six-winged seraph with prophet Isaiah

Studying Isaiah 53 4-11

We are studying Isaiah 53:4-11 for Sunday, April 4 – Easter! Christians have embraced this challenging text since the early days of the church as a portrait of Jesus’s redemptive suffering and ultimate triumph. There are lots of ways to embrace a text. This Easter we might want to think about which of those ways we ourselves ought to prefer. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this profoundly important text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Isaiah is a long and complex prophetic text.

It has a complex historical context. Biblical scholars think the first part of the book, chapters 1-39, mostly dates from 740-700 BCE. It addresses the kingdom of Judah during a time when relations with the Assyrian empire were tense and sometimes violent, and when idolatry was widespread and sometimes sponsored by the national leadership (think, Ahaz, 1 Kings 16). (More on Prophet Isaiah at Bible Odyssey.)

We learned in seminary that chapters 40-55, “Second Isaiah,” where we find our text, are thought to date from around the end of the Babylonian exile in 539 BCE, some 200 years later. The tone and themes of that part of the book focus on the redemptive end of the exile as an expression of God’s continuing love and care for His people Israel. Chapters 56-66 seem to be historically even later, from the early 5th century BCE, addressing a returned, post-exilic community. (It isn’t really that simple, naturally.)

That complex historical context shapes the book as a complex literary context. The major divisions of the text emphasize different themes and develop different images. The figure of the “servant” that is central to Isaiah 53 is specific to Second Isaiah, and is a repetitive and developing motif through this part of the book of Isaiah. (There is extended treatment of the servant beyond the conventionally designated “servant songs.” See Isaiah 41:8-20; Isaiah 42:1-44:8; Isaiah 44:21-28; Isaiah 49; Isaiah 50:4-11; Isaiah 52:13-53:12.)

The immediate literary context for our text seems to me to begin at 52:1 and run through 54:17. One interesting feature of this larger portion of the text is that it begins and ends with a feminine personification of Jerusalem / Judah, on either side of a masculine one.

Almost all of Isaiah has the form of beautiful poetry, much of which we can feel even in translation.

As is customary for prophecy, it often presents itself explicitly as “word of YHWH.” Isaiah 52:13-15 presents itself as God’s direct discourse, as does at least 53:11(b)-12.

Isaiah in general, and Isaiah 53 in particular, has a long, complex, and contentious history of interpretation, too. Some of that history is literally inscribed in the New Testament. One consequence of that is that these days there is voluminous commentary on this particular “servant song,” some of it polemically asserting what it “obviously” means or definitively “proves,” on and off the internet. This often lamentable history is also, unavoidably, part of the context in which we ourselves read Isaiah 53.
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Here is what that means for me, personally (and anyone who cares to join me in embracing the text as I do):

I try to remember that the book of Isaiah, or however much of it people had in their own time, meant something to them. And they lived centuries before Jesus. Assuming it was successful as text – which I do assume, because those people went to the trouble of saving it and passing it on – it would have made sense in terms of things and events in their world. And in thinking about the text that way, they would not have been “misunderstanding” it.

So the exiles wouldn’t have been “misunderstanding” Isaiah’s servant songs when they understood them to refer to the exiled and redeemed nation of Israel, or to the prophet to Israel. In their context, it would have been both reasonably obvious and perfectly intelligent to read the text that way. Honestly, it still seems reasonably obvious, and perfectly intelligent, to read the text that way – insofar as it is “someone else’s mail.”

I try to remember that this text had been scripture for centuries by the time of Jesus. It was scripture for Jesus. It was scripture for Jesus’s first disciples. Their religious tradition would have taught them some particular way to understand it. [And see above.] The tradition itself made that scripture available to Jesus and to his first century followers, to continue to reflect on, to work with, and to understand in fresh ways in light of new experiences.

That seems like the same way it remains available for us, who have learned from those readers to read this scripture as referring to Jesus.

And the same way it remains available for other inheritors of this shared Hebrew scripture of ours, who read along with different first and second century readers, namely the rabbis. The rabbis have mostly read the “servant” here as the people of Israel collectively, although some few read it as the righteous remnant of Israel, or even as the prophet.

I try to remember that religious people live their lives in reference to their scriptures. How we already understand scripture influences the way we understand what we live through, and influences the way we use scripture to make sense of that. I assume it influenced the first and second century readers that way, too. In other words, I don’t think we should discount Isaiah’s influence on the development of Christian theology. It’s not as if all the theology came first, independently, and then was “applied” to Christians’ readings of Isaiah. Christians developed their understanding of what Jesus’s death and resurrection meant in interaction with their existing texts, like Isaiah 53.

I try to remember that Christian faith is already part of the context in which Christians read Isaiah 53, and has been for literally millennia.

I say all this to remind myself, passionately, that there is more than one exegetically sound and faithful reading of a text like this. I believe that Jesus Christ is the definitive Word of God. I also believe we still have a great deal to learn about the full meaning of that word in the ultimate fullness of time. So I try to avoid saying things like “what this text is really about is …” [I don’t always use the word “polysemy,” but when I do, it’s because the text is legitimately open to more than one meaning.]

Isaiah 52:13-53:13 is one of the lectionary texts for Good Friday every year, along with Psalm 22, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, or 10:16-25, and John 18:1-19:42.
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CLOSER READING: In reading this text, we are forced to ask ourselves two key questions: who is speaking, and who is being described? The answers are interdependent, and various answers have been given over time.

If we begin reading at 52:13-15, it seems to lend weight to the sense that the speakers in 53:1 are the kings of the nations, that is, Gentiles. Alternatively, the speaker in verse 1 might be “one of the prophet’s disciples, … eulogizing him after his death (see verse 8) on behalf of himself but also of a group of disciples (the “we” that is invoked here).” [1]

The word translated “infirmity” or “infirmities” by the NRSV carries a definite sense of “illness” or “sickness” in Hebrew.

In verse 7, the “sheep before its shearers” is explicitly “a ewe (rachel) before her shearers.”

Difficulties in the text really start up around verse 8. Alter gives 8-10 as:

By oppressive judgment he was taken off,
and who can speak of where he lives?
For he was cut off from the land of the living
for My people’s crime, bearing their blight.
And his grave was put with the wicked,
and with evildoers his death,
for no outrage he had done
and no deceit in his mouth.
And the LORD desired to crush him, make him ill.
Would he lay down a guilt offering,
he would see his seed, have length of days,
and the LORD’s desire would prosper through him. [2]

To me, it looks like verse 10-11 could be rendered “would his soul [alt: his life] make a guilt offering” and “from the labor/trouble of his soul [alt: life] he would see.”

I meant it about polysemy. But I’m not personally able to read verses 10-12 as being about anyone but Jesus.
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[1] Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. Volume 2, Prophets. W.W. Norton and Company, 2019. 801 (Isaiah 53:3).

[2] Ibid., 802-3 (Isaiah 53:8-10).
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six-winged seraph with prophet Isaiah

Image: “Six-winged Seraph,” Mikhail Vrubel, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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