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

UUC unikom at paco.net
Fri May 21 02:28:32 EDT 2004

Dear David,

>To this I would insist we add that
any ⌠final reading■ must make sense within the book read as a whole.<
Actually, I suggest that Isaiah 53 was interpolated by a hand attempting to
imitate Isaiah' and Job's style to explain why the prophecy of the previous
chapter(s) was unfulfilled. So 53 doesn't fit semantically by definition.

But my work is really about the translation. The interpretation I suggest is
only a best guess, not a theory. It sounds reasonable to me, explain every
word in the chapter - but I wouldn't cling to it.

However, I would cling to the translation, which should be primary. It is
pointless to spend time in discussion of the meaning unless we translate the
chapter grammatically correct first. And this I'm willing to defend against
twisting of forms and inventing idioms.

Best regards,

Vadim Cherny

> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> in the context of chs. 40-55 let alone the book as a whole. (Anticipating
> 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
> 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
> messiah is needed for the greater rescue from bondage to sin. However, if
> 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?
> 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,■
> 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
> on formal and thematic indicators within the text.
> >From his analysis we may understand that Isaiah▓s vision concerns Judah
> 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
> (cf. 2:1-4), which involves the judgement of her rebels (cf. 1:27-28). It
> 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
> 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
> 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
> of the remnant is reached; rather, the opposite: no remnant of the
> 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
> 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
> 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
> received an ⌠equivalent■ punishment for so many years rebellious
> 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
> nirstah.
> 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
> 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
> 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,
> scope of 49:1-6, the suffering of 50:6--it is all there again, in greater
> detail.
> 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
> and be acted upon (see Clines, _I, He, We, & They_, 41-42). (It may be
> 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
> 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
> 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
> ⌠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.
> 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
> themselves as the ⌠we■ who are transgressors whose punishment falls upon
> servant.
> 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
> 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
> failed Israel.) He is a personification of a task, a job description; he
> 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,
> remains and no reconciliation with God occurs. He brings salvation to both
> Israel and the world through his willing suffering and death in the
> 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
> `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.
> Sincerely,
> David Kummerow,
> Sydney.
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