A 21st Century Pope And A Messianic View Of  Isaiah 53 – OpEd


In March of 1998, Pope John Paul II wrote, “It is my fervent hope that the document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” will indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices. May it enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible. May the Lord of history guide the efforts of Catholics and Jews and all men of good will as they work together for a world of true respect for the life and dignity of every human being, for all have been created in the image and likeness of God.” 

That document ends with: “We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.” 

As a rabbi, I also pray that two major events of the 21st century: the the awesome resurrection of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel; and the awful Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jews, will enable all of us to understand in a new way the famous passage in Isaiah (52:13-53:12) about God’s servant whose tragic suffering can be redemptive to those who once reviled and belittled him. 

Most Jewish scholars have glossed the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 text as referring to the Jewish people during its exile among anti-Semitic European nations. Christian scholars gloss the passage as referring to a suffering and redemptive Messianic figure; Jesus. I think both purports are correct. There can be a dual covenant: one for Israel of the flesh dwelling in synagogues, and one for a spiritual Israel of non-Jews dwelling in churches. Associating the passion and sacrifice of Jesus, with Israel as God’s servant and innocent victim of anti-semitism, provides the world today with a new larger view of our opportunity for redemption and salvation. 

In Jewish thought the prophet Isaiah himself provides the strongest evidence for the Jewish claim that Isaiah’s servant is Israel, the Jewish People. Several verses in chapters prior to  Isaiah 53 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 the nation of 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). 

There also were some Jewish scholars who did think the suffering servant in Isaiah also referred to an individual messianic figure. Although Isaiah states, “You are my servant Israel, through whom I shall win glory” (49:3) two verses later Isaiah adds, “Now the Lord who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, that Israel should be gathered to him, now the Lord calls me again: is it too slight a task for you as my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the descendants of Israel?” (49:5&6). 

These verses clearly indicate that in addition to God’s chosen servant Israel/Jacob, there is a prophet like person (perhaps like Jeremiah who suffered a lot in his role as God’s servant) who will be God’s servant to help restore the exiled Jewish people to its land, and to its role in God’s plan for human redemption. 

Thus, there are two types of suffering servants. The individual servant’s passion initiates the process of individual redemption for those who are not part of Israel, the servant people. Some time later the son of David comes in glory at the flowering of a worldwide personal redemption that brings about universal peace and prosperity. Thus the upheavals that precede the Messianic Age can be avoided or minimized; and as Franz Kafka wrote in his Blue Octavo Notebooks, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival;” i.e. to verify and crown the human element in the Messianic redemption of the Messianic Age. 

If the world is not redeemed through individual repentance and rebirth, then the cataclysmic upheavals of wars and revolutions predicted by some of the Hebrew prophets will come to pass. This large scale suffering will, with God’s help, bring about a redemption that will be on a vast national and international scale.  

There is also a rabbinic belief in a messianic figure from the northern tribes; 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 could also play a role, first as destructive oppressors of the Jewish people, and second when they later acknowledge their error and are ultimately included in helping bring about the Messianic Age’s worldwide blessings. King Cyrus the great, 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).  

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 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.” (Isaiah 52:3) I.e. all your suffering in exile was not really merited and your redemption from exile will not really 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 rabbinical schools. Of course, this means that a few generations from now we might have even better understandings of some predictive passages in the prophets so humility should always be with us.

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 false. The biblical message of God’s commitment to redeem Israel without their 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 (46% of the world’s Jews now live in 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 only emphasized in this suffering servant passage. 

One of the accomplishments of a Davidson Messiah is to rebuild in some form and fashion, the Temple of Solomon, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Zachariah, “He shall build the temple of the Lord, and he shall bear the glory, he shall sit on the throne and rule, there shall be a priest before the throne, and peaceful counsel will exist between both of them” (6:13). 

Now that a large part of the Jewish people (46%) have returned to the Land of Israel and resurrected a Jewish state, one might think that rebuilding a temple on the site where Solomon originally built one almost three thousand years ago, would be relatively simple. And it would, except for the fact that the site is presently occupied by a Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock. Often erroneously called the Mosque of Omar, it is not a mosque and was not built by Omar. It was built in 691 by Abd-al-Malik, and it is regarded by Muslims as the third holiest site in the world. Any attempt to replace the Dome of the Rock would provoke a Muslim holy war of cataclysmic proportions.

There is, however, a lot of open land on the Temple Mount, and a small Jewish broadcast station of King David’s Zabur/Psalms could be erected adjacent to the Dome of the Rock provided the Muslims would cooperate.  Most observers agree that anyone who could arrange such Jewish-Muslim cooperation would really be a Messianic Ruler of Peace (Isaiah 9:5)  

Christian support for such a cooperative venture would also be very important, and all leaders who can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in mutual respect and cooperation would surely fulfill the greatest of all Messianic predictions, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  

Indeed, such Jewish/Christian/Muslim cooperation would not be possible without great spiritual leadership in all three communities. Thus, each community could consider its leadership to be the Messiah and this would fulfill the just cited verse of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, as enlarged upon by the prophet Micah, 

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war, but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him, for it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah: 3-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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