April 24: Isaiah 53:2

Isaiah 53:2

“But he came up as a suckling (plant) (be)fore His face,
and as a root from (out of the) parched earth;
(there was) no (fine) shape to him,
and no adornment that we should look (at) him,
and no sight (for us) that we should delight (in) him.”

This verse begins the description of the Servant (vv. 2-10). The description focuses on the Servant’s suffering, the seeds of which are given here.

The first two lines depict the Servant’s entry into the world—his birth, presumably, but also the beginning of his public life among the Israelite/Jewish people. The imagery is drawn from nature, the idea of a plant’s stem/shoot (qn@oy) rising up out of the ground, along with its root (vr#v#). The verbal noun qn@oy literally means “sucking”, i.e., something that sucks/suckles, and can also refer to an infant child (i.e., alluding to the Servant’s birth and childhood).

The root of the plant is said to come up from the dry/parched earth. This implies that, from the very beginning of the Servant’s career (if not his life), there was a measure of suffering involved. The use of the term “root” (vr#v#), along with the idea of a fresh green branch/shoot coming out of the ground, may be intended as an echo of the Isaian oracle in 11:1-10. The “root of Jesse” clearly reflects the expectation of a future king from the line of David, and this oracle came to be regarded as a key Messianic prophecy. However, the Messianic/Davidic connection, if it is present at all here in vv. 2ff, is relatively slight.

A connection with the life of Moses is more plausible, given the other evidence for the Servant-figure being patterned after Moses (cf. the discussion by Baltzer, pp. 404-6). In particular, verse 2 would refer to the birth of Moses (the root qny, “suck, suckle” occurs 4 times in Exod 2:5-10).

As for the root that comes up from the dry/parched (hY`x!) land, this could refer generally to the desert landscape of Egypt and its environs, though more probably, to the beginning of Moses’ career (as YHWH’s servant) across the desert in Midian. And, of course, Moses functioned as God’s servant in leading the people through the desert (the dry and desolate land) after their Exodus from Egypt; on this, compare the wording in Psalm 78:17; 105:37ff; 107:35; Jer 2:6 (cf. Baltzer, p. 405). The Exodus can be described with the same verb hl*u* (“go up,” i.e., go up from Egypt), which would support a collective interpretation of the Servant—as the people of Israel, or as the righteous, collectively.

The last three lines of verse 2 emphasize how the Servant lacked the sort of impressive physical appearance one would typically associate with a great leader in the ancient world (cf. 1 Sam 9:2). This aspect of the Servant tends to contradict the description of Moses, at least as it developed in Jewish tradition; Josephus’ wording in Antiquities 2.230-32, for example (cp. Acts 7:20-22), is almost the opposite of what we find here in v. 2 (on the general idea of Moses’ beauty, cf. Exod 2:2). The lack of physical beauty and an impressive appearance plays a role in the Servant’s suffering; it predisposes people to regard him as someone of little account. This is the theme that will be developed in verse 3 (to be discussed in the next note).

References marked “Baltzer” above (and throughout these notes) are to Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, translated by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001).

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