Isaiah 52:13-53:12, continued
Having concluded a detailed critical and exegetical study of the passage, verse by verse, in the recent daily notes, it remains to explore the specific lines of interpretation which may plausibly be applied to the figure of the Servant. I identify four primary lines of interpretation, each of which will be discussed in turn.
- The type-figure of Moses
- A specific Prophetic figure from history
- A collective figure for the Prophets of Israel
- A collective figure for the People of Israel
1. Moses. In an earlier article (on Isa 42:1ff) I discussed the strong possibility that the Servant of the Deutero-Isaian poems was patterned after the figure of Moses. It is worth summarizing the chief evidence for this:
- Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” (db#u#) 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.
- Moses was the pre-eminent Prophet and leader for the people of Israel, and possessed the spirit of prophecy (i.e., God’s Spirit); on this line of tradition, see my study on Numbers 11:10-30.
- Moses led the people out of exile in Egypt, even as they are now to be led out their exile within the Babylonian empire; the return of the Exiles is clearly understood in the Deutero-Isaian poems as a ‘new Exodus’ (in chaps. 41-45, cf. especially 43:1-2, 16-17ff).
- The role of bringing judgment to the nations, in the context of Israel’s release/return, would fit the archetypal pattern of Moses in his encounters with Pharaoh and the rulers of Egypt. This parallel applies more to 42:1ff, but see also the context of 52:14-15.
- The servant functions as a judge and law-giver, which well fits the historical and traditional portrait of Moses.
I have discussed the parallels between 52:13-53:12 and the Moses traditions in the recent set of notes. Perhaps the strongest point is Moses role as intermediary and intercessor for Israel. By the very nature of this role (as YHWH’s servant) he identifies with the suffering of the people (cf. Exod 2:11ff; 3:7ff), and comes to bear their burdens, in many different ways, during the long Exodus journey through the wilderness (see esp. Num 11:10-14ff). On several occasions, Moses stood before YHWH on behalf of the people, interceding for them.
Two traditions are most pertinent to the argument here. The first is the Golden Calf episode, and its aftermath (Exod 32-34). The people broke the covenant bond in an egregious manner, and YHWH intended to destroy them in His anger, but Moses interceded for them (32:11-14, 30-34; 33:12-16; 34:8-9). In Exod 32:32, Moses essentially offers to taken upon himself the guilt (and punishment) that belonged to the people.
The second tradition to note is the episode at the “Waters of Strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20. Provoked by the rebelliousness of the people, Moses speaks and acts in a way that does not give proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses shares the same punishment that fell upon the adult generation of the Exodus: he would die without entering the Promised Land. This may reflect the lines in our passage regarding the death of the Servant. On the possible allusions to Moses’ death and burial in the land of Moab (near Mt. Peor, Deut 34:5-8), cf. the recent note on verse 9.
If Moses is the type-pattern for the Servant figure, how should this be understood? There are several possibilities. Taking the scenario of the passage at face value, it would seem that Moses died and then was exalted to heaven. He then appeared before YHWH in the heavenly courtroom, where his righteous character and role as YHWH’s servant was confirmed, and he was then given a new heavenly position. Here he would continue in his role as the Servant, working and interceding on behalf of God’s people in the New Age (the period of the new covenant).
But could this association with Moses be merely figurative? On the one hand, a figurative interpretation would better fit the Deutero-Isaian theme of Israel’s restoration, which involves a new covenant and a renewed adherence to the Torah, echoing the ancient Moses/Exodus traditions (the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Law, cf. Exod 19-34). Subsequent Isaian poems and oracles (i.e., from chapters 56-66, so-called Trito-Isaiah) give special emphasis to the theme of the Law going out from Jerusalem, as a light to the nations (cf. on 42:5-9).
On the other hand, the passage seems to be dealing with a specific person—a person who, like Moses, will lead Israel back into the land (a “new Exodus”, cf. above) and play a central role in establishing the new covenant between YHWH and His people. In this regard, it is worth considering a particular eschatological tradition associated with Moses. Deuteronomy 18:15-19 records a prophecy regarding a “prophet like Moses” who will arise in Israel, essentially taking Moses’ place and functioning as a ‘new Moses’. By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this had developed into a clear belief in a Messianic prophetic figure, according to the figure-type of Moses, who would appear at the end-time, prior to the great Judgment.
This eschatological figure could be explained as Moses himself, having returned from heaven, or a separate Messianic Prophet patterned after Moses. Jesus was identified explicitly with this figure in Acts 3:22 (also 7:37), and there are other implicit references to “(the) Prophet” which likely have this same (Messianic) figure-type in mind (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). For more on this subject, and on the identification of Jesus with Moses, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
2. A specific Prophet-figure. Along the same lines, the Servant may refer to another Prophet from the history of Israel/Judah. The overall context, and the specific wording in v. 8, strongly indicates that the Servant (and his generation) belongs to the past. If we look to the Exilic setting of the Deutero-Isaian poems, there is no obvious candidate known to us from the historical record of the 6th century. To be sure, Jeremiah suffered at the hands of the people (and their leaders), and Uriah was put to death by Jehoiakim for prophesying the judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (Jer 26:20-23). According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Isaiah himself was killed by king Manasseh, and one version of this involved his being sawn in half (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho §120; cf. Heb 11:37). There are other historical traditions regarding the Prophets suffering oppression, persecution and death (cf. below).
Since the Deutero-Isaian poems seem to view the restoration of Israel (the ‘new Exodus’), and the establishment of the new covenant with YHWH, to be imminent, it is unlikely that the suffering and death of the Servant is meant to be understood as occurring in the future. The orientation of the passage as referring to a past event (that is, prior to the 6th century Exilic time-frame) should be taken seriously. His suffering reflects the failures of Israel/Judah, their violation of the first covenant—the covenant established at Sinai.
3. A collective figure for the Prophets of Israel. A stronger argument can be made for viewing the Servant as a collective figure for the Prophets of Israel. He embodies all of the true Prophets, from Moses to those of the 6th century. His suffering (and death) reflects the suffering experienced by many of the Prophets, whose call to deliver messages of judgment against the people of Israel/Judah, including harsh rebuke and condemnation of the rich and powerful in society, naturally made them unpopular and a target for hostile and violent reaction. Elijah and Jeremiah are probably the most famous examples of Prophets who suffered oppression and persecution at the hands of the people (and their leaders). The tradition of Isaiah’s martyrdom was noted above; we also have Zechariah son of Jehoiada being stoned to death as one of many similar examples (cf. Matt 23:34-37 par; Heb 11:35-38). On the idea of the Servant being “pierced” (v. 5), we may mention again how Uriah was killed by the sword (Jer 26:23).
This interpretation has the advantage of not being bound to the historical details of any one Prophet. At the same time, most of the description in the passage could apply to any number of the Prophets—or of all of them, taken together.
4. A collective figure for the People of Israel. This is perhaps the line of interpretation that is favored by many, if not most, critical commentators today. In its favor is the fact that Israel/Judah is specifically referred to as YHWH’s “servant” (db#u#) at a number of points in the Deutero-Isaian poems (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4). Moreover, the general context relates to YHWH leading His chosen people out of their exile. The formula is established in 41:8-9:
“But you, Yisrael, my servant [yD!b=u^],
you, Ya’aqob, whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my loved (one),
you whom I have seized from (the) ends of the earth,
and called from her corners,
you to (whom) I have said
‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you,’
—do not be afraid, for I (am) with you…”
The same basic formula is used in 42:1, only there Israel is not specifically identified as the “servant” (except in the LXX).
But if Israel is the Servant, then it is difficult to explain the relationship between the Servant and the people that runs through the passage. One possibility is that the Servant is limited to the righteous ones of Israel, who suffer at the hands of the wicked people. A better fit to the context of the passage would be the relationship between Israel and the nations. The nations (and their rulers) are referenced in 52:14-15, and, according to this line of interpretation, it is they—and not the people of Israel—who offer the testimony regarding the Servant in 53:2-6. The nations mistreat and oppress the Servant (Israel), and it is the people of Israel (or at least the righteous among them) who suffer vicariously and bear the guilt of the nations. Through this suffering, and with the Servant’s restoration in the New Age, justice and righteousness will be brought to the nations through him—that is, through the righteous ministry of the restored Israel. This legitimately reflects a key Isaian theme (cf. 2:2-4) that was developed in the Deutero- (and Trito-) Isaian poems.
Summary. In my view, the overall evidence from the Deutero-Isaian poems strongly favors the first and fourth interpretations above. That is, the Servant should be understood as either: (1) a Prophetic leader patterned after the figure of Moses, or (2) as a collective figure for the people of Israel.
It may be possible to combine these approaches, given the close relationship between Moses and the people in the historical tradition. Moses represents the people before YHWH, and YHWH before the people. He has a central and foundational role in establishing the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. Indeed, following the episode of the Golden Calf, with the violation of the covenant, Israel ceases to be the people of YHWH. It is only through the intercession of Moses, that the covenant is restored; Israel is once again considered to be the people of YHWH, but only in a qualified sense, through the personal mediation of Moses.
The Deutero-Isaian theme of the New Age (of Israel’s restoration) involves the return of Israel/Judah to the Land (i.e., a ‘new Exodus’), with the establishment of a new covenant (cf. the following 54:1-17). It thus makes sense that the Prophetic leadership of the people would likewise be understood as a “new Moses”.
To the extent that the Servant is related to the figure of Moses, there are several ways of understanding this (cf. above):
- Moses continues to act as the Servant of YHWH, on behalf of the people, through his new (exalted) position in heaven
- Moses serves as the symbolic pattern for the Prophetic leadership of Israel/Judah in the New Age
- The association relates to the (eschatological) tradition of the “Prophet like Moses” who will appear to lead and guide Israel into the New Age. This could further be understood as: (a) Moses himself appearing from heaven, or (b) a new chosen Prophet who resembles Moses. There was a similar Messianic/eschatological tradition regarding the figure of Elijah. Cf. Part 3 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.