Answers to Objections that Israel is the Suffering Servant[1]


There are many objections brought by Christians in order to try and counter the idea that the suffering servant is Israel. Some of them deal with Rabbinic literature, which I have dealt with in a number of articles. Many of them deal with the text itself, and here I would like to go through the main ones. Many of these have already been countered in one or more of my three articles so it is a good idea to have read them first.


Many of these questions just arise because Christians have not taken the time to try and understand what the Jewish understanding of this passage really is. In the end of this article I touch on some of the Jewish problems with Isaiah 53 being about Jesus[2].


Objection #1: The pronouns are singular.


This is a very popular objection which is based on an error that shows the one asking this has no knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. Except for the two instances in verses 8 and 9 it is true that the pronouns are all singular. But as anyone who is familiar with the text in Hebrew can tell you, Israel as a nation is referred to in singular forms throughout the Tenach.


In fact in the chapters of Isaiah 40-66 alone we find this to be the case in 43:10; 52:1-2; and 54:1. It is hard to take this objection seriously as it is not based on the Hebrew text, but on English usage.


Objection #2: Israel is not innocent and the servant is righteous / innocent.


This is the #1 problem that Christians have with the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53. They claim that the servant in Isaiah 53 is innocent and so cannot be Israel because we all agree that Israel was in exile due to her sins. This objection has two parts to it, so let me address each one.


Israel is not innocent: Here they bring many verses like Isaiah 1 among many others. We have, of course, agreed that Israel was not sinless. However I pointed out in part two on the verse 53:10, the use of the Asham indicates that the servant was suffering in atonement for his OWN SINS, and not for others. Obviously the servant was a sinner. Likewise when discussing the Asham, I pointed out that this does not show that the person was sinless or perfect, as that was not a requirement of the animal itself.


The Servant had to be righteous: This is backed up by the words of Isaiah 53:4-6 indicating that the suffering was for the sins of others. But this does not change the facts that 4-6 are the words of the nations, and the view the Christians take on these verses is one that is false. As I showed in article three it is the nations, taking this view, who do not understand God’s purpose in allowing the servant to suffer, as I explained in article two.


Sometimes verse 53:9 is mentioned but that refers to the servant being innocent of the suffering caused by the nations. Israel was to be in exile, but the persecution of the nations was not part of it, as I pointed out in the beginning of the third article.


Objection #3: Israel is not righteous because they have sinned.


The main problem is that many people are called righteous even if they have sinned; there is no contradiction in that. In fact Ecclesiastes 7:20 says that there is no one who is righteous who does not sin. Even John the Baptist’s parents are called righteous in the New Testament and no one claims they were sinless.


With regards to the verse here we need to recall that God refers to Israel as being righteous in comparison to the nations as we see from the words of the prophet Balaam in Numbers 23:21: “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel….” Does God lie?


Objection #4: If the servant is Israel, Israel cannot suffer for Israel’s sins.


I always laugh when I hear this one, as it seems to be taken as axiomatic that a person cannot effect his own atonement for sin. However this is a fundamental error in theology and it underlies this Christian objection. They believe that the one who has sinned needs someone else who had to be sinless himself to take his sin away. But this is an error. If one steals, he has to pay back what he stole and not someone else. And if he has no money HE is sold into servitude and not someone else. If he kills, it is HIS life that is forfeit. Even if he needs to bring a sacrifice, it is the sinner who pays his money to get the animal. HE must himself bring it to the temple and confess his own sins. No one can do it for him. Every sinner must take an active part in his own atonement process. Everyone has the responsibility of their own sins in this world, and they will be judged for their own sins in the next world.


Objection #5: Israel’s suffering was NOT the result of the sins of the Gentile Nations.


If the meaning is that Israel did not suffer for the nations sins, so that they should be atoned for, then I agree and have so written. That view is only the false view stated by some of the nations as I pointed out in part three.


The true view of God, as I pointed out in part two, is that Israel goes through the exile as punishment for her sins. HOWEVER, God IS angry at the nations for their making Israel suffer in ways God did not want. For example, it may be that Jews in Europe needed to suffer the exile, but that did not mean God intended Hitler as his instrument.


Objection #6: The person in Isaiah 53 suffers dies and rises to atone for his people’s sins.


I have always found this a most strange claim. The reason is that if we take it at face value according to the Christian interpretation that the speaker in Isaiah 1-9 is Israel then Jesus actually died ONLY for Israel!!


But I am sure that is not what they intended. As I pointed out in the third and second article that the servant suffers and dies for his own sins, it is only the erroneous view of some of the nations that Israel suffered for them.


There is no verse which tells of a resurrection. They need to manufacture this, because unless we are talking about an eternal people, who can be killed and suffer and still endure, the verses make no sense. This point is made clear in Psalms 44:23: “For your sake we are killed every day”. Nobody but an eternal people can be killed daily and still exist.


Objection #7: Israel was violent and deceitful and that contradicts 53:9


Please see what I wrote about this in part three. The point of this verse is to contrast their suffering at the hands of the nations, and whether they deserved that the nations should make them suffer to the extent that they did. They were not as the nations themselves are confessing, and as I showed from Isaiah 40, and Zechariah 1. God is angry at the nations for causing suffering to Israel. It would seem that God being angry is a sign that this suffering was not what He had in mind.


Objection #8: The servant was silent and willing.


As I pointed out in part three from the time of Bar Kochbah until the Second World War, through hundreds of years of persecution, we do not find that the Jewish people as a whole ever resisted, but accepted the suffering. Even in WWII there were very few instances of any resistance. 6 million were killed in the camps and ghettos and other places, and one cannot find more than some thousands who took up arms.


One of the problems with this objection is if we take it as literally as the Christians do then Jesus clearly could not have fulfilled this. He was not silent in his trial. In John 18 he was downright talkative. What about his words on the cross? In Mark 15:33 he shows that he has lost faith in God and asks why God does not help him?


I think just as we could not disqualify Jesus for these few words, by saying he was not quiet, we cannot disqualify the nation of Israel who DID willingly accept the suffering; without losing faith in all but a few minor and inconsequential cases.


Objection #9: How could one say that God is pleased with Israel’s suffering.


In verse 53:10 we see that God was pleased to cause suffering to the servant, and I quoted in part two from Deuteronomy where it says explicitly that God is joyful at the suffering. We see nowhere else where it is the case that God has joy in causing suffering I would like to point out we also have NO SOURCES where God has joy in the suffering of the Messiah.


Objection #10: ‘my people’ has to mean Isaiah’s people: Israel.


As I proved in the first article the parallel wording and meanings of 52:13-15 and 53:1-3 show that the subject of 53:1-9 has to be the ones mentioned in 52:15, the nations. I also pointed out, that if this claim were true, then what they are really claiming is that what the Messiah did was ONLY for Israel.



Objection #11: The servant dies and is buried in verse 53:8


There is no reason to say this is not Israel, since in each generation the whole people die in exile. Psalm 44:23 which I mentioned above shows this point clearly. I also pointed out that there is no mention of a resurrection, so only if we are talking about a people as a whole can we say they suffer and die, and yet endure.


Objection #12: Israel has no ‘knowledge’.


This is another bizarre claim. In Deuteronomy 4:6 it is clear that by ‘knowledge’ we mean the true knowledge of Israel which is God’s Torah. And that is what is meant in verse 11, as I explained in part two.


Objection #13: When it says in verse 53:1 the word ‘message’ it means a prophetic message.


This is a bizarre one. It only makes sense in the English as in the Hebrew it is just false. The word there in Hebrew is: שמעתנו which means ‘what we have heard’. The root of the word is שמע ‘to hear’. It is obvious that not everytime the word ‘hear’ appears are we talking of a prophecy.


Objection #14: ‘the Land of the living’ in verse 8 means death.


As I pointed out in my comments in part three, there is no problem with assuming death in that verse, but the correct translation of the Hebrew ארץ חיים is ‘the living land’, the extra ‘the’ (a ‘heh’ in Hebrew) does not appear. The same word as here appears in Ezekiel 26:30 where it refers to “and I shall set glory in the living land” (i.e. the land of Israel) It is a clear allusion to the exile by the nations, who are the speaker in that verse.


Objection #15: The word ‘yazeh’ (Heb. יזה ) from verse 52:15 is translated wrong as ‘startle’.


This really is not an objection of any substance as the JPS translation is NOT God’s word; the original Hebrew is. Jewish commentators like Rashi see it as ‘sprinkle’ and relate it to Isaiah 63:3, where we see it refers to the spilling of the blood of the nations in the war before the end of the exile.


Objection #16: The word ‘lamo’ (Heb. למו ) is not plural in verse 8.


The fact is that it doesn’t matter if it is singular or plural as I mentioned in my first and third articles. However that being said, it is plural and should be understood as ‘to them’. We do find that in translations it is found in the singular only because it sounds better to the ear. That is the way translators translate. I do it myself. The issue is really how do we make exegesis? The proper understanding of a verse and the words in it should depend on what the Hebrew (or Aramaic) actually means, and not what a translation has.


Objection #17: The word ‘deaths’ (Heb. מתיו ) is plural  in verse 9


It is in the plural as almost all sources will agree to. The claim is that it can also refer to a single person. Although they may try to avoid the problem it presents to Christians it has to fit naturally in the verse. None seem to make a valid case, especially since Psalm 44:23 expresses the same idea.


Objection #18: ‘zerah’ (Heb. זרע ) ‘seed’ means physical children.


The word ‘zerah’ refers to physical descendants, but Christians object to this. Some try to say that it can refer to disciples, but in all the cases we see this word used, there is physical relationship between X and its seed.


* * *


I have here tried to cover and point out the answers to the most serious of the common objections to the servant being Israel. None seems of much importance. They are explained away just by a correct understanding of the verses.


I also looked at some of the Jewish ones posed to Christians which present serious problems. I did this even though I believe that my explanations of Isaiah 53 in the three articles provides enough problems to show that it is untenable to maintain that Isaiah 53 is about anyone else then Israel.


The end of the matter is that we see only one possibility when we take into consideration what the passage Isaiah 53 actually says, and when looking at possible objections, The servant is Israel, who suffers in exile and will eventually be taken from exile to receive great rewards.


© Moshe Shulman 2014

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[1]  The material in this article are taken from a number of sources: ; ; . These are fairly representative of the objections that are made.

[2]  Some of the problems have been alluded to in the previous three articles.