April 20: Isaiah 52:13

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

These daily notes on Isa 52:13-53:12 will comprise the remainder of the article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Because of the importance of this passage, I have felt it necessary to discuss it within the framework of a set of detailed critical and exegetical notes.

We begin with the preceding two verses (vv. 11-12). Isa 52:11-12 marks the beginning of significant division in the Deutero-Isaian corpus (spanning 52:11-54:17). These opening verses introduce the important Deutero-Isaian theme of the Exodus. In the exilic setting of these poems, the restoration of the Judean people, their return from exile, is defined in terms of a new Exodus. Related to this are the strong indications that the “Servant (of YHWH)” is, in large part, patterned after the figure of Moses—i.e., a new Moses, who will lead God’s people (back) into their Promised Land.

However, in these verses, the Exodus-theme has taken on a strong ethical-religious dimension. This is made clear by the opening words in verse 11:

“Turn (away), turn (away)! Go out from there!
You must not touch (any) unclean (thing)!
Go out from the midst of her (and) be clear,
(you who are) carrying (the) vessels of YHWH!”

The idea of ritual purity is emphasized here, the people being identified with the priestly servants who carry the holy things of YHWH. The consecrated status of the priests, and their involvement with the sacred space and sacred objects (of the Temple, etc), signifies the importance of keeping oneself pure, of not touching anything unclean (am@f*). In the context of the return from exile, the meaning presumably is that the Judean people should not take with them anything from the idolatrous atmosphere of the Babylonian empire (cf. the oracles in chapters 46-47). Upon their restoration/return, the binding agreement (covenant) will also be restored—a new agreement between God and His people. The emphasis on purity is reflective of this new covenant that will be established for Israel/Judah, and of the New Age that is to begin.

The Exodus-imagery continues in verse 12, evoking the ancient Passover scene—i.e., Israel’s departure from Egypt—and the movement of the Israelite encampment across the desert. While the initial Exodus was to be made in a hurried manner, fleeing out of Egypt (cf. Exod 12:11; Deut 16:3), this “new Exodus” is to proceed without such haste. The same expression /ozP*j!b= (“in a hurry”) is used, connoting a measure of fearfulness. Verse 12 here emphasizes that no hurried flight is needed:

“(It is) that you will not go out in a hurry and in flight,
for YHWH is going (be)fore your face,
and being gathered (behind is the) Mightiest of Yisrael.”

YHWH goes in front of the people, but also brings up the rear, echoing the protection given by YHWH during the Exodus, the journeying of Israel out of Egypt (and across the desert). This motif is introduced in Exod 14:19, and continues throughout the Exodus narratives; in particular, the presence of YHWH is marked by the imagery of the cloud and (pillar of) fire (Deut 1:33, et al).

Isaiah 52:13

“See, my servant will show (his) understanding,
he will rise high and be carried up, and be very high [up].”

The opening couplet of the poem proper introduces (again) the figure of the Servant (db#u#) of YHWH. This same figure featured in the three prior “Servant Songs”, and reflects a theme that runs throughout chapters 40-55 (cf. the brief discussion in the main article). Given the context of the Exodus in vv. 11-12, as also throughout many of the Deutero-Isaian poems, there are strong reasons to think that this “Servant” figure is patterned after Moses—i.e., a new Moses to lead God’s people in a “new Exodus”. As I mentioned previously (cf. the earlier article and supplemental note on Isa 42:1ff), Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” on a number of occasions in Old Testament tradition: Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:2, 7; 18:7; 1 Kings 8:53, 56; Psalm 105:26; Isa 63:11; Dan 9:11; Mal 4:4 [3:22]; Bar 2:28; cf. also Heb 3:5; Rev 15:3.

The verb here in the first line, lk^c*, has a relatively wide semantic range that can be difficult to translate with precision, in certain contexts. The fundamental meaning has to do with being knowledgeable, wise, understanding, etc. A person who is characterized by lkc is able to think things through, demonstrate understanding and skill, act wisely and with discernment. Sometimes the root also relates to the end result of this understanding—achieving success in a certain task or endeavor, the ability to teach and communicate this understanding to others, and so forth.

The precise way that the Hiphil (causative) stem of lkc is being used here is difficult to determine. It is probably best to keep to the fundamental meaning, in the sense of “show understanding, act with understanding, act wisely,” etc. The causative aspect here implies that the Servant is also able to make others wise and discerning.

This certain fits the pattern of Moses (cf. above), the great Prophet and Lawgiver (i.e., communicator of YHWH’s Instruction [Torah]) for Israel. There are two key occurrences of the verb lk^c* associated with Moses—in Deut 29:9[8] and 32:29, the first of which relates specifically to Moses communicating the Torah to Israel. The people are exhorted to observe all the commands and regulations of the Torah, and, if they do so faithfully, they will prove to be wise and discerning, and will then be successful (and will prosper) in all that they do.

The context here suggests that the Servant has been successful in instructing the people to be wise and discerning. This success results in his being exalted to a heavenly position. His exaltation is expressed by a sequence of three verbs: <Wr (“be high”), ac^n` (“carry, lift [up]”), and Hb^G` (“be high [up]”). The distinction between <Wr and Hb^G` is that the former indicates motion, i.e., getting/going up (standing, rising, ascending) high, while the latter indicates a high position. The Servant ascends (<Wr), and then is carried/lifted up (ac^n`), presumably by divine/heavenly beings, so that he reaches an especially high position (vb Hb^G`). The following verses suggest that this position is in heaven, in the presence of YHWH.

It is possible that this scenario assumes the death of the Servant, or that he ascended to heaven without dying, like the tradition related to Enoch. Moses, too, in certain lines of Israelite/Jewish tradition was taken up into heaven (cf. the pseudepigraphic Assumption/Testament of Moses). In Deuteronomy 34, Moses does ascend a high mountain (Mt. Nebo, to the peak of Pisgah) where he can see the extent of the Promised  Land. It is after reaching this exalted position that Moses dies; and, quite possibly, the scenario here in verses 13ff draws upon the idea of Moses’ further exaltation to heaven after death.

It is easy to see how early Christians would have applied this to the exaltation of Jesus, following his death and resurrection. Curiously, however, Isa 52:13ff seems to have had little discernible influence on the New Testament descriptions and discussions of Jesus’ exaltation. Still, we should keep this important association in mind as we continue our study of the passage. In the next daily note, we will proceed to verses 14-15.


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