01/09/2016 23:38


Risto Santala


On first hearing it sounds a little strange that Paul should write to the Corinthians that he "resolved to know nothing" while he was with them "except Jesus Christ and him crucified". He said that he preached "Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 2:2 and 1:23). The preaching of the Suffering Messiah is indeed a skandalon to the Jew because he understands what it concerns and it hurts his self esteem. To the Gentile, on the other hand, it is but nonsense as it is more difficult for him to grasp the basis of the doctrine of the atonement. With his Rabbinic background Paul was especially qualified to be aware of the anticipation of a suffering Messiah which was associated with the prophets.

One question of principle always arises when commenting on the prophets and in particular when approaching psalm 22: Do the OT descriptions of the Lord's Suffering Servant concern the nation of Israel or do they point to a specific person? Josef Klausner has stated flatly that even though "we can find many prophecies from the prophetic age in which there are unquestionable references to the hoped-for deliverance, in all this there is not a single hint to a Messiah person". Of the first century Rabbis he says that, "they certainly believed in the possibility of a coming deliverance, but without any personal saviour". Even the concept of the "Son of Man" refers in his opinion only to the nation of Israel. If there is, then, among the earliest of the Rabbis "not even a hint of a suffering Messiah", as Klausner reckons, it is pointless to search for the roots of the Christian faith in this matter in Judaism.58 Klausner's attitudes were however a result of his being a supporter of "prophetic Zionism," one who anticipated the foundation of a prosperous welfare state on the earth. On the other hand he had very little acquaintance with the points brought out by the Targum and Midrash, which always speak of a "Messiah-King" and not at all of some Messianic ideal, as we have already observed.

The Suffering Servant idea comes out most forcefully in Zechariah 12:9--14, 13:6--7 and Isaiah 53. Regarding the words of Zechariah that "they will look upon me whom they have pierced", RaSHI, RaDaQ and Ibn Ezra say that it refers to the Messiah Son of Joseph, Ephraim. The Talmud agrees with this interpretation.59 Of the Suffering Servant's wounds "between the hands" Ibn Ezra says that they are to be associated with the Messiah Son of Joseph. We saw the same principle in operation in the exposition of psalm 22.

Christians see the portrait of the Suffering Servant above all in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which, as we have seen, was removed from the Synagogue's annual haphtarôth chapter on the prophets and from the commentaries of the mediaeval Rabbis. It would appear that this chapter was still, however, discussed in Jesus' time, because Acts chapter 8 tells us of the court official of the Ethiopian Queen Candace who asks Philip who the prophet was speaking about, "himself or someone else?" The official was puzzled in particular about the words:

  • "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth."

In this passage Luke is quoting from the Septuagint. We too will ask "Who is the prophet talking about?"

School text-books in Israel give the popular explanation that this passage speaks of the people of Israel, who have suffered on behalf of the other nations to atone for their sins. However, the prescriptions for the atoning sacrifices state that the offering is to be without blemish -- and I have never heard any Jew claim this for his nation. But what do we learn from the Rabbinic sources which are considered legitimate and representative? Do they support Klausner's thesis?

Isaiah 52:13--15 contains the most shocking paradox in the whole history of redemption:

  • "See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him -- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness --so will he sprinkle many nations."

The Targum comments on this verse, saying that "this is how my servant the Messiah will act wisely". On the other hand it interprets the following verses as meaning Israel. The Midrash Tan.huma from the ninth century and the later Yalqut Shimeoni say that "this is the King, the Messiah, who will rise and be greatly exalted, higher than Abraham, greater than Moses, above the worshipping angels." RaDaQ for his part concludes that "this chapter depicts Israel in its dispersion". Rabbi Elia de Vidas, who was active in Safed in Palestine in the 16th century, says: "Thus the Messiah suffered on account of our sins, and was wounded; He who does not wish the Messiah to be wounded for our transgressions may choose himself to suffer and carry his own sins."60  The well-known Rabbi Moses Alshekh who was also active in Safed in the late 16th century wrote of Isaiah 53: "Our ancient Sages have preserved for us the witness of tradition that this refers to the Messiah. For this reason we too, following them, should consider the subject of this prophecy to be David, the Messiah, who will appear in this way."

The Talmud also touches upon Isaiah 53. The Masechet Sanhedrin ponders over when the Son of David is to come. He will come only in a generation which is either "totally righteous or totally sinful". If Israel is not righteous he "will come in poverty, riding on a donkey". And "Rabbi Yehoshûa Ben Levi saw Elijah at the mouth of the cave of Rabbi Shimeon Ben Jochai and said to him (to Elijah, who knows the Messianic secrets), "Will I get into the world which is to come?" "If this Lord grants it," Elijah answered. Rabbi Yehoshûa Ben Levi said, "I see two and heard a third voice [the mystery of the number three]. When will the Messiah come?" he asked again. "Go and ask of him yourself!" Elijah answered. At that Rabbi Yehoshûa asked, "Where does he dwell?" "At the Roman Gate!" "And what is the sign by which he may be known?" "He will be sitting with the poor and the sick, and all those whom he frees he binds at the same time; he will free one and he will bind the other.61

RaSHI says of this strange conversation that the "Roman gate" means the so-called Paradise gate. Could there be here a reflection of the fact that the Rabbis called Sheol (the Hades) "Paradise" and "Abraham's bosom". On the pages which follow the Masechet Sanhedrin carries on this discussion: First the question is posed as to what should a man do to escape from the "Messianic sufferings", and the answer is found to be "the reading of the Torah and mercy". After this comes a typical discussion of the names of the Messiah which concludes with the name  HIVRâH or "leper". This reference to a "leper" comes from the word nagûa of Isaiah 53:4, which means 'afflicted with illness' -- there is even a special section in the Talmud, negaim, concerned with the identification and isolation of leprosy. The Aramaic word  HIVRâH originally meant 'white' and then later 'leper', as this terrifying disease at a certain stage in its development forms something like a white film on the skin. As the Messiah,  .HIVRâH identifies with the fate of the sick person.

We have already seen in connection with psalm 22 that Midrash Ruth, one of the earliest midrashim, discusses at length the "Messianic meal" which will one day be enjoyed in the "world which is to come". That description, which is based on Ruth 2:14, speaks both of "bread" and of "winevinegar" and they are repeatedly associated with the Messianic sufferings. The "piece of bread" offered by Boaz is the "bread of the kingdom", and "the words 'dip it in the wine vinegar' are the same sufferings of which it is written: 'He was wounded for our transgressions' ".62 This description of the meal was apparently very important in its time, as the Midrash on Leviticus, again one of the earliest, also deals with it in the context of the Messianic idea.63 This very fact, that the Messianic expectation of the earliest Midrashim associates it with chapter 53 of Isaiah, witnesses to its Messianic character.

The Zohar tradition, which is one of the comparatively less censored Rabbinic sources, offers its own material on the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53. According to the Zohar the Messiah had a little hut in the Garden of Eden called the "bird's nest", and when he lifted up his eyes and saw that "the patriarchs entered into the Temple of God, which had been destroyed" and that "Rachel had tears on her cheeks", "then he raised his voice and wept so much that the Garden shook and all the Righteous who were there with him lamented and wept with him".64 The mention of Paradise may well here too refer to the realm of death. There is also a discussion in the oldest Midrashim of the fact that at the same time as Israel was building the Temple, the Holy One commanded his angels to make "a booth in Paradise for the youth whose name is Metatron, so that he might transmit the souls of the Righteous to God in order to atone for the sins of Israel committed in their dispersal".65

The Zohar, which is not, it is true, pure tradition from the first Christian centuries, received a place of honour beside the Talmud in both Eastern and Western Judaism. It mirrors the inner movements of the heart of Judaism. One of the Zohar's thoughts on Isaiah 53 is the following:

  • "The departed souls will arrive and tell the Messiah  [about their lives], and when they describe to him the sufferings which Israel is undergoing in his dispersion, that they are guilty because they do not wish to know their Lord, he will raise up his voice and weep on behalf of those who are guilty of this, as it is written: 'He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.' And then those souls will rise and stand up in their posts. There is a castle in the Garden which is called the 'house of the sick'. In that day the Messiah will enter into that castle and will shout, 'May all the sickness and pains of Israel come upon me!' and they will come. If he did not relieve Israel's pains and and take them upon himself, no-one would be able to suffer on behalf of Israel's oppression, of which it is written in the Torah: 'And it is written: In truth he did bear our sicknesses."66

As we can see, even the prophets are here treated as the "Torah", which in Hebrew literally means simply "teaching".

The New Testament interprets Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.67 This is of course only possible if it was treated Messianically at the time of the writing of the New Testament.

The idea of the Atonement itself is grounded in Judaism. The book of Leviticus, which Luther considered the most evangelical in the Old Testament, speaks in its first five chapters of various sacrificial ordinances. The Hebrew words for these reveal what, at bottom, is in question. The first chapter deals with "burnt offerings", in Hebrew olâh. The root means 'raising'. The second chapter describes "grain offerings", minhâh -- the word menuhâh, 'rest', comes from the same root. The third chapter sets forth the "fellowship offering", shelamim -- related to the words for 'peace', shalom; 'payment', shilum; and 'perfection', shalem. The fourth chapter speaks of the "sin offering", in which the word for 'sin' is het -- it may be a development of the word for a "dividing wall": in Arabic the corresponding terms are nearer one another, hatâya and hît. Chapter 5 concentrates on the description of the "guilt offering". This word asham means literally 'guilt'. In addition, the Old Testament speaks of a "whole offering", kalil -- the word is a derivation of kôl or 'all'. The word 'sacrifice' in Hebrew, lehakrîv, means 'drawing nearer'.

The OT sacrificial occasions were great public festivals in which people gathered together with their families and tribes. They wished to 'draw near' to God and to each other: to be ''raised up', experience 'rest' and 'peace', to break down the 'dividing walls' between themselves and to be released from 'guilt'. The "guilt offering" involved the confession of their misdemeanours. Chapter 16 in particular, on the Great Day of Atonement, was, however, dedicated entirely to the "atonement" of sins. Aaron was to confess "all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites -- all their sins" -- and put them on the head of the scapegoat. It was decreed of that figurative "atoner" that it would "carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place" in the desert to die. The main thing was that: "Then, BEFORE THE LORD, you will be clean from all your sins." Luther loved this phrase "before the LORD", in Latin, CORAM DEO!

Atonement refers specifically to our guilt before God. 1 Samuel 2:25 asks, " If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?" Christ's atoning work answers this question of ours: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself!" Jesus was the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" "For God so loved the world!"

But what does the Jew of today think about atonement? The general understanding today is that after the destruction of the Temple prayer and fasting take the place of a specific atonement. Every morning the devout Jew prays from his Sidûr prayerbook: "Lord of the Universe, Thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and Thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in his office... may Thy will, therefore, be...  that the speech of our lips shall be considered our offering. The Talmud stresses the fact that "even the death of a righteous person can make atonement". The question is raised in a discussion, " 'How can Aaron's death have an effect upon the vestments of the priesthood?' This teaches that, just as the vestments of the priesthood have an atoning effect, even more will the death of the righteous make atonement."68  Good works in themselves have also an atoning significance for the Jew.

However, specifically on the Great Day of Atonement the Jew feels that his sins must be forgiven before God. On that day even Isaiah 53 is sometimes mentioned: although it is missing from the annual reading from the prophets, it appears in a remarkable prayer which is read in the Synagogue. The separate prayerbook for the feast days, the Mahzôr Rabbah, contains a literary prayer by Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Qalir which may be from the ninth century AD, and according to some Israeli authorities possibly even from the sixth century.69 The prayer begins poetically: "At that time, before the creation, he already set up the oasis and the Yinnon" -- the word 'oasis' refers to the Temple, and 'Yinnon' to the Branch, the Messiah.

The main body of the prayer reads: "Then, before the creation, he already set up the Temple and the Messiah [the Rabbis' interpretation]... the Messiah our Righteosness has turned away from us, we are shaken, and can find no-one who can justify us. The yoke of our sins and our transgressions is a burden to us; and he was wounded for our transgressions, he suffered on his shoulders our iniquities; there is forgiveness for our sins. In his wounds we are healed; it is time to create for ever a new creation. Send him back from the circles, bring him back from Seir, so that we might hear him in Lebanon a second time through Yinnon. He is our God, our Father, our King, he is our Saviour and he will liberate and redeem us for a second time and let us hear of his grace a second time in everyone's sight, as it is said: 'I will save you at the end as at the beginning so that I will be your God.70

This prayer, which is couched in somewhat enigmatic language, says that the "Messiah Our Righteousness" has turned away from his people. Rabbi Saadia Gaon combines this Messiah-term with the Son of Man concept.71 Although the person praying is shaken, he recognises that the Messiah has already carried his burdens. Therefore forgiveness is to be found through the fulfilment of Isaiah 53. In this way a "new creation" is effected.72 The "circle" idea is set out by the prayerbook itself as meaning "the circles of the earth". "Seir" is a secret name for Rome, the centre of Christianity, and in which, according to the Talmud, the Messiah sits "with the poor and the sick". "Lebanon" means the Temple, which "whitens" the people's sins by their sacrifices, as it's root laban is the equivalent of "white". The one praying repeats that God will save his people a "second time". Could it be that there is here Rabbi Saadia Gaon's idea that the Son of Man will return in his glory? Since we have mentioned the possible "second coming" of the Messiah we must here refer to the fact that in the Sidûr prayer book there is a prayer for both weekday mornings and Sabbath afternoons in which there is the request that, "May it be Thy will... that we would deserve and live and see and inherit goodness and blessing ON THE TWO DAYS OF THE MESSIAH."73

Isaiah 53 has still two more basic features which are characteristic of the whole chapter. First, the figure of the suffering Messiah will startle his generation: "What they were not told, they will see," "Who has believed our message?" -- in other words there is no question here of the familiar idea, found in the nations around ancient Israel, of a dying and rising God. So as not to see him "men hid their faces". He was "despised, and we esteemed him not". The Rabbis said that he was so appalling that no-one could bear to look at him. "By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants?" Perhaps just this fact that he was "disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness" helps the suffering person who feels that he has lost even his value as a human being and his humanity. It is illustrative of this that mankind's most humbled people, lepers, have received help through this  HIVRâH. The rich aristocratic youth Francis of Assisi, after his encounter with Christ, was one day riding home when he saw a leper at the side of the road. The love of God filled his heart and he dismounted, went over to the man and embraced him. Soon he was to found special hospices for such sufferers, as did some nuns in his footsteps, all of which eventually lead to the victory over leprosy in Europe.

The second basic feature is in the use of "he" and "we": "Surely he took up our infirmities." "He was pierced for our transgressions." "By his wounds we are healed." "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." "For the transgression of my people he was stricken." The word for "he" in this last passage, lâmô, can, it is true, mean both singular and plural. Thus Ibn Ezra, for example, interprets the passage as, "For the transgression of my people they were stricken". If, however, we practise interpretation of this nature in order to avoid the thought of a Messiah-individual, we do indeed jump out of the frying pan, but only to find ourselves in the fire, for it would mean that the people of Israel receive punishment for their own sins. RaDaQ wishes to avoid this impression when he says that "every nation must think about the fact that they will be punished for their own sins." However, behind Jesus' sufferings we ought to see the words of Isaiah: "Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him" -- Jesus often repeated the Greek phrase that he "had to" suffer in order to atone for our sins.

We mentioned at the beginning of this chapter the words of the famous Moses Alshekh that, on the grounds of the "witness of tradition" it is right to see the Messiah in the Suffering Servant of the Lord. He added further that, "there are sufferings which are the result of sin and others which arise from love, when a righteous man suffers for the sins of his generation... and here the innocent righteous man, who has committed no sin, is forced to carry the sins of all the evildoers, so that they might rejoice but he will be filled with sorrow, they will be preserved in health but he will be crushed and stricken... and this testifies to the Messiah-King, who will suffer for the sins of the children of Israel, and his reward will be with him."74

We have seen that the Bible yields up a Messianic horn of plenty, as it were. The roots of the Christian faith are already to be found in the Old Testament. The Apostles' preaching arose from the conviction that "the scriptures are fulfilled" in Christ. In this way they constructed a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. In the Jewish understanding, Moses was the father of the prophets, and not only the 'law' was seen in the Torah but also the prophetic message. When Jesus spoke of himself in the light of the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, we can see that this point of departure was very natural. The classic phrase runs that the New Testament is 'concealed' in the Old, and we have been able to see this with regard to every fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. Even the Suffering Christ can be found throughout the Old Testament.

Since, as researchers have demonstrated, we generally think in pictures rather than in words, we have attempted throughout to 'lighten' our presentation by taking illustrative examples from real life. Isaiah 53 has been a turning point in the lives of many Jews. One of them is Rabbi Josef Rabbinowitsch, the founder of the Kischinev "New Covenant Church of Israel" in Russia. Among other events in his life he took part in Moody's meetings at the World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.75

Rabbinowitsch fled to Palestine from the pogroms of Russia in 1881, intending to found a colony there. He had received a New Testament from one of his relatives, as this book was "one of the best guides to the Holy Land". One day he climbed up the Mount of Olives and looked over the Kidron valley at Jerusalem on the other side, and a question came into his mind: "Why has the city of David been desolate all these centuries, and still is? Why have my people lived so long in their dispersal? Why do we go through these persecutions again and again?"

While reflecting on these things his gaze rested on the hill of Calvary. The words of the prophet Isaiah rose to his consciousness. He repeated by heart: "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted." In the same instant it dawned on him that Jesus was the promised Messiah who suffered and died for the sins of his people. This realisation changed his whole life. On returning to Russia he preached everywhere that, "The keys to the Holy Land are in the hands of our brother Jesus, and his words are rooted in our hearts, where they bring forth the fruits of righteousness".

58.    Klausner, Messianic Idea, p8 and 258.
59.    Sukka 52b.
60.    See A. Lukyn Williams, Cristian Evidences, pp169-172, and Dalman, Der leidende und der sterbende Messias, pp35-39.
61.    Sanhedrin 97b.
62.    Midrash Ruth Rabbah, parasha 5.
63.    Vayikra Rabbah, par. 34.
64.    Zohar, Jerusalem 1970, the Sullam exposition, vol. IV, "on the Messiah's coming",p36.
65.    Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, par. 12.
66.    Zohar, Amsterdam Ed., Shemoth, p98. See also Deut. chap. 28.
67.    Eg. Matt. 8:17, Luke 22:37, Acts 8:32 or 1 Pet. 2:22-25.
68.    Mo'ed Katan 28a.
69.    See Arthur W. Kac, The Messianic Hope, p83 or Aharon Mirsk who, in his book Reshît ha-piut, (Jerusalem 1968, p87), places him in the 6th cent. AD.
70.    Mahzôr Rabbah for the Great Day of Atonement, Eshkol ed. p330. The form of the words is that of the Sephardic prayers.
71.    Mikraoth Gedoloth on Daniel 7:13.
72.    See eg. Gal. 6:16 and 2 Cor. 5:17.
73.    Eg. Sidûr ha-shalem, Beit Rafael publication, T-A, pp105 and 273.
74.    Alexander McCaul, artic. publ. in Hebr. on Is. 53, London 1899, p22. See also Is. 62:11.
75.    W.R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, p361.



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