It often seems that the only passage in the T'nach a missionary ever reads is Isaiah 53. When proselytizing a Jew the very first argument from a missionary tends to be "Isaiah 53's suffering servant can't possibly be Israel (the Jews)."
Respectfully, this is the wrong question.
As a Christian the missionary should be taking a cold, hard look at Isaiah 53 and asking themselves "Can this passage possibly be about Jesus?"
To which the answer is a resounding "no."
As you might have noticed in the 365 Prophecies? section of this blog the "proofs" missionary references in the T'nach (Jewish bible) regarding Jesus tend to fall into one of four categories:
All four of these misuses of scripture are found in Christian translations and interpretations of Isaiah 53.
These are just some glaring examples showing that the servant in Isaiah 53 simply does not "fit" Jesus.
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 is not in the list above -- but it is usually badly translated in Christian versions which usually have: “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities." This is incorrect and conveys the wrong impression that the servant suffered FOR others (as in "Jesus died for your sins"). The correct translation is: “He (the servant) was wounded because of our transgressions (מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔נוּ / pesha), and crushed because of our iniquities (מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵ֑ינוּ / avon).” This conveys that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others – not the opposite as Christians contend – that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others.
Some missionaries will state that the Great Isaiah Scroll (an ancient copy of Isaiah) bears out their mistranslation of "because of" rather than "for" -- but this is not true. The Hebrew in the Great Isaiah Scroll is the same as those in Jewish versions today -- it has a mem in all of those instances ergo those who say the Great Isaiah Scroll says "because of" are relying on yet another mistranslation.
The following is a quote from "A General Introduction to the Bible" concerning this Isaiah Scroll. "Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word LIGHT, which is added in verse 11 and which does not affect the meaning greatly. . . Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission - and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage." (Norman Geisler & William Nix, "A General Introduction to the Bible", Moody Press, Page 263). Now, the Great Isaiah Scroll is NOT reliable and contains scribal spelling errors. Most of the differences are simply grammatical -- it most likely was in a genizah (a "graveyard" for defective copies) -- BUT the content is the same as the Hebrew we have today (even if there are some minor variations). The missionaries who try to use it as proof that Jews have "changed" Isaiah 53 are not learned in Hebrew and most likely are repeating what they've read or heard from other missionaries.
The Torah has different methods of atonement for different types of wrongdoings. . . "Sin” is a חֵטְא / cheit -- an unintentional sin through carelessness — a “missing of the mark." If Jesus died for sin then he died for mistakes -- not for more serious wrongdoings.
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 does not speak of "sin." It speaks of far more serious wrongdoings for which no sacrifice could be brought. I wrote about the different types of wrongdoings in this post. An עוון avon (iniquity - the impulsive / lustful actions) or פֶּֽשַׁע pĕsha (transgression, willful rebellion against G-d) are mentioned in Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 and neither could be atoned for with sacrifices (with the exception listed a few עוון avon that are listed in Vayikra / Leviticus 5 -- such as certain thefts or if a person was unsure if he had sinned).
Isaiah is saying that the servant was wounded because people were guilty of committing עוון avon (iniquity - the impulsive / lustful actions) and פֶּֽשַׁע pĕsha (transgression, willful rebellion against G-d) against the servant. Again -- was Jesus the victim of lustful, impulsive actions against him? How about evil deeds done in defiance of G-d -- was Jesus the victim of acts of evil done on purpose to defy G-d? A missionary might claim "yes" -- and an argument could be made that his death was an act against the evil actions of others -- but this is NOT the missionary claim that Jesus was “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities." Many, many people have been the victim of the evil actions of others -- including victims of crime today. Even if the correct translation "fit" Jesus it is one out of many he does not "fit."
Simply viewing the passages in the short list it is clear that Jesus does not "fit" Isaiah's suffering servant.
Quite simply, unless one ignores context, mistranslated words ("guilt" becomes "guilt sacrifice", "executions" becomes the singular" and so forth), and even complete opposites (Jesus being killed with criminals rather than among the rich) it is abundantly clear that Jesus does not "fit" the servant in Isaiah 53.
In the other section of this blog I am tackling a missionary list found on the internet in multiple locations with "365 Messianic Prophecies Jesus Fulfilled" to see, one by one, if they stand up to inspection. Having reached #100 on the list Isaiah 53 has not yet been reached. Each missionary claim for Isaiah 53 will be tackled, one by one, when it appears on the list (around 228, 229 on the list).
I leave you with one final thought. The missionary who begins by stating "Isaiah 53 can't be about Israel (the Jews) says this, normally with a comment such as "servant of Isaiah 53 is an innocent and guiltless sufferer. Israel is never described as sinless." Actually, the servant is never described as sinless. Missionaries tend to lump every Jew who ever lived into their analysis -- including apostate Jews who became atheists, or Christians. If one Jew who ever lived wasn't murdered (as the servant is said to die multiple deaths in executions) these missionaries will declare that the servant cannot be the Jews.
Does this missionary argument hold up on inspection?
Read D'varim / Deuteronomy 30. Moses tells the people that there will come a time when the Jewish people will exiled from the land, and only a remnant (a small number) will remain faithful to G-d. Even Y'shayahu / Isaiah (chapter 10:20) states "the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob."
The servant in Isaiah 53 is the righteous remnant of Jews who, throughout history, have remained faithful to G-d and His covenant with us. This is not some "excuse." Time and again the T'nach (bible) tells us that the Jews will be exiled as a punishment and that over time only a few, a "righteous remnant" will remain. It is this righteous few who are the suffering servant of Isaiah.
The missionaries should read a prophet they rarely if ever mention, Tzefaniah / Zephaniah, who wrote (chapter 3) a passage which echoes Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53 and Y'rmiyahu / Jeremiah's "new" covenant as well "And I will leave over in your midst a humble and poor people, and they shall take shelter in the name of the L-rd. The remnant of Israel shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth, for they shall graze and lie down, with no one to cause them to shudder. Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and celebrate wholeheartedly, O daughter of Jerusalem!"
Tzefaniah / Zephaniah 3:13 "neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth"
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:9 "there was no deceit in his mouth."
Time and again the prophet Y'shayahu / Isaiah declares that Israel (the Jewish people) are G-d's servant. Y'shayahu / Isaiah 41:8 - 9. "But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me, Whom I grasped from the ends of the earth, and from its nobles I called you, and I said to you, "You are My servant"; I chose you and I did not despise you."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 44:1. "And now, hearken, Jacob (Jacob's name was changed to Israel and Jews are often called "Jacob" and "Israel") My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. 2. So said HaShem your Maker, and He Who formed you from the womb shall aid you. Fear not, My servant Jacob, and Jeshurun (the Jews) whom I have chosen."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 44:21 "Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 45:4. "For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen one, and I called to you by your name; I surnamed you, yet you have not known Me."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 49:3 - 7. "And He said to me (Isaiah), "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast. . . This is what HaShem says- the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nations, to the servant of rulers: "Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of HaShem , who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
Note one particular phrase in chapter 49 of Isaiah and contrast it with Isaiah 53:
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 49:7 "to him (my servant Israel) who was despised and abhorred by the nations"
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:3 "Despised and rejected by men."
and from Jeremiah:
Y'rmiyahu / Jeremiah 30:10 " 'So do not fear, O Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, O Israel,' declares HaShem."
Also see Isaiah 42:19-20; 43:10 to see that Israel is the servant, nowhere is this term used for the messiah. Jeremiah 30:10 also names Israel as the servant and Jeremiah 30:17 says that the servant Israel is regarded by the nations as an outcast, forsaken by G-d, just like in Isaiah 53:4.
The purpose of this post is not to prove to missionaries that the servant in Isaiah 53 is Israel. That is immaterial to the question of whether or not the servant could possibly fit Jesus. It should be clear, having read this post, that Jesus was not Isaiah's servant. Having determined that the servant is not Jesus, the next logical question is to read Isaiah 53 in context of the entire book of Isaiah to determine whether the righteous remnant of Israel fits the description alone, or in combination with someone else.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.