< October 21, 2018 >

Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12

 

The text we read today is central to what has come to be known as the Suffering Servant tradition.

The Servant of God who has been crushed, afflicted, and wounded for our transgressions. A despised and dismissed nobody, this Servant is called the righteous one, the one who in the past has born the sin of many, and in the future shall make many righteous, which includes also making intercession for the transgressors. This Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 in the New Testament and beyond has come to be associated with the Man on the Cross whom artists throughout the centuries have identified as Ecce Homo. “Behold the man!” Jesus Christ with the crown of thorns and a wounded body serving as a powerful image of a broken and suffering humanity.

But, at the same time, this image of the suffering servant also functions as a powerful image of salvation, of redemption, of healing. In verse 4, the “we” are said to be made whole, and healed through the servant’s suffering. And verse 10 states that the “he” shall see the light out of his anguish and be satisfied by knowledge. He himself shall be righteous and also make the “many” righteous as well.

Much has been written on the identity of this suffering servant as well as the “we” and the “many”. Scholars have asked whether the suffering servant is a remarkable individual in that particular time, the prophet himself, the Messiah to come. Others maintain that the suffering servant ought to be read on a symbolic level as representing the returning exiles whom are called to witness to their fellow Judeans. Or collectively as representing all of Israel highlighting their vocation to be a light to all of the nations.

Actually, one finds quite a few examples of personification stemming out of the anguished time before and during the very traumatic time of the Babylonian invasion and exile. For instance, in Jeremiah 8:22-9:1, we see how the suffering prophet Jeremiah is wounded (in Hebrew “broken”) because of the wounds (in Hebrew “brokenness”) of the people, and how the violated body of the young woman Zion on quite a visceral level represents the invaded, violently destroyed city of Jerusalem in Lamentations 1-2.

In all of these interpretations of Isaiah 53:4-12 that seek to pinpoint the identity of the “he,” who bore the sins of many, and who suffered great anguish on behalf of the “we,” is the image of a suffering human transcending their own situation to serve as a beacon of hope for others to come.

In a fascinating article, “Ecce Homo, Ain’t (Ar’n’t) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d Others: The Human in a Post-Humanist Landscape,” Donna Haraway makes us aware of the intrinsic problem of using a male figure as image for all of humanity. In an intriguing intertext, she refers to the classic “Ain’t I a woman” speech by the 19th century African American abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth. In 1851, in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth spoke the following powerful words:

But what’s all dis here talkin’ ‘bout? Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best places -- and ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! . . . I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me -- and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much as any man (when I could get it). And bear de lash as well and ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children and I seen ‘em mos all sold off into slavery, and when I cried with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus hear -- and ain’t I a woman?1

Haraway writes that these words evoke the theme of the suffering servant. This “shockingly inappropriate figure,”2 a homeless black woman, a former slave who was raped by her owner, a mother robbed of her children, claims through her words that she is not a thing, an object, an animal, but a human, and more specifically a woman who knows more than her share of suffering. This particular woman thus emerges as “the bearer of the promise of humanity for womanhood in general, and indeed, the bearer of the promise of humanity also for men.”3

Originally called Isabella Baumfree by her Dutch slave master, in 1843, this prophet received a divine calling to preach liberation for both slaves and women and took the name of Sojourner Truth as “sojourner” proclaiming “truth” for all to hear. Like Moses of old, her message sought to lead the people out of slavery to a new life -- a life where their humanity is affirmed. In this way, Sojourner Truth serves as a symbol that extends beyond her own particularity to humanity itself.

She proclaims herself not to be property to be bought or sold; nor an animal whose sole function in life is to work in the fields; nor a dehumanized individual with no rights. But rather in her speech, she proclaims herself to be a human, and more specifically a woman with agency, who can decide where to live, where to work, where to move, whom to love, whether to have children or not.

This example of Sojourner Truth corroborates what Walter Brueggemann has written about the ability of this text of the suffering servant to speak beyond its own context:

The poem surely intends, in its endless generativity, to be reread and reheard and reembraced, always with a concrete particularity but always with a transformative inscrutability that changes everything.4

In this way, we are challenged by the example of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, by the suffering servant in the form of Sojourner Truth and the many examples of very human men and women: vulnerable, frail, and limited individuals and groups who, like the suffering servant and Sojourner Truth, transcend their particularity to become a symbol that inspires others far beyond their own time and place.


Notes:

  1. Donna Haraway, “Ecce homo, ain't (ar'n't) I a woman, and inappropriate/d others: The human in a post-humanist landscape.” In Judith Butler & Joan Wallach Scott (eds.), Feminists Theorize the Political. (Routledge, 1992), 90-91.
  2. Haraway, 91.
  3. Haraway, 91.
  4. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 149.