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
מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת־דֹּורֹו מִי יְשֹׂוחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמֹו
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. Remember, למו is simply the preposition -ל combined with the pronominal suffix מו-. This pronominal suffix also occurs on the word עָלֵימוֹ in Job 20:23 and Job 22:2 where it is translated in the singular ("him" or "himself").
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.