Posted Apr 11, 2018 by Michael L. Brown

In a recent article on his website, Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal accused me of making a “staggering mistake” in one of my secondary arguments about the identity of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah chapters 49-53. In reality, in the midst of an ongoing video debate with Rabbi Blumenthal, I made a partial mistake in a minor argument, which Rabbi Blumenthal subsequently exposed. (For my acknowledgement of this, see here.) This, however, forced me to dig even deeper into the text, and the more I dug, the more I saw that my overall argument was actually strengthened, not weakened.

Rabbi Blumenthal does not agree with this assessment, making the bold claim that, my minor mistake actually points to a fundamental flaw in all my scripture-based arguments, writing: “I believe that Dr. Brown’s mistake is extremely significant, it affects the very core of Dr. Brown’s argument and that Dr. Brown’s incredible inability to see his mistake completely undermines all of his arguments.” In reality, it is Rabbi Blumenthal who is now demonstrating an “incredible inability” to see where the biblical evidence leads, because of which he misses the forest for the trees. Shall we pursue the truth together with open hearts and minds before Lord?

Allow me, first, to recap the nature of our disagreement. The subject of our debate was the Jewish Messiah according to the Hebrew Scriptures, and a passage I focused on during the debate was the famous prophecy of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 (more precisely, Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Of whom does this passage speak? Earlier, in Isaiah 40-48, the servant of the Lord was frequently identified with Israel, leading to the question: “Is Israel the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53? Or does Isaiah 53 speak of an individual within the nation?”

I stated,

If we examine the evidence carefully, we will see that the references to the servant as a people actually end with Isa 48:20, while the references to the servant as an individual come into clearest focus beginning with Isaiah chapter 49 and continuing through the end of chapter 53. Accordingly, in chs. 40-48, when the greater focus is on the servant as a nation, the term “Israel” occurs 34x and “Jacob” 19x, whereas in chs. 49-53, where the greater focus is on the servant as an individual, “Israel” occurs 6x (5 in ch. 49) and “Jacob” 3x (all in ch. 49). So, by the time Isaiah 52:13 is reached, the spotlight is on a person, not a people, although the person is certainly connected to his people.

In his response, Rabbi Blumenthal chose to ignore my first point – the major point I was making – and focus on the secondary argument, namely, the diminishing references to Israel and Jacob in chs. 49-53 (when compared to 40-48). As he explains in his article, “I did not directly address the first of Dr. Brown’s two arguments (that the word ‘servant’ no longer refers to the nation after chapter 49) in the context of the debate, instead I focused on his second argument, which is the subject of this particular discussion.”

To be candid, I found it shocking that he chose not to address my primary argument during the video series, and the short response he offers in his new article is quite weak. He did, however, address my secondary argument, saying,

The method that Dr. Brown has used is a good method, but Dr. Brown has applied it incorrectly. The prophet has many ways of referring to the nation of Israel aside from using the words “Israel” and “Jacob.” (As an aside, in these chapters of Isaiah these names are often not being used to identify Israel, but rather they are used to identify God; i.e. “the God of Israel.”) Zion, Jerusalem, the nation with My teaching in their hearts, seekers of God and followers of justice are all nouns and metaphors that the prophet uses to identify Israel. There are also pronouns that the prophet uses that give us to understand that he is referring to Israel such as a female “you,” a plural “you” or “them.” In chapters 49 through 52 there are over 150 nouns, metaphors and pronouns referring to Israel. So, according to Dr. Brown’s own method of Scriptural interpretation, we see that the prophet is not shifting his focus away from Israel, he is actually zooming in on Israel.

This was an impressive response, but it was flawed in several fundamental ways. First, Rabbi Blumenthal failed to note that the servant is explicitly identified with Jacob/Israel 7 times in Isaiah 40-48 (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20) but only once in 49-53, and there (using the name “Israel”), it is clearly speaking of an individual Israelite who has a mission to his people (see below for further discussion). Second, by failing to address my primary argument, he failed to grasp the weight of the evidence, not to mention failed to ask the question: Why was a second servant necessary? Why couldn’t the nation of Israel, as a nation, fulfill its mission on its own?

Third, he never told us how many references to Jacob-Israel he found in Isaiah 40-48. In other words, he told us that, “In chapters 49 through 52 there are over 150 nouns, metaphors and pronouns referring to Israel,” a substantial number, for sure. But he never told us how many references to Israel he found in chapters 40-48. And since he was doing the counting, he alone can tell us his conclusions. (Try going through these chapters yourself in Hebrew and see what numbers you come up with; the counting can be subjective at times. In fact, in his video, Rabbi Blumenthal stated that there were “over 150 nouns, metaphors and pronouns referring to Israel” in Isaiah 49-52:12; in an email to me somewhat later, he found 200 such references, quite a jump from “over 150.” This underscores why I could not respond to his initial argument without having all his data before me.)

Remarkably, in his article, he faults me for not filling in the blanks, even though he was the one making the argument. He wrote,

The fact that I did not present the punch-line to my refutation prevented him from fully grasping my argument.

I find this amazing. What is there to grasp? How sophisticated do you have to be before you realize that an argument about the focus of the author can only be measured in proportion to the amount of sentences he uses? How knowledgeable do you have to be before you realize that “Zion” or “My nation” are references to Israel as a nation? And if this concept was beyond the grasp of Dr. Brown, then how did he figure out that the individual servant is the Messiah? The Messiah is not mentioned by name in this entire section of Isaiah (40-53). How is it that when it comes to national Israel, Dr. Brown cannot see anything unless the prophet spells it out by name but when it comes to the Messiah, Dr. Brown demands that we see every imaginary shadow?

With all respect to Rabbi Blumenthal, I find his comments amazing. He was the one who started the rebuttal, and it is he who is expected to finish it. To go back to his “punch line” analogy, isn’t it the responsibility of the comedian to tell the audience his punch line? Why should I, in the midst of a time-restricted video debate, be responsible to fill in the second half of his equation, especially when he chose not to respond directly to a number of the arguments I raised during my presentations?

While he condescendingly claims that his argument was “beyond my grasp,” the reality is I fully understood the point he was trying to make but needed his full count in order to assess the strength of his argument. And since, in his article, he claims that the Divine Author of the Bible never told us that the subject of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah, it is striking that Rabbi Blumenthal downplays the significance of what the Divine Author has told us.

Consider these verses from Isaiah 40-48, where the servant of the Lord is explicitly identified with Jacob-Israel:

  • But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, Seed of Abraham My friend -- You whom I drew from the ends of the earth And called from its far corners, To whom I said: You are My servant; I chose you, I have not rejected you (Isa. 41:8-9)
  • But hear, now, O Jacob My servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus said the LORD, your Maker, Your Creator who has helped you since birth: Fear not, My servant Jacob, Jeshurun whom I have chosen (Isa. 44:1-2)
  • Remember these things, O Jacob For you, O Israel, are My servant: I fashioned you, you are My servant -- O Israel, never forget Me (Isa. 44:21)
  • For the sake of My servant Jacob, Israel My chosen one, I call you by name, I hail you by title, though you have not known Me. (Isa. 45:4)
  • Go forth from Babylon, Flee from Chaldea! Declare this with loud shouting, Announce this, Bring out the word to the ends of the earth! Say: “The LORD has redeemed His servant Jacob!” (Isa. 48:20)

The Divine Author is speaking clearly! In contrast, only once in Isaiah 40-48 can a good case be made for an individual within Israel being the servant of the Lord rather than the nation as a whole being the servant, namely, Isaiah 42:1-7 (see the Targum and Radak’s commentary there). Otherwise, it is clear: When God is speaking of His servant in 40-48, He is referring to the nation as a whole, and in context, it is His people Israel suffering in Babylonian exile.

It is the exact opposite in chapters 49-53: Not once in chapters 49-53 is the servant called Jacob, and only once is the servant called Israel (Isa. 49:3), and there, as recognized by a number of rabbinic commentaries, it is because he fulfills the mission of the nation or stands in place of the nation (as explained by Ibn Ezra, “You are estimated in my eyes like all Israelites together”). Either Rabbi Blumenthal fails to grasp the weight of this argument or he chooses to ignore it. Doesn’t this reveal a significant bias on his part?

Note also that the servant is clearly an individual in Israel in 49:1-7 and 50:4-10, two extensive passages where the servant is tasked with a mission to the nation. (Rabbinic commentaries frequently identify the prophet himself as the subject of these passages.) In addition, the servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is described in individual, not national terms, while his character is quite different than the character of the nation elsewhere in these chapters.

As I noted in the first debate video,

Note also that while the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 is a righteous, guiltless sufferer, Israel in Isa 40-53 is often anything but righteous. 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.

That’s why the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42:1-7 liberates the captives, described as blind and imprisoned, and the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 49:1-10 is tasked with regathering the scattered tribes of Jacob/Israel. It is this righteous individual, he who stands for his nation and represents his people, who lays down his life for their sin. And it is he who becomes a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6).

Looking at the actual count of verses, we arrive at the following statistics:

  • Total verses for chapters 40-48: 219
  • Total verses for chapters 49-52:12: 72 (if we include 52:13-53:12, the total is 87 verses)

How does this break down in terms of subject matter?

  • Verses speaking to or about Israel in 40-48: 84
  • Verses speaking to or about an individual servant within Israel in 40-48: 7
  • Verses speaking to or about Israel in 49-52:12: 44
  • Verses speaking to or about an individual servant within Israel in 49-52:12: 16

Thus, the comparison of verses referring to the nation vs. those referring to an individual servant within Israel in 40-48 is 38% to 3%. (In other words, 38 percent of the verses in chapters 40-48 speak of or to the nation of Israel, while just 3 percent speak of or to an individual servant within the nation – and that’s only if we read Isa. 42:1-7 with reference to an individual, which I believe is correct.) In sharp contrast, the comparison of verses referring to the nation vs. those referring to an individual servant within Israel in 49-52:12 is 61% to 22%.  (In other words, 61 percent of the verses in chapters 40-48 speak of or to the nation of Israel, while 22 percent speak of or to an individual servant within the nation.) This represents a massive percentage jump from Isaiah 40-48, which is another reason I said that the focus is shifting from the nation to the individual within the nation. And if my argument is correct and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 refers to the individual servant, the shift is even more staggering:

  • Verses speaking to or about Israel in 49-53: 44
  • Verses speaking to or about an individual servant within Israel in 49-53: 31
  • Comparison of verse speaking to the nation vs. an individual within the nation in 49-53: 51% to 36%

In sum, simply based on counting relevant verses, we see a massive shift in focus, with increasing attention put on the nation but much more increasing attention put on the individual within the nation. In light of this very strong evidence, is it any wonder that I was slow to accept Rabbi Blumenthal’s argument, especially when he failed to spell it out in full? Was he being fair or even-handed in ridiculing me for pushing back against him?

But what of the point he was making, namely, that there are other ways than counting verses to determine subject matter? He was absolutely right in making this point, and I agreed with him in my apology video that, in that regard, my “diminishing references” argument broke down. (Of course, as we have seen, my argument was absolutely supported by the fact that the servant, as a nation, is frequently identified as Jacob-Israel in chapters 40-48 but never once in 49-53.)

Yet here is where things get interesting, and this is why I made the claim that, the more I dug into the text, the more my argument was confirmed. I asked Rabbi Blumenthal to do a count of all references to Israel in 40-48 and 49-52:12, then of all references to the individual servant in 40-48 and 49:52:12. His figures ended up with a more pronounced shift in emphasis than did my counting of verses!

He sent me this data on January 1 of this year: “Here are my numbers - I counted several times so I wouldn't stand on the exactitude but the numbers came out roughly the same every time. 40 - 48 Number of verses 216, national references 364, Individual servant references 22. 49 - 52:12 Number of verses 72, National references 200, Individual references 63.”

He also gave me a separate count for Isaiah 52:13-53:12, based on my understanding of the text: “Individual references according to your read (and my method of counting) 73.”

Now, if we leave out 52:13-53:12, in Isa 40-48, the national references outnumber the individual references 16.6 to 1; in 49-52:11, it is 3.17 to 1, a large and indisputable shift. If we add in 52:13-53:12 (based on my understanding of the text), it is now 1.5 to 1.

Of course, we are disputing the identity of the servant in Isaiah 53, so I cannot add that data into my argument here. But if we simply look at the data that Rabbi Blumenthal and I agree on, there is no denying the evidence: While the focus on the nation increases from chapters 40-48 to 49-53 (as per Rabbi Blumenthal’s point), the focus on the individual within the nation increases much more. Put another way, as the time for Israel’s redemption approached, typified by the release from Babylonian captivity, the prophet focused on the nation more and more. But far more still, the prophet focused on the nation’s redeemer, the servant of the Lord, who died that we might live.

To illustrate this graphically, the references to the nation vs. the individual within the nation break down as follows:

Isaiah 40-48

Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation

Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person

 

Isaiah 49-52:12

Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation

Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person

 

Adding in Isa 52:13-53:12 as referring to an individual within the nation, we get this:

Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation Nation

Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person Person

The Divine Author is making Himself clear!

Sadly, Rabbi Blumenthal chose to respond to this evidence with rhetoric, writing,

But it goes much further than this. Dr. Brown has condescendingly described traditional Jews as incapable of reading Scripture for what it actually says. He has told us that the traditional Jews cannot see the true meaning of Scripture because they read the Scriptures in the context of rabbinic commentary. But we now see that Dr. Brown cannot see the text of the Scripture because he is desperately trying to establish a case for Jesus. Isaiah 51 and 52 contain not one explicit reference to the individual servant within the nation (whoever he may be). At the same time, these two chapters (Isaiah 51 and 52) are intensely focused on national Israel. If someone fails to realize this obvious Scriptural truth how then can they turn around and claim to be especially attuned to the word of the prophet? How can this same person preach to people about reading Scripture honestly?

Perhaps Rabbi Blumenthal should ask himself the very question he asks me: How can he “preach to people about reading Scripture honestly”?

I am hardly “desperately trying to establish a case for Jesus.” Surely Rabbi Blumenthal knows how many Jews faith have come to faith in Yeshua simply by reading Isaiah 53 for themselves. The text is shouting out to us as to the identity of the servant, the one who suffers vicariously, who takes the place of the guilty, who dies but yet who lives on. That’s why Messianic Jewish ministries like Chosen People have launched major advertising campaigns simply containing the words of Isaiah 53 as translated into English by Jewish scholars. The text really does speak for itself. (To emphasize this point, ask yourself how many traditional Jewish or counter-missionary organizations have simply posted the text of Isaiah 53 publicly , urging Jewish seekers to read it for themselves, without commentary.)

Elsewhere in his article, Rabbi Blumenthal writes,

Dr. Brown’s rationale for identifying the servant as Messiah let us point out that the Divine Author could have easily saved us this trouble. The Author could have identified the Messiah by name. Throughout Scripture, the Messiah is most positively identified by the name “David,” (i.e. Ezekiel 37:24) or “descendant of David” (i.e. Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15). If the salvation of mankind hinges upon us recognizing that this passage speaks of the Messiah, the Author should have done a better job. The fact that that the Author did not clearly identify the servant tells us that it is not all that important for us to know just who the servant is. The true message of the prophet rings clear without us knowing the identity of the servant.

Despite the fact that the Author did not identify the servant by name, Dr. Brown claims that he knows that the servant is the Messiah.

Ironically, Rabbi Blumenthal ignores the fact that: 1) the Divine Author draws our attention to the servant in Isaiah 52:13 (“Behold My servant”!); 2) the Divine Author opens chapter 53 by asking who has believed the report about this servant; 3) a famous midrash explicitly identifies the servant with the Messiah in 52:13 (Midrash Tanchuma, which speaks of the Messiah being more exalted than Abraham, Moses, or even the ministering angels!); and 4) a number of rabbinic commentaries on Isaiah 53, until this day, understand the passage Messianically (most recently, with reference to the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Shall all of them be castigated for their interpretations?

Even more ironically, as a traditional Jew, every aspect of Rabbi Blumenthal’s life is governed by the Oral Law, yet there is not one explicit reference to this Oral Law in the Torah, while text after text states that God made His covenant with Israel based on the Written Law. (I demonstrate this at length in volume 5 of my series Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.) If the Oral Law is so important, why didn’t the Divine Author make this clear at all? And why does Rabbi Blumenthal ignore the scriptural evidence that joins Isaiah 53 with the priestly role of the Messiah, a point I made repeatedly in my debates, yet a point that he largely ignored?

Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “It is true that the word ‘servant’ is not explicitly associated with national Israel in chapters 49 thru 52 of the book of Isaiah.” This is quite an admission, especially in light of the textual evidence, cited above. But, he continues,

the prophet makes it clear in these same chapters that the community of Israel is God’s servant and accomplishes His purpose on earth. The prophet tells us that God placed His word in Israel’s mouth in order to plant the heavens and establish the earth (51:16). It is clear that Israel is God’s instrument to achieve God’s purpose. In these chapters Israel is referred to as the nation with God’s Law in their heart (51:7). Israel is described as pursuers of justice and seekers of God (51:1) hardly terms the prophet would use if he was trying to deemphasize national Israel’s role in God’s redemptive plan. And finally, Israel is given the title “armor bearers of the Lord” (52:11). An armor bearer is someone who helps the primary warrior as he goes to battle (e.g. 1Samuel 14:1). It is clear that the prophet wants us to see national Israel as one who plays an active role in God’s plan as we approach Isaiah 53. Dr. Brown’s contention that once we reach chapter 49, the prophet no longer wants us to see national Israel as God’s servant is refuted by the text.

Once again, however, Rabbi Blumenthal’s arguments go far beyond the scriptural evidence, in the process ignoring these major points: 1) Israel was in exile for its sins, as reiterated throughout the Tanakh and summarized above. 2) Isaiah has some of the strongest words of rebuke for the nation, beginning in chapter 1, and then frequently in 40-53 (again, as noted, above); and 3) Israel, as a nation in exile, was a blind and deaf servant; the people were in prison, needing to be liberated. Put another way, Israel in exile cannot redeem itself; it needs a redeemer. And it is only with the help of this redeemer (the Messiah!) that Israel can fulfill its divinely-appointed mission. Isn’t this why traditional Jews pray daily for the coming of the Messiah? Do they imagine redemption without him? Do they think for a moment they will fulfill their destiny apart from him? So, yes, the prophet speaks of Israel’s role in 49-52:12, but since he has elsewhere described his people’s failure, it is clear that they only succeed through divine help – and that comes through the servant of the Lord, our Messiah. Once again, the biblical text refutes Rabbi Blumenthal’s position.

To make this point even more emphatically, let’s review the text in detail from Isaiah 49:1-52:12, leading up to the servant of the Lord passage in 52:13.

  • Chapter 49 opens with explicit individual language (“Coastlands, listen to me; distant peoples, pay attention. The LORD called me before I was born. He named me while I was in my mother's womb.”)
  • While it seems as if the servant has failed with his mission of freeing his people Israel from bondage, God says to him: “And now, says the LORD, who formed me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him so that Israel might be gathered to Him; for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God is my strength--He says, "It is not enough for you to be My Servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the protected ones of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, to be My salvation to the ends of the earth." (Isa. 49:5-6)
  • The focus changes from the servant’s mission to Israel (in 49:1-10) to God’s comfort for His people Israel (49:11-26), and there is not the slightest hint that the nation is the agent of redemption. Rather, it is the nation that is being redeemed. (Please take the time to read the verses in question.)
  • Chapter 50 begins with an explicit indictment of the nation (“you were sold for your iniquities, and your mother was put away because of your transgressions”) and then focuses on the servant from 50:4 to the end of the chapter, asking in v. 10 who among God’s people listens to this servant.
  • Chapter 51 begins with a call to the righteous among God’s people to look back to their spiritual roots, followed by promises of comfort and deliverance from bondage in the subsequent verses (51:3: “For the LORD will comfort Zion”; 51:11: “And the redeemed of the LORD will return and come to Zion with singing, crowned with unending joy. Joy and gladness will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee.”) Once again, it is the people who will be redeemed from bondage; in contrast, it is the servant of the Lord who sets the captives free.
  • This same chapter also speaks of the nation’s broken and sinful condition, stating, “But you have forgotten the LORD, your Maker” (51:13); and, “So listen to this, afflicted and drunken one-- but not with wine” (51:21). This is not the picture God’s painted earlier in chs. 42 and 49 and 50 of the righteous servant of the Lord who brings redemption and deliverance, nor it is a picture of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53.
  • In chapter 52:1-12, the verses that set the stage for the majestic description of the servant in 52:13-53:12, the nation of Israel is the object of redemption, not the vehicle of redemption, because of which Jerusalem will be inhabited once again. And who is it who bring about Israel’s redemption? (Again, the big picture is the final redemption of the nation, here typified by the deliverance from Babylon.) It is the Lord’s servant, singled out in 52:13 (“Behold My servant.”) And just as Israel’s deliverance from Babylon is likened to the nation’s earlier deliverance from Egypt, so too there is a new Moses (a greater Moses!) who will lead the captives out.
  • Accordingly, in 49:5-6, the servant is called to “return” (or, “bring back”) scattered Israel and Jacob, both times, using the root shuv, “to return, turn back,” while in 51:11 and 52:8, using the same root, it is the people who “return” to Zion. The servant turns them back; the people return. Similarly, in 49:9, the servant is called to say to his people, “Come out,” using the verb y-ts-’, while in 52:11-12, the nation is called to “come out” of Babylon. The servant is clearly not the nation; he is the one calling them to leave their captivity (see also 42:7, where the servant “brings out” his people from captivity).

A fair and honest reading of the text points to an individual servant bringing redemption to his captive nation, through which the nation fulfills its God-given destiny to the world. Yet is this servant, the prophet tells us, who will be rejected by his own people before that glorious day when they recognize his true identity. Again, I urge you to read the verses for yourself. They really do speak for themselves.

We should also note Isaiah’s use of the term “arm of the Lord,” referring to God’s salvific power and acts. Isaiah 51:9 reads, “Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor. O arm of the LORD! Awake as in days of old, As in former ages! It was you that hacked Rahab in pieces, That pierced the Dragon.” Then, we read in 52:10, “The LORD will bare His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, And the very ends of earth shall see The victory of our God.” And 59:16 states, “He saw that there was no man, He gazed long, but no one intervened. Then His own arm won Him triumph, His victorious right hand supported Him.” See also 63:5: “Then I looked, but there was none to help; I stared, but there was none to aid -- So My own arm wrought the triumph, And My own rage was My aid.” So, Israel is saved and delivered by God’s mighty arm.

Yet in Isaiah 53:1-2, it is the servant of the Lord who is directly connected with the arm of the Lord (as opposed to being the object of God’s saving arm): “Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, Like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: No charm, that we should find him pleasing.” And this is just what happened. God demonstrated His salvific power in Yeshua the Messiah through three solid years of signs, wonders, and miracles (and even by his own resurrection from the dead). Yet we, as a nation, failed to recognize this revelation of His arm through His lowly servant.

I pray that today, every seeker of the truth who reads this article would return to the text, reading Isaiah 52:13-53:12 over and again, both by itself as well as in the context of Isaiah 40-53. And I pray that, as you read these words and the light goes on and you recognize the identity of our Messiah, you would have the courage to follow him, regardless of cost and consequence.

Rabbi Blumenthal wrote that “there are some traditions within Judaism that portray the Messiah as one who suffers in a redemptive sense before he appears as a glorious king. (It should be noted that these traditions do not portray the Messiah as dying.) If the debate would be limited to the question of the atoning role of the Messiah there would be no practical ramifications to the disagreement.” (He then goes to outline what he believes those practical ramifications actually are.)

Yet Rabbi Blumenthal completely ignores the many rabbinic texts that speak of a Messiah son of Joseph, a Messiah who suffers redemptively and does, in fact, die (and then is raised from the dead). Note in particular this commentary to Zechariah 12:10 by the prominent 16th century preacher, Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh. He wrote:

I will yet do a third thing, and that is, that “they shall look unto me,” for they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance, when they see him whom they pierced, that is, Messiah, the son of Joseph; for our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and shall then be slain in the war to make atonement in such manner that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died; and, therefore, in order that it may be reckoned to them as a perfect atonement, they will repent and look to the blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sin: this is the meaning of “They shall look upon me.” (My emphasis.)

This will surely happen one day, as the Scriptures state so clearly. But it will not be another Messiah to whom Israel will look for atonement and redemption, the so-called Messiah son of Joseph. Instead, we will look to our one and only Messiah, Yeshua, who died for us so that we could be forgiven and fulfill our divinely-appointed destiny. The hard, textual data from Isaiah 40-53 that Rabbi Blumenthal supplied in response to our debate helps drive this point home. This is a staggering truth, not a staggering mistake.

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Michael L. Brown posted a comment · Apr 16, 2018
Here's Rabbi Blumenthal's response to this article. https://judaismresources.net/2018/04/15/diminishing-references-dr-browns-staggering-mistake-part-2/ I'll respond as soon as schedule allows.
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gerald a posted a comment · Apr 15, 2018
Counting the number of times there's a reference to a nation vs a person is really missing the point. Isaiah 53 itself is clearly referring to an individual. For example: "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death". Is that referring to a nation? Whatever was being discussed a few chapters earlier is irrelevant. Isaiah 53 is about an individual.
Dan1el posted a comment · Apr 11, 2018
Also, I guess it goes without saying, great response from Dr. Brown. How frustrating it must be to dialogue with Blumenthal--a man who refuses to look at and has no interest in the truth.
Dan1el posted a comment · Apr 11, 2018
1. Talmud Sanhedrin 98b says Messiah's name will be "leper scholar" based on Isaiah 53. So sad those poor souls didn't have super Rabbi Blumenthal to save them from their heretical reading of sacred Scripture! 2. Odd the rabbis spend all their lives in the minutiae of Torah when, according to Rabbi Blumenthal, everything important God wants to convey is self-evident.