Who Is The Suffering Servant?

“Window” by Arthur Polonsky
1968

Who Is The Suffering Servant?

There is a passage in Second Isaiah where a figure suddenly shows up who has come to be called The Suffering Servant. Here is a partial account of the person described.

He has no form or comeliness that we should look at him.

And no beauty that we should desire him.

So he’s nothing to look at.

He was despised and rejected by men;

A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief …

Surely he has borne our griefs

And carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed him stricken,

Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was bruised for our iniquities;

Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,

And with his stripes we are healed …

According to Abraham Heschel, whom I’m now reading at bedtime, most of the genuine prophets were not forecasters who could read the future. It would have been a mistake to consult them for that purpose. They were men who perceived the vast distance between the way people were behaving and the divine expectations. They handed people their report card, with a lot of “I’s” for Improvement Needed. Only, unlike your third grade teacher, they wrote with the gushing, outpouring fury of a lover who catches the beloved in bed with someone else. They push language to the limit in giving vent to personal outrage, on their own behalf and on God’s.

By the time Second Isaiah writes (some time after the 8th century BCE), Jerusalem has fallen to the conqueror, the First Temple is rubble, and the people (Judah, Benjamin, some of Levi and whoever could straggle along from the other, dispersed tribes) have been exiled to Babylon.   However, unlike his predecessor prophets, Second Isaiah thinks they’ve suffered enough! It’s time for a new king to put an end to their time of bitter exile and signal their return to Zion. Which will actually happen under Cyrus the Great of Persia, a few centuries hence. So Second Isaiah’s tone is generally exultant and even orchestral, foreseeing an epoch when all the nations will come up to Jerusalem, David’s City, and know God from the city that used to be Headquarters in God’s story!

Then suddenly, in the midst of all this grand finale, another note is struck and a sad solitary figure looms in the shadows. It’s the Suffering Servant. Who is he? There is nothing — in Jewish messianic literature that I know of – about a messiah who makes the broken people whole by being himself broken.   Rabbinic opinions about the messiah are varied. They are found in Haggadic literature, not Halachic. That is, in teaching and preaching — not law. No one account of the messiah is generally binding. Rabbinic vagueness left room for a range of claimants over the millennia, but it specified none. When would-be messiahs attracted a following, they often led their acolytes to disaster. So the rabbis tended to discourage the practice of finding messiahs. The impression I’ve gotten is that they thought the messiah’s identity, when he came, would be obvious and undeniable. He would bring about the restoration of David’s kingdom and universal recognition of the Jewish covenantal mission, which had been so long denied in history. The rest is vague.

If the Suffering Servant does not fit neatly into mainstream Jewish traditions about the messiah, who is he? Forgive me, but reading these lines in Second Isaiah, it’s hard to miss their resemblance to the Jesus of Christian doctrine, whose rejection and cruel death gives the sinful world its chance to be made whole. Did Second Isaiah have a precognitive vision – atypical for prophets of his time – in which he previewed the Jesus-of-Christian-Doctrine?

(I realize that this post will go up during the week that includes Christmas Day. Not intentional.)

Hate to repeat myself but:

Who IS the Suffering Servant?

What’s he doing in the verses of a prophet who foresees Israel’s collective restoration – not its need for one individual to pay, with personal suffering, for collective spiritual deficits?

Of course, Jewish scholars have contributed an answer that goes nowhere near Christian theological doctrine. The Suffering Servant is the People of Israel. It’s Israel as a collectivity, whose suffering could be seen as having a redemptive purpose.

What’s my opinion?

Okay, glad you asked, especially since I have none of the creds that would license my entry into this debate. Years ago, I attended the meetings of something called The Rainbow Group, which housed presentations and discussions between Christian and Jewish scholars. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, an Orthodox Jew, author of many books, and a wonderful man, gave a presentation not to be forgotten by anyone who was there. His hypothesis was that there had been a real resurrection – of Jesus from the dead! He went on to address the question of why, if this was the case, Jews had missed it. He noted that Jews of the Second Temple period were keen observers of clues left by God. Nor were they narrowly self-serving. Witness their willingness to lay down their lives en masse to stop Pontius Pilate from bringing Roman Standards into the Temple precincts.

Greenberg’s answer? God deliberately distracted and befogged the Jewish take on Jesus because God wanted both paths: the Christian “vertical” way that sacrificed the world and the flesh for an ideal that transcends the world and the Jewish “horizontal” way that is supposed to partner with God in grounded history.

Irving Greenberg’s might be the right story, though it got him into hot water with the Orthodox at the time. If he’s right, however, then the Jewish version of The Suffering Servant is also right! How can we picture that version? How could the Jewish people, as they live and breathe in history, good deeds and bad – some better than normal, some worse — be It?

I can think of many examples, large and small, of Christendom’s evasion of the horizontal level. To point them out would take some detailed arguing, however, and some would surely remain unpersuaded. There is, though, one macro-historical occurrence that’s not controvertible for anyone who has looked honestly at the enormous body of evidence. The Holocaust. It is, or can be, a teaching for Christendom! How? (I can see my co-religionists preparing to rear back and sock me for going down this track. How many more such “lessons” will we be asked to provide?)

Christendom’s cathedrals and carols, its soaring theological architectonic and its art – its vaunted grace and beautiful humility — as it thanked God and praised itself for not being like “other men” – had its underside: the bottomless contempt for Jews. This was Christendom in the mode of unconscious but boundless self-congratulation.

How did the Holocaust provide, for Christendom, the possibility of healing for its darker underside? The Righteous Gentiles, who actively rescued or publicly opposed the Holocaust, were small in number. By and large, Christendom stood by while the Jewish neighbors were pushed out of communal life and then carted off to be actually murdered en masse.

The Suffering Servant showed Christendom its underside.

Truth does not, by itself, “make whole”

but it is a prerequisite.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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