The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based war monitor, estimates the total death toll in Syria after the Arab Spring failed, to be about 610,000 after 12 years of civil war. “Evil has appeared on land and sea because of what the hands of men have done” (Qur’an 30:41)
And on my birthday, June 11, 2023, the main peak of Mt. Fluchthorn, on the border of Austria and Switzerland, collapsed without warning. Roughly 3.5 million cubic feet of earth tumbled down, filling a small valley below with rocks, mud, and dirt, LiveScience reported. Thank God no one was hurt but why did the peak collapse?
Like many mountains in the far north, Mt. Fluchthorn had a lot of permafrost, a permanent layer of ice and dirt under the mountain’s surface that is important because frozen water within the ground holds the steep ground surface together and prevents it from moving. But when permafrost ice melts on a mountain, the liquid water flows away and the ground surface becomes less stable very quickly.
If humans do not quickly reduce oil, gas and coal usage we will be rejecting the Bible’s promise that: “Though the mountains may shake and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10)
Both Judaism and Islam teach their followers to take care of the earth. Muslims and Jews also believe that humans should act as guardians and trustees (stewardship and khalifah) for the planet, and that they will be held accountable by God for their actions.
And what will a half degree Celsius of warming do to our planet?
Well parts of Earth’s ice sheets that could lift global ocean levels by several meters will crumble with another half degree Celsius of warming, according to new research which suggests that the number of people threatened by sea level rise has been underestimated by tens of millions due to poorly-interpreted satellite data and a lack of scientific resources in developing countries.
Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have already shed more than half-a-trillion metric tons annually since 2000. These kilometers-thick ice cubes have replaced glacier melt as the single biggest source of sea level rise, which has accelerated three-fold over the last decades compared to most of the 20th century. And the intensity of extreme drought and rainfall has “sharply” increased over the past 20 years, according to a study published March 13, 2023 in the journal Nature Water.
These reports are coming out with increasing frequency, and more and more people feel the world is undergoing a terrible transformation which will lead to massive worldwide destruction.
Recent Jewish and Christian history enables us to understand in a new way Isaiah’s famous passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) about God’s servant whose tragic suffering can be redemptive to those who once reviled and belittled him. In Jewish thought the prophet Isaiah himself provides the strongest evidence for the claim that God’s servant is Israel, the Jewish People.
Four verses in prior chapters of Isaiah specifically state that Israel/Jacob is God’s servant. “You Israel are my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen” (41:8), “Hear me now, Jacob my servant; hear me, Israel my chosen” (44:1), “Have no fear, Jacob my servant: Jeshurun whom I have chosen” (44:2), “Remember all this, Jacob, remember Israel, for you are my servant” (44:21).
These verses make it clear that Israel/Jacob is God’s chosen servant. The national community is spoken of in terms of an individual, as is often the case in the Bible (see Jeremiah 30:10).
However, many rabbis did identify Isaiah’s messianic figure as a person, usually as a Messiah, a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah. Other Rabbis had other interpretations. Rabbi Sa’adyah Ga’on glosses the figure as referring to the Prophet Jeremiah. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel rejects that and thinks the suffering servant is Josiah, King of Israel.
I think this individual is a messianic figure called by the rabbis: Messiah, son of Joseph, i.e. from one of the northern tribes, who precedes David’s son, and is killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. If we keep in mind both the Josephson messiah as well as the role of Israel/Jacob as God’s chosen servant, we will better understand Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy.
The belief that there would be two different messiahs, one a moral political leader from the house of David (Davidson) and the other, a religious reformer from the house of Aaron (Aronson), as well as a special “end of days” prophet such as Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14) is found in inter-testament literature. A Dead Sea scroll states that the Qumran community must continue to live according to the original discipline “until there shall come a prophet (Elijah) and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel ” (Manual of Discipline 9:11).
There is also a rabbinic belief in a messianic figure from the northern tribes called a Josephson messiah who is killed by Israel’s enemies. This idea may be modeled on the example of Saul who reigned before David and was killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. Thus there could be as many as four individual messianic figures as well as the people of Israel who act as God’s agents in bringing about the Messianic Age.
Gentile rulers also play a role, first as destructive oppressors of the Jewish people, and second when their successors later acknowledge their error and are ultimately included in helping bring about the Messianic Age’s worldwide blessings. The Persian King Cyrus was such a messiah (Isaiah 45:1)
All of this makes for a complicated future scenario that might take generations, or even centuries to develop. When people are persecuted, afflicted and oppressed as a community, and despised and rejected as individuals, they need hope for a much quicker and simpler process of redemption.
This is why there is an overwhelming focus on the final stage Davidson messiah by most teachers, preachers, commentators and expositors. This is also the reason that those who believe in the imminent coming of the Davidson messiah always think it will occur soon within their lifetime (John 14:19, 21:22).
Islam adds to all these Messiahs the figure of a Mahdi (Arabic: ٱلْمَهْدِيّ al-Mahdī). A messianic figure in Islamic eschatology who will appear at the end of times to rid the world of evil and injustice. Said to be a descendant of Muhammad, and thus a descendant of Prophet Abraham, he will appear shortly before Prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus) and defeat the evil forces of Gog and Magog (Ya’juj and Ma’juj or Ajuj and Majuj).
Gog and Magog appear metaphorically in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and the Islamic Quran as individuals, tribes, nations, catastrophes of nature; and in our own days as racist nationalist states and political movements.
The Quran mentions Gog and Magog twice: “He said: “This (barrier) is a mercy from my Lord: but when the warning of my Lord comes to pass, He will reduce it to dust (and Gog and Magog—the Colonialist Empires, the Nazi racists, and the Communists would be released into the world); and the promise of my Lord is true.” (Qur’an 18:98)
So Gog and Magog are destructive groups like the Colonialist Empires, Nazi racists, and the Communists, as well as widespread human pollution of Mother Earth, that near the time of the end of days will penetrate every part of the world like the persistently high levels of ozone pollution in Asia that are costing China, Japan and South Korea an estimated $63 billion annually in lost rice, wheat and maize crops.
The other mention of Gog and Magog in the Quran is: “But there is a ban on a town which We have destroyed: that they (the people of the town) shall not return (to reclaim that town as their own); until Gog and Magog are let through (the barrier), and swiftly spread out in every direction.” (Qur’an 21:95-96)
This verse refers to Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and only reclaimed 18 1/2 centuries later as the State of Israel’s capital, following the era of the defeat of the Nazis, the Communists, and the Colonialist Empires, who had been Gog and Magog for many generations.
Though the Mahdi is not mentioned in the Quran, and is absent from the two most-revered Sunni hadith collections: Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim – he is mentioned in other Hadith literature; and Islamic end-time images of pre Judgement Days natural catastrophes are similar to Christian and Jewish imagery of nature’s potential disruptiveness (plagues, famine, draught, earthquakes etc.).
Also, since humans have free will, the exact time and manner of redemption cannot be determined in advance. Much depends on what we do. Repentance produces changes in the future of both individuals and nations. Repentance enables some individuals and communities to escape the consequences of prior evil. On the other hand, God’s promise is that evil powers will never succeed in destroying Israel or in overcoming worldwide justice in the long run. Thus even without full repentance, God will act if the Divine promise of a Messianic Age is threatened.
As Isaiah states a few verses prior to the suffering servant passage, “The Lord says: you were sold but no price was paid, and without payment you shall be redeemed.” (52:3) i.e. all your suffering in exile was not merited and your redemption from exile will not be fully earned. Both are part of God’s outline for human destiny and will occur sooner (through repentance) or later (in God’s own time).
Finally, if one believes that God inspired prophets are able to describe scenarios of various developments in the distant future then one has to accept that the understanding of these passages should change and improve as we come closer and closer to the times they describe. As an example, Jeremiah describes a radical future in which women surround men, “The Lord will create a new thing on earth-a woman will surround a man” (31:22).
The great commentator Rashi understands ‘surround’ to mean encircle. The most radical thing Rashi can think of (and in 11th century France it was radical) is that women will propose marriage (a wedding ring, or encircling the groom at the wedding ceremony) to men. In today’s feminist generation we can see women surrounding men in fields once almost exclusively male such as law, medical and theological schools.
Of course, this means that a few generations from now we might have an even better understanding of some predictive passages in the prophets, so humility should always be with us.
Now let us try to understand the suffering servant passage in light of 20th century Jewish history. Isaiah proclaims the good news of peace and salvation (52:7) when God returns to Zion (8) and comforts his people (9) so all the Gentiles see his salvation (10). The Jewish people will depart the exile not in flight but under God’s protection (11&12). Israel/Jacob, God’s servant, whose appearance (14) was disfigured, marred and appalling (during the holocaust) will prosper (13) and be lifted up (in subsequent generations).
A marvel for many nations, whose rulers will shut their (anti-Semitic) mouths because of this, since they will see what they had not been taught and will understand what they never heard of (15). For centuries the Church taught that the Jews were being punished for rejecting Christ and couldn’t be redeemed without believing Jesus was the Son of God.
Now some Gentile rulers see that this teaching is not really correct doctrine. The biblical message of God’s commitment to redeem Israel without their explicitly believing in Jesus wasn’t believed (53:1) but now there is a growing minority who affirm a two covenant theology.
Many Gentile rulers (kings, governments, business and religious leaders) now admit what their anti-Semitism did to the people of Israel. The Jews were like a tender shoot in dry ground, unattractive and undesirable, despised and rejected, sorrowful and familiar (intimate) with suffering (52:2&3). We (the Gentile rulers) scapegoated them and they carried our projected infirmities, but we rationalized that the Jews were stricken and afflicted by God, not by us. Israel was pierced and crushed due to our transgressions (anti-Semitism) for we sought our peace by blaming Jews for all kinds of evils (54:4&5).
This anti-Semitism led to: Crusaders slaughtering Jews in France and Germany, blaming Jews for the Bubonic Plague in central Europe, torture by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, many expulsions and pogroms at various times throughout Europe, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Jewish civilians massacred during wars in Poland (1648-9) and the Ukraine (1919-21). All this set the stage for the worst martyrdom of all, the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust (plus five million non-Jews). Each evil regime turned its own kind of iniquity (religious, political, economic and social) on its Jews (54:6).
Again and again Jews were passively taken away to exile, or like sheep to the slaughter cut off from the land of the living, though they had done no violence (54:7-9). Yet faithful Jews accepted all this as God’s will and refused to abandon their religion or their people.
Survivors of the concentration camps, who had lost their entire family, had the courage and faith to marry, and lived to see their offspring (Jewish children and grandchildren) grow up (54:10). Many, whose days were prolonged (54:10) and are now in their 70’s and 80’s, have lived long enough to see the most amazing outcomes of the Holocaust.
The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of its cities and countryside are the subject of many passages in Isaiah both preceding chapter 53 and following it. The realization of these prophecies did not require a Holocaust.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the mass departure of more than one million Soviet Jews to the land of Israel also are not directly linked to the Holocaust.But the redemptive aspect of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust for Gentile rulers and nations is emphasized in this suffering servant passage.
Of course, the Turkish government still denies responsibility for the death of over one million Armenians; the Japanese deny slaughtering 300,000 residents of Nanking during WW2, and only a few French leaders admit to the complicity of the Vichy government in rounding up Jews for the Nazi death camps.
Yet the few steps of public confession and atonement that have been taken by some political and religious leaders are truly remarkable when you consider that nothing like this has ever happened in previous human history.
If the Holocaust stimulated a willingness of religious and political leaders to accept responsibility for past examples of persecution and iniquity done by their institutions and governments continues to expand, society will improve greatly. If other governments and institutions admit responsibility for the sins of their predecessors it reduces the likelihood of repetition.
Then the numbering of God’s innocent servant- Israel/Jacob with transgressors will, when the lessons are finally learned, justify not just those directly involved in the atonement process but also many others. Israel’s pouring out of life (six million deaths) will not have been in vain, and the revivified Jewish people will see the light of life and be satisfied (54:11-12).
The ability of Christians and Jews to understand that both religions’ interpretation of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has helped bring us closer to an age of increased human rights will lead to a greater demand for universal peace and security. (Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-8) Christians have always stressed the individual aspects of personal self sacrifice for salvation. By adding national and organizational aspects, Christians can help elevate the moral level of political and organizational behavior.
When current political and religious leaders feel the need to publicly acknowledge the sins of their predecessors, itt helps to reduce the level of self righteousness that usually accompanies the corruption of political and religious power. It also warns religious people and their leaders that in the words of Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Jews can now begin to understand how the role of Jesus as the Josephson Messiah, and the example of the passion of Jesus, has motivated many political and religious leaders in our generation to apologize for evils they personally did not do, in order to set the record right.
The Davidson messiah will come after all nations, religions and political parties learn to respect and value as a gift from God, each other’s right to differ in large as well as small issues. (Micah 4:5) Since this religious reform requires great leadership from all the major religions, each religion will have to produce its own Aronson religious reformer Messianic Mahdi figure.
These many messianic mahdi religious reformers are referred to by Prophet Jeremiah positively as ‘shepherds’ (3:14-18) and their teachings will provide each religion with a reformed and renewed covenant (31:31-34).
The advocacy of religious pluralism by the major religious communities will then produce the bases for the ultimate messianic predictions of worldwide peace, justice, prosperity, and salvation that the prophets proclaimed so often. The Davidson Messiah will come last to crown our faith in God’s inspiration and deliverance.
Until then let us remember that the Qur’an refers to Prophet Abraham as a community or a nation: “Abraham was a nation/community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120) If Prophet Abraham is an Ummah then fighting between the descendants of Prophets Ishmael and Isaac is a civil war and should always be avoided.
If all Arabs and Jews can live up to the ideal that ‘the descendants of Abraham’s sons should never make war against each other’ is the will of God; we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)