April 23: Isaiah 53:1

Isaiah 53:1

“Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard,
and (of the) arm of YHWH, upon whom has it been uncovered?”

A different voice appears to be speaking here in 53:1. The scene, by all accounts, is still the heavenly court/council of YHWH, but there has been a shift in the action. In vv. 13-15 the Servant was being addressed, though gradually the focus shifted to the ‘many peoples’ (and their rulers) who react to the Servant. The scenario seems to depict these peoples as present in the heavenly court, but the change to the future tense (“he will sprinkle… they will see…they will discern”) indicates that the Servant’s future role,  in relation to the nations, is being described.

The sense in 53:1 is that of a legal case being established, as with an attorney’s opening arguments in the courtroom. A question is raised, marked by the interrogative particle (ym!, “who…?”). It is possible to read the two lines of v. 1 as parallel questions; but, in my view, it is better to treat them as a single compound question. The primary question occurs in the first line (v. 1a):

“Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard…?”

This literal translation is quite cumbersome, as it is difficult to render with precision the Hiphil (causative) form of the verb /m^a* (“be firm, sure”) when followed by a predicate with the preposition –l. This idiom would be rendered literally as “be/make firm (in trust) to”, which in simple and conventional English would best be translated as “trust in”. Equally difficult to translate is the noun hu*Wmv=, a verbal noun derived from um^v* (“hear”), and meaning “something heard”, or “something (made to be) heard”, i.e., a message, report, etc. In conventional English, the question would be translated something like: “Who has trusted in our report…?”

The second line (1b), I believe, explains just what this report involves, defined by two components: (a) the arm of YHWH, and (b) to whom this arm has been revealed. The expression “(the) arm of YHWH” is used in reference to the mighty and miraculous signs by which YHWH acted to deliver His people; the reference is especially to the events surrounding the Exodus of Israel from Egypt (Exod 6:6; 15:16; Deut 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8, etc). I have already noted on several occasions the important Deutero-Isaian theme of the restoration/return from Exile as a “new Exodus”, with the Servant functioning as a “new Moses”.

This “arm” was revealed principally to the people of Israel. In spite of all that was done for them by YHWH, the people still came to be unfaithful/disloyal, violating the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. Thus, it is legitimate to ask, “who has trusted in this message of the mighty deeds of YHWH?” There were also at least some among the nations who had heard reports of what YHWH had done in delivering Israel (cf. Exod 15:14-16, etc), and the same question could apply to them: “who has trusted in this…?”

The exact force (and purpose) of this question in the context of 52:13-53:12 is difficult to determine. Does it assume a negative answer, in a rhetorical sense, reflecting accusation, skepticism, etc: “who has trusted this message? has anyone?” Perhaps the question relates to how the nations (and their rulers) can be instructed in the ways of YHWH, when even God’s own people (Israel) have failed to hold to this instruction throughout their history. The traditions surrounding Moses and the Exodus reflect this conflict, the origins of which are rooted in the very beginning of the covenant and the Torah (cf. Exod 19-34, centered on the episode of the Golden Calf). If the Servant is to purify and instruct the nations, how will this be possible, given the evidence from Israel’s own history?

What follows in verses 2-10 is a description of the Servant and his relation to the people of Israel. As I have discussed, this Servant figure appears to have been largely patterned after Moses, and there are certainly many details and points of reference in vv. 2-10 that fit this pattern. Even so, the portrait of the Servant is more complicated than a facile identification with Moses would suggest; however, I do not wish to enter a discussion regarding the best way to interpret the Servant-figure of 52:13-53:12 until we have completed the exegesis of the passage.

In the next daily note, we will begin our analysis of the description in vv. 2-10, which, as we shall see, relates primarily to the suffering of the Servant. This was established already in 52:14-15, but it will be expounded in considerably more detail. The initial description of his suffering comes in vv. 2-3, which we will examine in the next note.

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