Is Isaiah 52-53 Speaking of National Israel Rather than the Messiah?

Many modern Jews identify the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 as the corporate nation of Israel rather than the individual Messiah. This raises two questions: 1) Has this always been the Jewish view of the passage? and 2) Does this interpretation make sense of the text?

To answer the first question, we turn to biblical scholar Michael Brown. In his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3, Brown surveys the historical positions of Jewish rabbis and scholars.

For the last thousand years, religious Jews have often interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the people of Israel, but that has by no means been the consensus interpretation, and it is not the interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis. So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah— as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses — while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous. Note also that Sa‘adiah Gaon, the influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest traditional Jewish sources— and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources— interpret Isaiah 52: 13– 53: 12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah.

As stated above, this is highly significant. While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, ‘Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.’ This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction?

The Messianic interpretation is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works. Thus, it is clear that there is substantial Jewish tradition— spanning a period of up to two thousand years— that differs with [the] objection. . . .

All this is especially important when you realize that sections from Isaiah 52:13– 53:12 are quoted several times in the New Testament, and the passage as a whole can arguably be called the clearest prophecy of Jesus in the entire Tanakh. Yet many traditional Jewish commentators and teachers have still interpreted the prophecy as Messianic. How tempting it would have been for the Talmudic rabbis and their successors to interpret this passage with reference to Israel— rather than to the Messiah or any other individual— seeing that it played such an important role in Christian interpretation and polemics. Yet they did not interpret the passage with reference to the nation of Israel in any recorded traditional source for almost one thousand years, nor did they interpret it with reference to national Israel with unanimity thereafter.

Thus it seems clear that the idea of Isaiah 52-53 speaking of national Israel is not the original view of Jewish teachers at all. In fact, the more likely explanation is that prominent Jewish scholars one thousand years ago reacted against the rise of Christianity and reinterpreted these verses to avoid the conclusion that they point to Jesus. This view became the dominant position at that time and remains so to this day.

What about the second question? Does the text support this view? Biblical scholar Barry Leventhal, in Why I Am a Christian,  offers four arguments against the view.

In addition, the passage itself yields at least four arguments countering the claim that the nation Israel, or for that matter any other mere human being, is the promised Suffering Servant of the Lord. First is the Servant’s sinlessness (52:13; 53:9): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is described as without sin, that is, completely innocent in thought, word, and deed. He is perfect in his actions as well as his reactions. Where is the Jew who would dare to proclaim Israel, or for that matter even Moses or Isaiah, to be without sin? Why the need for a national Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)? Or for Isaiah’s indictment against Israel’s sinful rebellion against God (Isaiah 1)? Or for that matter, Isaiah’s confession of his own sinfulness (Isa. 6:5–7)?

Second is the Servant’s submission (53:7): The Servant of Isaiah 53 submits (without any resistance whatsoever) to be slaughtered like a lamb. He lays down his life as a sacrifice, willingly and voluntarily, in an absolute sense. There are few exceptions in secular history and none in biblical history that Israel ever submitted passively to her fate. Quite the contrary, Israel’s heroism is well documented in the annals of history.

Third is the Servant’s cessation (death) (53:8–9, 12): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is ‘cut off out of the land of the living’ (53:8 NASB). ‘He poured out himself to death’ (53:12 NASB). The Servant is also portrayed as alive from the dead and enjoying fellowship with God and his faithful followers (52:13, 15; 53:10–12). Israel as a nation still exists and always has, even as God promised (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The nation has never ceased to exist, let alone been raised from the dead in any literal sense of the word.

Fourth is the Servant’s substitution (52:14–15; 53:4–6, 8, 10–12): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is a substitutionary atonement for others, not for himself. He is pictured as dying vicariously, punished for the sins committed by others. Israel, as well as Isaiah and all other individuals, were punished for their own sins. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Jewish prayer books make continual confessions on behalf of the Jewish people.

Leventhal concludes:

[N]o one else in all of history can come even close to fulfilling these, as well as the many other, messianic prophecies, except Yeshua himself. He alone is the promised Messiah who was born in Bethlehem, the totally unique One who died as the final Lamb of God—a vicarious and substitutionary atonement—and who was raised from the grave to enter into all of his own splendor and glory!