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Ever wonder what the mainstream scholars (read: liberal scholars) make of prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament? The following is a summary of John Collins’ answer to the Question of the Identity of the Suffering Servant. NOTICE: Collins does not think Isaiah wrote everything that went into the book we now know as “Isaiah.” This is reflected by the language of “Second Isaiah” or “Third Isaiah.” These are different hypothetical authors for distinct passages in Isaiah.
NOTICE: The answers below do not necessarily represent my own views, but are an exact representation of Collins’ views as expressed in his book.
John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.
Who is “The Servant” in Second Isaiah?
The figure of “the servant of the Lord” is one of the “best known features of the prophecy of Second Isaiah” and “an integral part of the prophecy of Second Isaiah” (385-86). “The servant in question has been variously identified as a collective figure” in which case Israel is thought to be in view, “or as in individual” in which case the most widely supported are 1) Moses, 2) Cyrus, and 3) the prophet himself (386). “The evidence of the book as a whole, [however], indicates that the servant is usually Israel” (386) since Jacob is explicitly called “my servant” in several of the Second Isianic oracles (41:8; 44:1-2; 44:21; 45:4) and Israel is called “my servant” also (41:8). “The explanation [for the depictions of the servant as an individual] that requires least hypothetical speculation is that the servant is Israel, described metaphorically as in individual”—the ideal Israel that “acts as a leader toward the rest of the people [of Israel]” and as a “light to the nations” (337-38).
How is the Suffering Servant Described?
Using the categories of Bernard Duhm who divided the servant strands into four “Servant Songs,” (385) the fourth Servant Song (52:13—53:12), which speaks of The Suffering Servant, is the longest and most famous of the Isianic Servant passages (387). In the beginning of the unit, the servant is introduced as one who was “deformed beyond recognition” but is later “restored and exalted to the astonishment of kings” (387).
Who is Doing the Describing?
In the latter part of the unit, the speaking is done by a collective group (“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” [53:5]). “If the servant is thought to be an individual, this group could be the Jewish community. If the servant is Israel, the speakers are the kings, whose astonishment is noted at the end of chapter 52” (387).
Could The Suffering Servant be an individual historical figure?
Since later we are told the servant actually dies before being restored—he is “cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8)—“he can hardly be the prophet himself” (387). In fact, any attempt to interpret the servant as in individual historical figure known to the author(s) forces the interpreter to reconstruct an entirely hypothetical figure “for whom we have no other information” who, in some sense (how?) died “for the sins of my people” (388).
In What Sense Does The Servant Suffer?
Regardless of whether one identifies The Suffering Servant as an individual of collective group, one thing remains clear: His life is made an offering for sin. This is vicarious suffering: “the idea that the sufferings of one person or people can atone for the sin of another” (388). There are other places in the Bible where such an idea is found. The scapegoat in Leviticus 16 is said to bear the people’s sins and carry them into the wilderness. “A closer analogy” is Ezekiel who bears the punishment of “the house of Israel” when he is told to lie on his left side for 390 days, a number “equal to the number of the years of their punishment” (Ezek 4:4-5). He is forced to eat food cooked over human dung for the allotted time (Ezek 4:12). In this case, the efficacy of the vicarious punishment was contingent upon the response of the people for whom it was performed. Something similar takes place in the case of The Isianic Suffering Servant: the onlooker’s astonishment at the restoration of The Servant ultimately leads to their conversion.
In what sense, then, would “Israel” fit the descriptions of sacrificial suffering, death, and subsequent restoration?
“In the exile, Israel was deformed beyond recognition, and might even be said to have died (cf. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley full of dry bones). In this case the people whose iniquities he bore are the other nations. On this explanation Second Isaiah breaks radically with earlier tradition by explaining the exile not as punishment for the sin of Israel, but as vicarious punishment for the sins of other peoples” (388). While the passage that says “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days” is problematic for an individual interpretation since “there is no hint of individual resurrection anywhere else in Second Isaiah,” if one interprets the Servant as Israel “this is less of a problem” (388). “The purpose of the exile, then, was to get the attention of the nations”—especially the kings—“so that they would become aware of YHWH and be astonished by the sudden revelation of his power. Israel was like a sacrificial victim … By obediently going along with the divine plan, Israel makes righteous the many people who observe what happened. No one is automatically saved … but it creates an opportunity for people to recognize their true situation and convert accordingly” (388). The reason why there is no admission of any sin on the part of the servant is because he is “idealized, and may not be identical with the entire people” (388).
What about Jesus as The Suffering Servant?
“The idea that suffering in this life can lead to exaltation hereafter gains currency in [Daniel,] the Dead Sea Scrolls and other literature around the turn of the era. This idea would be crucial to the understanding of the death of Jesus in early Christianity. Isaiah 53 is read in the traditional liturgy of Good Friday” (389).