Isaiah 53: The grammar of modern rabbinical interpretation

In “Jewish revisionism revisited I argued that modern rabbinical interpretations are incoherent. To recap briefly:

Here is the prevalent rabbinic opinion of Isaiah 53:

“Isaiah 53 contains a deeply moving narrative which world leaders will cry aloud in the messianic age.  The humbled kings of nations (52:15) will confess that Jewish suffering occurred as a direct result of “our own iniquity,” (53:5) i.e., depraved Jew-hatred, rather than, as they previously thought, the stubborn blindness of the Jews.”

Here are other verses from Isaiah 52 and 53. My substitutions appear in CAPITALS.

Isaiah 53:8b

“For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”

Rabbinical translation:

“For MY PEOPLE (he) was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of MY PEOPLE, MY PEOPLE were stricken.

THAT makes no sense at all.

Consider the Hebrew Bible, verse 17 (16 in the English translation) of Psalm 22 “For dogs encircled me, an evil congregation surrounded me; like a lion my hands and my feet.”

In the The lion dug the nail into my hand, I suggested that  a better translation of “like a lion” could arguably  be “they dug…” In “The Lion dug…” I presented evidence for my argument.

What I’d like do is show how modern rabbinical interpretations of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 have changed from the view that these passages refer to suffering Messiah to the modern view that they refer to suffering Israel (See the disputes at the RoshpinaProject).

Here is an interesting  part of the Midrash where the writer links the sufferings of the pierced servant in Psalm 22 (tongue shall cleave to your mouth…dried up like a potsherd) with the suffering servant in Isaiah 53.

(I’m quoting from Mark Eastman’s “The search for Messiah”)

Pesiqta Rabbati, says the following: “The Patriarchs will one day rise again in the month of Nisan and will say to the Messiah:

‘Ephraim, our righteous Messiah, although we are your ancestors, you are nevertheless greater than we, for you have borne the sins of our children, as it is written: ‘Surely he has borne our diseases and carried our sorrows; yet we regarded him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our sins, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that makes us well, and through his wounds we are healed.[16] Heavy oppressions have been imposed upon you, as it is written: ‘As a result of oppression and judgment he was taken away[17]; but in his day, who considered that he was torn from the land of the living because of the transgressions of my people?’ You have been a laughing stock and a derision among the peoples of the world, and because of you they jeered at Israel, as it is written, You have dwelt in darkness and in gloominess, and your eyes have not seen light, your skin was cleaving to your bones, and your body withered like wood. Your eyes became hollow from fasting, and your strength was dried-up like a potsherd, as it is written.[18] All this happened because of the sins of our children, as it is written: ‘And Jehovah laid on him the iniquities of us all.'” (Isaiah 53:6).


I am in dispute with Anonymous over at the RoshpinaProject.  He  insists that the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 can be nothing/no one but “Israel”.  I’m trying to get him to explain to me how “him” and “us” in Isaiah 53:6 can both refer to the same entity. But he persists in quoting other chapters of Isaiah to buttress his claims. “Him” and “we/us” cannot by any stretch of basic Hebrew grammar or English grammar refer to the same entity.

Isaiah 53:6

כֻּלָּ֙נוּ֙ כַּצֹּ֣אן תָּעִ֔ינוּ אִ֥ישׁ לְדַרְכֹּ֖ו פָּנִ֑ינוּ וַֽיהוָה֙ הִפְגִּ֣יעַ בֹּ֔ו אֵ֖ת עֲוֹ֥ן כֻּלָּֽנוּ׃

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
(and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Occam’s razor is the principle that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. In Isaiah 53:6 let us not reduce entities beyond what the grammar allows.

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