I'm currently trying to understand the atonement and Isaiah 53 often comes up as a proof text in penal substitution theory. I noticed in verse 4 that it often is translated as it was God who struck him down. Is there any reason why this couldn't be translated as gods instead , given that elohim can also be a plural used elsewhere, e.g. in Deuteronomy 32:8,9?

The background to this is the idea that the gods of the nations are judged in psalm 82. They're the "strong bulls of Bashan" mentioned in psalm 22, which is often used in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus, and the possibility that the darkness over the land at his death was the descending of the spiritual forces of darkness to vent their wrath on the "vineyard owner's son". Hence, could Isaiah 53:4 be alternatively, and yet correctly, according to text, not theological eisegesis, be translated as 'struck down by gods'?

Thanks in advance for any help with this as I'm no Hebrew scholar in this respect.

  • 1
    I am at a complete loss to understand your question. "Penal Substitution Theory" is a piece of theology about the atonement - one of at least seven or eight such. Not all subscribe to the PST. What exactly are you asking?
    – Dottard
    Apr 17, 2022 at 9:16

1 Answer 1


The Bible does often translate Elohim as gods (around 10% of the time), and indeed Isaiah more than most. For, example in Isaiah 21:9. However, the texts are normally ambiguous about the subject. In Isaiah those examples of "gods" are distinguished as such: 21:9, the images of the gods of Babylon, 36:20: the gods of these lands, 42:17, the gods of those who trust in Idols.

Isaiah 37:19 is worth quoting in full:

They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.

And chapter 41 deals with the same subject. Isaiah is clear: the gods of the Babylons are not real gods. They are powerless. For the prophet to suddenly go back on himself is too strange to be a sensible reading of the bare "elohim".

Isaiah 46:9

Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.

Elsewhere, also in the Old Testament where elohim means "gods" there is a clear referent. In the Pentateuch, there are often references to "other gods" with "other" being used to distinguish them from God.

There is also a parallel description of the suffering servant, a few verses after 53:4 in 53:6

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This is the same he, and it describes the same suffering, however here it is using the divine name. Certainly, God is laying on the iniquity. In a different book, I think there could be a case to be made that 52:4 could be God using the powers and principalities to punish, but not in Isaiah that makes the powerlessness of idols such a central theme, not without some clear referent to resolve the ambiguity.

In conclusion, the grammar might permit it*. However, the context does not.

*I think that מֻכֵּ֥ה and מְעֻנֶּֽה take their singular forms from the singularity of the servant rather than Elohim, but I won't pretend to say with absolute confidence.

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