April 27: Isaiah 53:5

Isaiah 53:5

“But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith),
crushed from our (own) crooked deeds,
(the) correction (for) our wholeness was upon him,
and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.”

The four lines of verse 5 build upon v. 4 (discussed in the previous note), combining together two key themes being emphasized in the description of the Servant’s suffering: (1) his suffering was the result of his bearing the burdens of the people, and (2) it was a manifestation of YHWH’s judgment. These two themes are presented most vividly here, with the idea of judgment/punishment drawing upon the motif of being wounded (as in battle).

This wounding is expressed, in the first two lines, by two verbs—ll^j* and ak^D*. The first of these literally means “dig/bore a hole,” i.e. “pierce,” presumably in the sense of being struck by a sword or spear. However, there is another semantic domain for llj, usually recognized as a separate root in the lexicons (llj, II), with the meaning “profane, defile,” etc. It has been suggested by some commentators (e.g., Baltzer, p. 410) that this second root/meaning is in view here, in which case the line would read something like:

“But he was defiled from our acts of breaking (faith)”

This could conceivably be correct, yet the parallel with the verb ak^D* (“crush”) makes the meaning “wound/pierce” of llj (I) a better fit.

As the Prophetic account of Israelite (and Old Testament) history makes clear, the judgment brought by YHWH on a people often involved military attack and conquest. In this regard, the punishment surely could be considered “crushing”, and might indeed entail people being wounded and put to death by the sword. Perhaps the terminology is being used more in a figurative sense here, but, in any case, the scenario has certainly intensified—from being “pressed down” (v. 4) to being “crushed”.

The cause of the punishment is also noted, using the preposition /m! (“from”) to indicate the source. The noun uv^P# is often translated as “sin, transgression, wickedness”, but this can be a little misleading in its generality and moral emphasis; the term properly refers to the breaking of a bond (of trust, etc), and can even indicate, more forcefully, an act of rebellion. In other words, the covenant bond, between Israel and YHWH, is primarily in view when uvp is used in the Old Testament. And, here, the plural (<yu!v*P=), specifically refers to acts (by the people) that break the bond,  that break faith with YHWH.

The term /ou*, on the other hand, is used to capture the moral and (general) religious aspect. It is best translated as “crookedness”, indicating something that has been “bent” or “twisted” (i.e., perverted). The plural tonou& is parallel with <yu!v*P=—sinful/corrupt behavior along with acts of disloyalty (and even rebellion) against YHWH.

What is especially emphasized here, however, is that the Servant is the one punished for the people’s deeds. This striking contrast is established by setting the pronoun aWh (“he”) in emphatic position—i.e., he was punished for our deeds.

The last two lines shift the focus slightly, from the punishment itself to the purpose for the punishment, and what results from it. The penalty inflicted by YHWH in judgment is not merely punitive; especially in the case of His people (Israel/Judah), there is also a corrective purpose. This is indicated in the third line by the (verbal) noun rs^Wm, from the root rsy, which captures the fundamental idea of “discipline, instruction, correction”. Thus, the punishment, however severe it may be, is intended also to provide instruction for the people, correcting their behavior, and as an example for future generations.

Here, the intercessory role of the Servant works in the opposite direction: he receives the correction (rs^Wm), but the corrective effect is realized by the people. In the wording of the third line, the correction was for “our wholeness” (Wnm@olv=), i.e., to make us whole. The noun <olv* is often translated flatly as “peace”, but the fundamental meaning has to do with being full, complete, whole.

The fourth line is parallel to the third, and so the terms used must be understood in this light:

    • “(the) correction…upon him” //  “(the) binding of his (wound)s
    • “our wholeness” // “healing for us”

The precise meaning and force of the noun hr*b%j^ (plur. torb%j^) requires comment. The basic meaning of the root rbj is “join, bind, unite”; however, the rather wide semantic range suggests that the Hebrew root, as it occurs in the Old Testament, may represent a convergence of several different Semitic roots. The noun hr*b%j^ seems to isolate one particular idea, that of a visible wound, parallel in meaning to ux^P* (which more properly means “wound”); it may be related to Arabic µbr (distinct from —br), indicating a bright color (like the shining red of a fresh wound).

In this regard, hrb%j^ is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 7 times. One important occurrence (and the only other instance in the Prophets) is in Isaiah 1:6, also in the context of YHWH’s judgment on Israel/Judah. Much of the terminology in vv. 3-5 here can be found in 1:5-6. The people’s sinfulness and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH has led to their being struck and wounded, and their continuing rebellion means that their wounds continue to get worse. The message is that, if they were to repent, their wounds would be treated and bound up—that is, there would be healing for them. There is likely a basic cognate relationship between the roots rbj and vbj—both sharing a common meaning of “bind”. In Isa 1:6, the wound is the hrbj, while the binding of the wound is hvbj. I believe that the fourth line of verse 5 here alludes to the same dual-concept: both the wounds of the Servant, and the binding of them, and I have tried to capture both aspects in my translation above.

Again, the most important point is that the binding of the Servant’s wounds brings healing for the people, not for himself. In this regard, the effect of the suffering is akin to its purpose—it applies, vicariously, to the people, rather than to the Servant himself. The vicarious aspect of his suffering will be discussed further, in the next note on verse 6.

At this point in the description of the Servant, the parallels with the Moses type-pattern seem to break down. Even if we interpret the wounding and “crushing” here in a figurative sense, it is hard to find any clear parallels in the  Moses traditions. While Moses, on at least one occasion, in his intercession for the people, does ask God to punish him on their behalf (Exod 32:32), there is only one instance when the punishment for the people actually falls upon him as well. This is the episode of the “waters of strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20:2-13. The rebelliousness and lack of trust among the people provokes Moses to act (and speak) in an impetuous way that does not give full and proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses meets with the same punishment as the rest of the adult generation of the Exodus—he would die without being able to enter the Promised Land.

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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