Schwager on the Suffering Servant

An Excerpt from Raymund Schwager’s Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible, trans. by Maria L. Assad (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pages 126-135.


We do not need to get involved here in the many historic-critical problems raised by Isaiah 40-55. Since Bernhard Duhm in his commentary on Isaiah (1892) separated the passages (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) from their older context and assigned them — as songs describing the fate of an unknown Torah teacher — to a more recent period, the discussion has continued as to whether these songs originate from the same author as do the other parts of this text. But we can bypass this unsolved (and unsolvable) question, because our investigation concentrates on the interpretation of the text as it exists today.

In addition there has been virtually endless discussion as to whether “servant of Yahweh” meant Israel, or a single individual. We can leave this question aside also. The fact that the lengthy dispute has not led to a clear result should indicate that the text itself is not clear. Should this be so, it would perfectly fit the results obtained so far in our investigation. We were able to establish that it is structurally the same statement whether one says that many hostile nations unite against Israel or says that many godless evildoers surround the one just individual. Our interpretation remains open to both possibilities.

The text of Second Isaiah often speaks of conflicts, of opponents, even of “the fury of the oppressors” (51:13). In this respect these songs contribute nothing new to the other prophetic texts and the psalms. New, however, is the attitude of the oppressed individual, the servant of Yahweh. He says of himself:

Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
For the Lord God helps me. (Isa 50:4-7)

On the one hand, this important text touches on themes we have already discussed. On the other, it adds a new and decisive element. The servant is instructed by God himself, as was promised in Jeremiah. He is not the disciple of some human master, but the disciple of God. Mimesis has therefore no mastery over him anymore. Accordingly, in the text of Deutero-Isaiah there is no where a prayer for revenge on one’s enemies as in Jeremiah (1) or in many psalms. (2)

God deals with his disciple through the word. Every morning he awakens him and opens his ear. How powerful this word is, is summarily indicated in the epilogue to the text of Deutero-Isaiah. God himself speaks:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa 55:9-11)

Second Isaiah not only speaks of God’s workings through the word; he also has the word say of itself that it is mighty and brings about what it wants. In direct connection with this all-powerful work of the word there is also in the servant the work of the divine spirit. God not only opens the servant’s ear every morning but has put the spirit in him:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isa 42:1)

Activity through the spirit and through the word are two aspects of one divine action. Both tend towards one goal: preparing the servant for a worldwide task. God put his spirit in him for him to bring justice to the peoples (42:1). Every day God opens the servants ears for him to become the light shining to the ends of the earth. One of God’s words says of him:

“It is too light
a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa 49:6) (3)

The servant has a task to fulfill for all nations. Through him God wants to help men and women all over the earth. What is being talked about here is not so much the annihilation of enemies (4) as that the servant is becoming the light for all the nations, is bringing them justice, and that through him all will experience God’s kindness. Therefore, when in the text quoted above the servant says of himself, “The Lord God helps me” (50:7), he is not talking of purely individual aid. Through him God wants to bring salvation to all nations to the end of the earth.

These passages of Second Isaiah hardly go beyond what we found in other prophetic texts and in the psalms. God helps the one persecuted by many enemies, and this action has a universal meaning. But Second Isaiah opens up a new dimension when it says how this help for the nations comes about.

Every morning God opens the servant’s ear; the immediate result is that the servant does not respond with counter-violence to the violence of his enemies. He voluntarily offers his back (see 50:5-6). God’s action towards him becomes visible through the manner in which he reacts to hostile deeds of violence. This is not merely an individual, heroic example. As the already-mentioned passages show, he is fulfilling a mission that concerns all nations.

If one reflects on how widespread the notion of vengeance was in the Old Testament, it becomes doubly clear that with the nonviolent behavior of the servant of Yahweh something new is indeed happening. The text of Second Isaiah itself reflects the newness of its message within the tradition held sacred by the Yahweh-faith. It commands and proclaims in God’s name a revolutionary break:

“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18-19)

In yet another passage God says of himself that he is on the verge of creating something new that no one has ever known:

“From this time forth I make you hear new things,
hidden things which you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them,
lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known,
from of old your ear has not been opened.” (Isa 48:6-8)

The “new” has something to do with the opening of the ear. It concerns a promise until now unknown to Israel. Its ear was closed; it must first be opened.

But the “something new” is also connected with the Persian king Cyrus, who is even described as the anointed of the Lord (45:1). Yet he is not as important a figure as is the servant. His great importance consists only in a mission he has to fulfill for Israel. He himself does not even know about it. Yahweh says of him:

“For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.” (Isa 45:4)

The Persian king Cyrus makes it possible for the Jews exiled to Babylon to return to Jerusalem. From the perspective of Second Isaiah, this was Cyrus’s great mission. He is in no way in competition with the servant of Yahweh. Even if many nations are subject to him (45:1), only the servant is a light for all nations. For Cyrus was called “for the sake of my servant Jacob.”

But how does the servant of Yahweh fulfill his worldwide mission? His revolutionary, nonviolent conduct is further expounded in a text that has traditionally been singled out as the actual song of the suffering servant (52:13-53:12). As in the psalm about the stone rejected by the builders, the servant is here described from two different perspectives:

As many were astonished at him
his appearance was so marred,
beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men —
so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him. (Isa 52:14-15)

A distinction is made between a “before” and a “now.” Before, he was mocked; now he astounds many. The rejected stone became a cornerstone, and the despised servant becomes one before whom even kings fall silent. The many who first laughed and now stand in wonderment — were they, too, violent men and women? In the text quoted above, the servant says of himself that he offered his back to those who were beating him (50:56). The actual song of the suffering servant goes further and tells how he was pierced and mistreated (53:5), persecuted and beaten down (53:7), how he was even expelled from the land of the living and killed (53:8). He became the victim of violent human beings. He was not only mocked but killed. Then how did this individual, despised by all the world and killed, become one who astounds the many nations? The decisive statements are found in 53:4-12: There the people begin to see that the servant suffered vicariously for the many. (5) The many include those who now have come to know better:

Yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities. (Isa 53:4-5)

These two diametrically opposed opinions are found in the life of the same persons. First they believed the servant had been struck by disaster. Only later were their eyes and ears opened so that they recognized that he was being pierced because of their crimes.

As we have seen, almost all levels of the Old Testament writings contain the idea that evil deeds fall back on the head of the evildoer. In contrast, the text just quoted contains an entirely new message. The crimes of the many do not fall back upon the guilty ones; an innocent person (53:9) is vicariously struck instead. But how is this substitution to be understood? In the light of Girard’s theory, it is especially important to ask if the servant was struck only because of the crimes of the many, or also by these crimes. Did the evildoers themselves throw their crimes upon the servant, or is the substitution intended in a purely juridical sense? The decisive verse says:

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. (Isa 53:6)

This translation gives the idea that God himself placed the sins of the many upon the servant and thus charged him with them in a juridical sense. But a different translation is also possible; it would read:

But the Lord permitted us to throw all our sins upon him.

It is well known that Hebrew makes no proper distinction between an active “causing” and a passive “letting.” This has allowed us to determine that statements in which Yahweh himself acts violently and those that speak about an individual delivered into the hands of the violent can mean the same thing.

It is said of the servant that he was beaten, mocked, and spat upon by the many (50:6), that he was persecuted and oppressed (53:7), and that he was finally killed and buried with other criminals (53:8-9). All these statements show that the crimes of the many have struck the servant in the physical and moral and not merely in the juridical sense. The evildoers really transferred their misdeeds to him.

One should further note that Walther Zimmerli justly emphasizes: “Here ‘carrying the sins’ does not refer to God’s shouldering of sin, but rather refers, in the sense of Lev 16:22 and 10:17, to the vicarious carrying of sin/punishment by a human being, by the servant of Yahweh.” (6) During the rites of atonement, the guilty ones (or the priests in the name of the guilty) would unload their sins on the sacrificial animal. This, too, reenforces the impression that the many transferred their crimes to the servant of Yahweh, and indeed did so by disdaining him, spitting on him, beating, and killing him. But he voluntarily offered his back and cheek and thereby caused the misdeeds not to fall back as punishment upon the evildoers. They were thereby enabled to come to a better understanding.

The same interpretation is suggested in Psalms 22 and 118 because of their resemblance to Isaiah 53. These two songs describe in a particularly vivid fashion both the distress of the forsaken and persecuted individual and the divine assistance for the just one. Both songs tell (as does Isaiah 53) that many violent enemies surround and “reject” him (Ps 118:22) or “pierce his hands and feet” (Ps 22:17). The evildoers gang together against the just one. Their evil deeds fall on him, because he suffers physically and morally.

The close relationship between Isaiah 53 and Psalms 22 and 118 becomes fully clear, however, only in the light of the New Testament. But the texts themselves also suggest a relationship. No final clarity has yet been reached. But through the context and through the connection with the rites of atonement and the psalms, one is pushed towards the interpretation that the transfer of crimes onto the servant is to be understood in the sense that the evildoers gang together against him, and precisely through their violent action load upon him their own crimes. This interpretation becomes plausible also from the Old Testament conception of the relationship between deed and consequence. God is at work in this event by enabling the beaten individual to offer himself voluntarily (Isa 50:5-6; 53:7) and thus to take upon himself the crimes of the others.

How the evildoers came to know that the servant bore their sins in their stead is nowhere explicitly stated. But the context does suggest that it was exactly the nonviolent attitude of the beaten one that opened their eyes. They are amazed that he did not open his mouth when he was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). Because he carried the offenses of the many for all to behold, he was able to become a light for the nations. By empowering his servant to adopt a new attitude, God at the same time revealed himself in a new way. As the psalms show, Yahweh was close to the oppressed in a very personal way. The writing of Second Isaiah in its way shows the same closeness. God appears in it as the great liberator; (7) again and again he calls out to his oppressed people in a very intimate way:

Fear not, for I am with you,
be not dismayed, for I am your God. (Isa 41:10) (8)

On the other hand, Yahweh reveals himself in the writing of Second Isaiah as a person in a new way. He reflects, so to speak, on himself and interprets his own name:

“Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.” (Isa 52:6) (9)

God says of himself that he is speaking; reflecting on himself he says: I am the one who says I am here. The “I” and God’s speaking are referred back to himself in the most complete explicitness. He is completely there and reveals himself to the people in the most intimate way, by expressing his “I” consciously as his own “I.” Any notion of an impersonal and irrational power is here removed from the concept of God.

The writing of Second Isaiah contains the clearest expression in the Old Testament of the transfer of many violent actions onto one innocent individual. Here too Yahweh reveals himself in a most personal way and at the same time empowers his servant to adopt a completely new, nonviolent mode of behavior. Finally, this text contains the clearest criticism of idolatry and the most unequivocal evidence of monotheism. In view of Girard’s theory, this convergence is not accidental. If sacred ideas and concepts develop from aggressive projections, then the true God will reveal himself most clearly where the world of violence also is most decisively contrasted to him. If the gods are the product of human mechanisms, then he must appear most clearly in that world of violence as a person where this mechanism is most radically unmasked. If sacrifices are the ritual repetitions of original collective violent acts, then the true revelation must be accompanied by a thoroughgoing criticism of the cult.

Lastly, the text of Second Isaiah also suggests an answer to the central question we previously had to leave open. Are the prophetic promises of the coming kingdom of justice and peace subtle self-delusions, since they were apparently never fulfilled? Second Isaiah makes it clear that God does not miraculously remove the tendency to violence from the human world. But he enables his servant (a single individual or a complete community) to carry the misdeeds of others without repaying them in kind. The true character of violence is thus more decisively unmasked, and even evildoers can, at least subsequently, recognize the truth.

Many things certainly remain still unsaid even in Second Isaiah. The text remains ambiguous on the question of whether God unloads the crimes of the many on the servant, or whether they themselves do so. In the same way, it is not entirely clear how God helps his servant. Sometimes he is killed; at other times he is said to live a long life (Isa 53:8-10). Apparently the continuing life of the nation is being thought of, even if many individuals are killed. But how does God help the ones killed? It also remains uncertain whether God’s self-reflection in the words “I am who says: I am here,” is merely a human mode of expression, or whether it alludes to a polarity in God himself. Similarly, the tension between promise and reality is still completely unresolved here. Many texts of Second Isaiah sound as if a great transformation were soon to occur in the entire world. But this new beginning did not come about. Thus the writing of Second Isaiah remained by no means the last Old Testament text. Other attempts interpreted God’s work in a somewhat different way.

If Second Isaiah were the center of the Old Testament, one would have to conclude that, in spite of the above-mentioned lack of clarity, Girard’s theory indeed offers the best key to its authentic interpretation. But later Old Testament authors did not ascribe a special place to this prophet. His writings were even passed on under the name of an earlier prophet who had obviously left behind a stronger impression on the religious consciousness. In addition, the statements in the fourth song of the servant about universal and vicarious suffering were left for centuries “lying there, misunderstood, like an eccentric addition.” (10) Not a single biblical author or Jewish writer referred to them explicitly. By themselves the Old Testament writings can therefore not be brought together under a common denominator. Different tendencies remain standing side by side. At most, a real center can be found only when all the writings are interpreted anew in the light of the fate of Jesus. Such a new interpretation is legitimate, since the Old Testament itself is a history of constant reinterpretations.


1. See Jer 12:3; 15:15; 17:18; 18:21-23.

2. See Pss 7:7; 10:15; 11:6; 28:4; 31:18; 55:16; 56:8; 58:10; 59:14; 69:25; 79:6; 109:6-16; 137:7ff.; 143:12.

3. One could justify a different translation that would, however, be important only in regard to the question of whether the text means an individual or Israel when it speaks about the servant. (See N. Lohfink, “‘Israel’ in Isa 49:3,” Wort, Lied und Gottesspruch. Beiträge zu Psalmen und Propheten. Festschrift für Joseph Ziegler vol. 2, ed. J. Schreiner [Würzburg: Echter, 1972], 217-229).

4. At most in a restricted sense: Isa 50:11.

5. The expression “the many” (Isa 52:15; 53:11-12) is to be understood in the exclusive sense of “all” (see J. Jeremias, ThWBNT VI, 536-545).

6. W. Zimmerli, Studien zur alttestamentlichen Theologie und Prophetie [Munich: Kaiser, 1974], 217.

7. See Isa 43:1-14; 44:6-24; 47:4; 48:17-20; 49:7-25; 50:2; 51:11-14; 52:3; 54:5.

8. See Isa 40:9; 41:13-14; 43:5; 44:2; 51:7; 54:4.

9. See 41:4; 43:10; 44:6; 45:3; 48:12.

10. K. Koch, “Sühne und Sündenvergebung um die Wende von der exilischen zur nachexilischen Zeit,” Evangelischen Theologie 26 (1966): 237.

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