Home > Interpretation, Jewish, Theology > Isa 53 – what it is not

Isa 53 – what it is not

These writings are from Rabbi Moshe Schulman. Just take a deep breath and read it, for there is much we can learn from it. I will make notes within the text in [*** … ***] brackets, except where I expand J. to J[esus]. Hope this writing doesn't frighten you too much, just be patient, there is much gold here. The article is quite long, it will take some time to read through and check the relevant verses.

I have decided that I will not shield you from the attacks the author makes against Christian doctrine. If you are not mature enough to handle opposition, then don't read these.


The question of Isaiah 53 and what it means comes up in every discussion with a Christian. For that reason, I have collected information that I have available and compiled the following summary. I hope that the readers will look at it from beginning to end, consider the information presented and judge it favorably. Because of the amount of information, please read all three sections before you pass judgement. Some questions that you might have are answered later on.


The Prophecy of Isaiah 53 is considered by many Christians the most important prophecy in the whole Tenach. They feel they have from it their needed 'proof' that their Messiah was to die. (Manny Brotman of the Messianic Jewish Movement International calls it the 'main messianic chapter in the Jewish Bible') They feel this way even though neither the word 'Messiah', 'king' 'son of David' or any of the code names for the Messiah that are used in the Tenach are ever mentioned in this passage. They maintain this belief even though the belief of a dying Messiah is contrary to ALL the other clearly Messianic prophecies, which show that the Messiah will appear and succeed, all within a short amount of time.

[*** this is sort of incorrect, there are arguments in the Talmud that if Israel is worthy, the Messiah will come as a king, if she is not worthy, he will come on the back of an ass – the idea that the Messiah will be revealed, then hidden, then revealed again is also found there. The Lubawitch movement rediscovered this interpretation, and when Rabbi Schneerson, their leader – whom they hold to be the Messiah – died, they expected him to rise on the third day.]

There are many arguments and counter-arguments that I will be covering here. I would like to approach this important prophecy from three angles.

1. Why the clear simple meaning of the text of Isaiah 53 indicates that it was not and cannot have been fulfilled by J[esus]. Many times missionaries will read it and assume, it can only mean J[esus]. The problems with associating Isaiah 53 with J[esus] are usually ignored in most discussions. I will deal with this first as this is the primary Biblical text used by Christians, and should be answered before we explore the true meaning of this passage. (In fact after this section it is totally unnecessary to explain any further, since if it is not J[esus], it is invalid to use it as a proof of Christianity.)

2. Who does Isaiah 53 refer to and how do I know it. I will go through this important passage verse by verse starting at Isaiah 52:13 which is acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of sources as part of the prophecy of Isaiah 53. It should be noted that the Masoretic Text actually divides this text before Isaiah 52:13 and not before Isaiah 53.

3. Finally I will explain the true meaning of some of those Rabbinic texts that are used by missionaries in their claim that the Rabbis held a different view as to the simple meaning of the prophet then the one I have here presented. We will explore the nature of Rabbinic commentary, and the deceptions that are used with regards to them by those who would falsify their teachings. From this we will see that the Rabbis' understanding of the simple meaning of this text and the view I present here are one and the same.


I. Why Isaiah 53 cannot be said to have been fulfilled by J[esus].
In order to see the problems with associating this prophecy with J[esus]. Let us examine two important ideas. The first is how the Tenach's prophecies work. Many people do not realize what a future prophecy and it's fulfillment should be like. Let's examine two prophecies and their fulfillment in the Tenach and see what they will tell us about how prophecy works. The two we will examine are:

1. The prophecy regarding what would happen to the person who would rebuild Jericho.

In Joshua 6:26 we read: And Joshua swore at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the Lord who shall rise up and build this city Jericho. In his first-born shall he lay its foundation, and in his youngest son shall he set up its gates.

In 1 Kings 16:34 we see the fulfillment: In his days Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he laid its foundation in Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates in Segub his youngest, according to the word of the Lord which he spoke through Joshua the son of Nun.

2. The prophecy regarding what would happen later to the alters of the northern kingdom of Israel.

In 1 Kings 13:1-2 we read: 1 And behold, there came a man of God from Judah, by the word of the Lord, to Bethel; and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. 2 And he cried against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, O altar, altar! thus saith the Lord: Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he sacrifice the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men's bones shall be burned upon thee.

In 2 Kings 23:15-17 we see it fulfilled: 15 Moreover the altar that was at Bethel, the high place that Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin, had made, both that altar and the high place he broke down; and burned the high place, stamped it small to powder, and burned the Asherah. 16 And Josiah turned himself, and saw the sepulchers that were there on the mount; and he sent and took the bones out of the sepulchers, and burned [them] upon the altar, and defiled it, according to the word of the Lord, that the man of God had proclaimed, who proclaimed these things. 17 Then he said, What tombstone is that which I see? And the men of the city told him, It is the sepulcher of the man of God who came from Judah and proclaimed these things which thou hast done against the altar of Bethel. From these verses we can notice a few things:

1. Each prophecy had clear points that would tell us that it was fulfilled. In the first case, the one who violated the ban would bury his first and last sons. In the second case a certain named person of the descendants of David would destroy the alters.

2. All the points described were fulfilled completely and literally.

3. While some specifics were not mentioned, (for example the name of the person in the first, and when either would occur), after they came to pass it was clear that the prophecy was fulfilled. There was no doubt as to whether it was fulfilled and the exact meaning of the prophecy.

[*** I suggest you read the article on RaRDeS, the four levels of interpretation I posted here. The NT uses all four levels, not only the literal, and the Talmud also uses it. So does the Lubawitch movement. ***]


The second idea we should look at is what Christian's (including Messianics) believe about J[esus]. There are three beliefs of Christians with regards to J[esus]. that relate directly to why this prophecy cannot be said to refer to J[esus].

1. J[esus]. is called the 'Son' and is the second person of the trinity. Without going into a deep theological discussion, let me sum up the main points of this concept. The godhead is made up of three 'aspects' or 'personna' that are separate, but are equal and of one essence. They are not three gods. So the 'Son' is equal to the 'Father' although separate. Neither is greater or lesser then the other. This aspect 'Son' is what is incarnate in the body of J[esus]. All three share the same eternal and unchanging essence.

2. The death of J[esus]. is what brings atonement and nothing else. Not his teachings, nor his miracles, nor anything else has any effect on atonement, not even the suffering that occurred to J[esus]. BEFORE the crucifixion. It is only the death and resurrection.

3. To receive this atonement one must believe that this death was for that purpose. You may be familiar with the doctrine, and know that people believe it, but if you don't believe in it, then you are not saved.


Now we can examine some of the verses that are part of the prophecy and see how they could never be said to apply to J[esus]. Some of these are clearer in their contradiction to the above principles and some are more subtle. Each is, however significant enough on it's own to cast doubt on any thesis claiming that J[esus]. fulfilled this Biblical prophecy according to the rules we have shown above.


1. Verse 52:13 (53:11) refers to the subject of these verses as 'my servant'. The 'my' here is referring to G-d. When we say that Tom is John's servant there are a few things that we understand from that. A. Tom and John are not the same person. The servant and master are totally separate entities. A person cannot be a servant to himself. B. Tom is inferior to John. A servant is always inferior in position to his master. C. Tom must do the will of John, but John does not have to listen to Tom. The servant is subject to the will of his master, but the master need not consider the will of the servant. D. Tom may not do what he wants, unless John allows him. The servant is never free to act outside of the limits the master sets. There are however problems with saying that J[esus] is a servant. Since J[esus] is the incarnation of G-d (according to Christian theology), a co-equal member of the trinity and not a separate entity, he must be the same, he could not be inferior. He could not be either subject to the will of another, nor could he be said to lack the freedom to act in all areas. How could part of the godhead be called a servant to another part of itself, and still be coequal? The servant here cannot be a 'part' of the godhead. Either we must assume that J[esus] is not a part of the trinity, or the Messiah of Christians is not the one meant by Isaiah 53. The questions of 'wills' here is also one that could not relate. How could J[esus] be subject to the will of the Father, when he is, according to Christian theology, the same? For these reasons it would not be possible for a Christian to say that J[esus] is the servant of G-d.

2. What does it mean 'lifted up', he shall be high? That would imply that at one time he was in a lowly position and after that he was in a higher position. Physically the only lifting up that occurred with J[esus] during his lifetime was when he was put on the cross. That is clearly not what this prophecy means, since that is not a sign of greatness, but degradation. If we are talking about the divine nature, how could it be changed and 'lifted up', to higher or lower level? G-d was and is great, mighty, and unchanging before J[esus] appeared and after he appeared. Who could imagine that G-d would be in a state of depression and then be lifted up. Similarly we have a problem with the word 'Yaskel'. If we understand it as meaning to prosper, we have the previously stated problem. If it is meant as related to the root 'understand', the meaning would be to acquire knowledge (or deal prudently, i.e. with wisdom). How could this refer to the godhead, since His knowledge is eternal and cannot be said to increase. Was there a time when G-d had less knowledge? Did he deal imprudently? Such things are absurd and cannot fit the verses.

3. If the servant here is J[esus] there is another problem. J[esus] is the second person of the trinity. If the servant refers to the second person of the trinity, we have a fourth function and hence a fourth member: the 'son'. That means that there are FOUR persons and not three: father, son, holy spirit and servant.

[*** he doesn't grasp very well the concept of the trinity… ***]


1. What does it mean 'what had not been told them'? This would mean that we are dealing with something that was totally unknown until it is finally revealed as the truth. This recognition and astonishment of verse 15 has not occurred yet, so it must be a future event. It must be referring to when J[esus] comes again and is fully revealed. However this is a problem. Is there anyone in the world who has not heard of the story of J[esus] and the claims made about him? Certainly if this is referring to the Jewish people, they have heard it, they just didn't believe that it was a fulfillment of the prophecies. But the verse claims that they are to have revealed something they never heard, not something they failed to believe in previously. If we say that this refers to the acts of G-d, are they not likewise known? Even atheists are aware of the stories in the Bible. It could not be said that they are in the category of things that were not heard. Just things that were rejected as false. That is not what the verse is saying.


1. A 'Man of pains' indicates that the person was one who suffered from pain often. For example, Moses is called a 'man of G-d' (heb. ish elokim) because of his constant association with G-d. We do not consider a person who suffered for a short time before dying as a 'man of pains'. Even if the death was a very painful one, we would only say that he died a painful death, and not call him a man of pains. [Does pain have to refer to physical pain only? What about the grief one feels when he sees his own people walking the path of sin?] The same is with someone 'acquainted with sickness', which can only refer to someone who suffered sicknesses constantly. To say that he was sensitive to others' illnesses makes him no better then Mother Teresa or any other of the thousands of people who felt the pain of others. (Maybe it refers to President Clinton who claimed to have 'felt our pain'?)


1. This verse says he was considered 'stricken of G-d'. That is just not true. No one said that J[esus] was stricken of G-d. He was stricken by the Romans. There are no sources where we see anyone claiming that the crucifixion of J[esus] was a sign that he was stricken by G-d, or some type of divine punishment for him. Certainly that was not the view of the Jews, who are supposed to be the speakers here (according to the Christian interpretation). There is just no support for referring this to J[esus] at any time in his life.


1. According to Christian theology, J[esus] had to die and suffer because of the sin of Adam. Since when Adam sinned death came to the world, the death of J[esus] ended this punishment. Romans 5:12, 14 "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come." So how can we say that he was stricken for the sin of 'my people'? It wasn't the sin of the Jewish people or any people in particular. It was the sin of the whole human race from Adam (according to their belief). The inherited sin of Adam needed atonement, not any individual sins.

2. Secondly, it does not say his 'death' was for sin, but his 'suffering'! What happened to J[esus] before the crucifixion when he suffered for a short time IS NOT WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO BRING ATONEMENT. It is ONLY his death. That is not what this verse or any of the other verses in this passage says.


1. There is a contradiction to the NT from these verses. According to the NT, J[esus] was killed together with two thieves, but buried in the tomb of a rich man. However verse 9 says the opposite. His grave (Heb. kever) is with the wicked, and his death(s) (Heb. meisav) is with the rich.

2. This verse claims that his grave was with the wicked. That means his resting place was one of a lowly and ignominious character. This cannot be a reference to the Messiah since in a prophecy that is universally accepted as Messianic the prophet Isaiah says (11:10) that his 'rest will be glorious'. Which is it, glorious, or lowly?

[*** Isa 11:10 refers to the time of the messianic Kingdom ***]


1. Verse 10 says that there are two rewards that the servant's accepting of suffering causes to occur. The first is that he shall see 'seed'. The word 'seed' (heb. zarah), when applied to humans refers to their physical descendants (it is literally used to refer to male seed: semen). But J. had no physical children! To answer this many Christians try to counter and say that it refers to disciples, and not physical children, but that is not the case. The word zarah (seed) always refers to physical children while the word banim (children) refers to disciples or followers. The Torah has an interesting story which illustrates this. For a long time Abraham had no children, and G-d came to him and said he would reward him. Abraham said of what value is it since he has no son to inherit, only the head of his household Eliezer.

Genesis 15:2-4: 'And Abram said, 'My Lord, G-d, what can you give me seeing that I am childless and the son (ben) of my house is the Damascene Eliezer? 3. Then Abram said, 'See, to me you have given no seed (zarah – physical child), and see the son (ben – son referring to follower) of my house is my heir." 4. Suddenly, the word of G-d came to him, saying: That one will not inherit you. None but him that shall come forth from within your bowels shall be your heir.'

So G-d answered him, and told him that not his follower who is referred to as a 'ben' will inherit, but his physical son, his zarah, will inherit from him. Clearly the Torah is teaching that zarah means a physical child and if the verse had wanted to say followers than it would have used the word ben, as is used in other places in the Tenach.

We likewise see in 2 Kings 2 where banim is shown to refer to followers or students:

3 "And the sons of the prophets that [were] at Bethel came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know [it]; hold ye your peace. 5 And the sons of the prophets that [were] at Jericho came to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he answered, Yea, I know [it]; hold ye your peace."

Clearly we see that zerah is used for physical 'seed' and ben is used for both physical and spiritual offspring.

Isaiah 57:3-4 is sometimes brought as a proof that 'zerah' can mean non-physical children. However by examining these verses we see the exact opposite.

Is. 57:3-4: "But you–come here, you sons of a sorceress, you offspring (zerah) of adulterers and prostitutes! Whom are you mocking: At whom do you sneer and stick out your tongue? Are you not a brood of rebels, the offspring (zerah) of liars?"

However it should be noticed that by the word 'sorceress' the word 'benei' (sons) is used. But they were called zerah (physical seed) of adulterers, prostitutes and liars, since their parents had done those sins. When referring to those sins that their parents did, the proper word zerah is used, since they were PHYSICAL CHILDREN of people who were sinners.

2. A second reward in verse 10 is that he shall have long life. There are two problems here. First, the verse makes the rewards CONTINGENT upon the servant's performance. It is very problematic to claim that J[esus]'s suffering resulted in his having long life. If you believe that J[esus] is G-d then the eternal existence of G-d is not, and never can be contingent upon the acceptance of the suffering of this servant or on any other event in the physical world. Both Christians and Jews believe that G-d is eternal and his eternal existence is not contingent upon any outside events. Second, This long life can clearly not refer to the 'divine nature'. How can we say that G-d's days will be lengthened? That is basically absurd. He is eternal, and this is not something that is subject to change or lengthening. If we say this refers to J[esus]'s human part, he died quite young. He clearly did not literally fulfil this.

3. Also this verse says 'IF' his soul makes. The Hebrew word is 'ki', which means 'if'. Do they believe that it was only conditional, and that maybe it wouldn't have happened? Was there really a choice here? J[esus] could will to do something other than G-d wanted? If J[esus] and G-d are coequal, how could one part have a will different then the other? It is just not possible, but in the verse there is a clear choice. Was there a possibility that one part of the godhead would not agree to what the other part wanted? Sounds a bit absurd.

4. We see in this verse the words 'it pleased the Lord to smite him'? If he is part of the godhead it should of said, it pleased HIMSELF to be smitten or something like that. The verse implies that the one who is pleased is not the one smitten. That would contradict the trinity concept as it applies to J[esus].


1. There is no place in Isaiah 53 which supports the important principle that 'belief' in the death of J[esus] is needed for forgiveness of sin. In fact, verse 11 says that he will teach people to be righteous. It is his knowledge and teaching that brings people to righteousness and not his suffering, death or blood. (This cannot refer to his followers as the one doing the action here is the servant himself, and not an agent of the servant.)


1. How did he fulfil verse 12 which says that he will 'divide spoil' (Heb. shalal). This word shalal is used for booty of war as the following collection of verses clearly illustrates:

Genesis 49:27 "Benjamin shall ravin [as] a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil (shalal)."

Exodus 15:9 "The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil (shalal); my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them."

Numbers 31: "11 And they took all the spoil (shalal), and all the prey, [both] of men and of beasts. 12 And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil (shalal), unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which [are] by Jordan [near] Jericho."

Deuteronomy 20:14 "But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, [even] all the spoil (shalalah) thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee."

Joshua 7:21 "When I saw among the spoils (shalal) a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they [are] hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it."

1 Samuel 30:20 "And David took all the flocks and the herds, [which] they drave before those [other] cattle, and said, This [is] David's spoil (shalal)."

Isaiah 8:4 "For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil (shalal) of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria."

Isaiah 9:3 "Thou hast multiplied the nation, [and] not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, [and] as [men] rejoice when they divide the spoil (shalal)."

Isaiah 10:6 "I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil (leShalal Shalal), and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets."

Isaiah 33:4 "And your spoil (shalalchem) shall be gathered [like] the gathering of the caterpillar: as the running to and fro of locusts shall he run upon them." How did he fulfil this? How could he? We must conclude that this prophecy has not been fulfilled by J[esus], since it is not clear that he has fulfilled it.

2. How can we ascribe to him that 'he interceded for the transgressors'? To whom could he intercede? The word intercede implies that there is a person who intercedes and the one to whom he intercedes. Since he is a part of the godhead there is no one to intercede with. He himself should be the one to forgive. This shows that the servant IS NOT G-d, but a servant of G-d.


As I mentioned before, when a prophecy has been fulfilled, it is always clear that it has been fulfilled. However, Isaiah 53 is not clearly fulfilled by him. Besides the many reasons above for denying that he fulfilled this prophecy, how do we know that his death did anything? It is claimed, but since so much of Isaiah 53 cannot apply, why should this be assumed to apply. Now look at the full text of Isaiah 53, and consider if ALL the details of the prophecy has been fulfilled, or even if they could be fulfilled by J[esus] (as we have seen above). Look carefully where it refers to a servant. Consider verse 10, 11, 12. The text below is from the Authorized Version – KJV. (I will later go through verse by verse and give a fuller understanding of the wordings and the translation).

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. 14 As many were astonished at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: 15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for [that] which had not been told them shall they see; and [that] which they had not heard shall they consider. 1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? 2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, [there is] no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But he [was] wounded for our transgressions, [he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither [was any] deceit in his mouth. 10. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put [him] to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see [his] seed, he shall prolong [his] days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, [and] shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him [a portion] with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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