Text 13 Sep 1 note The Rabbis and Isaiah’s Servant

No other passage in the OT has been used to point Jewish people to their promised Messiah like Isaiah 53. Franz Delitszch wrote that it appears that Isaiah wrote it while standing at the foot of the cross on Golgotha. The amazing description of the Suffering Servant has so many details that were fulfilled in the crucifixion of Jesus that a Christian may wonder how any Jewish person could not bow before Jesus when reading it. As early as the second Christian sermon (Acts 3:26), Peter referred to Jesus as God’s pais, the Greek word for servant in the LXX translation of the Hebrew ebed. Later in Acts 8 the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 and asks Philip about the identity of this servant. Later writers of the NT appeal to this chapter and the other servant songs as prefiguring the Messiah Jesus.

So how do the rabbis respond to this evidence? Well, they obviously have to refer it to someone other than Jesus. For the last 800 years, they have said that the Servant is a collective term for the people of Israel as they have suffered among the Gentiles, especially during tragedies like the Holocaust. While all of us should be sympathetic to the suffering of Israel, this simply cannot be the interpretation of the Servant in Isaiah. The Servant is an individual in the chapter. The Servant is spoken of with the pronouns he and him. Moreover the Servant suffers for the sins of Israel (and the Gentiles). He was punished for “the transgression of my people” (53:9). How could Israel suffer for Israel?

A remarkable fact is that for over a thousand years the almost exclusive interpretation of the Servant was that he was the Messiah - although the rabbis did not apply this to Jesus. It was the 12th cent. French rabbi, Rashi, who popularized the Israel interpretation. This is evidenced from the Targums and many Talmudic and medieval commentators. For a Jewish source confirming this, see The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin.

Finally, this chapter is skipped over in the yearly cycle of the Readings from the Prophets every August in the synagogue. Check out any table of readings in Jewish Prayer Books and Bibles if you don’t believe me. Why are the rabbis afraid of this chapter? The answer to that question should be obvious. They simply do not want their members to be faced with the issue of Jesus so clearly - through the very pages of their Scripture readings!

Most Jewish people don’t read their Bibles, and definitely don’t read the Prophets. Who will tell them about the “missing chapter?”

If you would like to read more, check out my book, The Messiah: Revealed, Rejected, Received.