XFiles Friday: Isaiah was wrong!May 8, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)
Last week we went off on a bit of a tangent as we looked at Isaiah chapters 40-66 in their literary and historical context so that we could see how clearly and explicitly Isaiah declared that his “Suffering Servant” was none other than Israel itself, which was “slain” by the Babylonians and “resurrected” by Cyrus, all so that God could change Jewish theology into a stricter, more Persian-style monotheism.
That understanding, however, is not at all consistent with Geisler and Turek’s apologetic agenda, so as we return to chapter 13, we find the two Bible scholars busily trying to prove that Isaiah was wrong about who he meant when he described the trials and tribulations of the “Servant.”
The first Jew to claim that the Suffering Servant was Israel rather than the Messiah was Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi (c. 1040-1105). Today Rashi’s view dominates Jewish and rabbinical theology.
Yeah, go figure. According to Geisler and Turek, it took the Jews almost a millenium and a half to realize that Isaiah wrote down exactly who this servant was, in Isaiah 41. That makes the Jews look like pretty poor scholars until you realize that Geisler and Turek themselves still have not figured this out almost two and a half millenia later.
Not only have they failed to realize that the answer to their question is already written in the book of Isaiah itself, but they’re determined to prove that the rabbis (including Isaiah) are wrong about who the Servant was.
Unfortunately for Rashi and many present-day Jewish theologians, there are at least three fatal flaws with the assertion that Israel is the Suffering Servant. First, unlike Israel, the Servant is sinless (53:9).
With this opening argument, Geisler and Turek set the tone of their anti-Isaiah apologetic: heavy on interpretations that Christians read into the texts, and appallingly light on the actual literary and historical context and content of what they purport to study. Isaiah 53:9 says, “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.” Notice, there is nothing there about Israel being sinless. Isaiah is simply claiming that Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah was unprovoked: the Jewish nation did nothing either militarily or diplomatically to rebel against Babylonian authority in the region. They were already paying tribute, and were going about their business (or so says Isaiah, anyway), and thus Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion was entirely unjustified (from Isaiah’s perspective).
In other words, Israel neither rebelled (“had done no violence”) nor broke their treaty with the Babylonians (“no deceit [was] in his mouth”). Geisler and Turek take this simple claim of national non-aggression, and turn it into a claim that the Servant had not committed any sin at all. Why? Because they want to argue that Israel could not be the servant. They “know” that Isaiah was talking about sinlessness because they “know” that Israel couldn’t possible be the Servant, because if he was, then this wouldn’t be a messianic prophecy and thus Jesus would not have been the fulfillment. And wouldn’t that suck?
Let’s go on.
Second, unlike Israel, the Suffering Servant is a lamb who submits without any resistance whatsoever (53:7). History shows us that Israel certainly is not a lamb—she lies down for no one.
Israel, formerly named Jacob, was a he, not a she. Circumcision notwithstanding, I really don’t think he would approve of Geisler and Turek turning him into a female just so they could deny that Isaiah was referring to him in his writings about the Servant.
But I digress. The fact is that Israel was as helpless as a lamb by the time Nebuchadnezzar’s armies got through with him. It wasn’t a matter of choice (any more than the lamb gets to choose whether or not it gets slaughtered to satisfy the blood lust of some primeval death god). The exiles were led away by the Babylonians, and there wasn’t a God-blessed thing they could do about it. But Isaiah goes on to promise that this was not the end of the story, and that the Servant would see his offspring and live a long life, because of his sufferings. In fact, Isaiah goes on to describe, in the chapter immediately following, how these descendants would be so numerous that the nation would swell beyond its borders, and occupy the territories of the neighboring nations.
None of that figures in Geisler and Turek’s commentary, of course, since Jesus did not have any children (that anyone will admit to anyway), and was not, after all, a nation with borders that touched other nations round about.
That leaves us one last argument to look at.
Third, unlike Israel, the Suffering Servant dies as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of others (53:4-6, 8, 10-12). But Israel has not died, nor is she paying for the sins of others.
Geisler and Turek, despite their unfortunate emasculation of the famous patriarch, touch on an interesting aspect of Isaiah’s writings, though they scarcely recognize what they are dealing with since they are bound and determined to reframe it as though it were written in a Christian context. Isaiah has an interesting problem: on the one hand, he must make Israel seem guilty and deserving of the national death that it suffered at the hands of Babylon, in order to avoid portraying God as unjust. On the other hand, he does not want the Jews to despair, so he must simultaneously pursue the contrary goal of making Israel sound like he deserves pardon and redemption.
Isaiah’s solution to this dilemma is actually rather remarkable: by personifying the nation in the guise of its patriarchal founder, he makes a literary distinction between the nation of Israel and the people of Israel. The people committed the sins by believing in other gods besides Yahweh, yet it was the nation that suffered as a result—including those who were not necessarily polytheists themselves. In a way, it’s an appeal to the same sort of unreasoning superstition that makes modern believers like James Dobson proclaim that God will make Christians suffer unless they persecute gays enough to satisfy God’s hatred.
People tend to personify what they experience, seeing everyday happenstance as the mysterious workings of a personal God, and this same kind of anthropomorphic thinking also works to turn the abstract concept of “nation” into a semi-personal being with whom God can have interpersonal relationships and responses. And this works extremely well for Isaiah, literarily speaking. Israel, God’s servant, is being punished as a person because God is angered by the sins of the henotheistic Jews. Thus, Isaiah can speak in heartfelt sincerity, if poetically, that the Servant’s suffering is due to “our” sin (meaning Isaiah and his fellow Jews). Because they weren’t monotheistic enough to suit God, the Servant, whom God actually loves, had to be made to suffer the penalty for Jewish sins. One “person” suffering the penalty for the sins of others.
That’s a brilliant bit of polemic, because it both excuses God (for punishing the just along with the unjust) and puts the burden of guilt upon the Jewish readers, motivating them to convert and become good monotheists. And if that weren’t enough, it also opens the door for Isaiah to claim, intertwined with the passages about guilt and suffering, that God still loves His Servant and has some wonderful plans in store for the future.
It’s not a strict separation. At times, Isaiah treats Israel and the people as the same. If we read through the whole last section of Isaiah (instead of picking verses 4-6, 8, and 10-12 out of context), we see that the Servant’s sufferings and “death” were inflicted on him by wars, because of his blindness and disobedience, a clear reference to the people’s failure to embrace strict monotheism and obedience to the divine law. And when the Lord appoints Cyrus (the well-known king of the Medo-Persian empire) to bless and restore the Servant, it’s the people who are the beneficiaries and who are promised the utopian fulfillments that, by failing to come to pass, led the later Jews to re-interpret Isaiah’s words as the promise of some future messiah.
But the dual vision of Israel as its own personal Being, as well as being the collective identity of the people, is a useful and persuasive literary device, and suggests that this Isaiah, though ultimately misguided, was actually quite an intelligent and insightful person.
Meanwhile, Geisler and Turek ramble on, oblivious.
This Johnny-come-lately interpretation of Isaiah 53 appears to be motivated by the desire to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is indeed the Messiah who was predicted hundreds of years beforehand. But there’s no legitimate way to avoid the obvious.
They got that last part right. Isaiah himself tells us who the suffering servant was (Israel), why he suffered (because of his blindness and disobedience), how he suffered (the Babylonians waged unprovoked war on him and led him away like a sacrificial lamb), how he was raised (Cyrus called for the exiles to be returned to the land) and how he was to be blessed (the nation was to become a great and mighty nation, expanding its borders and drawing its neighboring nations into the light of its new, monotheistic worship of the One True God). If Geisler and Turek feel compelled to declare that Isaiah himself got all this wrong, there is no legitimate way to avoid the conclusion that they are motivated by a desire to avoid recognizing that their “Messianic prophecy” is a twisted sham.