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Isaiah 53:9

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Most major translations I've found use "violence" here. Yet a basic description of the word gives it a range of meanings of "violence, wrong, cruelty, injustice".

What is the best understanding here based on the word itself, the context of the verse and it's usage in Isaiah and beyond?

Is it communicating violence of any nature (breaking a keyboard in anger) or exclusively a more criminal or unjust nature (mugging, assault, murder)?

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The Hebrew phrase לֹא חָמָס עָשָׂה (loʾ chāmās ʿāsāh) could possibly suggest that the individual did not commit a crime (i.e., act of violence) that warranted being imprisoned and sentenced to death (e.g., committing murder),1 without necessarily suggesting that he was a righteous or innocent man. However, the prophet Isaiah also describes this individual as being Yahveh’s “righteous servant.”2 In addition to the phrase וְלֹא מִרְמָה בְּפִיו (veloʾ mirmāh befiv), “and there was no deceit in his mouth,” the prophet Isaiah thus seems to intend to emphasize the absolute innocence and righteousness of the individual. Thus, it would be more fitting to translate לֹא חָמָס עָשָׂה as “he did not do [anything] wrong.” The absolute innocence of the servant is thus placed in antithesis to those who sentenced him to death, whose sins and transgressions he carried and bore.3

The Hebrew noun חָמָס (chāmās) can certainly be understood as “violence,”4 but it also can mean a “wrong” or “wrongdoing,” without the implication of physical force.5 The noun חָמָס occurs twice elsewhere in Isaiah,6 each time apparently in the sense of physical violence and bloodshed. The related verb חָמַס (chāmas) does not occur in Isaiah.


Footnotes

1 cp. Isa. 53:8
2 cp. Isa. 53:11: “my righteous servant” (צַדִּיק עַבְדִּי)
3 Isa. 53:5-6, 53:11-12
4 Gen. 6:11, 6:13, 49:5 (cp. Gen. 34:25); Jdg. 9:24 (cp. Jdg. 9:5); Joel 3:19; Hab. 2:8, 2:17
5 Gen. 16:5
6 Isa. 59:6, 60:18 cp. Isa. 59:3

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  • I've seen Jews write that Jesus cannot be the suffering servant because, by the NT testimony, he "violently" overturned the temple market (they also list other things such as Matt 10:34 statements like "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."). Do you think that is a fair usage of this phrase in Isaiah, that it would fit what you have described? Or is that making it to mean something that it is not saying?
    – Joshua
    Jun 26 '16 at 22:05
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    @Joshua: I suppose by violence, it actually means violence done to another person, typically in the form of bloodshed, not to a table. :) Even then, it is not absolutely unlawful to be violent toward someone, e.g. in the case of Phinehas who was rewarded by Yahveh for his zeal (cp. Num. 25:6-12), being given the “covenant of peace”! Likewise, the Lord Jesus Christ acted out of zealousness for the Father (cp. John 2:17). So, we may ask, “Was it lawful violence”?
    – user862
    Jun 26 '16 at 23:31
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The phrase “because no” (על לא) does not appear to have any particular vowel pointing nuance or exceptions of spelling in Hebrew Scripture, however the Masoretic scholars noted that the phrase “because no” occurs three times in the Masoretic Text. (Please see the middle column on Masoretic note on Page 486 of the Codex Leningradis online.) Notwithstanding that there is no footnote or endnote to advise the reader where these other verses occur, modern Bible software indicates that the other two locations where this phrase appears are in Psalm 119:136 and Job 16:17.

For example, the Book of Job contains the exact same phrase “because no violence” (על לא-חמס) as the Book of Isaiah. And the Masoretic scholars could have said “two instances of this phrase in the Masoretic Text,” but they did not. They cut the phrase short to “because no,” and only noted that there were three appearances of the phrase “because no” (על לא) in the Masoretic Text.

Within the Masoretic Text the word for violence, chāmās (חמס), occurs sixty times, and the meanings vary between violence, wrong, cruelty, and injustice among others. In the Book of Job (as noted in the previous paragraph) the meaning appears to be explicit physical violence. However, the third verse noted by the Masoretic scholars was Psalm 119:136, which speaks to non-observance of the Law of Moses. In other words, the meaning of chāmās (חמס), in Isaiah 53:9 appears to have more to do with injustice than with violence, as the following paragraphs will make clear.

The Masoretic scholars used a system of cantillation not only for the pleasure of associating musical notation to Scripture, but also for the purpose of creating dichotomies of logic in the Scripture, which facilitated the memorization of the Scripture (through the accompaniment of cantillation). The following diagram is the logical division of the verse in this regard with cantillation notations.

enter image description here

Each segment is modified by the following segment. Each segment is further divided. Again, each segment is modified by the following segment. The major divisions, in turn, modify the previous major segments. In this regard, 99% of all verses in the Hebrew Scriptures possess these divisions, where segments and sub-segments modify the previous segments. In English, the segmentation of Isaiah 53:9 would appear as follows.

enter image description here

When we address the logical segment division of this verse, and we consider how the same Masoretic scholars associated the words with Psalm 119:136, the apparent and obvious meaning of chāmās (חמס) in this particular context is injustice. In other words, there was no deceit in his mouth, which is non violent, since words are only sound waves uttered through the vocal chords. This part of the verse modifies chāmās (חמס), which must mean injustice. That is, he committed no injustice through any utterances ever made by his mouth.

However, the nuance of Job 16:17 comes to mind, which is the third verse noted by the Masoretic scholars, since the effects of words sometimes can and do have the same effect as actual physical violence.

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  • So the better understanding in context of Isaiah should be "injustice", supported by Psalm 119,, but most translations have kept it "violence" because of the exact match in grammar to Job 16?
    – Joshua
    Jun 26 '16 at 22:51
  • ohh so you think it's saying no violent words or deceitful speech(both verbal) as opposed to contrasting violent acts and deceitful words?
    – Joshua
    Jun 27 '16 at 14:27
  • @Joshua - I do not know. What I will do is leave the comment alone, and leave the explanation as simple as possible.
    – Joseph
    Jun 27 '16 at 14:35

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