Williams on Second Isaiah

An excerpt from James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991, pages 157-162.

The great prophet whose oracles, sayings, and poems are found in chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah, and perhaps elsewhere in the book (e.g., chap. 61), is usually called the Second Isaiah because of his place in the Isaiah scroll. He may well have been influenced by Isaiah or been understood as a latter-day follower of Isaiah. He clearly addressed himself to the exiles in Babylon, perhaps shortly before Cyrus’s conquest of the city in 539 B.C.E. (see Isa 44:28; 45:1). His prophesying dates are usually given as about 545-540 B.C.E., although one could give or take a few years on either side.

Consider a few particulars of this prophet’s message: he claims that Judah’s exile was proclaimed in the past by YHWH’s prophets (41:21-29; 44:6-8; passim); there will be a new exodus back to the homeland and a new world order. Second Isaiah’s utterances about God and his prophets form a kind of implied syllogism: (1) The one true God can announce beforehand what he will bring about. (2) YHWH has done this through the prophets. (3) Therefore, YHWH is God.

Who is like me? Let him proclaim it,
let him declare and set it forth before me
since I appointed an ancient people.
And signs of things to come let them declare.
Fear not, be not afraid;
have I not told you in past times and declared it?
And you are my witnesses.
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any. (Isa 44:7-8, my translation)

One of the most noted aspects of Babylonian Isaiah’s prophecies is his theme of the Servant of YHWH. Whatever his own understanding of the identity of this servant, in four poems or songs he is depicted as an individual (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) who is a prophet. He is called to prophesy (49:1), YHWH’s spirit is upon him (49:1), and his ear is “opened” by YHWH. His calling entails speaking God’s word to Israel (49:3-5). He encounters great difficulty and persecution, but God will help him and vindicate him (50:6-9; 53). This picture of the prophet is replete with allusions to the prophet tradition (Jeremiah, Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel).

The most remarkable passage is the fourth Servant Song, 52:13-53:12. This song or poem is a kind of antiphonal dialogue between the God of Israel and the people. God speaks in 52:13-15 and 53:11-12, and in my judgment the people speak in 53:1-10. It is important to recognize this formal organization of the passage, as we shall see. The divine voice begins with an “I-they” statement: “my servant shall prosper” in the end in spite of “their” astonishment, for the servant bears the signs of the victim: “so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance.” According to 52:15 he will startle nations and their kings. It is possible that these foreigners are those speaking in 53:1-3 rather than Israel. This is uncertain, however, and because the collective voice of 53:4-6 is so obviously Israel’s, I will assume that the same holds for verses 1-3. (I think 53:7-10 is also Israel speaking, but this matter will be taken up below.)

The collective voice, which speaks in the grammatical form of “we-him,” describes the servant as ugly from his youth and thus undesirable (53:2). All were against him. “He was despised and forsaken by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity,” who was persona non grata because people hide their faces from him (v. 3). Verses 4-10 recount the servant’s fate. First is the collective realization that he has borne the sins of the community (vv. 4-6), very much like the Greek pharmakos.

Girard contends that a “spontaneous historical event” is being described, an event that has both a collective and legal character, which he discerns in the further reflections of the collective voice (vv. 7-10).

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth. (53:8-9, RSV)

This may be the spontaneous scapegoating of an individual that the poem relates. However, the poem should be related to known historical facts. One is that thousands of Judeans had been taken into exile; another, that the earlier prophets of the exilic period, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, saw themselves as suffering in behalf of their prophetic mission (Jer 11:18-23; 12:1-6; 16:1-13; 20:4-8; Ezek 3:24-4:17). One could validly conclude, as many biblical critics have and as Jewish readers particularly are inclined to do, that Second Isaiah presents an image of Israel in the form of the Servant of the LORD and draws on the prophetic tradition for many specifics of this image. Girard is therefore right about the insight into the sacrificial mechanism that the poem expresses but not necessarily correct in ascribing it to one specific event. By the way, Girard’s comments about this in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (155-157) do not explicitly indicate that this spontaneous event was either contemporaneous with Second Isaiah or part of ancient Israel’s history. As a Christian reader he understands it as a prophecy, a prophetic vision or intimation of the future Christ-event. There is no reason, of course, why the Servant may not be construed both as an image of ideal Israel and an anticipation of the Christ of the Gospels.

To comment further on verses 4-10, “my people” appears in verse 8, raising the question Whether God’s voice enters in here or whether, perhaps, God is the speaker in verses 7-10. The latter is possible and would make a considerable difference in my interpretation of the passage. The objections to God as speaker are two. (1) The divine voice would be referring to himself in the third person in verse l0a (“it was the will of the LORD to bruise him,” RSV). (2) And in l0b the Hebrew text reads a second person singular: “thou makest his life an offering for sin” (my translation). Most translations turn that into a third person singular, “when he offers his life.” But if we stay with the Hebrew text, it appears to be the people persona speaking to the God persona.

In fact, inconsistency of pronoun usage and reference is quite in evidence in the Hebrew Bible, so one cannot use an occasional inconsistency as a warrant by itself. What I prefer to see in verses 7-10 is the further statement by the people persona. The “my people” could be a slip where Second Isaiah allows his voice to come in. It is well known that one voice can allow, usually unintentionally, another voice to slip in, for example, the “Qohelet says” that interrupts the first person voice of Qohelet in Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew “Qohelet”) 7:27. Moreover, “my people” was a common epithet not only in oracles presenting divine speech but in the repertory of phrases ascribed to the prophets themselves.

I would therefore read verses 7-10 as the continuation of the collective voice, although in a different mode from verses 4-6 — it is descriptive-reflective rather than primarily confessional. The importance of this for interpretation is that the inconsistency concerning divine agency in the Servant’s suffering is not ascribed to the divine voice. In verse 4 the people avow, “We thought him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” and verse 10 says,

Yet is was the will of YHWH to bruise him;
he has made him sick.
When you appoint him as an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days. (Isa. 53:10, my translation)

If verse 10 belongs to the people persona, then there is a consistency in the people’s apprehension of the sacrificial mechanism, a consistency of which the prophetic composer may be well aware. Just as Ezekiel uncovers the horror of sacrifice while feeling compelled to ascribe it somehow to God, so also the people’s statement in Isaiah 53:1-10 reflects the tradition of ambiguous preservation of the sacrificial mechanism and perspective.

But it is a different matter with verses 11 and 12:

Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant,
shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

“Because he poured out his soul [or life, nefesh] to death”: this is the key, as I construe the passage. The Servant willingly gave himself for his people. It wasn’t God who caused his suffering, it was oppressors. As the divine voice says in an oracle found in chapter 54:

If any one stirs up strife, it is not from me;
whoever stirs up strife with you
shall fall because of you. (54:15)

“Strife” — the conflict of mimetic rivalry that results in violence — does not come from God. The two lines seem to indicate strife within the Israelite community (15a) and strife in the form of attacks upon Israel (15b). In my reading I see the Servant as the object of oppression resulting from this strife. He does not intend to become a “sacrifice,” and God does not subject him to suffering, although Second Isaiah perceives that the people continue in the ambiguity of the tradition still rooted in the sacrificial cult.

This reading would fit Israel, ideally conceived as the covenant community producing the prophets and suffering for the sake of a new Israel and a new world of the future. The poem could also be a dramatic way of talking about Second Isaiah, some other contemporary figure, or someone in the future. This latter point of view is the interpretation held by the New Testament texts, and it is the one toward which this book moves.

Jeremiah envisioned a new covenant and a new Torah that would be present and real in Israel apart from the sacrificial cult and the operation of retribution. The fourth Servant Song of the Second Isaiah poem, which is a dramatic representation of the Servant’s healing suffering, discloses the power of the sacrificial mechanism in the scapegoat ritual, its foundation in contempt for the victim, its operation through oppression, the human predicament of those who have benefitted from the suffering of the scapegoat, and God’s approval of the one who is not simply an arbitrarily chosen victim but who offers himself when necessary as part of his calling in order to overcome the strife and violence stemming from rivalry.

The Servant of the Lord depicted by the Second Isaiah is a paradigm of the victim whose expulsion is coterminous with his calling. “By oppression and judgment he was taken away . . . he was cut off out of the land of the living.” But in this role he stands for the whole, the entire community. From the standpoint of the community whose theology is still rooted in the principle of god’s wrath and still has not quite attained a theology of the innocent victim, it appears that this suffering has been imposed by the God of Israel on his servant, yet it is a condition the Servant has accepted voluntarily. It is very ambiguous from the standpoint of the collective voice of the social order, and thus it must always be. The suffering of the innocent victim will always be ambiguous from the standpoint of any society, which always has at the core of its structure a victimization mechanism and its sacrificial outlets. The victimization mechanism may be qualified, and there may be substitutions upon substitutions whose use seems to deny the effectiveness of sacrificial violence. Even if sacrificial violence seems to be a thing of the remote past, nonetheless culture and language are permeated with strong traces of that which brought about hominization in the first place: mimetic desire and rivalry, collective violence, prohibition, and sacrifice.

However, the prophetic author of the Servant poem has insight that transcends the point of view of the collective chorus that comments on the Servant and his work. He sees that it is not the will of God to bruise him, but it is the will of God to use him — to speak through the excluded one, who suffers on behalf of others. In understanding his suffering, in standing with him and not with the persecutors, those who are taught by him begin to transform the structures of sacred violence.

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