The Isaiah 53 Prophecy & Human Sacrifice
This is the 4th portion of "The Messiah Complex" study series by Justin Best.
To better understand this study, please review Isaiah (Yesha'yahu) chapter 53.
When I first embarked on this journey of attempting to understand the perspective of those who deny the Messiah’s previous arrival, I quickly noticed an interesting pattern. More specifically, the series of teaching utilized by these infamous rabbis seems to follow a predictable path. First, the teachers claim that some of the prophecies about the Messiah the “Christian” church utilizes to prove the Messiah’s fulfillment of prophecy are not accurately translated (according to them). Next, they attempt to demonstrate, where possible, when and where some of these prophecies have already been fulfilled (before the arrival of “Jesus”/Yahusha), claiming that once it is fulfilled, it will not happen again. Third, once the listener is convinced that “Christianity” misappropriated their understanding of the Tanakh (Old Testament), all that is left is to lead them into a new one...namely a modern Jewish understanding of the text.
To be more specific, Tovia Singer and other recent anti-messiah teachers are making the claim that sections of the Tanakh, such as Isaiah (Yesha’Yahu) chapter 53, are not prophesying about the Messiah, but instead are prophesying about Israel alone. Interestingly, in my research on this topic I found that the interpretation of Isaiah 53 being about Israel (and not the Messiah) is something that rabbis through history have perpetually disagreed with. Additionally, these early rabbis have already done a relatively good job of pointing out the flaws with Tovia’s interpretation. For that reason, I believe it is important to demonstrate that even the earliest, 2nd century sages, and many more through history have held and continue to hold that Isaiah 53 is indeed Messianic in nature.
Keep in mind, the following section annotates the comments the writers penned specifically about this single chapter. Here’s what some of the published rabbis of the past believed about Isaiah (Yesha’Yahu) 53:
“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men.” (Targum Jonathan, ad locum, 2nd century)
“The Messiah, what is his name? …The rabbis say, the leprous one; those of the house of Rabbi say, the sick one, as it is said, “Surely he hath borne our sickness.” (Sanhedrin 98b, Babylonian Talmud on Isaiah 53).
“Who art thou, O great mountain?” (Zechariah 4:7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him the “great mountain?” Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.” He will be higher than Abraham who said, “I raise my hand unto YHWH” (Genesis 14:22), lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, “Lift it up into thy bosom” (Numbers 11:12), loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, “Their wheels were lofty and terrible” (Ezekiel 1:18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parasha Toldot)
Before providing even more examples, it’s important to note some of the contrary teachings the current anti-messiah rabbis claim. For example, some have more recently made the claim that Isaiah 53 is actually a narrative of gentile kings speaking, or that this prophecy is about the gentiles being forgiven by afflicting Israel, or that it is about the righteous remnant; however:
In no place does the Targum (early Jewish commentary) say that the gentile kings are the speakers.
In no place does the Targum say gentiles will be forgiven by afflicting Israel.
In no place does the Targum speak of Israel interceding for the sins of the gentiles.
In no place does the Targum say anything about the righteous remnant bringing the rest of Israel back to Torah.
All the credit for these things, according to the Targum, goes to the Messiah.
Eventually (nearly a thousand-years later); however, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) would begin to interpret this passage as being about “suffering Israel” rather than a “suffering Messiah.” This new interpretation came despite the fact that Rashi and others were well aware of the original interpretation of this passage, and that it dealt primarily with the Messiah. By appearances, some have noted that these rabbis may have been more interested in protecting the Jewish people from the tenants of Christian thinking than sticking to their own traditional understanding. In other words, keeping the traditional understanding may have brought too much conflict with those interested in proving the Messiah's arrival.
Even later, other rabbis realized the inconsistencies of Rashi’s interpretation and presented an objection to his commentary. Specifically, a group of his own disciples called Tosafists. First, they demonstrated that without question the ancient opinion was that Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) 53 was indeed about the Messiah. Second, they demonstrated well that when this passage refers to “Him” (the Messiah) it is written in the singular form instead of plural, meaning it cannot be about a nation. Last, they pointed out the importance of verse 8 in this chapter, which they believed demonstrates a quandary for Rashi. This verse says:
“He was taken away from rule and from judgement; and His life who shall recount? For He was cut off out of the land of the living; through the transgressions of my people He was stricken.” -(Yesha'Yahu) Isaiah 53:8
How could Israel have been the one who suffered for the transgressions of “my people,” in this context? Clearly, this verse is speaking of Isaiah’s people, the Israelites. Surely, Isaiah’s people are not the gentiles, but the people of Israel themselves. For many, this verse was proof enough that Isaiah 53 is stating that a Messiah would be cut off because of the people of Israel, and that applying this idea is the only contextual viewpoint that makes clear the purpose of the chapter in its entirety.
In the 15th century, rabbi Moshe Kohen in Spain discussed Isaiah 53 in the following way:
“This passage, the commentators explain, speaks of the captivity of Israel, although the singular number is used in it throughout. Others have supposed it to mean the just in this present world, who are crushed and oppressed now...but these too, for the same reason, by altering the number, distort the verses from their natural meaning. And then it seemed to me that...having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined “after the stubbornness of their own hearts,” and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our rabbis, of the King Messiah.”
Here’s another example, this time from Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, Rabbi of Safed in the late 16th century. He stated:
“I may remark, then, that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah.”
Another remark from Herz Homberg (great Jewish educator, (1749-1841), who stated:
“According to the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, “He was wounded for our transgressions?” Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried out the sickness and bare the pain? The fact is that it refers to the King Messiah.”
As a final example from the 9th century, one of the great Jewish poets, Eliezer HaKalir, paraphrased this chapter (Isaiah 53) into metric poetry. According to sources, it is recited in the Yom Kippur prayer of Kether and says:
“Messiah, our righteousness, hath turned from us: we are in terror and there is none to justify us! Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions He did bear for He was wounded for our transgressions: He carried our sins upon His shoulders, that we may find forgiveness for our iniquities and by His stripes we are healed. O eternal One the time is come to make a new creation: from the vault of heaven bring Him up, out of Seir draw Him forth, that He may make His voice heard to us in Lebanon, a second time by the hand of Yinnon.”
If you’re interested, there are likely hundreds more rabbi quote sources to be cross-examined through history, which demonstrate quite well that although there were some detractors, it has been generally acknowledged and widely accepted that Isaiah 53 is truly a Messianic prophecy. The importance of this fact is not based on any “respect” for the sages of the past; however, I propose that understanding what they believed gives us insight into what they believed the Hebrew scriptures to say. Often, it is stated by some of the anti-messiah missionaries that a large part of the problem is simply that "Messianics don’t truly understand the Hebrew scriptures." The fact that these rabbis through the ages read and studied the Hebrew scriptures is a powerful point that should not be ignored. Apparently, our modern rendering of Isaiah 53, along with its lessons, isn’t too far removed from the original after all. These statements demonstrate this critical point.
Before I move on to the next section of my investigation, I wanted to briefly familiarize you with the interpretation of the Septuagint, which predates the Masoretic texts primarily used today. As mentioned before, we often hear some of the anti-messiah preachers claim that we (english-speakers) don’t have good translations of the text. That stated, I thought it would be practical to at least include the earlier rendering of this chapter, at least in part, so we can get another witness to the correct translation of Isaiah 53. Here’s a few key verses to note:
“He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction.” (53:4)
“But He (singular) was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and by His bruises we were healed.” (53:5)
“And I will give the wicked for his burial, and the rich for his death; for He practised no iniquity (Israel? I don’t think so), nor craft with His mouth.” (53:9)
“... and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered because of their iniquities.” (53:12)
Ultimately, our depth of research indicates that the english version of Isaiah 53 isn’t unrecognizably disfigured after all, since the earliest renderings of this text as well as the earliest commentaries from it’s renderings, have annotated that this chapter truly contains an incredible Messianic prophecy. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then even a casual reading of Isaiah 53 proves monumental in proving that Messiah has already come and fulfilled what the prophet spoke 700 years before.
Regardless of the prophetic stance one ultimately takes on this chapter, its importance extends beyond prophecy and into the realm of doctrine. What does this chapter teach us about YHWH’s plan for sin?
These studies provide the perfect segue into the next topic that I believe is also explained in Isaiah 53, that of “human sacrifice.” Many anti-messiah missionaries have bound themselves to the claim that the Most High (YHWH) does NOT accept human sacrifice for sin, nor would He ever. At first it seems a daunting rebuttal to the claims made in the New Testament that the Messiah took on the sins of the world; however, in this very same chapter we find a sort of logical irony, since, this chapter proves conclusively that it was YHWH’s plan to place the sins of one person upon another, like it or not.
Regardless of whether you believe that this chapter is about Israel as a nation, or Israel’s Messiah (like the earliest Jewish rabbis believed), one is still left with the even greater dilemma here, that these passages explain clearly that one person (or nation if you must) can and will take on the sins of another person (or nation).
“...and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered because of their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:12).
“He bears our sins, and is pained for us…” (Isaiah 53:4)
“...the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and by His bruises we were healed.” (Isaiah 53:5).
Calling this amazing and selfless act prophesied by YHWH through the prophet Isaiah a “human sacrifice” may seem a shocking thing at first hearing. Certainly, this method of atonement is not expressly permissible within the known Torah itself; however; these texts in Isaiah 53 make it plain that it was in the plan of YHWH all along to eventually provide a pathway to righteousness for the nations through the suffering of His own Elect One. Again, whether one person or many, Isaiah 53 proves rather well that the sin of one people would be placed upon another. Calling it "human sacrifice" to invoke an immediate rejection is merely labeling bad what YHWH prophesied He would do according to His own good pleasure.
Last, I believe we can reference yet another foreshadowing and comparison of the Messiah through Moshe (Moses) that ties everything covered to this point together nicely. If you haven't already, please review "God is Not a Man" III: A Prophet like Moshe to see how Moses' life decidedly points to the true Messiah in many ways. Here, we find yet another example:
“The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to YHWH; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to YHWH and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 33 But YHWH said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” -(Shemot) Exodus 32:30-34
And so finally, two major points on "human sacrifice" should become clear. First, Isaiah 53 spells out a prophecy about the sins of one person being placed upon another, nullifying the accusation that YHWH would never allow it. Second, we see yet another example of the future Messiah (the Prophet like Moshe) being foreshadowed in Exodus, demonstrating that it truly was YHWH's plan of salvation all along.
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication; and they shall look unto me because they have thrust Him through; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his first-born.” -(Zecharyahu) Zechariah 12:10
In the next study of this series, we'll address the Virgin Birth Dilemma, then the familiar accusation of rabbis that Messiah (Yahusha) broke the Torah (the Commandments of YHWH), an accusation that the Messiah Himself confronted for the first time almost 2,000 years ago.