The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: A Response to Elisha Ben Abuya

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” – Psalm 118:22

This morning I was tagged on social media by a person who calls himself Elisha Ben Abuya. Mr. Ben Abuya considers himself an expert in Old Testament exegesis and he has amassed many fans within the atheist community. He resides in Israel and is also an atheist. Specifically, Mr. Ben Abuya sent me his interpretation of Isaiah 53, which conflicts with my interpretation of the “Suffering Servant” as Jesus Christ. Christians are of the opinion that Isaiah 53, which was written about seven hundred years prior to the coming of Jesus Christ, is a clear description of his death and resurrection. The intention of this blog is to offer a rebuttal to his blog, which can be accessed in full here: http://apikoris.blogspot.co.il/2017/12/isaiah-53.html#!/2017/12/isaiah-53.html

From his blog, I have pasted the crux of his argument in italics below:

Elisha Ben Abuya:

 What is happening in Deutero-Isaiah?

 Chapter 45: Establishing Cyrus as the Messiah to bring the Jews out of exile. Salvation and redemption.

Chapter 46: Getting rid of idolatry from Israel, sending the Babylonian and Assyrian Gods back to their roots.

Chapter 47: Getting rid of the Caldeans with their sorceries and their predictions.

Chapter 48: God tells the Jews that they suffered, but it was now time to return home.

Chapter 49: God speaks in flowery prose, of the glory of the Jews return home.

Chapter 50: Who says I divorced you?! I have never put you away for good. I mourned our separation.

Chapter 51: My salvation is coming for you. I yearn for your return to me. There will be such joy.

Chapter 52: You will be redeemed. My people will know Me! Sing! Come home! And “the many goyim will be startled and their kings will be silent”. 

 If you don’t want to read all of the verses yourself, and only saw those 6 snippets, and you know that there are only 2 more snippets to go before the end of the Deutero-Isaiah section, what do you think would happen next?

 It’s a child’s game: “What happens next”?

 Now, from Chapter 48 onward, the Jews have suffered, and God repeats this, saying they have suffered, that they are His servant, that they are His beloved, and that they will come home. It’s a big buildup.

 Chapter 53: (let’s skip it for now)

 Chapter 54: The last snippet tells us that they are there with God promising to protect them, and anyone who tries to attack them will have to answer to Him. He also tells them that their descendants “will possess the goyim”, (54:3) meaning, enslave them, while retaking all of the land that the goyim had taken from them.

 Think about that in relation to Jesus, for a moment. You have an anti-goyim sandwich with verses 52 and 54 on the outside, and Isaiah 53 on the inside. Do you really think that the simple reading of Isaiah 53 is a Jew getting tortured and killed by goyim?

My response:

The word goyim is literally translated as “nation” and Judah, the Jewish nation itself is called “goy.” Goyim in the Old Testament refers colloquially to all non-Jewish nations, which were the nations that God called on the Jews to separate themselves from. Isaiah 53 does not say that the goyim killed the Suffering Servant, so I would answer “no” to Mr. Ben Abuya’s final question above.

Verse 53:8 says “who of his generation protested” as he was taken away. Isaiah 53:3 says he was “despised and rejected by mankind.” Both passages do not explicitly implicate gentiles in his slaughter and one could make the argument that those in his own generation who did not protest and who despised and rejected him were his peers, the Jews. Psalm 118:22, which I offered at the outset, offers support for this assertion.

Isaiah 54:3 prophesies the fate of the children of Israel. “For you will be spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” The passage describes how the inhabitants of Israel will be spread out, yet they should not fear disgrace, as “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5). The passage closes with the prophecy that Israel will be vindicated and its righteousness established (c.f., the nation of Israel is declared in 1948 after centuries of Jewish diaspora).

In other words, the “anti-goyim” sandwich is not an anti-goyim sandwich at all. Isaiah 52 proclaims that the children of Israel will be redeemed; Isaiah 53 describes the fate of the Redeemer; and Isaiah 54 describes the fate of those whom he redeemed. The latter group includes both Jews and Gentiles. The Messiah was to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6) and anyone who calls on him will be saved (c.f., Romans 3:29; Acts 10; Acts 11:19).

In the past, Mr. Ben Abuya has argued that the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel. This belief is consistent with the beliefs of many Jewish people, which was documented by an early church father named Origen in 248 when he referred to the “whole” of the Jewish people. A medieval scholar called Rashi also held these beliefs (c. 1050; Bar, 2016). Initially, some in the Jewish community did not consider this interpretation credible, as even Maimonides opposed it (Driver & Neubauer, 2969), yet when Christian missionaries declared Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy of Jesus, Jewish rabbis began to embrace the interpretation (Bar, 2016). See here for a full discussion: https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/plural-form-isaiah-53-talking-israel/

Next I will present the passage, followed by several specific reasons why the Suffering Servant cannot be the nation of Israel – or of the Israeli people as a whole –  but instead refers to Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 53

53 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus Christ is the Suffering Servant

The four Gospels recount Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, which corresponds to the passage above in that he (1) was rejected by mankind; (2) bore our suffering and was crushed for our iniquities; (3) was pierced for our transgressions; (4) did not open his mouth when being led into slaughter; (5) was cut off from the land of the living; and (6) after suffering he saw the light of life and was satisfied.

Unlike the Suffering Servant, the nation of Israel (1) is beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2 and (2) has a history of violence, as opposed to Isaiah 53:9. If the nation refers to the people of Israel as a whole, as Origen suggested, some within the group are beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2; and (3)  all Jewish people have not been led into slaughter and have not been silent when persecuted, as opposed to Isaiah 53:7. God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).

Interestingly, Mr. Ben Abuya did not paste Isaiah 53 into his blog and offered no specific refutation of the many verses that validate the interpretation that Jesus Christ is the Suffering Servant. Perhaps that is a good sign that he is coming to the truth.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” John 8:32

Thank you for your time.

 References:

 Driver, S.R. & Neubauer, A.D. 1969. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, KTAV publishing House, New York, pp. 374-375.

2 Replies to “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: A Response to Elisha Ben Abuya”

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