Whoever finally redacted Isaiah 40-55 saw fit to insert or leave the passage about the suffering servant between a promise concerning the redemption of Jerusalem and the return of the exiles (Is. 52:1-12) and the assurance that the ruined city would be abundantly repopulated: “the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married” (Is. 54:1). It’s possible that the passage originally belonged to quite a different context, or to no context, but as things stand, we have to reckon, both historically and canonically, with its current location. It’s an integral part of the story of the exile and the return from exile.
In view of this, I suggested that the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is best understood as the community of Israel or Jacob that “grew up” in Babylon as a consequence of the sins of the previous generation. They have borne the punishment of Israel, but they will also be the means of redemption and the basis for a new future: “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Is. 53:10; cf. 53:12 LXX).
I came across an interesting parallel to this corporate interpretation of the passage while preparing a sermon on Numbers last week. We are making good use of The Bible Project’s Old Testament series of videos to teach the biblical narrative in our dysfunctional little church in West London. There’s always something to quibble over, but we are finding them an excellent resource.
So yes, the book of Numbers….
The spies return from their reconnaissance trip to Canaan with good news and bad news (Num. 13:25-33). It is a land flowing with milk and honey, but it is inhabited by giants, and they conclude: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (Num. 13:31). So the people refuse to go any further and demand to be taken back to Egypt. Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites, and the people are pardoned. But this rebellious and bellyaching generation, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, will not be allowed to see the promised land.
But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. (Num. 14:21–23)
They will perish in transit, but their children…. Now here’s the interesting part. Their children will be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and they “shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness” (Num. 14:33).
The parallel is immediately obvious. The Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness because of the sin of the generation that was led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt. The children of that generation, born in the wilderness, “grew up like a root our of dry ground”. It was not their sin that brought punishment upon the people. They have suffered because of the unfaithfulness or “harlotry” of their parents; they have been “numbered with the transgressors”, so to speak. But they will eventually be redeemed and rewarded with entry into the land promised to the patriarchs.
Likewise, the Jews spent seventy years in exile in Babylon because of their disobedience. Their children, born in exile, were not responsible for the punishment; they have suffered innocently because of the unfaithfulness of their parents, they have been “numbered with the transgressors” (cf. Is, 53:12); but they will be redeemed and rewarded by being brought back to the land, where they will prosper and multiply in a renewed Jerusalem.
I’m not sure that the suffering servant passage is a conscious recollection of Numbers 14:33, but the theological precedent is significant. The general relevance of the Exodus motif for Deutero-Isaiah is well established: see Isaiah 40:31; 43:16-17, 20; 48:4, 21; 50:2; 51:10; 52:12. And there are a couple more specific reasons to think that the parallel is not entirely accidental.
First, the exhortation to leave Babylon, just before the servant is introduced, echoes the Passover account—only this is the return of the children of the exiled generation, so there will be no need for haste:
For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard (Is. 52:12; cf. Exod. 12:11, 33, 39)
Secondly, there is a slight but interesting link in the Greek translations. Numbers 14:33 LXX reads: “But your sons shall be feeding in the wilderness for forty years, and they shall bear (anoisousin) your fornication until your limbs are wasted in the wilderness.” Isaiah says that the servant “bore (anēnegken) the sins of many, and because of their sins he was given over” (Is. 53:12).
Curious, eh? The children bear the sins of the fathers.
Does this have any relevance for the New Testament understanding of Jesus? Probably not to any great extent, though it seems pretty clear that the baptism and testing of Jesus constitute a remaking of the exodus journey through the sea and into the wilderness.
But it serves as a reminder that the story of Jesus’ innocent redemptive suffering cannot be separated from the story of Israel’s suffering on account of sin and rebellion, which, of course, keeps us firmly in the realm of a narratively circumscribed doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus was innocent, but he suffered the punishment that a wicked generation of Jews, the corrupt fathers and elders of the people, were bringing upon themselves.