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The Servant: Israel — Jesus - A Christian Perspective
The text translated below is a section taken from the book of Fr. Michel Remaud entitled: Chretiens devant Israel Serviteur de Dieu (Christian Encounter with Israel, Servant of God) Cerf,, Paris 1983, pp. 34-40, a book which is both a meditation and a theological study. Our section is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the publishers.
As the author says in his book, addressed, be it noted, to Christians: "to recognize Israel is to refuse to dissociate Jesus from his people, in such a way that our relationship to Jesus Christ sends us back also to his people with whom he makes but one."
In such a perspective why should not Christians recognize
"in the Jewish people of today the title and the nature of the Servant"?
Jewish tradition has consistently recognized in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah the person of Israel, going back long before the tragedy we call the "Holocaust", which is the culmination of a whole history of persecutions, exiles and humiliations. Dispersed among the nations, considered by them as smitten by God and afflicted (Is 53:4),' interceding ceaselessly for sinners in prayer (cf Is 53:12), living in its very kenosis its call to praise (its "service": avodah),2 Israel has found always in ch. 53 of Isaiah the key to its own destiny.3
Right from the very beginning Christian tradition, for its part, has answered unhesitatingly and always the question put to Philip by the eunuch of Queen Candace: About whom, pray, does the prophet say this...? (Acts 8:34): Jesus is the Servant whose sufferings and death have justified many. It is not necessary here to trace the history of the Christian exegesis and theology of Isaiah 53.4
This being said, we can ask ourselves legitimately: are these two interpretations mutually exclusive in such a way that the Christian would have to choose the second? Is it, on the contrary, possible to accept a mutual incorporation between the mystery of Christ and that of Israel, in such a way that the two interpretations, far from excluding each other, could rather be said to include one another? If it be true, as is our belief, that the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, may it not he said at the same time that the destiny of his people is crystallized in him? According to this hypothesis, these two readings of Isaiah, far from excluding each other, complement, enlighten and confirm each other.
As for the rest, the similarity — should one say the identity? — between the historical destiny of Israel and of Christ is striking, to say the least. After Auschwitz there is no need to go into long explanations about the resemblance between the Jewish people and him who has been cut of out of the land of the living (Is 53:8). In the Shoah 5 the techniques, the meaning and the senselessness of the anti-Jewishness which have been at work over centuries reached their extreme limit and have been laid bare. Through this Shoal, it can be seen that the Jewish people has been always the Persecuted Just One.6 Jesus and Israel have lived to the very last the destiny of the Suffering Just One, bearing the weight of the sins of the world, recognized only by their God. Both of them, at the decisive moment of trial, experience the silence of God. This silence seems to justify their adversaries (cf Ps 22:8-9) since it plunges the Just One into a situation which is, objectively speaking, if one may so designate it, that of the human person separated from God. At the crucial moment, God does not intervene to save his Son from death' Jesus is dead and, to all appearances, abandoned by God. Such is the radical trial of faith which seems to give a lie to the promises and to put the believer in the wrong.
It is impossible to fathom the mystery of what Christ has undergone in his death. But we would be in error were we to assume this death into resurrection too quickly by forgetting that it was in fact a real death and an hour of darkness. In the same way we would be doing wrong to reduce the Shoah to an ordinary occurrence by forgetting what it means to put the people of the Covenant to death. In so far as the human person was put to death, genocide was the putting to death of God in the heart of this person8.
In this trial of faith the Servant did not, however, cease to praise his God from the very depths even of death and absurdity. Jesus died praying (Mtt 27:46 and pp.; Lk 23:34,46). In the Shoah the heart of Israel never failed to take upon itself the service of faith and to affirm its faith.
There is, in fact, but one Servant who is both Jesus and Israel. Or rather, Israel is he whose vocation is fulfilled in Jesus Christ without this accomplishment stripping Israel of its identity and its mission. Quite the contrary in fact.
In Jesus Christ, the Servant has borne the sins of the world. He has overcome the trial of the silence of God. He has kept his faith throughout the trial and in face of apparent dereliction. Henceforth he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul (Is 53:11).9 Herein is found the promise of the glorification of all Israel, the assurance that final redemption has been granted already to the believer in the secret of faith through an illumination of grace, a free gift for which the believer can claim no credit.
In Israel there continues to unfold in time what happened in Christ in a once only and is some sense a transhistoric way. The Jewish people continues to bear in our presence the weight of history and to live the dark night of the mystery of the Servant. She continues to experience the silence of God, without being discouraged by this same silence from praying, from professing her faith and from affirming her hope. In this way she is a permanent miracle.
* Fr. Michel Remaud, a Priest of the Diocese of Paris, is a lecturer in Jewish Studies at the Ratisbonne Center, Jerusalem after having studied at the Hebrew University.
1. As is customary, biblical quotations are taken from the RSV edition.
2. The word avodah means both service and liturgical worship. It is fitting here to recall the account of Rabbi Akiba's death: "When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema', and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', (which I interpret,) `even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it?" Talmud B. Berakoth, 61b.
3. The application of Is 52:13 - 53:12 to Israel, which has become the classic interpretation in Judaism, is far from being exclusive and has come about only progressively. Rabbinic literature applies this passage to Rabbi Akiba, to Moses, to the just in general, but
to the King-Messiah above all. The application to Israel, attested to in the Midrash (Nb Rabha, 13,2) was developed in the twelfth century by Ibn Ezra. On this question see A. Neubauer and S.R. Driver: The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters, 2 vol., Ktav, New York 1969.
4. Cf P.-E. Bonnard: Le Second Isdie, son disciple et leurs editeurs: Isaie 40-66, coll. 'Etudes bibliques" Paris, Gabalda 1972. Cf also Mtt 8:17; Lk 22:37; In 12:38; Rm 15:21; 1 Pet 2:24.
5. In Hebrew: catastrophe. This is the term used to designate the genocide called in popular but misleading usage the Holocaust.
6. The objection that would consist in denying to Israel the epithet: Just under pretext that all Jews have not been faithful to the Covenant has no more value than one that would deny the Church the adjective Holy on account of the sins of Christians. One should prevent a misunderstanding perhaps by making clear that, by drawing special attention to Jewish suffering, one does not imply that the sufferings of non-Jews merit less consideration. One does this in order to recognize in the existence of Israel, as in that of Christ, a function and a meaning which enable one to be enlightened on all human experience.
7. This reference here to Son designates both Israel (cf Ex 4:22) and Jesus Christ (cf Mt 3:17).
8. Cf Elie Wiesel, Night, Avon, New York 1972.
9. The Jerusalem Bible, following the Greek and Qumran, translates this passage: He shall see the light and be content.