I appreciate Rabbi Blumenthal responding to my response to his article from April 8, where we have been interacting about the focus of the prophet Isaiah in chapters 40-53 of his book. For those of you who are reading this article first, it’s best to start with Rabbi Blumenthal’s April 8 article, followed by my response, then his, and then mine, here. That way, you will have an overview of our dispute without me providing a lengthy recap here. And, when necessary, I will refer to his first article as “Blumenthal 1,” my response as “Brown 1,” his response as “Blumenthal 2,” and this current article as “Brown 2.” Hopefully, this will help simplify what is becoming a fairly complex discussion.
Rabbi Blumenthal writes in his most recent article that, “Dr. Brown presented a calculation that was less than honest and when I called him out on it, he failed to realize his mistake. He has since acknowledged his mistake and he has retracted that particular argument.” In response, I have noted that the overall argument I was making has been strengthened rather than weakened and that when he “called me out” about one part of my secondary argument, he didn’t make himself sufficiently clear. Once he did (in our subsequent private interaction), I acknowledged his point and publicly apologized for the erroneous statement I had made. But, to repeat, the major argument I was bringing has been strengthened rather than weakened, since the biblical text supports it.
To recap, in the first video of our debate, I said this:
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. (For the record, “servant” in the singular does not occur again in Isaiah after 53:11; in the plural, see 54:17; 56:6; 63:17; 65:9, 13 [3x], 14-15; 66:14.)
Was I correct in stating 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”? Absolutely. Was I correct in pointing out that “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)”? Absolutely. As I stated in my first response (“Brown 1”), “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.” To date, Rabbi Blumenthal has failed to successfully rebut any of this.
The correct point that he made – and where he pointed out my error – was that while the names Jacob/Israel decrease in Isaiah 49-53 (compared with 40-48), other references to the nation increase. That was the point I acknowledged in my apology video, with appreciation to him for pointing this out. So, rather than saying that in chapters 49-53 the spotlight was on an individual, not the nation, I should have said this: While the prophet speaks more and more about the nation, even more pronouncedly, in fact, much more pronouncedly, he focuses on a person within the nation, namely, the Messiah, Israel’s suffering servant.
Again, I appreciate Rabbi Blumenthal for calling me out on my misstatement. But, as noted again in my first response, his argument actually reinforced my most important point, since a careful examination of the data indicates that there’s an even greater focus on the individual servant in chapters 49-53 that I had previously maintained. This was demonstrated by counting all the verses in 40-48 that focus on the nation compared to those that focus on the individual servant, then doing the same for both in 49-53. It is clear by this method that there is an increasing focus on the individual servant. This was further confirmed by tallying all references to the nation and the individual servant (using Rabbi Blumenthal’s own count), where it became even clearer that there is an increasing focus on the individual servant. (For the full data, see “Brown 1.”)
How does Rabbi Blumenthal respond to this detailed statistical analysis in his response (“Blumenthal 2”)? As you will see, he fails to rebut these statistics at all. Yet that was the whole issue that started this exchange, namely, the question of “diminishing references.” Not only so, but a simple reading of Isa 52:13-53:12 shouts out “individual” rather than “nation.” (That, however, must be the subject of a separate article.)
Quite oddly, Rabbi Blumenthal claims:
When he was under the impression that the national references diminish, Dr. Brown insisted that the diminishing references is a valid Scriptural indicator that the servant of Isaiah 53 is not national Israel. But when he realizes that the references actually increase, then suddenly the intensity of the references have no bearing on the identity of the servant. Why not? What changed? Is the evidence only valid when it works for the point that Dr. Brown is trying to make? Why is it that when the same evidence turns against Dr. Brown’s position, it becomes a minor, secondary and partial argument that can be ignored?
First, the major argument I have advanced for many years is that the references to a corporate servant cease at Isa 48:20, while the references to the servant in chapters 49-53 are clearly individual in nature. Second, as a supporting argument that I introduced in the last couple of years, I mentioned the diminishing references to Jacob-Israel in these chapters, specifically in connection to the servant. Nothing, then, has changed in my overall presentation. The major argument remains major and the secondary argument remains secondary, except that, with Rabbi Blumenthal’s help, I can now present my major argument more clearly.
At the risk of being redundant, allow me to restate it here in three parts: 1) A careful reading of Isa 40-53 indicates that the direct references to the servant as a people actually end with Isa 48:20, while the direct references to the servant as an individual come into clearest focus beginning with Isaiah chapter 49 and continuing through the end of chapter 53. 2) Accordingly, while the servant is frequently identified as corporate Jacob-Israel in 40-48, the servant is never identified as corporate Jacob-Israel in 49-53. 3) A proportional analysis of chapters 40-53 indicates that while the prophet increases his attention on the nation of Israel in chapters 49-53, he increases his attention even more on the individual servant within the nation. To date, in everything Rabbi Blumenthal has written and said, I see no refutation of these statements, while his correction of my one previous error resulted in me digging deeper into the text, which resulted in even more detailed verification of my overall presentation.
As for the first argument I raised, called the “major” argument (and one to which Rabbi Blumenthal chose not to respond in our video debate), he writes that, “Dr. Brown’s ‘major’ argument is an edifice built on sand. Although it is true that the prophet does not use the actual word ‘servant’ to describe Israel’s role in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53 but the prophet uses other words to indicate that Israel is God’s instrument to achieve His purpose on earth.”
Note carefully that admission, because it is significant: “it is true that the prophet does not use the actual word ‘servant’ to describe Israel’s role in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53” (my emphasis). Not only is that true, but the prophet distinguishes the servant from the nation as a whole in chapters 49 and 50, while calling on the nation to behold the servant starting in 52:13. In addition, the speaker in 53:8 says the servant was stricken for the sin of “my people,” which in Isaiah always refers to the nation of Israel (either God’s people or the prophet’s people; see Isa 1:3; 3:12, 15; 5:13; 10:2, 24; 19:25; 22:4; 26:20; 32:13, 18; 40:1; 43:20; 47:6; 51:4, 16; 52:4-6; 57:14; 63:8; 65:22). Of special interest is the fact that, in Isa 52:4-6, God refers to Israel three times as “My people,” and then, just seventeen verses later, He speaks of the servant being punished for the sin of “My people.” The servant is clearly not the people in this context; the servant – the Messiah of Israel – dies for “My/my people.”
What of Rabbi Blumenthal’s claim that “the prophet uses other words to indicate that Israel is God’s instrument to achieve His purpose on earth”? Yes, of course the prophet tells us that Israel has a key role to play in the future redemption of the world. As Rabbi Blumenthal knows all too well, I wholeheartedly affirm that. But as I pointed out in my response (“Brown 1”), it is clear in Isaiah 40-53 that servant Jacob/Israel is in Babylonian captivity because of its sin. Servant Israel is blind and deaf; servant Israel languishes in prison; servant Israel is in need of redemption. Again, this is stated explicitly by the prophet, as pointed out in my opening video presentation and in my response (“Brown 1”). In contrast, the individual servant (meaning, the Messiah) is sent on a mission to liberate and restore captive Israel, to give the sight to the blind, to pay for the nation’s sin that it might find acceptance before the Lord.
If we were to follow Rabbi Blumenthal’s arguments, however, we would have the impression that Israel basically redeems herself, with God’s help. Who needs a Messiah? Israel will become the great righteous nation and will lead the world to God – if Rabbi Blumenthal is to be believed. Rather, the prophet calls on the nation to walk in the fullness of its calling and to step into its divine destiny, but it can only do so with the Messiah’s help. Why must the Messiah be excluded from Israel’s mission? One would think that he would be front and center in helping Israel fulfill its divinely-given purpose.
And this leads to a series of important questions. What happened to Israel’s Messiah in Isaiah 40-53, some of the richest chapters in the Bible and chapters which focus on Israel’s redemption? Why no explicit or extended references to the Messiah? And why is it that Isaiah was led by the Spirit to speak of the Messiah so powerfully in the first half of his book (meaning, chapters 1-39, most clearly in chapter 11), but never once in chapters 40-53? What happened? Rabbi Blumenthal must argue that the servant who is sent on a mission to Israel is actually the righteous remnant within Israel, even though the text nowhere says this. Instead, in keeping with our need for the Messiah, we should read the clear individual language found in chapters 49-53 for just what it is: a description of the ultimate righteous one, King Messiah.
In this context, it is strange to read Rabbi Blumenthal’s claim that my “argument is rooted in Christian theology, not in the words of the prophet. Christian theology requires the servant of Isaiah 53 to be sinless, but the prophet said nothing about the supposed ‘sinlessness’ of the servant. Dr. Brown’s ‘response’ clearly demonstrates that his theology has nothing to do with the theology of the Jewish Scriptures.” He also writes, “This was Dr. Brown’s ‘defense’ of his ‘major’ argument. How empty. How sad.”
Actually: 1) I went into textual detail to show how the prophet distinguished the nation from the Messiah, yet Rabbi Blumenthal failed to rebut that. 2) My claim that a Jewish prophet put great emphasis on the Jewish Messiah is hardly rooted in “Christian theology” (actually, the claim is bizarre). 3) Rather than stating that the servant was sinless, I said in the first video of our debate that the servant of Isaiah “is a righteous, guiltless sufferer.” Do I believe the Messiah was sinless? Absolutely. Did I claim that Isaiah53 stated he was sinless? No. I said that, according to the text, he was “guiltless,” meaning, that his sufferings were completely undeserved. He did nothing to merit the punishment he received. It was entirely vicarious. Others in Scripture could be described as “guiltless,” such as Job, based on Job 1:1, 8; 2:3, without saying they were sinless, but either way, this is hardly importing Christian theology into the text.
Rabbi Blumenthal next turns to his statement regarding “the arm of the Lord,” claiming that I ignored his arguments dating back to 2007 until my response earlier this month (“Brown 1”). He is correct, but not because I had no answer. Instead, I saw nothing of substance in his arguments, viewing them as his interpretation rather than what the Author of Scripture was stating. But as we examine the text more carefully, we see that the “arm of the Lord” references in Isaiah enhance the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53.
Allow me to quote Rabbi Blumenthal so we can get the full sweep of his argument. He wrote:
In Isaiah 52:10 we read how the arm of the Lord is revealed and all the ends of the earth see the salvation of our Lord. The context of this verse leaves us with no doubt that this revelation of the arm of the Lord was manifested for the sake of Israel. Merely a few verses later we read how the arm of the Lord is revealed upon the servant. A straightforward reading of the text would give us to understand that these two descriptions of the revelation of God’s arm are one and the same. It would then follow that the servant of Isaiah 53 is the same Israel upon who the arm of the Lord was revealed in verse 52:10.
Dr. Brown acknowledges that in several passages throughout the book of Isaiah, the arm of the Lord is revealed on behalf of Israel (Isaiah 51:9; 52:10, 59:16 and 63:5). Yet when Dr. Brown reads Isaiah 53:1, where God’s arm is also described as being revealed, he sees something entirely different. Dr. Brown claims that the servant of Isaiah 53 is ‘directly connected’ with the arm of the Lord as opposed to being the ‘object of God’s saving arm.’
He calls this an “outrageous argument” that “has no basis in the words of our prophets.” He further claims that:
The arm of the Lord is revealed on behalf of the servant to the consternation of her enemies. This theme is repeated throughout the Scriptures so many times (Isaiah 4:5, 18:3, 24:23, 40:5, 52:10, 60:2,19, 61:3, 62:1, Jeremiah 3:17, 33:9, Ezekiel 37:28, Micah 7:16, Zephaniah 3:20, Psalm 98:3, 102:17). How can Dr. Brown ignore all of this Scriptural evidence in the name of loyalty to Scripture?
The answer is quite simple. There is nothing outrageous in what I wrote, and a straightforward reading of the text supports my view. Quite simply, 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. (The fact that “arm” is feminine does not mean it cannot refer to the servant, any more than God cannot liken Himself to a mother, as He often does in Scripture.) Just look at Isa 53:1-2: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (my emphasis). Who is “he”? Who or what was the previous subject?
Beginning in 52:13, we are introduced to this servant, someone who will be highly exalted but only after going through extreme suffering. And he will be God’s vehicle of bringing redemption: Our guilt will be placed upon him; through his suffering, we will be made whole; he, the righteous servant, will become a guilt offering on our behalf; and he will make the many righteous. He is the arm of the Lord personified.
As explained by Isaiah commentator J. A Motyer,
In 51:9 the arm was called to awake; 52:6 pledged the Lord’s own presence; 52:8 foresaw the Lord visibly coming to Zion; 52:10 noted that the arm had been bared in saving action. Now at the last the arm has come, not simply a person behind and through whom the Lord’s power is at work, not just one signally (and even uniquely) upheld by the Lord’s power, but “the Arm” himself, the Lord come to save. (J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993], 427.)
In the Messiah, lowly and rejected, the arm of the Lord is most fully revealed as once again, He saves His people Israel.
There is nothing outrageous here in the least – again, please do read the biblical text for yourself – other than the outrageousness of the Lord’s grace. Thanks be to God who delivers His people through His arm personified, the Messiah!
Rabbi Blumenthal next notes that, “Dr. Brown has built his case on the supposed contrast between the individual servant within the nation and the nation as a whole. He sees this contrast in two separate realms; guilt vs. righteousness and in the sense that the individual servant is God’s vehicle of redemption while the nation is the object of redemption.”
But there a very real contrast, not a “supposed contrast,” and Rabbi Blumenthal’s attempt to deemphasize the servant’s righteousness falls flat. He claims that Isaiah 53 only states
that the servant is innocent of the crimes that his persecutors accuse him of. . . . The servant is not guiltless, he is innocent of the crimes that his persecutors accuse him of. He is not a child of the devil, he is not a murderer and a poisoner of wells. You don’t have to be sinless to be innocent of those crimes. Quoting Isaiah 53:9 to ‘prove’ the sinlessness of the servant is wrenching Scripture out of context.
Again, I had not said in my debate presentations that the servant was “sinless,” although I certainly affirm that he was. But Rabbi Blumenthal, in his desire to make the passage more suitable to Israel, has completely downplayed the clear scriptural evidence. Let us highlight what he has overlooked.
First, Isaiah (and the entirety of the OT) states emphatically that Israel was in exile for her sins. The nation was guilty before God, as laid out clearly from the beginning of Isaiah, where God says: “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Isa 1:4). If we had not been wicked, we would have been safely established in the Land. So, it is impossible that Isaiah 53 could speak of the nation as a whole, since the servant in this chapter is not suffering for his sins but for the sins of the others.
Rabbi Blumenthal would say, “My position is that the servant is the righteous of Israel,” a position espoused in some of the traditional commentaries. But this too breaks down, as we have demonstrated before. Most importantly, based on his view, it is the nations of the world which confess that they are healed by the servant’s wounds in Isaiah 53, the wounds they inflicted on the servant (meaning, on the righteous of Israel, according to Rabbi Blumenthal’s view). In sharp contrast, God promised to afflict those nations which afflicted His people (e.g., Jer 30:11), just as He destroyed ancient Assyria and Babylonia, and as He judged modern Germany.
Not only so, but according to the most common, traditional Jewish interpretation of Isa 52:13-15, the nations of the world will be stunned one day to learn that the Jewish people, scattered in exile but exalted in the end, were not suffering for their own sins but rather for the sins of the world. Again, in stark contrast with this view, God said through the prophet Ezekiel, “And the nations shall know that the House of Israel were exiled only for their iniquity, because they trespassed against Me, so that I hid My face from them and delivered them into the hands of their adversaries, and they all fell by the sword” (Ezek 39:23-24).
How does Rabbi Blumenthal interpret this passage? He actually cited it himself in his first video in our debate, stating
Again, this is a vindication of our message, not of our behavior. In fact the prophet Ezekiel (39:23) tells us that in that time when God’s might is revealed, the nations will know that it was because of Israel’s sin that they were exiled. What had these nations been thinking? The nations had believed that Israel was suffering because she had been carrying a corrupt message. And when God’s might is revealed they will learn that Israel’s message had been correct all along, it was their behavior that was lacking.
Actually, to this day, the nations of the world believe that the Jewish people are suffering (and have suffered) primarily because of their behavior, rather than their message. In fact, Rabbi Blumenthal even makes this claim when interpreting Isaiah 53, saying that our people have been falsely accused of bad behavior. The reality is, despite many false accusations against us, we have been exiled because of our sin, and therefore Israel cannot be the servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 53. Or do the nations of the world believe we have been exiled for observing the Sabbath or for proclaiming that there is only one God for believing that He spoke to us at Sinai?
The Lord Himself tells us what the nations will think when they see His Temple destroyed and His people scattered: “As for this house, which was exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house?’ And they will say, ‘Because they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers who brought them from the land of Egypt, and they adopted other gods and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this adversity on them.’” (2 Chr 7:21-22) It is absolutely clear that this people, exiled for sin, cannot be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
Who then is the servant, and how great is the contrast between the servant of the Lord and the speakers in Isaiah 53? As we look back to chapter 52, we see that God speaks with grace to His people in captivity, making reference to their soon release. (If you have the text handy, please take a moment to read it.) Then, in v. 12, he exhorts His people to get out of Babylon, speaking to them in the second person plural six times: “Depart, depart, get out, don’t touch, get out, purify yourselves.” Without question, He is speaking to His people, still captive in exile. What, then, comes next? It is v. 13: “Behold, My servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” God is telling His people Israel: Look at My servant!
There is no scriptural support for a sudden shift in the text where God is now addressing the nations of the world, telling them to look at His servant Israel. In fact, at this point, the nations have not been addressed directly for several chapters. Instead, the narrative continues seamlessly: As the people of Israel are being redeemed, God draws their attention to the one through whom He brings redemption, the Messiah. “Look at My servant!” He says to His people Israel. And as these very people – the Jewish people – come to realize who this servant is, they ask in Isa 53:1, “Who has believed what we have heard?” This is a straightforward reading of the text.
Remarkably, rather than extolling the servant’s righteousness and emphasizing the contrast between the servant and those for whom he suffered, Rabbi Blumenthal seeks to minimize both, without any scriptural support, arguing rather that the text only states that the Jewish people were not guilty of certain crimes (violence and deceit, in specific contexts). Isaiah says something very different. To paraphrase the words of the speakers in Isaiah 53, “We saw nothing special about this man, and as we watched him suffer and die, we thought it was for his own sins. We didn’t realize he was carrying our pains and sicknesses. We didn’t understand he was dying for our transgressions and iniquities and that our healing came through his bruising.” And then this: “All of us have strayed like sheep, going our own way, but the Lord visited on him the iniquity of all of us.”
What we see here is clear. The speakers (corporate Israel, whom God had previously addressed) now recognize their guilt, their sin, their transgression, their straying from God, to a man. But not the servant! He suffered for their sins, not his. He was not one of those who strayed. And although he was not wicked – he had done no violence and had no deceit on his lips – he was appointed a grave with the wicked. The innocent one would die a criminal’s death.
Not only so, but God wanted him to make his own soul a guilt offering – again, he would take the place of the guilty – but he could do this only if he himself was spotless. And in addition to himself being righteous, he would make many others righteous. He would do this by bearing their sin. The last verse of Isaiah 53 then states, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12).
The text really speaks for itself, totally contrasting the servant with the people for whom he died, highlighting their sinfulness and his righteousness, and painting a picture of a spotless sacrifice – the innocent suffering for the guilty. Isn’t this what we should expect of our Messiah? It is truly astonishing that Rabbi Blumenthal downplays the clear and obvious sense of the text, as if he is trying to make the text fit his interpretation rather than deriving his interpretation from the text. Since, however, I believe that he is a sincere seeker of the truth, I respectfully urge him to reconsider his position.
Rabbi Blumenthal next criticizes me for quoting Isaiah 51:13 as one example (of many) where there is, again, a clear contrast between the Messianic servant who brings redemption to his people and servant Israel, who needs to be redeemed. He emphatically rejects this argument, writing, “Dr. Brown could not have quoted a verse which more strongly refutes his position. Isaiah 51:13 does not serve to provide a contrast between the individual servant and the nation as a whole, instead it serves to compare them and to show how their characters are similar.”
He argues that the text parallels Isaiah 49:4, where the servant is concerned that he has failed in his mission to regather the tribes of Jacob, and so the text I “quoted serves to merge the characters of the individual servant and the nation, not to set them against each other.” Is this true? Let’s look at the verses side by side:
- In 49:4, the servant 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.”
- In 51:13 God says to the nation, “But you have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth. You are in constant dread all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, who has set himself to destroy. But where is the fury of the oppressor?”
How can Rabbi Blumenthal possibly compare these two texts? Surely he is reading something into the Bible that is not here. In 49:4, the servant has not forgotten the Lord, and there is no expression of fear or dread or terror. The servant remains confident in God, saying, in short, “Even though it appears that my labor has been in vain, I still put my trust in the Lord.” In 51:13, Israel, which has forgotten the Lord, is beaten down and terrified by her oppressors. Yet Rabbi Blumenthal claims that Isaiah is showing us how similar their characters are? Really?
And look at God’s words of assurance to the servant in 49:6 in contrast with his words of comfort to Israel in 51:14:
- In 49:6, God said to His servant, “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.”
- In 51:14, God declared concerning the nation, “He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking.”
In the former passage the servant is assured of a glorious mission to regather the people of Israel and to be a light to the nations. In the latter passage, the people of Israel are promised deliverance from bondage. The contrast, indeed, is great.
I mean no insult to Rabbi Blumenthal, but an impartial reading of these two passages, along with his treatment of Isaiah 53 (specifically, his downplaying of the servant’s righteousness), makes one wonder: Why can’t he accept these scriptures at face value? Why must he make them say something they are not saying? Is it because he is superimposing his theology on the biblical text, rather than letting the text dictate his theology? In particular, is it his attempt to identify the servant with Israel in Isaiah 53 that obscures his understanding and distorts his reading of these important, relevant passages?
Continuing with Rabbi Blumenthal’s response, he writes, “This brings us to the second realm of contrast between the individual and the nation presented by Dr. Brown. Dr. Brown alleges that the individual is the vehicle of God’s redemption while the nation is the object of God’s redemption and not his vehicle.” I believe a careful reading of my arguments, followed by his attempted rebuttal, reinforces the accuracy of my position. Let’s take a look, then, at his counter-arguments.
He notes that, “Dr. Brown argues that the prophet focuses on the nation’s role as God’s servant up until the end of chapter 48. But in chapter 49, it is the individual who is God’s servant and not the nation. According to Dr. Brown, the intense focus on the individual servant in chapters 49 and 50 are the prophet’s method of telling us that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is talking of the individual servant.” But he claims that, “if we follow Dr. Brown’s method of Scriptural interpretation then the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion.”
In his view, “if 49:1 is a pivot, turning our attention to the individual servant [this is my argument], then 51:1 must be a pivot as well, turning our attention directly back to the nation [this is his argument].” Is he correct?
He states that, “in the entirety of chapters 51 and 52, there is not one mention of the individual servant. Moreover, throughout these two chapters, the prophet goes out of his way to ascribe to the nation the qualities and the role of the individual servant. It is difficult to find two such chapters in all of Scripture that describe Israel in these glowing terms.” He further argues that, when Isaiah speaks of the righteous of Israel, he is speaking of the nation, whom he calls righteous.
On some points, I agree, since the servant and the nation are integrally related, and, since the time of her redemption is approaching, the prophet does speak more frequently about the nation. However, 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 the Tanakh) if the people are so righteous, and, again, he fails to explain how the nations of the world will one day confess that Israel was in exile because of her sin. You can’t have it both ways.
That’s why I have pointed out that in Isaiah 51-52, when the Lord speaks positively to and about His people, He is speaking about the righteous remnant. We also see through a careful analysis of chapters 49-53 that when God speaks to the individual servant, He commissions Him to be a light to the nations and the bringer of salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6; cf. also 42:1-4), but when He speaks to the nation, He speaks of His own salvation and justice and righteousness going forth (Isa 51:4-6, 8; 52:10).
So, yes, it is true that in chapters 51-52, the Lord says many wonderful things to His suffering people, words of encouragement and hope and redemption and comfort. But it is the servant of the Lord, he who has come into such clear focus in chapters 49 and 50, who is used by God to facilitate that redemption. To repeat the Lord’s words to His servant in 49:6: “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.” It is the servant who will raise up and bring back the very ones spoken of in chapters 51-52.
Rabbi Blumenthal, however, takes issue with a number of my points, claiming that I’m making a false distinction between the mission of the individual servant and the mission of the nation, and claiming that the nation will also be a vehicle of redemption and not simply the object of redemption. He begins by denying that Isa 49:1 opens with what I called “explicit individual language,” pointing to similar description of Israel as well (43:1; 44:2,24, see also 41:9; 43:21; 44:21; 48:12). However, the speaker’s self-description goes beyond anything said about corporate Israel, despite the overlap in some terminology, and, more importantly, the rest of the context makes clear that the servant is not the nation but rather is sent to the nation. That’s why rabbinic commentaries commonly identify the speaker with the prophet himself. They too recognize the individuality of the speaker.
Rabbi Blumenthal then takes issue with my claim that in 49:11-26, “there is not the slightest hint that the nation is the agent of redemption,” writing that, “this is the portrait he attempts to paint of national Israel in a general sense.” He alleges that I “could not be more wrong” and refers to “the emptiness” of my position. Once again, I invite all serious students of Scripture to read Isaiah 40-53, asking the question: Is the nation of Israel the redeemed or the redeemer, the liberated or the liberator? Then, ask yourself the same question regarding the individual (Messianic) servant of the Lord, described in Isa 42:1-7; 49:1-10; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. In light of the clear biblical evidence, it is odd to read Rabbi Blumenthal’s claim that it is these very chapter that “refute [my] contention in the strongest terms.”
Will a repentant people of Israel play a key role in world redemption at the end of the age? Absolutely. Was that the focus of Isaiah in these chapters? Certainly not. Rather, the focus was on Israel’s deliverance from Babylonian captivity (which, in the Tanakh, serves as a type of a larger, worldwide captivity from which the nation will ultimately be delivered). The focus was on Israel, the chosen nation, being redeemed. The focus was on the servant of the Lord, God’s agent of redemption.
Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “Throughout these chapters of Isaiah (40-52) national Israel is depicted as one who bears God’s word to accomplish His purpose on earth, but nowhere is this more pronounced than in chapters 51 and 52, the chapters that set the stage for Isaiah 53.” A key verse for him is 51:16, in which the Lord says, “I have placed My words in your mouth and with the shade of My hand have I covered you, to plant the heavens and to establish the earth and to declare to Zion: ‘You are My people!’’’ Rabbi Blumenthal then asks, “Are these words cutting Israel out of an active role in God’s redemptive plan? No, the entire thrust of this prophetic promise is that Israel is instrumental in God’s redemptive plan.”
Again, I agree that Israel is instrumental in God’s redemptive plan, but that is not the prophet’s focus here. The focus is Israel’s redemption. As for 51:16, how can God say “I have placed My words in your [nation of Israel’s] mouth” when the messenger is commissioned to declare to Zion that “You are My people”? (And what does the Targum imply?) It is better to understand this passage as directed to the prophet, who in these chapters is speaking these very words to Zion, or better still, to the Messianic servant of the Lord, whose mouth was made as a sharp sword (49:2) and who was given the tongue of the learned (50:4). So, a major lynchpin in Rabbi Blumenthal’s argument falls by the wayside. This would also refute his claim that “in the entirety of chapters 51 and 52, there is not one mention of the individual servant.”
He writes, “Israel is described as a nation with God’s Law in their heart (51:6 [this was a typo for 51:7]), and it is this very Law that brings light to the nations (51:4).” But, since the nation Israel is disobedient, who is it that brings this Law (Torah) to the nations? It is the individual servant of the Lord (the Messiah!), which is why “the coastlands wait for his Torah” (42:4; see also 49:6).
Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “Israel is described as the ‘armor bearers of the Lord’ (52:11). The armor bearer is one who carries the weapons of the primary warrior into battle and God’s weapon is His word, as we have seen, the very thing that was placed in Israel’s mouth. What more could the prophet have said to tell us that Israel plays an active role in God’s plan for redemption?”
Once more, however, Rabbi Blumenthal overstates his case. First, he forgets that the whole focus of chapter 52 is Israel’s redemption from bondage, not Israel’s mission to the world. This cannot be underscored enough, and the context is crystal clear. The nations will see God’s glory revealed as He redeems His people (rather than through their efforts and deeds). Second, Rabbi Blumenthal is correct in noting that the armor bearer carries the weapons of the primary warrior into battle. But he fails to see that it is the Messiah who is that primary warrior, anointed by God for his task. That’s why the nation is called to take notice of him beginning in 52:13.
Interestingly, in response to a reader question on his website (to “Blumenthal 2”), Rabbi Blumenthal noted that,
not every last function of the individual servants are directly associated with the nation. It is the prophet that opens the eyes of the blind, frees the captives, releases those who walk in darkness from the dungeons and comforts all the mourners (Isaiah 61:1-3). But the chapters leading up to 53 (namely 51 and 52) do not accentuate the differences between the individual servants and the nation, rather these chapters highlight their similarities.
So, Rabbi Blumenthal confirms a major point I have emphasized in terms of there being some distinct differences between the individual servant and the national servant, but he wrongly claims that those differences are not highlighted in chapters 51-52. As we have shown, the crucial differences are highlighted, as underscored by Isa 61:1-3, which he referenced, since it is the individual servant (spoken of in chapters 42, 49, and again in 61) who is anointed by God to open the eyes of the blind, free the captives, and release those who walk in darkness from the dungeons. That is the work of our Messiah, he who is the subject of these promises. And, just as Isaiah 51 and 52 proclaim, it is the nation of Israel which is the object of these promises. They are the ones whose eyes will be opened, whose captives will be freed, who will be released from the darkness of dungeons.
In both the video debate and in his article, Rabbi Blumenthal notes that he “pointed out that the Divine Author did not directly identify the servant of Isaiah 53, this tells us that the name of the servant is not a critical component to the message of the prophet.” He claims that my rebuttal did not touch his argument, writing that,
It is important for the Author to tell us that this He is talking about someone who is subservient and obedient to God. But the message will still come across without us knowing who this individual is. And yes, the chapter opens with the question; ‘who has believed our report?’ This tells us of the astonishment that will be brought about through the exaltation of the servant. But again, the servant is not identified.
We know, of course, that there are many important passages in Scripture where the subject is not identified by name. But when the Author of Scripture calls us to look carefully at a particular individual, and when that Author goes into great effort to paint a detailed description of that individual, should we not take that with the utmost seriousness and ask, “Who, then, is He speaking about?”
In the wisdom of God, we are not told everything in advance, lest we try to make prophecy come to pass in our strength. And that could be why some of the prophecies concerning the suffering and death of the Messiah became crystal clear only after he died and rose. But what is undeniable is that countless tens of millions of readers, including hundreds of thousands of Jews, have read God’s description in Isaiah 53 and said with one voice, “That speaks of Yeshua!” The Divine Author did His work well, also telling us repeatedly in chapters 40-48 that the corporate servant was Jacob-Israel, although blind and deaf and in need of redemption, then clearly saying that the servant of 49-53 was not this same nation.
Not only so, but every day, we see the ongoing fulfillment of Isaiah 53, as our people continue to misunderstand Yeshua’s suffering and death, thinking that he died for his own transgressions, failing to understand that in reality, he was dying for ours. Could it be that the Divine Author, in perfect wisdom, has made His point quite plainly?
Oddly, Rabbi Blumenthal claims that “if we follow the lead of the two points that Dr. Brown raises, we will again end up with the nation and not with the Christian Jesus. Christian theology sees Jesus as one who is co-equal to God, not a servant of God. Jesus demands that the worship that is appropriate for God be directed to himself, hardly a servant of God.” This betrays a fundamental rejection (and/or misunderstanding?) of New Testament Christology. The Son of God became fully human, born to an earthly mother, growing and maturing as a boy and man, praying to his Father and serving Him. Yet he remained the divine Son all the while, which is why he will be so highly exalted on that day (Isa 52:13). I know Rabbi Blumenthal doesn’t believe this to be true, but if he is arguing with Christian theology, he should do so accurately.
Even more oddly, Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “And when the prophet asks; ‘who has believed our report?’ [in 53:1] he is echoing the report described in 48:20 where Jacob is described as God’s servant.” Again, there is no parallel between 48:20 and 53:1. The former focuses on Israel being redeemed; the latter focuses on how the servant brings us redemption. (The language is hardly parallel either.)
Interestingly, when I supported one of my arguments with a reference to rabbinic literature, Rabbi Blumenthal claimed it was because I did not “have a clear Scriptural argument.” To the contrary, having demonstrated my arguments clearly, based on scripture alone (none of which was refuted by Rabbi Blumenthal), I then noted that some important rabbinic literature supported by view as well, the point being even within his own tradition, there was support for my position. The bottom line, however, is that the scriptural testimony is forthright, and none of it was rebutted by Rabbi Blumenthal.
Regarding the mathematical argument I brought concerning the prophet’s focus in chapters 40-48 compared to 49-53, Rabbi Blumenthal writes,
After everything is said and done, the prophetic focus on the nation is still stronger than the focus on the individual servant. If the emphasis of the prophet in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53 will determine the identity of the servant in Isaiah 53 as Dr. Brown argues, we will still end up with the nation and not with the individual servant. And if you recognize 51:1 as a pivot, since there is not even one reference to the individual servant from that point onward, and the focus on the nation intensifies in an extreme way, then Dr. Brown’s entire line of argumentation roundly refutes his own position.
Again, his attempted rebuttal falls short. First, the prophet is speaking to and about the nation of Israel from the first words of his book, as is the case with most of the prophetic literature. And then, every few chapters, or perhaps once in fifteen or twenty chapters, the prophet will speak about the Messiah. Again, this is typical in the prophetic books. When it comes to chapters 49-53, the focus on the nation is fairly typical of prophetic literature; the focus on the individual servant (the Messiah) is greater than just about anywhere else in all of the Tanakh. Rabbi Blumenthal needed to cast his net wider throughout Scripture to see just how significant this is.
Second, we have shown in this response how, even after Rabbi Blumenthal’s alleged pivot in 51:1, the focus in chapters 51-52 is on Israel being redeemed from captivity. In contrast, we have been shown in chapters 42 and 49 that the individual servant is the one who delivers his people from captivity, and it is he whom the nation is called to “behold” in 52:13.
Rabbi Blumenthal writes, “The notion that his argument has been ‘strengthened’ makes no sense even when we view the text through Dr. Brown’s cloudy lenses.” With all respect, may I suggest that it is Rabbi Blumenthal who is wearing the clouded lenses? It is no surprise that the prophet increases his focus on Israel as her time of redemption draws near, and it is no surprise that he increases his focus even more on Israel’s redeemer.
Remarkably, after failing to rebut any of the main arguments I brought in my response (“Brown 1”), and after failing to acknowledge the significance of the mathematical arguments I raised, he writes, “And this brings us to the question of Dr. Brown’s credibility as a teacher. More than a year after he originally presented a faulty argument, Dr. Brown is still unabashedly telling us that it is not his responsibility to correct his mistake. It is my responsibility to do the math for Dr. Brown because it is ‘my’ refutation.”
I do hope that casual readers will take the time to look at the data provided rather than be moved by these rhetorical claims, which are not based in fact. Again, my main argument, namely, that the servant was the nation in 40-48 (aside from 42:1-7) and the servant was an individual within the nation from 49-53, remains untouched and unrefuted. Second, my argument that the focus on the individual servant increased from 40-48 to 49-53 was not refuted by Rabbi Blumenthal’s count; instead, it was enhanced. Third, Rabbi Blumenthal was correct in saying that I was wrong to claim that the focus shifted from the nation to the individual in chapters 49-53. But, since Rabbi Blumenthal has ultimately strengthened the larger point I was making, doesn’t this undermine his credibility as a teacher? Using his criteria, why shouldn’t he be questioned?
Dr. Brown presented a mathematical argument that makes a claim about the focus of the prophet. When all of the factors are considered, this claim is demonstrably false. Dr. Brown acknowledges this. So how is it my responsibility to correct this mistake? It was Dr. Brown’s responsibility not to make the mistake in the first place and if he had discovered the mistake without my help, it would have been his responsibility to share the correction with the audience that he has misled with his mistake.
He then goes on to say, “It seems that Dr. Brown does not realize this. What does this tell you about his sense of responsibility to represent the truth?”
Unfortunately, once more, Rabbi Blumenthal is not presenting things accurately, although I don’t believe his intent is to mislead. In fact, I had good reason to question his argument because it was not presented in its entirety. At the risk of belaboring the point, allow me to recap and clarify.
First, did Rabbi Blumenthal refute my argument that the prophet spoke of Jacob-Israel more in 40-48 than in 49-53? No. He confirmed that was correct. Second, did he refute my argument that the prophet spoke of the servant as Jacob-Israel in 40-48 and not in 49-53? No, he did not. That was my principle mathematical argument, and that argument stands intact.
My error, however, was to make the larger statement that the prophet was focusing less on the nation in 49-53, which was not accurate. Rabbi Blumenthal brought his own mathematical argument to counter this, looking at all references to the nation in 49-53, and he was correct in doing so. I acknowledged that plainly in my apology video. But I hold to my position that it was his responsibility to articulate fully his argument, since the point was the comparison between chapters 40-48 and 49-53, and he never finished making that comparison.
He would surely say, “But you can do the math for yourself. Count the references to the nation in 40-48 and compare that proportionally to 49-53. You’ll see the point I was making.”
But here, again, is what he is missing. Counting references can be very subjective, and it was hard for me to know exactly how he was doing his count. In October, 2016, Rabbi Blumenthal wrote, “There are well over 100 nouns and pronouns clearly referring to Israel in these 5 chapters (49-53).” In his second video, the number had changed dramatically, and he said, “In chapters 49 through 52 there are over 150 nouns, metaphors and pronouns referring to Israel.” (Notice here that he omitted chapter 53, yet the number jumped from “well over 100” to “over 150.”) In his final count, he came up with 200 (excluding 52:13-53:12)! Why, then, am I being faulted for failing to do the rest of the math? Based on what methodology? I absolutely agree with Rabbi Blumenthal that, when stating that the prophet was turning his focus from the nation to the prophet in these chapters, I should have looked for indicators beyond the explicit Jacob-Israel references. For my failure to be more diligent, I apologize again. (In point of fact, it was another scholar who had pointed out the diminishing references argument re: Jacob-Israel in these chapters, so I first learned this point from him. I failed, however, to examine the rest of the evidence carefully to see if there was a counter-argument to his point. That was my fault alone.)
Had Rabbi Blumenthal simply presented us with his full calculations and parameters, saying, “Here’s my count of all the prophet’s references to the nation in 40-48 compared to his references to the nation in 49:1-52:12,” we could have evaluated this quickly and easily. But when there was so much ambiguity in how the counting was done (from over to 100 to well over 150 to 200), I can hardly be blamed for saying, “I understand the point you’re making – that’s quite self-evident – but I need you to give me all your data, because your counting is not clear.”
To excoriate me for this and to make this a major indictment of credibility is to draw attention away from the major arguments I brought. Had he successfully rebutted them, he could have easily majored on his supposed refutations; instead, he focuses on my so-called “staggering mistake,” once again, missing the forest for the trees. This is very telling. (For time’s sake, I’ll not interact with the rest of his claims on this issue, since I believe things have been explained more than adequately by now.)
Rabbi Blumenthal then claims that in other writings, he has rebutted key points I have previously made regarding the Oral Law and the Messiah as a priestly King. At some point, I do hope to respond to his rebuttals. But suffice it to say that, yes, I will be quite happy if serious seekers of the truth study my five-volume series along with Rabbi Blumenthal’s responses to those volumes, judging the evidence for themselves. I’m confident that the truth that Yeshua is our Messiah will emerge clearly and that it will not be decided by who got in the last word (or published the last article) in a debate.
Finally, in Rabbi Blumenthal’s first response (“Blumenthal 1”), he 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.”
I pointed out (in “Brown 1”) that, in making this statement, he ignored “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).” I also cited the commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh to Zech 12:10, which I will quote again here:
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.)
How did Rabbi Blumenthal respond to this? He wrote, “In a final display of irresponsibility, Dr. Brown accuses me of ignoring ‘the many rabbinic texts that speak of a Messiah son of Joseph.’”
I have not ignored these texts. Dr. Brown did not bring up the concept of Messiah son of Joseph so why should I have mentioned him? In fact it is Dr. Brown who is ignoring the Scriptural evidence that points to a savior from the tribe of Joseph. The closing verses in Obadiah speak of saviors in plural terminology and ascribe an active role to the tribe of Joseph in the redemption process. It is Dr. Brown who is ignoring this Scriptural testimony and not I.
With all respect to Rabbi Blumenthal, can we really assume that all of his readers were sufficiently aware of the rabbinic teaching that there will be two Messiahs, Messiah son of David and Messiah son of Joseph? He stated that Jewish traditions that speak of a suffering-before-reigning Messiah “do not portray the Messiah as dying.” Can we assume that some of his readers would not have said, “But what about the Messiah son of Joseph?”
Rabbi Blumenthal might reply, “But read what I said clearly. I spoke of the same Messiah who will first suffer redemptively and then reign, not two separate Messiahs. My point should have been self-evident.”
In fact, it was not. First, to reiterate, he made a stunning admission when he referred to Jewish traditions that spoke of the Messiah (meaning, the Messiah son of David) suffering first before ruling and reigning. That is the message of Isaiah 53, and that is what happened to Yeshua, our Messiah. Second, he failed to address the question of why, based on scripture, these traditions exist. Were they created out of thin air? Third, while he accuses me of irresponsibility, had he been more careful, he would have added a caveat, such as, “To be clear, there are rabbinic traditions about the Messiah son of Joseph dying and rising, but I’m speaking here of the Messiah son of David.” Fourth, to point to “saviors” in Obadiah as some sort of scriptural proof for a Messiah son of Joseph is to go far beyond the biblical text. Just look at all “saviors” raised up in Israel’s history, including in Judges. They were hardly Messianic in character.
The bottom line is that Isaiah 53 speaks with clarity to this day, and the more we focus on the context, both on a macro and micro level, the clearer the text becomes. And so, we ask again, “Who has believed our report, and on whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Will you join your voice to the voice of our people as recorded in this sacred text? Perhaps the light has gone on for you as well, and it’s time for you to say, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
I am truly indebted to Rabbi Blumenthal for pointing out an error in my initial presentation. It has only served to sharpen me personally, to drive me deeper into the biblical text, and, ultimately, to bring even stronger support to my central argument, namely, that the prophet wants us to look carefully at His servant, the Messiah, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. As the prophet speaks of Israel’s redemption and of her role as the chosen nation, he focuses even more on Israel’s redeemer, through whom Israel accomplishes her mission.
And now, having read through such a lengthy, tedious exchange, I encourage to take out your Bible and read through Isaiah 40-53, asking yourself of whom the prophet speaks in the final, culminating chapter. I also encourage you to ask the Lord for insight as you read. He is ready to reveal the truth to all who call upon Him with sincerity of heart.