Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12
There were many in the early Jesus movement who identified the “servant” in Isaiah 52:13—53:12 (hereafter Isaiah 53) with Jesus; that much is certain (for example, Matthew 8:17; John 12:38; Romans 15:21; 1 Peter 2:22). Thus, for many Christians throughout history, the one who “was despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), “borne our infirmities” (Isaiah 53:4), and “was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5) could not be anyone except Jesus Christ and the proof was in the Gospel accounts. With such a constellation of New Testament references, it is no wonder that for centuries the Church has elected to read this text on Good Friday.
It is also true, however, that at least some early Christians—including the author of Luke-Acts—recognized that such an identification was not self-evident from the text alone. In a story about a gentile interested in Judaism in Acts 8:26–40, an Ethiopian court official, a eunuch, is portrayed as reading Isaiah 53 earnestly but not understanding it (verse 34). The apostle Philip must explain to him how the prophesied servant in the passage can be identified with Jesus—this is part of his sharing the “good news” (verse 35)—to which the eunuch responds, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (verse 37).
Today, most Bible scholars recognize that, from a historical-critical perspective, the referent in Isaiah 53 is not so easily named. The original hearers/readers of the poem who lived hundreds of years before the New Testament might have seen the servant as a contemporary figure or perhaps as a famous historical one. Moreover, it may be that at some point in the textual transmission of this poem, the servant represented a collective whole (see also Isaiah 41:8–9; 44:1); this is how many Jewish interpreters throughout history have interpreted Isaiah 53.
Additionally, as Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler demonstrate, certain details in the poem itself call into question a few assumptions we might make about the servant if we identify him automatically with Jesus.1 For example, the servant may not actually be portrayed as dying in Isaiah 53. The passage is certainly laden with death language (for example, the simile: “like a lamb led to the slaughter” in Isaiah 53:7 and the readying of his grave in Isaiah 53:9), but the point of this imagery could be that, although the servant was near to death, God exalted him and raised him to great heights (Isaiah 52:13). Such a stunning reversal would be consistent with how death imagery is used in other poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible (for example, 2 Samuel 22:6; Psalm 86:13, Ezekiel 37:1–14). To use a loosely analogous cliché: when someone has “one foot in the grave” it does not mean that they are dead (yet) but rather that they are still alive (but only just).
Another common assumption about the servant in Isaiah 53 is that he is an otherwise able-bodied person who has suffered great injury, but Jeremy Schipper has pointed out that the servant’s tribulations appear more like social and political experiences of disability.2 Schipper presents evidence both from the Hebrew Bible and from the ancient Near East that suggests that the servant may be suffering from a skin abnormality (for example, the root ngʿ “stricken” in Isaiah 53:4 and verse 8 is paired with the skin disease sara‘at in Leviticus 13:22 and 1 Chronicles 26:20–21). The social stigma of such a malady may be why the servant is one “from whom others hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3).
Further, literary evidence from Mesopotamia describes how people with certain skin anomalies were separated from society for reasons of ritual purity or concern for contagion. Similar practices are described in the Hebrew Bible (see Leviticus 13:46; 2 Kings 15:5). Thus, the servant is “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8). Notice how these descriptions of the servant’s suffering emphasize the social experience of disability, rather than the diagnosis. We are told little about his condition and much more about how others react to him: “Just as the many were appalled at him—So marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, form, beyond human semblance—(52:14 New Jewish Publication Society; see also 53:3). From this analysis, we should note also that, if the servant is indeed depicted as disabled in Isaiah 53, the role of sacrificial imagery in the passage is called into question since a purification offering is usually required to be “without blemish” (see Leviticus 4:3; 5:15).3
Reading the servant of Isaiah 53 as a person with disability opens many interpretive possibilities to us. We might realize that not all adversity needs to be moralized and that we should not expect all those who suffer unjustly to behave like martyrs. This is especially true for people with disabilities whose problems we usually prefer not to see (Isaiah 53:2) and whose fight for justice we often despise and reject (Isaiah 53:3).
Even as historical-critical scholars of the Hebrew Bible add more nuance to our understanding of famous passages like Isaiah 53, preachers should not shy away from proclaiming this poem from the pulpit. Further, they should not refrain from identifying Jesus with the servant. The point should not be proving the servant’s identity definitively one way or another but rather to be like the Apostle Philip. We can demonstrate to others how Jesus can enrich our reading of Isaiah 53 and in turn, how the servant in Isaiah’s poem can help us understand Jesus. Additionally, a non-exclusive identification of the servant with Jesus might enable our hearers to read a little of themselves in the passage as well. This might have been the experience of that Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 when he read about another disabled servant of God who was socially maligned through no fault of his own.
- Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 287–312, esp. 295–303.
- Jeremy Schipper, Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 31–59.
- Jeremy Schipper, “Interpreting the Lamb Imagery in Isaiah 53,” JBL 132.2 (2013): 315–25.
April 7, 2023