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Why do different translations render Isaiah 53:8 differently in English:

מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמוֹ.

One translation says that the plague would befall the people:

From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken, and his generation who shall tell? For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them. (Isaiah 53:8 Judaica Press Complete Tanach)

And another says it will befall the "suffering servant":

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. (Isaiah 53:8 NIV)

Which is it? Will the people as a whole or the individual suffer?

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The Hebrew uses masculine grammar to talk about the servant. As noted by HebrewHammer, the word we would expect if singular is לו. The word here, לָמוֹ, is of unclear number. However, it doesn't actually matter -- this refers to a group (the nation of Israel), which can be referred to as either plural or singular. Throughout Tanakh we see singular language being used to refer to nations (e.g. Amalek, Devarim 25:17).

How do we know who the servant is? Isaiah identifies the servant in other passages:

But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me 41:8

And He said to me, "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast." 49:3

And now, hearken, Jacob My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. So said the Lord your Maker, and He Who formed you from the womb shall aid you. Fear not, My servant Jacob, and Jeshurun whom I have chosen. 44:1-2

Remember these, O Jacob; and Israel, for you are My servant; I formed you that you be a servant to Me, Israel, do not forget Me. 44:21

For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen one, and I called to you by your name; I surnamed you, yet you have not known Me. 45:4

Leave Babylon, flee from the Chaldeans; with a voice of singing declare, tell this, publicize it to the end of the earth; say, "The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob." 48:20

The servant is repeatedly identified as Israel or Jacob (meaning the nation, not the man). As noted earlier, nations are sometimes referred to using singular language. Why might some translations choose to use the plural? Probably to remove the ambiguity; it's also proper to use the plural when talking about a group, after all.

So, having established the identity of the servant as Israel, we now turn to the question: who is the recipient of the plague at the end of 53:8? A key to understanding this is to ask who is speaking in this chapter; who is "we" and "our"? At the end of the previous chapter, we see it is the "kings who shut their mouths" who begin to speak. These are the kings of the other nations, who are amazed that Israel could survive after everything they've done to that nation. In v8, then, "because of the transgression of my people" refers to the foreign nations who opposed Israel, and those transgressions befell Israel -- the nation (plural) and the servant (singular).


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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It's a bit like saying, "September 11 was a tough day for Uncle Sam, but like December 7, it brought them together." That part makes sense. But what seems odd to me is the verses in that chapter that make it sound like the sufferer was not the same as all the people: "But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wound we were healed." Isaiah 53:5 How does that work with the symbolism? –  Jon Ericson Jul 7 '13 at 22:36
    
The question is who is the "we" in Is. 53? Israel itself probably wouldn't say v1 as written. Try reading it from the perspective of other nations talking about Israel, the "kings who shut their mouths" at the end of the previous chapter. They are amazed that Israel could survive after everything they've done to that nation (their transgressions etc). (I admit this interpretation may seem difficult at first.) –  Gone Quiet Jul 7 '13 at 22:51
1  
So "Uncle Sam was attacked at Pearl Harbor for our benefit" would be senseless if speaking as a US citizen alone. But speaking as an opponent of the Axis powers, it fits. Got it. Thanks. –  Jon Ericson Jul 7 '13 at 22:58
    
Yes, nicely put. Thanks for bringing the contemporary context to help explain. (I was actually trying to work something like that in but gave up for fear that it would distract.) –  Gone Quiet Jul 7 '13 at 23:00
    
So the servant here refers to Israel rather than Jesus? –  Jim Thio Jul 8 '13 at 2:43

Identifying the Servant Yisra'el in Isa. 49:3

The suffering servant in Isaiah 49:3 cannot be the nation of Israel.

It is certainly true that the prophet Isaiah identifies the servant in Isa. 49:3 by the name "Yisra'el" when he writes,

3 And said to me, "You are my servant, O' Yisra'el, in whom I will be glorified."

וַיֹּאמֶר לִי עַבְדִּי־אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר־בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר

However, notice what the prophet Isaiah writes just a few verses later, writing the words of the servant:

5 And now said YHVH who formed me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Ya'akov back to Him, and Yisra'el shall be gathered to Him, and I shall be glorious in the eyes of YHVH, and my God shall be my strength --- 6 And He said, "It is a small thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Ya'akov and to restore the preserved of Yisra'el. I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles, so that you may be My salvation unto the end of the earth."

וְעַתָּה אָמַר יְהוָה יֹצְרִי מִבֶּטֶן לְעֶבֶד לֹו לְשֹׁובֵב יַֽעֲקֹב אֵלָיו וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לא1 יֵאָסֵף וְאֶכָּבֵד בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה וֵאלֹהַי הָיָה עֻזִּי וַיֹּאמֶר נָקֵל מִֽהְיֹותְךָ לִי עֶבֶד לְהָקִים אֶת־שִׁבְטֵי יַעֲקֹב ונצירי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהָשִׁיב וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאֹור גֹּויִם לִֽהְיֹות יְשׁוּעָתִי עַד־קְצֵה הָאָֽרֶץ

Notice that the servant named Yisra'el in Isa. 49:3 is responsible:

  • "to bring back Ya'akov to Him" (Isa. 49:5)
  • "to raise up the tribes of Ya'akov" (Isa. 49:6)
  • "to restore the preserved of Yisra'el (Isa. 49:6)

If, as Orthodox Judaism contends, the servant named Yisra'el in Isa. 49:3 refers to the nation of Yisra'el, how then can the nation of Yisra'el bring itself back to YHVH, raise itself up, gather itself, and restore itself? Clearly, the servant Yisra'el and the nation of Ya'akov/ Yisra'el are two distinct entities.

It is well attested in scripture that the son of David (i.e., the Messiah) would be responsible for gathering the dispersed of Yisra'el and bringing them back to the holy land (cp. Isa. 11:12), the same tasks assigned to the servant Yisra'el in Isa. 49:5-6.

The manner in which the prophet Isaiah names the servant Yisra'el and then proceeds to mention another Yisra'el whom the same servant Yisra'el is supposed to bring back, raise up, gather, and restore, clearly indicates that the servant Yisra'el is not the other Yisra'el who is brought back. Again, they are two distinct entities.

If the servant Yisra'el is not the nation of Yisra'el, then who is it? It's easy to understand why someone would think the servant Yisra'el in Isa. 49:3 is the nation of Yisra'el. After all, the majority of the Tanakh focuses on the experiences of the nation of Yisra'el. However, the name Yisra'el originally belongs to the patriarch Yisra'el (cp. Gen. 32:28). That being said, it is common for the King Messiah to be alluded to in scripture by the names of his ancestors. For example, in Jer. 30:9, we see that the Messiah is named "David."2 3 4

In the same manner, the Messiah is named "Yisra'el" in Isa. 49:3, after the patriarch Yisra'el, his ancestor. We know this must be the case because of the manner in which the prophet Isaiah speaks of the servant Yisra'el bringing back, raising up, gathering, and restoring another entity named "Ya'akov/ Yisra'el" which is evidently distinct from himself.

That the servant Yisra'el in Isa. 49:3 referred to Christ was asserted by the New Testament authors5 as well as the early Church fathers.6

Exegesis of Isa. 53:8

Hebrew Text:

מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת־דֹּורֹו מִי יְשֹׂוחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמֹו

English Translation:

From imprisonment and judgment he was taken,

And his generation, who shall consider?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

Because of the transgression of my people,

A plague was to him.

Debate involving this verse primarily concerns two matters:

  • the Hebrew word לָמוֹ (lamo), translated as "to him" or "to them"
  • the prefixed preposition מ in the word מִפֶּשַׁע (mipesha), altogether translated as "for the transgression" or "because of the transgression."

First, the prefixed preposition מ. Some argue that this preposition should not be translated as "for" as it is in the KJV. However, this translation is not impossible since the prefixed preposition מ is sometimes used in the sense of "for," "because of," "on account of" (cp. Joel 3:19; see Gesenius' lexicon, מן, p. 582(f)). Thus, the Hebrew phrase מִפֶּשַׁע means "for the transgression" or "because of the transgression."

Next, the Hebrew word לָמוֹ. This is a unique word which consists of the preposition ל which is usually translated as "for," combined with a rare pronominal suffix מו-. Some (most Jewish translations) translate this word as "for them," indicating a plural object. Others (most Christian translations) translate this word as "for him," indicating a singular object.

Rabbi David Kimchi (רד"ק) was one of the first Jewish commentators to argue that the Christian translation as "for them" was a corruption of the actual meaning of the word לָמוֹ.

In his commentary on Psalms 2:12, he wrote,7

והנוצרים שמפרשים אותו על ישו...ואמ' נגע למו היה לו לומר לו כי למו הוא כמו להם לשון רבים

And the Christians who explain it about Yeshu'a...

...and [the prophet] said, "A plague was 'to them' (למו), but [if it was about Yeshu'a] he should have said 'to him' (לו), for למו is like להם, a plural expression.

Kimchi argues that if the Christian translation as "to him" was correct, the word would have been לו, "to him," rather than למו, which he asserts is equivalent to the plural להם, "to them." However, Kimchi is incorrect as the pronominal suffix is not always understood as plural. In fact – and this is most noteworthy – Kimchi contradicts his own opinion. In his grammatical treatise entitled Sefer Mikhlol (ספר מכלול),8 he specifically wrote concerning the pronominal suffix מו:

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מוֹ הוא בנוי הנסתרים בהתחבר עם הפעלים והשמות ומלים… ויש מוֹ בנוי היחיד המסתר: כִּי יִסְכּוֹן עָלֵימוֹ, וְיַמְטֵר עָלֵימוֹ בִּלְחוּמוֹ. כי המ"ם והו"ו כמו שכתבנו יש בו סימן רבים וסימן יחיד. כי המ"ם סימן הרבים הנסתרים והו"ו סימן היחיד הנסתר. לפיכך יבוא על הרבים ועל היחיד.

מוֹ is a 3rd person, masculine number, plural number suffix when joined with verbs, nouns, and particles… מוֹ is also a 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number suffix: (Job 22:2) הַלְאֵל יִסְכָּן גָּבֶר כִּי יִסְכֹּן עָלֵימֹו מַשְׂכִּיל; (Job 20:23) וְיַמְטֵר עָלֵימוֹ בִּלְחוּמוֹ. For the מ and the ו (i.e., מוֹ), just as we wrote, contains the indication of the masculine gender, plural number and the indication of the masculine gender, singular number. For the מ is the indication of the 3rd person, masculine gender, plural number, and the ו is the indication of the 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number. Therefore, it (i.e., מוֹ) occurs for the [3rd person,] masculine gender, plural number and for the [3rd person,] masculine gender, singular number.

Footnotes

1 In Isa. 49:5, the Keri reading according to the Massorah is לֹו ("to Him"), and the Ktiv reading is לא ("not").

2 Radak's commentary:

אפשר שאמר זה על דוד המלך שיקימנו מעפרו בעת תחיית המתים, ואפשר שיאמר על המשיח בנו ויקרא שמו דוד.

"It is possible that it said this about King David who will be raised from the dust at the time of the resurrection of the dead. And, it is possible that it says this about the Messiah, his son, and it called his name "David."

3 Targum Yonatan:

וְיִפלְחוּן קְֹדָם יוי אֲלָהֲהוֹן וְיִשתַמעוּן לִמשִיחָא בַר דָוִיד מַלכְהוֹן דַאֲקִים לְהוֹן׃

And they shall serve YHVH their God and listen to the Messiah the son of David their king whom I shall raise for them.

4 Metzudat David commentary:

זהו מלך המשיח הבא מזרע דוד

This is the King Messiah who comes from the seed of David.

5 Luke 2:32

6 Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. C, CXIV, CXXVI

7 Adolf Neubauer; Samuel Rolles Driver: The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters, Vol. I, p. 54; also, Vol. II, p. 55.

8 Kimchi, David. Sefer Mikhlol (ספר מכלול). Venice: Bomberg, Daniel: 1545.

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