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Isaiah 53:10 reads

וַיהֹוָה חָפֵץ דַּכְּאוֹ הֶחֱלִי אִם־תָּשִׂים אָשָׁם נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה זֶרַע יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים וְחֵפֶץ יְהֹוָה בְּיָדוֹ יִצְלָח
But it pleased the Lord to crush him by disease: if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the purpose of the Lord shall prosper in his hand

זֶרַע appears to have a physical sense in Hebrew, as in Leviticus 15:32 where it refers to a seminal emission. Indeed earlier in Isaiah 41:8 it refers to physical offspring. However 1st and 2nd century CE authors appear to spiritualize זֶרַע to include spiritual descendants of Jesus of Nazareth (The Bible With And Without Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine - The Servant's History in Later Jewish And Christian Traditions)

Does זֶרַע refer to biological descendants? Or does it refer to spiritual descendants? What do other occurrences (cf. Gen. 12:7; Gen. 15:13; Gen. 46:6; Ex. 28:43; and others) of זֶרַע in the Hebrew bible refer to? If metaphorical, what about the context of Isaiah 53:10 lends itself to a metaphorical exegesis?

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    Thanks for the reference to Prof. Levine's book... I hadn't seen it previously and just ordered it from my library. Commented Jul 11 at 12:56

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This is a matter of theological opinion. As @Dottard's answer indicates, the word for "seed" in this context normally refers to physical descendants. However, since Jesus had no known physical children Christians take it here as referring to themselves, as Jesus' spiritual children. So what lends itself to a metaphorical exegesis for Christians is the simple fact that Jesus did not have physical descendants. Therefore "seed" must be interpreted spiritually.

Jews, on the other hand, often do not interpret Isaiah 53 as a messianic prophecy in the first place. Rather, it is understood to be part of a series of "Servant Songs" in which the Servant is understood to be the nation of Jacob/Israel. This interpretation understands the suffering one to represent Israel during its exile. This is supported by the many references to the Servant as "Jacob" or "Israel" in preceding chapters, plus the context of chapter 54, which clearly describes the liberation and restoration of Jerusalem. In this case "his seed" refers to the restored people of Israel/Judah.

Isaiah 54

Raise a glad cry, you barren one who never bore a child, break forth in jubilant song, you who have never been in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the Lord. 2 Enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs. 3 For you shall spread abroad to the right and left; your descendants shall dispossess the nations and shall people the deserted cities.

On the other hand, some Jewish interpreters do understand the sufferer of Isaiah 53 to be a specific person, possibly even the Messiah. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains:

In this, a prophetic anticipatory picture of the Messiah has been recognized by both Jewish and Christian tradition. Modern critics read into it the portraits of Jeremiah, Zerubbabel, or Sheshbazar. Rothstein (and Sellin at present) holds the description to be meant for Jehoiachin; while Bertholet, dividing the chapters into two distinct "songs," regards the first as a glorification of a teacher of the Torah; and the second as that of Eleazar (II Macc. vi. 18-31). Duhm also is inclined to separate this description into two distinct "songs"; but he declares it to be impossible to assign a definite person as the model. The "man of suffering" is, however, a teacher of the Torah... Saadia referred the whole section to Jeremiah; and Ibn Ezra finds this view a probable one. Kraetzschmar, among moderns, selects Ezekiel for the model on account of Ezek. iv.

Conclusion: The question is a issue of theological opinion on which various hermeneutical approaches will yield different results. Basically, "seed" usually means physical descendants. In this case the Suffering Servant (either the nation of Israel or a specific person) survives his trials and enlarges the nation or his family. But "seed" can also be understood to mean spiritual children. This is the normal Christian interpretation of the passage.

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Here is my (overly literal) translation of Isa 53:10 -

Yet YHWH was pleased to bruise Him [with/by] grief/disease, when you make sin of His soul; He shall see seed; He shall prolong days; And pleasure/purpose of YHWH shall prosper in His hand.

The OP is correct that the word זֶרַע (zera = "seed") is mostly used literally but sometimes metaphorically/spiritually.

A: Literal uses of זֶרַע (zera = "seed")

  1. Plant seed, eg, Gen 47:14, 19, 23, 24, Lev 27:16, 1 Sam 8:15, etc
  2. Human semen, eg, Num 5:28, Lev 15:16, 22:4, etc
  3. Human descendants, Gen 21:13, 24:60, 48:19, Isa 41:8, etc.
  4. Animal offspring/descendants, eg, Gen 7:3

B: Spiritual descendants of a moral quality

  1. Spiritual descendants (whether good or bad), Isa 1:4, 14:20, 57:3, 4, 61:9, 65:9, 23, Prov 11:21, Jer 2:21, Mal 2:15, etc.

According to BDB, Isa 53:10 is placed in the final category. I agree for the following reasons:

  • Isa 53 is part of the final of Isaiah's servant songs about the coming Messiah [Jesus] who had no literal/biological progeny. Thus, any "seed" of the Messiah must refer to the moral/spiritual descendants. That is, the coming of Messiah was NOT to produce literal children but spiritual children of the kingdom
  • Isaiah frequently used the word זֶרַע (zera = "seed") in its metaphorical sense and very rarely in the literal sense.
  • The NT confirms this by frequently using the phrase "Children of God", 1 John 3:2, 10, 5:2, Rom 8:16, 21, 1 John 5:2, Phil 2:15, etc. Note especially -

Rom 9:8 - So it is not the children of the flesh who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as offspring.

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  • really helpful answer, thank you. Tiny question, you mentioned "Isaiah frequently used the word זֶרַע (zera = "seed") in its metaphorical sense and very rarely in the literal sense" - could you add the verses you're referring to? I only see Isa 1:4 earlier in the answer categorized as a spiritual meaning, and to be candid that appears to be referring to (what Christians would call) "physical Israel" Commented Jul 11 at 13:21
  • @AviAvraham - the phrase in Isa 1:4 is "seed of evildoers" implying the people are offspring of Satan and not Abraham. Isa 5:10, 55:10 are literal, but if you ask a separate question, I will list them all - not enough space in a comment.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jul 11 at 21:50

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