How Rabbi Blumenthal Missed the Forest for the Trees (Pt 3)
July 27, 2018
If you have made it this far in the ongoing exchange between Rabbi Blumenthal and me, you are to be commended.
His initial article was about 3,100 words long, with my response running roughly 6,500 words. In the next phase of our interaction, Rabbi Blumenthal’s article ran to over 5,800 words and my response to more than 10,000 words. His most recent article is over 14,000 words, and I’m responding to it here.
You have already read a decent-sized book!
The good news, however, is that I’ve done my best here to break the pattern of each article being longer than the one before, a pattern which I started. Hopefully, this will allow us to focus on our key differences. It will also allow me to expose what I believe to be Rabbi Blumenthal's most fundamental errors. That being said, I can’t thank him enough for taking time out of his busy schedule to write at such length and to give such careful thought to his answers. It is only because I take his arguments so seriously that I have taken the time to respond in kind. I trust that all this is of benefit to you, the readers.
Although Rabbi Blumenthal begins his latest article (henceforth, Blumenthal 3) with another attempt to undermine my credibility as a teacher, I believe it would be a disservice to you as readers to respond to that charge any further. Suffice it to say that I made no “staggering mistake,” that my overall statistical argument was strengthened, not weakened, through our interaction, and that I have not sought to undermine Rabbi Blumenthal’s ability to make sound judgments about me after he issued a public apology for seriously misjudging me. It is best that we let the biblical data speak for itself rather than raise charges against each other. What does the text really say? Which presentation more accurately adheres to the plain sense of the Scriptures?
I’ve been told for decades by traditional rabbis that I can’t see what the Hebrew Scriptures are saying about the Messiah because I’m wearing tinted glasses. I’ve responded by saying (in harmony with some New Testament verses; see 2 Cor 3:13-16) that their traditions are obscuring their understanding when it comes to the identity of the Messiah as laid out in the Tanakh. Which of us, if either, is right? This is where we need to humble ourselves before God, ask Him to remove any blinders or prejudices or preconceptions from our eyes, and study the texts as honestly and carefully and accurately as we can.
Before responding to Rabbi Blumenthal’s most recent article, let me reiterate the broad strokes of my position, none of which have been successfully rebutted to date. First, Israel was in exile for sin and rebellion and therefore cannot be the subject of Isaiah 53, since the subject of that chapter was a righteous individual who was not suffering for his own sins. Second, the righteous remnant of Israel cannot be the subject of Isaiah 53, since God judged the nations that mistreated His people, and so their suffering brought judgment on the nations, not healing. Third, there are no explicit references to the nation of Israel as the servant of the Lord after Isaiah 48. Fourth, Isaiah 49 and 50 clearly focus on an individual servant, not a national servant. This is in harmony with the thrust of Isaiah 49-53, in which the prophet increases his focus on the nation but, much more so, focuses on the individual servant within the nation, Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel.
Interestingly, Rabbi Blumenthal sees the servant in Isa 42:1-4 as the Messiah (also in 55:3, 4; and 59:20); he sees the servant in 42:5-7 and 49:1-9 as the individual prophet; and he sees the servant in 50:4-10 as the prophet as well (he has confirmed these details to me via email). So, in stark contrast with the references to the servant in Isa 40-48, where only 42:1-7 referred to the individual servant within the nation (according to Rabbi Blumenthal, first the Messiah, then the prophet) and the rest of the servant references referred to Jacob-Israel, Rabbi Blumenthal agrees with me that the servant in Isaiah 49 and 50 is not the nation. In fact, as just noted, there is not one explicit reference to the servant as the nation in Isaiah 49-53. Isn’t it logical, then, to recognize that the servant in 52:13-53:12 is that same individual? And when we look at the scope of this servant’s work, it becomes clear that it is not the prophet but the Messiah.
This is underscored by the following points: 1) the servant in 49:1-9 seems to fail in his mission to restore his people, only to be promised that he will succeed in doing so and will also be a light to the nations; similarly, the servant of 52:13-53:12 is rejected by his own people yet is promised that he will ultimately bring them healing and will also touch the nations; 2) the servant in 50:4-10 suffers physical attack and humiliation, as does the servant in 52:13-53:12. This is one and the same servant! The chapters paint a coherent and consistent picture.
Note also Rabbi Blumenthal’s important statement that Isaiah 42:1-4 speaks of the Messiah. Let’s read the text in full:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law [torah].
Now, I would argue that the description continues through 42:7. Verses 5-7 read:
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
Contextually, it seems clear that the subject of 42:1-4 is the same individual as the subject of 42:5-7 (really, where does the text indicate that the Lord is speaking about two distinct individuals rather than one?), but either way, let’s compare 42:1-4 with 49:1-9, which Rabbi Blumenthal understands to be the prophet:
Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.”
And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Thus says the LORD: "In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.' They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.”
To understand the significance of all this, let’s look at the parallels between 42:1-4 and 49:1-7 before looking at 42:5-7 and 49:8-10. First, the servant in 42:1-4 has a mission to the nations, to the earth, to the distant coastlands. So also, the servant in 49:1-7 has a mission to the nations, to the ends of the earth. Second, the servant in 42:1-4 will persevere until his mission is accomplished; it is the same with the servant in 49:1-7. Read both passages again and ask yourself, “Is this describing the same person, or two separate people? And why is it that the prophet (according to Rabbi Blumenthal) described in 49:1-7 seems to have an even greater mission than the Messiah of 42:1-4?”
Now, let’s expand our vision and look at the parallels between 42:1-7 and 49:1-10. The subject of 42:6-7 is given as “a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” The subject of 49:8 is given “as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages” and the subject of 49:6 is called to be “a light for the nations.” The parallel descriptions are exact, distinct, and undeniable. They describe one and the same person! (And note that Rabbi Blumenthal stated that 49:1-9 spoke of the prophet, so the reference to v. 6 here is especially significant.) Note also that the subject of 42:7 is tasked with liberating the prisoners (as just quoted), meaning the captive Jewish people. The subject of 49:6, 8-10 is tasked with this very same mission – and it is a mission that is Messianic in scope. Of course these chapters speak about his work. The prophet Isaiah, inspired by the Spirit, laid out the magnitude of his mission, including many struggles along the way, with great clarity and force.
Yet there’s more. According to Rabbi Blumenthal (and other rabbinic commentators), Isaiah 49:1 refers to the prophet, who calls on the peoples (le’umim) to listen to him. But in Isaiah 55:4, which Rabbi Blumenthal interprets with reference to the Messiah, the Davidic subject is a witness and commander to the peoples (le’umim, used twice in this verse). Again, this is one and the same person – the Messiah in Isaiah 49:1-9, who is tasked with restoring his people Israel and being a light to the nations, and the Messiah in 55:3-4, an expression of the sure mercies of David.
I appeal to you to let the implications of this sink in, even if, as an Orthodox Jew, you have read the text differently all your life, even if the conclusions rattle you. If you truly love God, you will welcome this rattling. Don’t you value obedience to Him and His truth more than anything else – including the acceptance of your own people? Isn’t is better to go against the grain of human tradition when that tradition contradicts the Word of God?
Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “The fact is that no one is explicitly identified as the Lord’s servant in the book of Isaiah aside from national Israel. This would seem to tell us that the unidentified servant of Isaiah 53 is national Israel.” To the contrary: 1) as pointed out repeatedly, there are many reasons that national Israel cannot be the servant of Isaiah 53; 2) Isaiah clearly describes an individual servant, not a corporate servant, leading up to chapter 53; 3) Isaiah paints a clear enough picture of the subject of chapter 53 that hundreds of millions have recognized who he has described: Yeshua, our Messiah.
Rabbi Blumenthal also sees Isaiah 59:20 as the Messiah, and I fully concur with him. The text reads, “‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the Lord.” So, the Messiah, Israel’s go’el (redeemer) will come to Zion, to the repentant ones in Jacob. Yet elsewhere in Isaiah, is the LORD Himself – and the LORD alone – who is Israel’s Redeemer. See Isaiah 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8; 60:16; 63:16. (I encourage you to take a moment and look these verses up. You’ll see their message is clear and emphatic: YHWH alone is the Redeemer and Savior of His people.) Yet here, in Isaiah 59:20, the Redeemer is the Messiah. This underscores an important point we have made many times before: the Messiah carries the divine nature in human form. That’s why he can be our Redeemer, and that why his work brings glory to the God of Israel rather than steals the glory.
Speaking of the LORD alone being Israel’s Savior, Rabbi Blumenthal points to Obadiah 21 to support his belief that there will also be a Messiah son of Joseph, according to the Scriptures (a viewpoint I clearly rejected). The verse reads, “Deliverers [or, saviors] will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s.” But this in no way proves the existence of the Messiah son of Joseph according to Scripture.
First, the text speaks of “saviors” (or, “deliverers”) in the plural, not of one specific figure. Yet, according to Rabbi Blumenthal, Obadiah 21 speaks of a specific, future, Messianic context. Based on his argument, then, we should be expecting numerous “Messiahs” from Joseph in the future (for the identical Hebrew terms “saviors/deliverers,” see Neh 9:27). Second, according to some rabbinic authorities (such as Sa‘adiah Gaon), if the Jewish people are righteous, there will be no Messiah ben Joseph, only Messiah ben David. So, the text can hardly prophesy something about the future that may not happen. Third, there is hardly a definitive connection to Joseph in Obadiah 21, which just speaks of these saviors/deliverers rising up on Mount Zion.
These are just some of the reasons that there’s only one reference to Messiah son of Joseph in the entire Talmud (b. Sukkah 52a) and not a single reference in any pre-rabbinic literature. (I’m aware that I introduced the concept of Messiah son of Joseph earlier in our interaction, in a different context, which I stand by. Yet Rabbi Blumenthal’s argument for the biblical support of this concept falls entirely to the ground.)
In my previous articles, I emphasized that in Isaiah 40-53, the individual servant is the agent of redemption while the nation is the object of redemption. Rabbi Blumenthal responded:
it is true that the nation is primarily the object of redemption, but the nation is also a vehicle bringing about that redemption and that this Scriptural truth is actually emphasized and highlighted in chapters 51 and 52, the chapters that set the stage for Isaiah 53. If we are going to identify the servant of Isaiah 53 by finding the nearest vehicle of redemption described by the prophet, we would conclude that the servant is the nation since the chapters immediately preceding Isaiah 53 explicitly describe the nation as a vehicle of redemption.
This, however, is not accurate. Nowhere in Isaiah 51-52 does the nation of Israel do what the individual servant does. Nowhere does Israel give sight to the blind; nowhere does Israel set the captives free (Israel itself was captive and blind!); nowhere does the servant bring healing to the nations or make the unrighteous righteous. The argument I made was scripturally sound and remains intact.
Rabbi Blumenthal responded to my encouragement to readers to study Isaiah 40-53 by providing his summary of key points in these chapters. Remarkably, he virtually whitewashes Israel, failing to emphasize the consistent indictment of our people in these chapters. Compare his summary of these chapters, which focuses almost exclusively on God’s promises to Israel and God’s gracious words to our people, with the data we presented in the first video in our debate:
So, in 42:24-25, it is stated that servant Israel was exiled because of sin, incurring God’s wrath; in 43:8, servant Israel is blind and deaf (see also 42:18-19); in 43:22-28, Israel fails to call on the Lord; in 47:6, God is angry with Israel; in 48:1-6, Israel is guilty again, with the exile and return foretold (see also 48:8b-11, 17-19); and in 50:1, God’s indictment is forthright: “for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isa. 50:1; being “sold” and “sent away” is synonymous with being exiled).
This is in harmony with prophetic voices like Amos (e.g., 4:4-12) and Hosea (e.g., 5:7-15), along with the explicit testimony of 2 Kin 17 (see esp. vv. 7-23), all of which state emphatically that the exile of the ten northern tribes of Israel by the Assyrians was because of Israel’s persistent, unrepentant rebellion and sin, while prophets like Jeremiah (e.g., 32:28-36) and Ezekiel (e.g, 5:5-17), along with the explicit testimony of 2 Chr 36 (see esp. vv. 15-16), state emphatically that the exile of the southern tribes of Judah by the Babylonians was because of Judah’s persistent, unrepentant rebellion and sin. This is confirmed by the retrospective testimony of Lamentations (1:5, 8, 14, 18, 20, 22; 2:14; 3:40-42; 4:12-13; 5:7, 16), along with Ezra (9:6-7), Nehemiah (9:26-36), Daniel (9:4-13), and Zechariah (1:1-6). This is also in harmony with Lev 26 and Deut 28 in the Torah, both of which state emphatically that if Israel as a nation is righteous, it will be established, secure, and blessed, but if Israel as a nation is unrighteous, it will be exiled, uprooted, and cursed
Had Rabbi Blumenthal drawn attention to these passages, which could easily be multiplied throughout the Tanakh, it would have undermined his entire argument.
He makes the claim that Isaiah 52:13
opens with the prophet drawing attention, not to the person of the servant as Dr. Brown insists, but rather, the prophet draws attention to the future glory of the servant. This is confirmed by a simple read of the Hebrew and is further confirmed when we realize how the prophet has been filling in the picture of Israel’s future glory in the preceding chapters (40:11, 31; 41:16, 27; 42:16; 43:4-6, 19, 20; 44:1-5, 23, 26, 28; 45:14-17, 25; 46:13; 48:20, 21; 49:10-13, 17-23; 51:3, 11; 52:1, 9-12.)
Verse 52:15 concludes by describing the speechless shock of the leaders of nation when they see God’s might revealed on behalf of Israel. And 53:1 gives expression and articulation to that shock and consternation. The next several verses continue with the words of shame expressed by those who reviled Israel and persecuted her precisely because Israel is God’s servant.
Rabbi Blumenthal is wrong on all points. First, as I previously pointed out, there is no reference to the nations or the leaders of the nations in the context preceding 52:13. On what basis do they appear out of the blue, unannounced, and without identification? To call this a hermeneutical stretch would be an understatement. (The passing reference to “kings” in 52:15 hardly introduces them as the speakers beginning in 53:1.) Second, despite the impressive list of verses he supplied, when examined, quite a few of them do not support Rabbi Blumenthal’s contention in the least. Just go through the references he cites and compare them to the future glory of the servant in 52:13-15 or to the work of servant in 53:1-12, and you’ll see a stark contrast rather than a close comparison. The servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 cannot be national Israel.
Will these promises to the nation come to pass? Will Israel be exalted at the end of the age? Absolutely. But only when we repent and turn to God. Our confession of sin is laid out in Isaiah 53. When we acknowledge our error in rejecting the Messiah, we will be forgiven, restored, and exalted.
Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “The nations of the world had been thinking that Israel is suffering because Israel is following a corrupt message.” Who told him that? Where does the Bible state that? To the contrary, Scripture states that when the nations see the Lord’s Temple destroyed and His people in exile, they will ask, “Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house?” What will the answer be? “Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chr. 7:21-22) This is what Scripture says; Rabbi Blumenthal must rewrite the Bible to fit his narrative.
He also must rewrite what I have written to support one of his arguments. He claimed that, “Dr. Brown himself confirms this Biblical truth when he tells us that it is our rejection of Jesus that brought all of our suffering upon us (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 1, pg. 107).” Actually, I have stated in several of my writings (and often orally) that Jewish suffering cannot be fully explained with reference to divine punishment for our rejection of Torah, the prophets, and the Messiah. Certainly, divine punishment plays a role, but it is clear that our suffering goes beyond that and there is a satanic plot to destroy our people (see, for example, chapter 15 in Our Hands Are Stained with Blood).
I have also made clear that we suffered much at the hands of sinful “Christians” (indeed, that was the primary subject matter of Our Hands Are Stained with Blood). And in my treatment of the Holocaust in vol. 1 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, I did not affirm the view that the Holocaust was a divine judgment for our sins (especially, some kind of divine judgment for rejecting Jesus, 1900 years later). As I wrote on p. 108 of this same volume – one page after the page cited by Rabbi Blumenthal, “Some of Israel’s suffering was due to her own sin, and some was due to the sin of her oppressors.”
The point I was making was that, as we look back at our suffering over the last 2,000 years, it is clear that something terrible went wrong, and this must be traced back to our rejection of Jesus the Messiah. Consequently, I wrote on p. 108 of volume 1 of my series, “The consequences of our rejecting the Messiah certainly cannot be used as a criterion to deny his messiahship!”
Having cleared up the misleading statement made by Rabbi Blumenthal, we can respond to his real argument, namely, that,
Our rejection of Jesus is rooted in the core of our message, the testimony with which God entrusted us. If our rejection of Jesus brought us suffering according to Dr. Brown, he would have to believe that our message is corrupt. But now the nations see that Israel’s message is true and they realize that it was their own crooked theology and wicked behavior that caused them to revile the message that Israel was carrying. God had made Israel the target for haters of God throughout history and Israel bore the brunt of the sins of the world.
The fact that it is Israel’s enemies who are shamed by the revelation of God’s strength should come as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to Isaiah’s words in the chapters leading up to this passage. In the preceding chapters, it is those who contend with Israel that are shamed with Israel’s exaltation. (41;11, 12, 15, 16; 44;27; 47:1-18; 49:17, 19, 23, 25, 26; 51:7, 8, 22, 23.) Dr. Brown’s interpretation that has Israel expressing shame at the revelation of God’s glory has no basis in the words of Isaiah.
But this does not follow scripturally or logically. First, our suffering during the period of the Tanakh was explicitly attributed to our rejection of the Lord and His Torah. We followed idols; we engaged in sexual sin and injustice; we rejected the prophets who rebuked us. Consequently, we were judged and exiled. This is affirmed scores of time in the Hebrew Bible. At no point does the Word say that we suffered primarily because of our message. Rather, we suffered because of our hardheartedness and sin. Is it any wonder, then, that we rejected the Messiah when he came?
Remember that the first generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness because of sin, rejecting God and His Torah. Remember that our choosing of a king was a rejection of the Lord as King. Remember that the united monarchy lasted for only a few generations, after which our nation was split in two. Remember that the northern kingdom was exiled and destroyed, and the southern kingdom exiled – without ever being reconstituted with a proper monarchy – and that we have been without national sovereignty in our homeland for almost all of the last 2,500 years. And remember that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and still has not been rebuilt.
Why is it any surprise that we rejected the Anointed One when he came? And what else explains our long exile without a rebuilt and functioning Temple? The very passage in which we confess our sins and recognize our guilt in rejecting the Messiah – namely, Isaiah 53! – is the passage which Rabbi Blumenthal tries his hardest to reinterpret. But it doesn’t work. These are our words, not the words of the foreign leaders. No, this is our national confession. It has been made by individuals many times over the centuries as they recognized Yeshua as the subject of Isaiah; it will be made on a national level at the end of the age as our people turn in repentance. May God hasten the day!
Second, often in the Scriptures the prophets speak of the day when we will be ashamed of our sins. This is hardly a foreign theme, as Rabbi Blumenthal claims. Allow me to quote from Ezekiel 36 at length (here, verses 16-32 in the CSB):
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, while the house of Israel lived in their land, they defiled it with their conduct and actions. Their behavior before me was like menstrual impurity. So I poured out my wrath on them because of the blood they had shed on the land, and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered among the countries. I judged them according to their conduct and actions. When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned my holy name, because it was said about them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave his land in exile.’ Then I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they went.
“Therefore, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Lord God says: It is not for your sake that I will act, house of Israel, but for my holy name, which you profaned among the nations where you went. I will honor the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations—the name you have profaned among them. The nations will know that I am the Lord—this is the declaration of the Lord God—when I demonstrate my holiness through you in their sight.
“‘For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone[f] and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave your fathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will summon the grain and make it plentiful, and I will not bring famine on you. I will also make the fruit of the trees and the produce of the field plentiful, so that you will no longer experience reproach among the nations on account of famine.
“‘You will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and detestable practices. It is not for your sake that I will act—this is the declaration of the Lord God—let this be known to you. Be ashamed and humiliated because of your ways, house of Israel!
Remarkably, rather than agreeing with the Tanakh and stating that that our people have primarily suffered because of our own sins (whatever those sins might be), he blames Christianity and Islam: “If you are familiar with the history of God’s nation you will know that it was the Church and the Mosque that were the greatest obstacles in the path of the Jew who tried to stay loyal to Israel’s covenant with God.” So, it’s not our fault, it’s everyone else’s fault. This sounds eerily similar to Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the snake back in the Garden of Eden. To repeat: The entire testimony of the Tanakh is against this kind of thinking.
Rabbi Blumenthal wants us to “imagine” how Christian leaders (and others) will feel when they realize that Israel has been faithful to God in exile, suffering out of loyalty to the Creator. (Again, this can only be “imagined” because it is contrary God’s own witness in the Word.) He asks,
Will they not say; “we had seen their suffering as evidence of God’s displeasure with them, but now we see that their suffering is evidence of our own sin”? Will those who ridiculed Israel for rejecting Jesus not say: “we had thought that their loyalty to God without loyalty to Jesus was legalistic and hypocritical but we now recognize that their loyalty to God and to Him alone under the most trying circumstances brought blessing to all of us”?
But this is not what Isaiah 53 says, nor is it harmony with the overall witness of the Tanakh, as we have stressed repeatedly. The fact is, the nations have not been healed by Israel’s suffering; the nations have not been made righteous by the example and actions of Israel; and often in history we did not go as lambs to the slaughter (see Isaiah 53:8; were we like lambs in the days of the Maccabees or the days of the Jewish wars of 66-70 and 132-135 CE? Is the IDF today going to slaughter like a lamb?). And we have often prayed curses on our enemies rather than prayed for their redemption (see Isaiah 53:12).
In stark contrast, hundreds of millions worldwide have been healed through the Messiah’s wounds, including many hundreds of thousands of our own people. It was he who went as a lamb to the slaughter. And it is he whom we misjudged, claiming that he suffered for his own sins, not realizing he was suffering for ours.
Just look at Isaiah 53:6, which states, “We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.” Then ask yourself: Does this speak of Israel suffering for the nations? Does the Bible tell us anywhere that the nation will be punished for the sins of the world? Certainly not. God’s Word tells us that we will suffer for our own sins. (If you have not read through Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 recently, please do so again. But brace yourself. These are very intense chapters.)
Yet we see in the Scriptures that the Levites served as a lighting rod for God’s wrath in place of the congregation as a whole (see Numbers 8:6-19). We see that the death of the High Priest released the unintentional manslayer from the city of refuge (see Numbers 35:18; the Talmud actually states that the death of the High Priest atones; see b. Makkot 11b). And we see that traditional Judaism further developed the doctrine that the death of the righteous atones for the sins of the generation (see the extensive treatment of vol. 2 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, pages 153-167).
Theoretically, one could use this same logic and say that Israel as a priestly nation fulfills this function for the world. But to repeat yet again, the entire testimony of Scripture is against this. We have suffered in exile primarily for our sins, not for the sins of the others. Their sinning against us has only added to our punishment. And because we have not been a righteous nation, we cannot suffer and die in place of the other nations. Only the Messiah could do this, and that’s why Isaiah 52:13-53:12 continues to proclaim Yeshua as the Messiah to countless millions. God has spoken clearly in His Word.
Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “When Dr. Brown puts forth a valid approach to reading the Bible, the message of Israel is confirmed and the message of the Church is refuted. Dr. Brown’s own suggestion, that we read Isaiah 53 in light of the preceding chapters, confirms the very message that Dr. Brown is attempting to reject.” The truth of the matter, as we have seen, is diametrically opposed to this analysis.
Will the day come when Israel is exalted and the nations of the world are drawn to Israel’s God (see, for example, Isaiah 2:1-4 and Zechariah 8:23)? Absolutely, but that will only happen when we repent and recognize our crucified Messiah (Zechariah 12:10-13:1). On that day we will also recognize that in rejecting Yeshua, we rejected the Torah, which admonished us to listen to God’s prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). This will be part of our repentance in exile, part of our coming to our senses and taking God’s Word to heart, as we recognize that we have suffered for our sins, not the sins of others (Deuteronomy 30:1). It is at that time when the nations which have misjudged us and cursed us and libeled us, claiming that we were forsaken by God forever, they will recognize our Father’s hand on our lives. It is at that time some of the verses Rabbi Blumenthal cites will be fulfilled.
Once again, though, he misses an important connection. It is only after we confess our sin in rejecting the Messiah (as opposed to the nations confessing their sin in rejecting us) that the glory of Isaiah 54 comes to pass. That’s why the chapter starts with these words, “‘Rejoice, childless one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the forsaken one will be more than the children of the married woman,’ says the LORD.” We have confessed our sin and received healing for our wounds. Now it is time to rejoice!
Rabbi Blumenthal spends the rest of his article responding to 28 arguments he has identified in Brown 2 and “exposing their logical incoherence.” I will respond to these in brief, rebutting the alleged rebuttal to my argument without summarizing all the details for every point. Those wanting to dig deeper can go back to Blumenthal 3 for each argument, then return here for the response. I use his numbering and subject titles here.
- The “servant” argument. Rabbi Blumenthal claims that, “There is no question that the prophet wants us to see Israel as an entity working on behalf of God’s purpose as we approach Isaiah 53.” That is true, but it is equally true that, as I stated, Israel is never identified as the servant in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53, and Israel is primarily the object of redemption, not the redeemer. The servant is explicitly an individual in chapters 49-53, not the nation personified.
- The “rate increase” argument. Rabbi Blumenthal claims that “as long as the total references to the nation outnumber the total references to the individual servant (and they do, especially in chapters 51 and 52), the primary attention of the prophet is still focused on the nation and not on the individual servant.” This is a weak response. If I am a play-by-play sports announcer and referenced the Chicago Bulls 50 times in the first half of a game and Michael Jordan 5 times, then in the second half, I referenced the Bulls 60 times and Jordan 25 times, it’s clear that the real shift in emphasis is to the individual, Michael Jordan. It’s the same with the emphasis on the individual servant of Isaiah 49-53, which proportionately is much, much higher in Isaiah 49-53, as I have demonstrated.
- Dr. Brown’s attempted rebuttal to his own argument, once he realized that it works against his position. Obviously, I was not seeking to rebut my own argument. Rather, with Rabbi Blumenthal’s help, I was able to sharpen it. The point is all the more strong and clear in the end: the greatest focus is on the individual servant, the one who brings redemption to Israel.
- The call to “behold the servant.” Rabbi Blumenthal claims that “the original Hebrew of the verse in question (52:13) calls upon the audience to behold the future success and exaltation of the servant. It does not call upon the audience to behold the person of the servant.” Please take a moment to read Isaiah 52:13-15 and ask yourself: Is the prophet calling on his audience to behold God’s servant? Are not the opening words, “Behold My servant”? What could be clearer?
- The “My Nation” argument. Rabbi Blumenthal correctly points out that I missed the one reference in Isaiah where “my people” does not refer to Israel, Isaiah 19:25. I apologize for overlooking that reference. But that is to major on the minors. The real issue is that contextually, “my people” must mean Israel in Isaiah 53, either as God’s people or the prophet’s people. There is no reference to the kings of the nations speaking in the chapters before and after Isaiah 53, and it is a total stretch to say that they were saying “we, us, our” in 53:1-6, only to shift to the first person in 53:8, as if each king now gave an individual reflection about his people. Not only so, but “my people” refers to Israel repeatedly in the verses leading up to 53:8; see 51:4, 16; 52:2, 5-6. See also “his people” meaning Israel in 51:22; 52:9. A straightforward, unbiased reading of 53:8 indicates that “My/my people” there must be Israel.
- Who needs Messiah? Rabbi Blumenthal claims that, “The Messiah is a monarch whose role is to rule, to judge and to lead. Like David before him, the Messiah will lead mankind by highlighting his own utter helplessness before God.”
Yet his interpretation of Isaiah is at odds with this, since he consistently points to Israel rising through its own efforts to lead the way in redemption. Interestingly, traditional Judaism teaches that since Moses, every generation is at a lower spiritual plane than the previous one. How, then, will the last generation rise to such lofty ideas? Only through the redemption of the Messiah, which Rabbi Blumenthal understates.
Israel is in darkness, needing to repent, and the Messiah comes to bring repentance to his people (see Isaiah 59:20, which, again, Rabbi Blumenthal recognizes as messianic), who will then weep in anguish when they realize that the one they thought was the cause of so much of their suffering (Jesus!) was actually their Redeemer (see Zechariah 12:10-13:1). And Isaiah 53 contains the confession of Israel in repentance for its sin of rejecting the Messiah. Then, as God singles out His repentant people Israel, they will rise to become a light to the nations (see also Isaiah 60:1-3).
- What happened to the Messiah in Isaiah 40-53? Rabbi Blumenthal accepts the Messianic reading of (42:1-4; 55:3, 4; and 59:20). I emphasized above how these passages point to Yeshua as Israel’s Messiah and also point to Isaiah 49:1-9; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12 as being Messianic as well.
- Dr. Brown’s attempt to respond to my contention that his “sinless” argument is rooted in Christian theology. Actually, I’m simply exegeting the text, not even using the word “sinless.” Moreover, it is quite bizarre that he claims that, “The prophet’s focus is not on the innocence of the servant, because the servant is not innocent.” Let 100 unbiased readers review Isaiah 53 and answer the question, “For whose sins is the servant suffering, his own or those of others?” And, “According to the text, is the servant innocent or guilty?” The answers are so obvious and self-evident that Rabbi Blumenthal’s best response (which is very poor) is to create something out of nothing and claim that I’m reading Christian theology into the text. To the contrary, he is refusing to let the text the speak for itself in order to apply it to Israel.
The vivid translation of Isaiah 53:6 by Prof. Baruch Levine reminds us of the message of the chapter: “All of us strayed like sheep, Each of us went his own way; While the Lord made him the target Of our collective punishment.” We strayed; he did not. We were guilty; he suffered in our place.
- The arm of the Lord. Rabbi Blumenthal claims that the biblical text “openly refutes” my claim that “the arm of the Lord describes in Isaiah 53:1 is the person of the servant.” And he writes that, “Dr. Brown acknowledges that every other mention of the arm of the Lord in Scripture has God acting with strength to save Israel from her enemies.”
Yes, this is what I wrote, and there’s nothing “outrageous” about it. As I noted, “in these other passages, especially in Isaiah, God’s arm is revealed to save Israel from her enemies; in Isa 53:1, God’s saving arm is revealed working through the servant himself, and on behalf of his people.” Simple!
Rabbi Blumenthal also makes the claim that, “The text tells us that the arm of the Lord is revealed ‘upon’ the servant (this word can also be translated as; ‘on behalf’ of the servant).” But even if he was right, it would mean that the servant was God’s vehicle of salvation, as His arm was revealed on his behalf. This is in harmony with my position.
- How does Israel’s suffering bring healing to the nations? Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “Dr. Brown challenges the interpretation which has Israel as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. According to the prophets, those who persecuted Israel will be punished by God. How then can Israel be the suffering servant if the servant is described as bringing healing through his suffering?”
He answers by claiming that: 1) Israel serves as a priestly nation, making God known to the other nations; 2) “Israel carries the blessing of God’s message throughout the corridors of history” and is destined to carry this burden by itself, bringing hardship on the people of Israel. 3) “Israel has been carrying a message of faith in One God to the exclusion of all else. The price of carrying this message was the persecution and ridicule of the nations that surrounded them.”
The biblical text, along with biblical history, refutes his claims with specificity and force. First, we were exiled because of our sin, often serving other gods in the nations. We were hardly making the one true God known in the process. Second, rather than bringing glory to the Lord while we were in exile, the Lord Himself tells us that as a result of our people being in exile, His name was blasphemed (see Isaiah 52:4-5). As stated in Ezekiel 36:
The word of Adonai came to me saying: “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their way and by their deeds. Their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her niddah. So I poured out My fury on them for the blood which they had shed upon the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I scattered them among the nations, so they were dispersed through the countries. According to their way and their deeds I judged them. Wherever they went among the nations, they profaned My holy Name, since it was said about them, ‘These are the people of Adonai, yet they had to leave His land.’ But I had concern for My holy Name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. (Ezek 36:16-21, TLV)
God’s assessment of the effect of Israel being exiled is quite different than Rabbi Blumenthal’s!
Third, in biblical history, when Israel suffered among the nations, this brought judgment, not healing, on those nations (for the principle, see Jeremiah 30:11). And for a certainty, it did not bring monotheistic faith to those nations (or empires) in a lasting way. What happened when our people were in Egypt in the centuries before the exodus? Our suffering resulted in terrible judgments (the Ten Plagues) coming on the nation. What happened when we were exiled in Assyria or Babylon? Not only did those nations not embrace monotheism, but they were subsequently destroyed, just as God promised. That pattern has repeated itself in other nations through the centuries.
Yet the knowledge of the one true God has been advanced through the world – by followers of Yeshua the Messiah. As one of my African students once remarked to my friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “It wasn’t a Jewish rabbi who brought the knowledge of God to my nation and turned us away from idols. It was a Christian missionary.”
Once again, Rabbi Blumenthal’s version of history and reality is opposed by the biblical text, and with each point he makes, he underscores how Isaiah 53 does not apply to the nation of Israel but rather to the Messiah of Israel.
- Ezekiel 39:23, 24. Rabbi Blumenthal explains my argument: “Ezekiel prophesied that when God’s glory is ultimately revealed, the nations will then know that Israel was exiled for her sins. Dr. Brown argues that this prophecy of Ezekiel tells us that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot be Israel. In the case of Israel, the nations realize that she had been suffering for her own sins, while in the case of the servant of Isaiah 53, the onlookers realize that he had been suffering for their sins.”
Once again, I suggest that you read this passage for yourself, asking God to help you read it impartially. You will see it makes impossible the idea that Israel will one day be revealed as the Lord’s righteous, suffering servant, to the shock of the nations.
He claims that, “The nations had been thinking that Israel is suffering because the God that Israel believes in is powerless, and that the message that Israel carries is corrupt. This thought-process of Israel’s enemies is described by the prophets (Joel 2:17; Micah 7:7-10; Psalm 42:4, 11; 79:10; 115:2). Isaiah describes how the nations come to realize that it was their own message that was corrupt and that it was their own sinfulness that brought them to persecute Israel.”
These are beautiful ideas, but they are not biblical ideas. Take a moment to look at what Rabbi Blumenthal has written here in terms of what the nations allegedly were thinking. Then look at Ezekiel 39:23-24: “The nations will know that the house of Israel went into exile for their iniquity, because they broke faith with Me. So I hid My face from them and gave them into the hand of their enemies. All of them fell by the sword. I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their transgressions. I hid My face from them.”
At this point, you might be wondering, How did Rabbi Blumenthal get this so wrong? He claimed that the “nations had been thinking that Israel is suffering because the God that Israel believes in is powerless, and that the message that Israel carries is corrupt.” God states that the nations will realize that Israel “went into exile for their iniquity, because they broke faith with Me. . . . I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their transgressions.” Could the prophet, speaking for the Lord, expressed himself any more clearly?
And it is here that we see how deeply Rabbi Blumenthal’s argument has broken down, as he must accuse me of “an amazing feat of logical incoherence” He writes, “Dr. Brown presents an argument that is refuted by the very text that he is quoting. Dr. Brown argues that the nations presently believe that Israel suffers because of her bad behavior. If this is true, then how will the nations ‘realize’ that Israel is suffering because of their bad behavior? Isn’t this something that they knew all along?”
The answer is simple. At that time in the future, the nations will know – meaning, know for a certainty, know for sure – that Israel was suffering for her own sins. Not only so, but in the ancient world, the pagan nations thought that the god of an exiled nation had been defeated. The deity was powerless to stop the enemy! As the Lord said, “When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said about them, ‘These are the people of Yahweh, yet they had to leave His land in exile.’” (Ezek. 36:20)
But in this case, it was different. Israel’s deity was all-powerful, and He was the one who consigned His people to suffer in exile because they broke faith with Him. This will be a new insight for many of the nations of the earth.
It is astonishing that Rabbi Blumenthal did not see this, and it is unfortunate that he used some extreme rhetoric in the process of missing the point. But the extreme rhetoric doesn’t stop here. He writes, “And in an amazing feat of insolence Dr. Brown sarcastically asks; ‘do the nations of the world believe that we have been exiled for observing the Sabbath or for proclaiming that there is only One God or for believing that He spoke to us at Sinai?’”
The answer is self-evident, and there is nothing insolent in my position: The nations believe Israel is suffering for its sins, not for its righteousness. More importantly, God Himself gives this verdict repeatedly in the Scriptures, including constant rebukes in Isaiah, as we have seen. (Just start reading the first verses of Isaiah 1, and you’ll be hit between the eyes with a divine rebuke for sin – including our failure to observe the Sabbath righteously and failure to pray in a godly manner.)
The rest of Rabbi Blumenthal’s response to my argument is somewhat convoluted, but suffice it to say that I have never written that our sin in rejecting Jesus as Messiah is the cause of all of our suffering (see above). Rather, I have written and said in many contexts that: 1) we have suffered because of our rejection of God, the Torah, the prophets, and the Messiah; 2) we have suffered because of the evil of the human race; and 3) we have suffered because the devil wants to wipe us out.
- Who is talking in Isaiah 53:1-9? Rabbi Blumenthal agrees with me that Israel is being addressed in chapter 52, but he claims that textual indicators at the end of the chapter, tied in with the beginning of chapter 53, indicate that it is the kings of the earth who are speaking, not Israel.
I responded to these arguments many years ago (in detail, in writing, in vol. 3 of my Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus series, which came out in 2003), so there’s no need to repeat them now. Suffice it to say there’s not a hint of the nations or their leaders speaking for all the chapters that precede and follow Isaiah 53; that it puts a sublimely deep theological confession on the lips of pagan kings; that Israel in exile cannot be the servant because Israel was in exile because of persistent sin and disobedience while the servant was righteous; that “my people” in v. 8 can only mean Israel (either the prophet’s people or God’s people); and that, in reality, the nations were not healed through Israel’s suffering in exile (see above, to #10).
Note also that Rabbi Blumenthal continually downplays the significance of Isaiah 53 in terms of vicarious suffering. In other words, he reads this passage with reference to Israel (rather than Israel’s Messiah) but claims through his writings that Israel is a light to the nations, bringing God’s Word to the nations while in exile. But he says almost nothing about the power of Israel’s vicarious sufferings on behalf of the nations. Why is that? Obviously, it’s because Israel’s sufferings in the nations brought judgment, not healing on these different peoples, so it’s not an argument he can make effectively. Also, once you disconnect this passage from the Messiah, its power is depleted as well.
- If the servant did not stray, he must then be sinless. In a remarkable effort to avoid the plain sense of the text, Rabbi Blumenthal claims that the servant didn’t stray but that doesn’t mean he was sinless. Again, he continues to use the word “sinless” while I use the biblical vocabulary, letting the text speak for itself. According to the entire chapter, the people sinned, and the servant suffered for their sins, not his own. They went astray, he did not. Not only so, but God says the servant wasn’t violent or deceitful, calls him righteous and says he made others – sinners! – righteous. The only way this is not clear is if someone is bringing other presuppositions into the text.
- If the servant is a “guilt offering” [asham] he must then be spotless. Rabbi Blumenthal accuses me of a “flight of fancy,” claiming that: 1) this asham does not necessarily mean an animal offering, which would have to be spotless; and 2) the usage of the word in 53:10 indicates the servant had to acknowledge his own guilt.
But this is not what Isaiah says. To repeat again, nowhere does the text state (or even hint) that the servant was guilty of any crime or transgression. Rather, as part of his substitutionary work, which is emphasized throughout the chapter, he offers himself as a guilt offering. And since the chapter emphasizes the guilt of the nation, in contrast with the servant, when Isaiah says that the servant will offer himself as a guilt offering, it is clear that it is for the sins of others. As stated in 53:12b, “he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This, then, leads to an obvious question. Since sacrifices were required to be without blemish, how could the servant take the place of others as a guilt offering if he himself was guilty? Put another way, how defective could the asham be and still be accepted by God? The answers are self-evident.
- Isaiah 51:13. To emphasize the guilt of Israel (in contrast with the innocence of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53), I pointed to 51:13, which begins with, “But you forgot the LORDyour Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.”
Rabbi Blumenthal argues that, “in context, the nation’s ‘forgetting of God,’ is not a denial of God’s existence. It is the despair and the fear that Israel experiences when they suffer in exile.” He continues, “This theme is repeated several times in these chapters (40:27; 41:10, 14; 43:1, 5; 44:3 ,8; 45:19; 49:14; 51:7). In a certain sense, the entire thrust of all of these chapters (40-53) is addressing this fear, to console Israel and reassure her that her toil has not been for naught. By putting the same words of despair into the mouth of the individual servant (49:4), the prophetic narrator is creating a parallel between the individual servant and the nation and he is not setting up a contrast.”
First, as I noted in Brown 2, Isaiah 49:4 in no way reflects of the same sentiments of terror and alienation experienced by the nation of Israel in exile. Second, while it is true that there is much comfort and assurance spoken by the Lord to His people in these chapters, including in this chapter, it is gratuitous to claim that Israel’s forgetting the Lord in 51:13 “is not a denial of God’s existence. It is the despair and the fear that Israel experiences when they suffer in exile.”
Israel was in exile because of sin, which included idolatry, and during this very same period of time (the Babylonian exile), Ezekiel rebuked his people for forgetting the Lord’s name and worshiping idols (see Ezek 22:12; 23:35). This concept of “forgetting the Lord” goes way back in biblical history, with examples like this from Judges: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth” (3:7). To forget the LORD is to apostasize, not simply to be in fear and despair (see also 1 Sam 12:9; Ps 78:11; 106:13, 21; Jer 23:27; Hos 2:13; 13:6).
- Vehicle of redemption versus object of redemption. I noted (Brown 1) that in Isaiah 49 and 50, the individual servant is the agent of redemption while the nation of Israel is the object of redemption. The same pattern is reflected in chapter 53. Rabbi Blumenthal responded (Blumenthal 2) “that chapters 51 and 52 of Isaiah emphasize and highlight Israel’s righteousness and their role in God’s plan. According to Dr. Brown, this is the last thing we should expect to find in these critical chapters leading up to 53. It is clear that the prophet wants us to arrive at chapter 53 with a clear understanding that the nation is a vehicle of redemption and not just the object of redemption.”
I responded to this by writing (in Brown 2) that “Rabbi Blumenthal fails to explain how the prophet can excoriate the nation as wicked throughout the entire book (indeed, the Divine Author does so throughout he Tanakh) if the people are so righteous.”
He now responds by asking, “How is this a response to my argument? And why is this question a challenge to my position? This is a question that needs to be asked by any reader of Scripture. But Dr. Brown’s position has no leg to stand on. According to Dr. Brown, the lead-up to chapter 53 is supposed to highlight the contrast between the righteous individual and the sinful nation, but the Scriptural reality does not cooperate with Dr. Brown’s argument.”
Actually, I have several scriptural legs to stand on. First, as emphasized throughout my articles, the Divine Author consistently highlights His people sins far more than their righteous deeds, including in Isaiah 40-53. (See above, as well as Brown 1 and 2.) This reminds us that our people are in need of a redeemer (see again Isaiah 59:20) rather than that they will be redeemers themselves. So, this is hardly an irrelevant observation, contrary to Rabbi Blumenthal’s incredulous response. He has failed to consider the weight of the argument.
Second, and more importantly, even in chapters 51 and 52, where God appeals to the righteous remnant of the nation, He speaks over and again of Israel’s coming salvation and deliverance (see, e.g., 51:4-5: “Pay attention to Me, My people, and listen to Me, My nation; for instruction will come from Me, and My justice for a light to the nations. I will bring it about quickly. My righteousness is near, My salvation appears, and My arms will bring justice to the nations. The coastlands will put their hope in Me, and they will look to My strength.”) So, in 51:11, the people of Israel coming out of exile are called “the redeemed of the Lord” (not the redeemers of the Lord!), while in 51:14 Israel’s prisoners will be set free (rather than setting others free). That’s why, in 51:21, Israel is called an “afflicted and drunken one,” having drunk the wine of God’s wrath. The people are in need of redemption!
The pattern continues in 52:1-12, which leads directly to 52:13-53:12. Accordingly, in 52:6, God promises, “Therefore My people will know My name; therefore they will know on that day that I am He who says: Here I am.” They will be restored to God as they come out of exile, the objects of His redemption, not the vehicles of redemption. And as they are delivered from captivity by the Lord’s mighty arm – just as they were delivered from Egypt (see 52:12) – He calls on the nation to look at His servant, the new (and greater) Moses, the deliverer of his people. To paraphrase, “Israel, My people, as you are being redeemed from bondage, behold your redeemer, My servant!”
- The individual servant is the “bringer of salvation,” while the nation witnesses God’s salvation. Rabbi Blumenthal tries to rebut this argument by pointing to verses like 41:15, where Israel functions “as God’s threshing board, actively destroying mountains and hills, which represent God’s enemies.” And he notes that, “51:16 has Israel bearing God’s word to plant the heavens and establish the earth. 52:11 describes Israel as God’s armor bearers, hardly an appropriate description for a passive recipient of God’s work. And 60:1-3 commissions Israel to rise and to shine in order to have the nations and kings walk by her light.”
In reality, to be used as a threshing board of destruction is to be used as an agent of judgment, not salvation, while 51:16, as we have pointed out previously (Brown 2; see also below), refers to the prophet or the Messiah, not the nation, and 60:1-3, reflects Israel role after being redeemed by the Messiah in 59:20. (We have already addressed the issue of Israel being God’s armor bearer in Brown 2, but note again that in chapter 52, Israel is the object of salvation, not the bringer of salvation.) My argument stands, as presented, and the contrast between the servant’s role in 49-53 and is quite clear. The scriptures themselves rebut Rabbi Blumenthal.
- Isaiah 49:1-9. Rabbi Blumenthal has further expanded on his views here but has not offered a rebuttal to my overall interpretation, so it is sufficient to say this: Yes, Isaiah the prophet was greatly used by God and his words are often quoted to this day. Yet, as demonstrated above, this passage is best understood with reference to the Messiah rather than Isaiah.
- Redeemer or redeemed? We have already addressed this point several times, above, but since Rabbi Blumenthal raises it once again, we will address his latest arguments. He wrote, “I never made the claim that the nation is not the object of redemption. What I did say is that the nation also plays an active role in the redemption process and that this truth is highlighted in the very chapters where Dr. Brown would want to see them downplayed.” As we have seen, above, this is simply not true. In chapters 49-53, the people of Israel are the redeemed, not the redeemers. It is redundant to repeat this yet again, but it is what Scripture states. Denying it 100 times over does not change the truth of God’s Word.
Rabbi Blumenthal writes that, “Dr. Brown has failed to note that the individual servant, like national Israel also looks forward to God’s help, salvation and vindication (51:7-9). The individual servant calls on Israel to put their trust in God just as he has done.”
Actually, I did not fail to note this, since I referenced this text often (Rabbi Blumenthal meant to write 50:7-9) and noted how God will vindicate His servant the Messiah in 49:1-9. But whereas God will vindicate the servant, who will then deliver His people, He vindicates His people by delivering them.
Are there some parallels between the experience of the individual servant, the Messiah, and the corporate servant, Israel? Of course. They are one nation, one people, with a shared destiny. Yet their roles in 49-53 are distinct and different, as frequently emphasized above.
- Will repentant Israel play a key role in world redemption at the end of the age? Rabbi Blumenthal claims that the Israel which will play a key role in world redemption at the end of the age is “not merely a ‘repentant Israel’ as Dr. Brown would have us believe. This is an Israel that languishes in exile for her sins. This is an Israel that holds steadfast to her trust in God despite the persuasions of people like Dr. Brown who would have us put our trust in Jesus. Not a sinless Israel. But an Israel who refuses to bend her heart to anyone but the God she married at Sinai (Isaiah 26:13).”
Once again, Rabbi Blumenthal substitutes his rewriting of biblical history for what the text actually says. Here is God’s description of the Jewish nation that went into exile: “But they kept ridiculing God's messengers, despising His words, and scoffing at His prophets, until the LORD's wrath was so stirred up against His people that there was no remedy” (2 Chr. 36:16). And here is God’s description of the Jewish nation that He restored from exile 70 years later: “‘I will save you from all your uncleanness. . . . Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and detestable practices. It is not for your sake that I will act’ -- the declaration of the Lord GOD—‘let this be known to you. Be ashamed and humiliated because of your ways, house of Israel!’” (Ezek. 36:29, 31-32).
The difference, then, between Rabbi Blumenthal’s understanding of the state of our people in exile and my understanding is simple: He interprets our suffering in exile through the lens of wishful thinking; I interpret our suffering in light of what the Divine Author explicitly stated over and over again throughout the Tanakh. In short, the very fact that we have been in exile for 2,000 years testifies to our sin and rebellion.
Rabbi Blumenthal would have us believe that we are suffering God’s judgment because of our obedience to Him, an unscriptural and illogical argument. I say we are suffering because of our disobedience – and some of that disobedience includes rejecting Yeshua our Messiah.
- Isaiah 51:16. According to Rabbi Blumenthal, “God addresses Israel in this verse and tells the nation that He has set His word in the nation’s mouth in order to plant the heavens and to establish the earth and to say to Zion; “you are My nation.” Here, Israel, the nation, is being assigned a most active role in God’s plan of redemption, in language that parallels the commission of the individual servant. This text refutes Dr. Brown’s contention that the prophet is attempting to set up a contrast between the nation and the individual servant in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53. Here we have, in the most explicit language, God commissioning Israel to do His work on earth.”
I responded to this (in Brown 2) by stating that the verse referred to the prophet or to the Messiah. Rabbi Blumenthal responded by saying that, “Dr. Brown does not tell his readers that up until this point he accepted that this verse speaks of Israel. When Dr. Brown counted the verses of these chapters, assigning some to the individual servant and others to the nation, Dr. Brown agreed that this verse refers to the nation. The grammar leading up to this verse leave us with no doubt that it is Israel who is being addressed in this verse. It is only now, that Dr. Brown realizes how the implications of this verse refute his position, that he changes his interpretation of the verse.”
Actually, I did not miscount or mischaracterize this verse. It certainly does speak of Israel, specifically in the closing phrase, “to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.’” The question is, does it also speak of the prophet or the Messiah? Clearly, it does, and the context and grammar are against 51:16 referring to Israel, contrary to Rabbi Blumenthal’s claims. (This reminds us that it can be difficult to place every verse into a distinct category, since some verses have multiple referents.) [Additional Note: On August 6, Rabbi Blumenthal emailed me with this comment: “Back in our e-mail exchange we spent quite a bit of time counting verses attributing some to the nation and some to the individual servant. You insisted that if any verse refers to both the individual and the nation it ought to be counted for the individual and not for the nation. And in every version of your counting you had 51:16 as a reference to the nation. Do you remember this?” He is correct, and upon further examination, I can offer this further clarification: Because of the reference to Zion in the verse, I accepted the verse as referring to the nation as a whole without further consideration. When I studied the verse more closely, in response to Rabbi Blumenthal’s articles, it became totally clear that it was speaking of an individual who made a proclamation to the nation, not to the nation itself. My appreciation to Rabbi Blumenthal for bringing this to my attention.]
First, captive Israel is the object of mercy and redemption in 51:11-12, and 14; second, Israel is guilty of forgetting the Lord in 51:13 (as discussed above); third, in 51:17, sleeping Jerusalem, drunk from the cup of God’s fury, is urged to wake up; fourth, 51:15 makes another break in the larger context, as God speaks of His might and power, then points to the calling of the Messiah (or the prophet) in 51:16 (see Brown 2 for further details). In this context, God is hardly crediting Israel with establishing the heavens and the earth!
Note also that many translations, including some Jewish translations, understand the Hebrew grammar differently than Rabbi Blumenthal. Note, for example, the New Jewish Publication Society Version: “Have put My words in your mouth And sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, Have said to Zion: You are My people!”
So, it is the Lord “who planted the skies and made firm the earth,” who then said to Zion, “You are My people.” It is not the people of Israel “who planted the skies and made firm the earth” and then who said to themselves, “You are my people.” What would this even mean? Rather, the grammar indicates that the same one who said to Zion, “You are My people” (clearly, the Lord, not the people themselves) is the one “who planted the skies and made firm the earth.”
And, since the prophetic words were put into the mouth of someone, it must be someone within the people rather than the nation itself, otherwise, to repeat, you have the ridiculous conclusion that the people are declaring to themselves, “You are my people.” (See also the translation of the LXX, the earliest extant Jewish translation of Isaiah: “I will put my words into thy mouth, and I will shelter thee under the shadow of mine hand, with which I fixed the sky, and founded the earth: and the Lord shall say to Sion, Thou art my people.”)
In short, Rabbi Blumenthal has not refuted any of my arguments. He has simply reiterated his own. He also makes a false contrast when he writes, “The individual servant frees the captives and opens the eyes of the blind, not by dying for their sins as Dr. Brown would have us believe, but by bringing God’s word into the world (49:2; 61:1).” It is both-and, not either-or. The individual servant dies for the sins of the world and brings God’s Word to them. Yeshua the Messiah has done both.
- Isaiah 51:7 Rabbi Blumenthal argued that this verse proves that Israel, carrying God’s law, will bring that light to the nations, which highlights Israel’s active role in God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. I did not respond to this with my “own speculation,” as falsely claimed by Rabbi Blumenthal. Rather, I indicated that in these chapters Israel is the object of salvation rather than the bringer of salvation. It is only after Israel is forgiven and redeemed that it will fulfill its role as a light to the world (as I have argued, above). Note also that Rabbi Blumenthal acknowledges the correctness of my point that the Messiah will bring the Law to the nations (see 42:4; I also pointed to 49:6, which Rabbi Blumenthal understands with reference to the prophet).
As to the argument that there Isaiah speaks of a righteous remnant who carry God’s law in their hearts, I say yes and Amen. Yet, as Isaiah plainly stated, Israel in exile did not bring God’s light to the nations; it brought the profanation of God’s name (see above).
- Armor Bearers of the Lord. Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “Isaiah 52:11 describes Israel as the armor bearers of God. I pointed to this verse to demonstrate that the prophet is not downplaying Israel’s active role in God’s plan in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53, instead, Israel’s active role is being emphasized.” I responded by stating, “the whole focus of chapter 52 is Israel’s redemption from bondage, not Israel’s mission to the world.”
Because he does not like my scripture-based answer, he must dismiss as my own, asking “Is the prophet also speaking of Israel’s active role [in bringing salvation] or not?” The context gives the answer: No, it is not.
Rabbi Blumenthal has made far too much out of the armor-bearer image, which simply refers to the returning exiles as those who carry the vessels of the Lord. They are not to touch anything unclean because of what they are carrying – namely, some of the sacred objects from the Temple. That’s it. Rabbi Blumenthal makes something out of this that the text does not make, then turns around and criticizes me for holding to the scriptural context.
- Does Isaiah 51 and 52 highlight the differences between the individual servant and the nation? In a striking admission which supports my overall argument, Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “I acknowledged (in a comment on my blog) that the role of the individual servant goes beyond the role of Israel in the process of redemption. However, I pointed out that those differences are not highlighted in chapters 51 and 52, the chapters that set the stage for Isaiah 53.”
Of course, the differences do not need to be highlighted ten times over to make the point, nor is God required to highlight them again just to be sure that the reader remembered what He previously said a few chapters earlier. Nonetheless, my response to Rabbi Blumenthal holds true, namely, that Isaiah 51 and 52 speak of Israel’s redemption from bondage, in contrast with the role of the individual servant who is the redeemer from bondage. (We have emphasized this several times already in this article, to the point of complete redundancy, but since Rabbi Blumenthal broke this down to twenty-eight arguments, many of which are variations of the same, I must respond to the same point repeatedly.)
Oddly, he claims, “This is no response. The individual servant is only a redeemer inasmuch as he bears God’s word (49:2; 61:1). And in these very chapters (51 and 52) Israel is described as the bearer of God’s word 3 times (51:7, 16; 52:11). Hardly the ‘contrast’ that Dr. Brown is looking for.”
But this argument breaks down instantly upon examination. First, the servant of Isaiah 53 is a redeemer by being a vicarious sufferer. Even for those who wrongly understand the text in corporate terms rather than individual terms, the context speaks of vicarious suffering. Second, as noted above, there is no contrast between the servant dying for our sins and the servant bearing God’s Word. He does both. Third, 51:7 does not speak of Israel declaring God’s Word, 51:16 refers to the prophet (or the Messiah), and 52:11 speaks of Israel carrying the sacred vessels of the Temple. Rabbi Blumenthal has struck out in his attempt to rebut my argument, and his important admission says it all: “the role of the individual servant goes beyond the role of Israel in the process of redemption.” That servant is the Messiah.
- Why is the servant of Isaiah 53 not clearly identified? Rabbi Blumenthal feels that I did not grasp the weight of his argument, asking, “So why did the prophet leave this question to our detective work? Why does the prophet fail to identify any of the individual servants, from Isaiah 40 thru Isaiah 53?”
Again, there are numerous reasons why God, in His wisdom, did not identify the servant here even more overtly, but this is in harmony with the ways and wisdom of our Lord. First, it is possible that people would have tried to manipulate current events to bring this chapter to fulfillment, whereas in God’s plan, the Messiah had to be crucified and resurrected before full clarity would come to the honest seeker. Second, by describing things in such detail, hundreds of millions of readers, both Gentile and Jew, have, in fact, recognized the identity of the servant. So, it appears that the Lord knew what he was doing after all.
Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “It might be a worthy endeavor to attempt to uncover the identity of the servant but it is not critical to the core message of the prophet.” Actually, it is more than a worthy endeavor. It is an essential endeavor. A passage of such unique context, and one that begins (in 53:1) by asking who has believed our report, is begging to be understood.
Ironically, as I have point out many times, rabbinic Judaism bases itself entirely on the so-called Oral Torah, without which there would be no traditional Judaism. Yet there is not a single explicit reference to this alleged authoritative tradition in the entire Tanakh. What we have here in Isaiah 53 in terms of identification is much more explicit and overt.
- Isaiah 53 is still convincing people to put their faith in Jesus. Rabbi Blumenthal calls this an “empty contention,” claiming that Christians do not rightly understand Isaiah 40-53 and arguing that they have sold their theology to others, who then embrace this wrong interpretation of the text by reading their views back into it. But his argument is only true if all his other arguments about Isaiah 40-53 are right. In reality, none of them are, and God in His wisdom continues to use these verses to open the eyes of Jews and Gentiles around the world.
- Servant or “co-equal”? In Blumenthal 2, Rabbi Blumenthal argued “that the word ‘servant’ (as in ‘God’s servant’) is not the word we would use to describe someone who is seen as equal to God.” I responded with astonishment (in Brown 2) at Rabbi Blumenthal’s lack of understanding of Christian theology, which states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
Rabbi Blumenthal now asks, “Is this an answer? The first quality of a servant of God is the recognition that every iota of one’s existence is but an underserved gift from God. A servant is someone who recognizes his complete helplessness before God and his complete dependence upon God’s grace and mercy. Following someone’s directives, even following them perfectly, does not make you a servant of that someone. Friends and partners can also choose to follow directives of their respective counterparts. A servant is someone who sees himself as belonging, completely and totally to the master that he serves.”
Yes, exactly, which underscores the point I was making: Rabbi Blumenthal doesn’t understand Christian theology. What he wrote here (other than the reference to needing God’s mercy, which the perfect Messiah did not), applies to Yeshua. To repeat: Rabbi Blumenthal doesn’t understand Christian theology. He can reject it, which is his choice; but he cannot misunderstand it and then use his misunderstanding as an argument. And when he continues his argument to claim that to hold to Isaiah 49-50 requires rejecting the Trinity, he further shouts to the world that he does not understand Christian theology.
- What is the “report” of 53:1? Rabbi Blumenthal had argued that the report of Isaiah 48:20, announcing Israel’s deliverance from Babylonian exile, is the same report as 53:1, and he seeks to buttress that argument in Blumenthal 3. Unfortunately, the biblical text is against him, even if I agreed with him that 52:13-53:12 spoke of Israel rather than the Messiah (which it does not). Look carefully at 48:20, which states, “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!’” So, this is referring to our people’s deliverance from Babylonian captivity over 2,500 years ago. In contrast, according to Rabbi Blumenthal, 52:13-15 speaks of Israel’s future exaltation, to the shock of the nations, leading to the report of 53:1.
So, these are two different and distinct reports. In 48:20, when our people came out of Babylon, we were not highly exalted and the kings of the world were not shocked by our deliverance. Not only so, but there is not a single verse in the Bible that indicates that Babylon (or, before that Assyria), which oppressed us, ever said, “We now recognize that these Jewish exiles were suffering for our sins, not their own.” Absolutely not.
In stark contrast, when the Messiah is exalted, kings do shut their mouths at him – this happens on an ongoing basis, as pagan rulers and Muslim rulers and others recognize who he is – and it will happen at the last when he returns in power and glory. Sadly, for the most part, God’s people Israel have not recognized his identity, leading to the powerful confession of Isaiah 53, as our eyes are opened and we confess with shock the truth about Yeshua: We thought he was a wicked sinner, suffering for his own sins. We didn’t realize he was suffering for us!
* * *
Finally, Rabbi Blumenthal devotes a section to, “A Brief Expose of Some of Dr. Brown’s Tactics.” Suffice it to say that I do not use “tactics.” I did, however, wrongly accuse Rabbi Blumenthal of using tactics in my third video, for which I apologized from the heart. Unfortunately, because of his own reading of scripture, he has wrongly accused me of using tactics rather than recognizing we have come to different conclusions based on our careful and honest study. In light of that, I’ll not dignify this false accusation with a point by point refutation.
Rabbi Blumenthal then returns to my alleged “staggering mistake” with regard to counting references to Israel in 49-53. As I demonstrated repeatedly (see Brown 1 and Brown 2), there was no “staggering mistake,” and using Rabbi Blumenthal’s correction to my original count, the argument I was making from the start got even stronger, despite Rabbi Blumenthal’s protestations to the contrary. The emphasis on the individual servant has dramatically increased in these chapters, as the Divine Author draws the readers’ attention to our Messiah and Redeemer, Yeshua.
In closing, it has taken me some time to respond in detail here, not because Rabbi Blumenthal has raised a single point of substance against my understanding of the text (which is saying something when you realize that his last response was over 14,000 words long). Rather, it is because I do not have the luxury of responding to every article or video or book that seeks to refute my views (some of these are produced on a weekly, if not daily basis), and I have constant writing deadlines because of other books and articles.
However, out of my deep respect to Rabbi Blumenthal, and out of a fervent desire to help you, the reader, discover the truth of Israel’s Messiah, I have written at such length. But there is now an increasing amount of redundancy in these articles, as the same points are rehashed over and again. So, barring something unexpected (including a change in my writing responsibilities, giving me more time), I will leave things here, believing above all that Isaiah 53 speaks for itself with clarity and power, all the more when studied carefully in context. As the old adage goes, a word to the wise is sufficient. I trust you will see that my position adheres more closely to the plain, contextual meaning of the Scriptures and that, consequently, this position brings more glory to God through the work of the Messiah and underscores our need for redemption whereas Rabbi Blumenthal’s position brings more glory to the people of Israel.
A careful reading of the relevant texts will also underscore that Isaiah 53 can only be rightly understood with reference to our righteous Messiah, the one who died that we might live, the one whom we wrongly rejected and despised. As Peter wrote 2,000 years ago, with reference to Isaiah 53, “Messiah also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:21-25).
May you (along with Rabbi Blumenthal) be included in that number.