[b-hebrew] Isaiah 53 read within the book as a whole

David Kummerow farmerjoeblo at hotmail.com
Thu May 20 17:25:55 EDT 2004

Dear B-Hebrew,

Vadim is to at least be commended for having a fresh stab at interpreting 
Isaiah 53, one of THE most notoriously difficult passages of the OT--up 
there with Daniel 9. However, I have some serious reservations with his 
reading, not least of these being is that it does not fit within the 
movement of the book of Isaiah as a whole. It pays scanty attention to its 
own immediate context (inter alia, at least some discussion of the other 
so-called Servant Songs) let alone attempting to interpret the chapter 
within the movement and structure of the book as a whole. Vadim says that 
any final reading of Isaiah 53 must be “logically coherent, historically 
plausible, and grammatically impeccable.” To this I would insist we add that 
any “final reading” must make sense within the book read as a whole.

The work of Bernhard Duhm influenced Isaianic studies with his proposal of 
three divisions to the book (i.e. 1-39, 40-55, 56-66) and isolating the 
Servant Songs from their contexts. He saw these texts as later additions 
forming an independent group. However, despite the fact that many have 
followed his analysis, Duhm provided no evidence supporting his thesis (see 
the penetrating critique of Hans M. Barstad, “The Future of the ‘Servant 
Songs’”, 261-270). Indeed, this method is highly questionable, making no 
real attempt at understanding the text as received.

Therefore, having isolated the so-called Songs allows many interpreters to 
basically propose any understanding regarding the servant’s identity as they 
want--an opportunity to let the imagination run wild! And it is this I see 
when I look at the proposals on offer: Jeremiah, Cyrus, Moses, 
autobiographic, collective Israel. Duhm himself proposed a leprous rabbi. 
Now, if we are to follow Vadim, we are supposed to believe the figure of 
Isaiah 53 is some deluded sectarian.

For me at least (as I’ve said), the value of any interpretation regarding 
the identity and role of the servant must at least make sense within the 
book as we have it. Vadim’s (and others’) reading is like a camel 
encountering the eye of a needle--it simply doesn’t fit. Not least when read 
in the context of chs. 40-55 let alone the book as a whole. (Anticipating my 
conclusions below, if we go with Vadim’s interpretion, we are with no 
ultimate answer to Israel’s sin-problem. The details of how a new servant 
community [the plural servants of chs 56-66] is formed is unclear and we are 
probably left to say that exile achieved this. However, within chs. 40-55 
exile indicative [and perhaps metaphoric] of Israel’s greater problem, the 
problem of sin. Cyrus is seen only to be a physical “messiah”--a “spiritual” 
messiah is needed for the greater rescue from bondage to sin. However, if we 
follow Vadim, we have no greater rescue and reconciliation with God hasn’t 
occurred. Consequently, the logic of the book [at least chs. 56-66 and the 
plural servants idea] collapses. The question then is: need it collapse? Is 
there a reading of ch. 53 which fits the book as a whole?)

The most convincing outline and understanding of Isaiah as a whole is that 
of B.G. Webb’s (“Zion in Transformation: A Literary Approach to Isaiah,” in 
David J.A. Clines et al. [eds.], _The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in 
Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of 
Sheffield_ [JSOTSS 87; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990], 65-84), based as it is 
on formal and thematic indicators within the text.

>From his analysis we may understand that Isaiah’s vision concerns Judah and 
Jerusalem in particular, but also involves all nations, moving temporally 
between “the days of Uzziah…” (1:1) and “the latter days” (2:1). The book 
moves to a transformed Jerusalem/Zion (65:17-18), the centre of a new cosmos 
(cf. 2:1-4), which involves the judgement of her rebels (cf. 1:27-28). It is 
this emphasis on Zion that gives the book its theological cohesion.

Webb notes that “the key to the transformation of Zion is purifying 
judgement” (p.72). The movement of the book is anticipated in the first 
chapters by the movement from the indictment of Zion (1:2-23) to the 
eschatological Zion (2:1-4) which is effected by purifying judgement 
(1:24-25). Exhortation follows (2:5) and the sequence is repeated in 
2:6-4:6. Here sh’r-terminology is introduced (4:3) making explicit what was 
implicit in chs. 1 and 2.

It is this notion, then, of “remnant” that is all-important for Isaiah. 
Though variously nuanced, the remnant concept--those that are ultimately 
perfected and faithful--is the key to the transformation of Zion. If this is 
the basic movement of Isaiah and there is a thematic unity centred on Zion 
with the remnant an all-pervasive unifying key to her transformation, how 
does the figure of ch. 53 contribute to this?

Chapters 36-39 are transitional in nature. As such, no eschatological climax 
of the remnant is reached; rather, the opposite: no remnant of the treasury 
will be left; even the remnants of the Davidic house (“some of your sons”), 
do not “go forth” but are “taken away” to Babylon (39:6-7). Tension pervades 
as the climax is negative.

To this situation a surprising twist is introduced: exile is announced 
(39:5-7) and then it is to end (40:1-2)! The surprise is that their iniquity 
has been atoned for, yet nirstah creates an uncertainty about how this has 
occurred, i.e. is the niphal reflexive or passive? An ambiguity is 
introduced, fanned by the ambiguous dual kiplayim. In what way has Jerusalem 
received an “equivalent” punishment for so many years rebellious years--for 
judgement is proclaimed then quickly announced as complete? All this “good 
news” they are to herald (40:9), yet how this has been achieved is hidden by 

The section begins with echoes of ch. 40 (see Webb, “Zion,” 77). 51:17 
reminds us of kiplayim in 40:2; again it is said to be removed (51:22). 
Finally, the suspense is over as we reach 52:13-53:12; finally, the 
ambiguous nirstah is exposed. The servant appears again; we cannot mistake 
him now from Yahweh’s introduction (52:13), echoing 42:1. Yet in some ways 
the scene is anticlimactic: a self-effacing figure without words, silent as 
a lamb (53:7); disfigured (52:14); unattractive (53:2); without friends 
(53:3); suffering (53:3-10). Yet it is also “the jewel in the crown of 
Isaiah’s theology, the focal point of his vision” (Webb, _Message of 
Isaiah_, 209). The implied answer to the question “Upon whom has the arm of 
Yahweh been revealed” (53:1) is that for those who can see it is in the 
servant’s work (Webb, _Message of Isaiah_, 209). The inaction of 42:2-4, the 
scope of 49:1-6, the suffering of 50:6--it is all there again, in greater 

Here, the servant performs no concrete action; the action happens to him. 
Indeed, Yahweh’s purpose (hpst, 53:10) was that he shouldn’t act, but suffer 
and be acted upon (see Clines, _I, He, We, & They_, 41-42). (It may be that 
the thought of 53:10 is made clearer if we understand beyado. as a complex 
preposition with suffix, i.e. “through him.” Cf. Waltke and O’Connor, 
§11.1.2b. This point was made by W.J. Dumbrell in private correspondence.) 
He bears the “pains” and “sicknesses” of others upon himself as the close 
chiastic link between 53:3-4 makes plain. Moreover, he was pierced because 
of (min; on this use of min cf. Waltke and O’Connor, §11.2.11d) their 
transgressions and crushed because of their iniquity (53:5). The servant is 
not suffering with them but for them. This is the remarkable answer to 
nirstah. This is how reconciliation with God can occur (53:11)--in the work 
of God behind the servant as an ’asham for his people who could not save 
themselves. He is portrayed as a priest sprinkling the unclean, in this case 
“many nations” (52:15). Significantly, the work of the servant here is for 
all, appropriated by one confession (53:6) by all who would identify 
themselves as part of rabbim who are posh`im (53:12). The work of the 
servant understood in this manner is universal: rabbim/posh`im.

It is this understanding which fits best within the book as a whole. The 
servant’s ministry is viewed as the eschatological remnant-forming 
purification; he dies as a guilt-offering for guilty people. His work is 
viewed as open to all as the beneficiaries are rabbim and 
posh`im--all-embracing categories able to encompass all people. Furthermore, 
the identity of the confessing “we” (53:6) is intentionally ambiguous: it, 
too, is an open category able to encompass all people--all are able to view 
themselves as the “we” who are transgressors whose punishment falls upon the 

Nevertheless, the identity of the servant is elusive. In contrast to an 
explicitly named Cyrus, the name of the servant is never given in Isaiah; 
rather he is named “Israel” (49:3). (Israel herself bears the title yisra’el 
yet cannot fulfil her calling; therefore another `eved-figure is named 
yisra’el. This new servant is commissioned as yisra’el to fulfil the role of 
failed Israel.) He is a personification of a task, a job description; he is 
the servant of Yahweh, standing apart from Jacob-Israel as an ideal 
individual figure, the true Israel. He is the remnant proper--without sin, 
elect, faithful, suffering, and glorified--personified as wisdom is in 
Proverbs 8. Nevertheless, without him there is no remnant; without him, sin 
remains and no reconciliation with God occurs. He brings salvation to both 
Israel and the world through his willing suffering and death in the purposes 
of Yahweh for those who admit their rebellion. He brings healing to the 
divine-human relationship--peace, in other words (cf. shalom through ch. 
54). His role is eschatological, forming the eschatological people of God 
who will inhabit end-time Zion. Through his work a remnant is formed. They 
are like him, now called “servants”, entering into the work they have been 
redeemed for (e.g. 49:7-13), a glorified servant community. In terms of 
Isaiah, no explicit identity of the figure of ch. 53 is given; rather he is 
`eved-yisra’el--a role seeking someone to fulfil it (so Goldingay, “The 
Arrangement of Isaiah XLI-XLV,” 292).

I hope my “50-cents-worth” contributes this discussion of Isaiah.


David Kummerow,

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