Prior to my current work on deception and the Jacob cycle, I focused much of my work on the prophets. One passage which I worked on in a number of contexts and through a number of interpretive lenses (historical, poetic, literary/rhetorical, among others) was the last of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah, 52:13-53:12 more specifically. As a brief aside, I am not taken away with the designation “servant song” first advanced by Bernhard Duhm around the time of the turn of the twentieth century. They have resulted in unncessary and silly debates about the identity of the servant. Let me state this clearly. The servant is remnant Israel. The text clearly states this in 41:8 and again in 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3, 5, 6. I see no evidence that a change in identity occurs leading up to 52:13-53:12. A change in identity (or better, an expansion of that original identity) does occur, though, I have argued (and will hope to publish soon) in 54:17 and after, where one finds only the plural “servants.” That, however, is another post for another time.
First, it will be helpful for me to offer my translation of the passage:
52:13 Behold, my servant will prosper. He will be exalted and will be lifted up and will be very high.
52:14 Just as many were appalled at him, so disfigured beyond humanity was his appearance, and his form beyond that of humankind.
52:15 Thus he will sprinkle many nations. Because of him kings will shut their mouths, for what had not been recounted to them, they see, and what they had not heard, they will contemplate.
53:1 Who has believed our report? Upon whom has the arm of YHWH been revealed?
53:2 For he grew up like a young plant before us, and like a root from dry land. He had no form and no ornament so we would look at him, and no appearance so we should desire him.
53:3 Having been despised and lacking of men, a man of pains, having known sickness. Like one hiding his face from us, he was despised, and we di dnot think of him.
53:4 Surely he, he has borne our sicknesses, and he has carried our pains, and we, we accounted him to have been stricken, having been smitten of God and bowed down.
53:5 But he, he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, punishment of our wholeness was on him, and in his stripes it is healed to us.
53:6 We all like sheep have wandered, each one to his [own] way has turned, and YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
53:7 He was oppressed, and he, he was bowed down. And he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter, and like an ewe [that] before the ones shearing her is silent. And he did not open his mouth.
53:8 He was taken from restraint and from judgment, and who will consider his generation, for he was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of his people he was stricken.
53:9 And he was given his grave with the guilty ones, and with the rich in his death [even though] he had done no violence, and no deceit was in his mouth.
53:10 And YHWH was delighted to crush him. He made [him] sick. If his life will be set [as] a trespass offering he will see offspring, and he will make long his days. And the delight of YHWH in his hand will prosper.
53:11 From the labor of his soul he will see, he will be satisfied in his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, will cause the many to be righteous, and he will bear their iniquity.
53:12 Therefore I will divide [a portion] for him among the many, and with the strong he will divide the spoil, because he laid bare his soul to death, and he was counted with the transgressors, and he, he had borne the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
To be certain, the question over vicarious suffering in this passage turns most often on the interpretation and reappropriation of this text by the early church in reference to the life and death of Jesus. It does appear to me, though, that even without that interpretation one can arrive at a view that the servant suffers vicariously. Here is some evidence:
52:15 – the Hebrew yazzeh, rendered in most translations as “startle,” occurs in several places in Leviticus (6:20; 16:14) in the context of a(n atoning) sacrifice. It also occurs outside Leviticus in the context of hallowing or making sacred. The LXX renders it as thaumasontai (“afraid”), but this could just as well be a similar struggle and question as we are asking today. The suggested emendation (if I am remembering correctly) of the Hebrew to mean “startled” derives from an Arabic cognate meaning just that. I would advance a caution, however, against an easy equation between cognate and meaning from one language to another. If pressed, I would easily make a text-critical argument for the originality of “sprpinkle,” based largely upon the fact that MT makes sense with it and the root and form is attested elsewhere in a context that makes sense.
Throughout the passage (see my translation again) there are constant mentions that the servant is bearing iniquity, suffering for, etc. He is the one upon whom YHWH has bared YHWH’s arm (53:1), a statement likely relating to punishment; he “carries our pains” (53:4) and is “pierced for our transgressions . . . . “(53:5) and is the one bearing “the iniquity of us all” (53:6). “He was stricken,” the text reads, “for the transgressions of his people” (53:8) and may serve as an offering (53:10) and “will make many righteous” (53:11, presuambly through his suffering).
Every time I read this text I cannot help but see vicarious suffering, be it past or future event. The language is too overt. I simply do not know how one can maintain the servant is not suffering vicariously (or, a socio-historical reading, how remnant Israel is not suffering for all Israel). See especially on this point Isa 49:5 – “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him . . . . “
So what do you think? Vicarious suffering, or not? And why?