", while his contemporaries arc "like stray sheep". The sequel refers to his adversaries as "beasts of the field" and "ravenous dogs". Similar figures appear in prophetic and apocalyptic litera ru re, including the teachings of the Rabbis and Jesus, to describe the righteous and the wicked. Both the hymn and its sequel speak of the righteous one, whose role k not fully comprehended. Astonishment, inability to comprehend, and a startled attitude mark their response to God's purpose in the ordeal of his servant. Similar vocabulary governs both texts, and a peculiar feature of bracketed thought appears in both, as well as a climactic new teaching offered in the end.

C. A new translation

The translation offered here is based on a careful reading of the text in view of the early witness of the Qumran scrolls and the Septuagint, as well as its particular rendering preserved in the Aramaic Targum, early Christian sources and early rabbinic writings. Special attention is paid to its poetic structure as it is developed by different parts depicting particular scenes. An introduction (Is 52:13-53:1) is followed by two scenes (53:2-6; 7-12) and ends with an epilogue (56:9-57:2). The hymn opens with a superscription and each scene ends with similar thought. Careful attention is paid to the division of the poetic lines in Hebrew with a view to meter and parallelism. Only minor alterations are affected by the poetic analysis, which are indicated in the notes to my translation.


52:13a - Herewith let My servant become the lesson'
52: 13b, I4a - He rises exalted and exceedingly uplifted, while many wonder about him'
52: 14b - As his appearance is disfigured beyond personhood and his description beyond the human.
52:15a - So does he astound many, kings purse their mouths about him.
52:15b - For what is not told to them, they witnessed and what they were not informed, they comprehended.
53:1 - Who can believe our report? And upon whom is the power ° of the Lord manifested?


53: 2a - As a sapling he sprouted " before Him, as a root from parched land.
53: 2h - lie has no description, no comeliness that we can see, no appearance that we can desire.
53: 3a - We despised him" as human waste,' a man of suffering who is subject to illness.''
53: 3h - As one hides his face from him," we despised him and did not consider him.
53:4a - Yet he assumed 15 our illness; our pain he endured.
53:46 - While we considered him to be plagued, God-smittened end afflicted.
53:5a - Yet he was severely pained due to our rebelliousness, anguished because' of our iniquities.
53:56 - The burden" of our well being was upon him, and through his wounds we were healed.
53: 6a - We all strayed away as sheep, each one turned to his way.
53: 6b - But the Lord made him intercessor," (for) the sin of us all.


53:7a - Oppressed He is and pained.
53:7b - Yet he did not open his mouth, as a lamb led to the slaughter.
53:7c - As a ewe silenced before her shearers, he did not open his mouth.
53:8a - From confinement and the (court) judgment he was taken; who can relate his agony?"
53:8b - For He was cut off from the land of the living, because of my people's rebelliousness he wasafflicted to death.19
53: 9a - His grave was placed among the wicked, while the rich (is placed in) his sepulcherls
53: 9b - Though he committed no violence, there is no deceit in his speech."

53:10a - For the Lord was pleased to humble him in causing his illness.
53: 10b - If you ascribe any guilt to his life,
53: 10c - Ile would have seen offspring, his days would be prolonged.23
53: / Od - Yet through him," the Lord's pleasure was accomplished.
53:11a - Out of the agony of his soul, he will see (light)" and be satiated; through his distress"" he will make righteous.
53: 11b - My servant is righteous for the many, and their iniquities he endured.
53:12a - Therefore, I will give him a portion among the many, with the mighty he will share the spoil.
53:126 - For he exposed himself to death and with the rebels he was counted.
53:12c -Yet he assumes the sin of many and intercedes for the rebels.


56:9 - All the beasts of the field came to devour; all the beasts in the forest surfaced."
56:10a - They are all blind; they do not know anything."
56: /011, c - Dumb dogs who are unable to bark; dreaming they lie down, loving to slumber.
56:11a, b - Yet the dogs are ferocious who never know satiety" for they are evil 33 who do not know to discern.
56:11c - All have turned to their ways; each one came 31 for his plunder from his side.
56:12a - "Let us take wine and let us fill ourselves with strong drink. For the next day willbe like this (day), even much greater.
57: la - The righteous one has perished and no one takes notice.a2
57: lb - And the men of reproachful act" assemble without being aware.
57: lc - That due to the (impeding) evil," the righteous one was taken away.
57:2 - "Let him come (in) peace, he who approaches His presence 35 (with) those who rest in their burial place."

D. The original meaning and its influence

The original focus in the hymn and its sequel was cm the human saddiq, how in life he affects righteousness by his intercession for the many and how in death his removal ushered in the great catastrophe. The hymn portrays the ordeal of the saddiq that becomes a supreme intercessory event in behalf of the many. He is God's servant, a designation for the prophet (Num 12:7, Is 20:30) who, like Moses, stands before God in the intercessory expression of love for his people (Ex 32: 11-14). The sequel speaks of the saddiq's removal which parallels in prophetic thought the absence of God in history that is indicative of imminent destruction (Deut 31:17). The saddiq himself, however, after death, enjoys eternal life. Ills posthumous life of splendid illumination is the supreme reward reserved for the righteous in the perpetual attendance of God's presence in the heavenly realm. The spiritualization of reward in the theodicean teaching of Deutero Isaiah gives rise to a new emphasis in Jewish personal eschatology.

The apocalyptic Daniel of the Second Century BCE., who was clearly affected by the prophetic teaching of the past," shares this new understanding with the nzaskilim, the discerners of the new insight. These maskilini are compared with those who by their life "effect righteousness for the many" and they enjoy the heavenly reward of illumination with the promise of resurrection (Is 12:2,3). Precisely, the Isaiah hymn was presented as a nmskil, a contemplative poem that comes to enlighten. The substantive maskil connotes both the object and the person in Hebrew. These righteous men emulate the life of the suffering servant and in pre-Maccabean times they are called Hasidim, who are willing to suffer and die as martyrs for God in the anticipation of eternal reward (I Macc 1:29-37, 45; II Macc 6:18-7:42). Indeed a new religious phenomenon has emerged in this period: that of martyrdom, which is first described in Dan. 3 (the three youths in the furnace) and 6 (Daniel in the Eons' den). Their heroic example becomes the model for the late( historical acts of martyrdom in Judaism and early Christianity. Apparently, the book of Daniel is influenced by Deutero lsaiah's new teaching on suffering and heavenly reward and the work offers the first witness to the applied interpretation of the hymn and its sequel.

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah speaks of the servant "seeing light" (Is 53:11) after having effected righteousness through his ordeal. This is the special reward reserved for the children of light (I QS 4:2-8; 11:3). According to the Tannaitic tradition," the righteous also enjoy illumination after death and the rabbis refer to the special greeting extended to them by the angelic hosts. They cite Isaiah 57:2, "enter in peace". According to them, this greeting was pronounced by a heavenly voice upon the death of Rabbi Judah the patriarch (218 CE.). Such a righteous person enjoys not only illuminated immortality but the very gift of resurrection. This reward is referred to in Ise 26:19 (later by Dan 12:2,13) and its prospect" is applied particularly to martyrs who were crucified, burned and beheaded in Hadrianic times. Thus, the Tannaim" speak of the actual appearances on the Sabbath eve of Rabbi Judah the patriarch following his death.

The death of the saddiq does not only prepare him for special reward, a recognition of which bespeaks divine vindication, but also alerts the community to the significance of his martyrdom in view of present evil. His withdrawal signals imminent catastrophe, evil that will befall the coming generation. Thus, the martyrdom of Rahbi Simeon ben Gamalie] (70 CE.), the great grandfather of Rabbi Judah, was depicted as the death of the righteous that heralded the catastrophic events under Hadrian. So does Rabbi Akiba cite Is 57:1 to his disciples' in anticipation of religious persecution after Bar Kochba's defeat. Similarly, the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem following the martyrdom of James, their bishop, shared a prophetic view on his withdrawal as a righteous one. They left Jerusalem" anticipating the impending evil that would result from the war with Rome.

The new teaching of Deutero Isaiah explains the vital link that existed between the Pharisaic teaching on resurrection during the Maccabean period with that of Daniel prior to its beginning. The magnalia Del now included the prospect of resurrection, and Jewish prayer of the synagogue cited resurrection in the praise of God's powers." The Pharisaic faith in resurrection distinguishes their movement and became the cornerstone for the formulation of eternal reward in Judaism." This faith was shared by the people and serves as the phenomenological background to the faith of early Christians, for their witness to the resurrection of Jesus was linked with their kerygmatic understanding of his suffering and death. They recognized him to be the saddig (ho dikaios),4 whose ordeal fulfils the fate of the Suffering Servant. This "pcsheric" (projectional) interpretation of the hymn focused on the Christological meaning of Jesus' earthly ministry.

Only after the split with Judaism on the role of the dead Messiah following the Bar Kochba debacle, the rabbis responded to the Messianic interpretation by the Christians, as attested in Justin's Dialogue with Trvpho (13,37) and in Origeris COW n7 CCISIII77 1,55). This polemical exegesis of the hymn prevailed whenever the Jewish commentators faced the Christological interpretation that was directed against them in public debate and in missionary activity. It does not mean, however, that a collective understanding cannot govern the original intention, or the one indeed coalesced with the many in prophetic thought." Yet Judaism itself, in the early period, did recognize the individualistic interpretation as necessary for the proper understanding of theodicv. The focus remained in the early tradition on the life of the aaddig, whose example offered both to Judaism and Christianity a living testimony to God's presence through his vicarious suffering in love and ultimate reward of resurrection following death.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Finkel, a native of Jerusalem, received his doctorate from the University of Tuebingen and his rabbinical degree from Yeshiva University. He has held several academic positions in various universities and is presently chairperson of the Department of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He is a regular contributor to several scholarly journals and has published several articles in the SIDIC Review over the past eight years. His book, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth was reprinted by Brill in 1974.

1. See Ch. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deafer° Isaiah, 2nd. ed., Oxford 1956 and consult S.R. Driver & A. Neubauer, The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters, Oxford, Vol. I, 1876; Vol. II, 1877.
2. See the study of S. Mowinckel, He That Comet& Oxford 1956 and consult the Commentary of John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (Anchor Bible) 1968.
3. See the recent studies by H. Haag, "Der Gottcsknecht bei Deutero Jesaja im Verstandnis des Judenturns", Judaica 41 (1984), pp. 23-26, and Sydney H.T. Page, "The Suffering Servant between the Testaments" New Testament Studies 31, (1985), pp. 481-487.
4. See Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, New York 1962, Ch. 3.
5. Consult Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1962 on and compare the sympathetic experience of Hosea in marriage.
6. Consult P.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Philadelphia 1985.
7. The introductory line alerts the reader to its significant lesson offered by the ordeal of the Servant through a poetic form, called maskil. Compare Pss 32:1; 47:1; 78:1. Yaskil connotes "he will become the lesson".
8. Massoretic text reads "about you", but Targum reads "about him".
9. Literally "arm". Is 52:10 associates the manifestation of God's arm with redemption. The report becomes a redemptive announcement (Targum: Besoratha, N.T. Evangelion), that declares God's kingdom.
10. Literally, "he rose. This line opens with a jussive indicating that what has occurred fulfils God's pleasure. Note, "before Him".
11. Attach waw of wahadal to nibhzeh, as the pronominal suffix. Such is the case with the second nibbzeb in the Dead Sea Scroll.
12. Literally, "that which is left off by human beings".
13. Literally, "be known" or "experienced".
14. This is the actual attitude towards a leper; the plagued are in Is 53:46.
15. Literally, "he carried". This verb mud is used also to denote "removal" of sins (Ex 34:7). Sin is sickness, Is 6:10; 1:6.
16. Murar means literally "bonds" (Job 12:18) that are imposed.
17. Verb paga in the causative relates to the participle magi a, that comes to describe the role of the prophet as intercessor (Is 59:16).
18. Read dewatho instead of doro. (See deweb, Lam. 5:17).
19. Read lamaweth instead of lama, so the Septuagint
20. Read bomatho instead of bemothaw, so Dead Sea Scroll. Bomah means a high place, designating a funeral mound (Ez 43:7).
21. Literally, "his mouth".
22. Compare dakka in Is 57:15, synonymous with low in spirit".
23. These two lines represent an inserted reflection on causality in theodicy. This popular view on reward and punishment is represented between 10a and 10d. This is contrasted, by the prophet, with the new teaching of Suffering Servant in theodicy.
24. Literally, "by his hand".
25. This is the reading in the Dead Sea Scroll, possibly a tendentious addition, for "light" signifies revelation or divine election in the Qumran writings, as well as the cosmic and personal spirit of goodness, truth and divine blessing.
26.Read bera'atho instead of beda'atho.
27. Attach the initial word of the next verse, safu to this line.
28. Read kellum instead of kullam.
29. Dead Sea Scroll reads iemu'ah instead of lobbe'ab, meaning "report", the same as in Is 53:1.
30. Read ra'im instead of ro'im, so Septuagint.
31. Attach the initial word of the next verse ethayu to this line.
32. Literally, "puts to heart".
33. Hesed signifies 'shameful act" in Lev 20: 17 or "reproach" in Prov 14:34. These actions are described metamorphically. Like ravenous dogs, they seek daily pleasures with no concern for others. Their life is antithetical to the life of the Suffering Servant.
34. The death of the righteous one signals a period of evil for the immediate future. This is the eschatological lesson for the community.
35. Literally "to be in front". God is not mentioned, for he is hidden (Is 45:15).
36. The euphemistic expression is offered "in their beds".
37. Refer to Dan 9:2, how he consulted the words of Jeremiah in his experiential search for eschatological meaning. Through fasting and prayer he meditates on the prophetic teaching.
38. See Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 104a and Midrash Psalms 149:5.
39. See Tanhuma (ed. Buber) Gen 27:28, p. 69b. Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 103a, a testimony rendered by his housekeeper.
40. See Mekhilta R. Ismael to Ex 22:22.
41. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 5:3-5 and refer to II, 23:7.
42. See Hertz (ed.), Bloch, New York 1965, Daily Prayer Book, p. 133 and refer to Palestinian Talmud Berakhot 9c.
44. See Mishnah Sanhedrin, 10,1. Sec A. Finkel, *Yavneh's Liturgy and Early Christianity", Journal of Ecumenical Studies 18, (1981).
45. See Acts 7:52, Lk 23:47. This is a significant Christological title.
46. See A. Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel, Cardiff 1949 and other works by Johnson.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011