Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Suffering Servant

It must be a standard undergraduate question: who is the suffering servant? I had it as an essay question. I'm sure I wasn't the first and that I won't be the last. Oddly, I can't remember what my answer was. I remember being influenced by Norman K. Gottwald, though (the smiley bloke in the picture). His monumental work on The Tribes of Yahweh and his fantastic essay on Deutero-Isaiah (Social Class and Ideology in Isaiah 40-55) were formative. I seem to recall the lecturer telling me with a twinkle in his eye that my paper on Deutero-Isaiah announced that I was a card-carrying pinko.

I found myself back in Isaiah recently, wondering if my view had changed much. I read through a few chapters and much of it started coming back to me. Written by an exile, these chapters romanticise Israel and lionise the exiled upper classes. For a few moments I wondered if the author was slumming as he wrote, being ever-so-grateful to the peasants left behind, but that soon faded away. I'm more inclined (but as with all things scholastic, not utterly convinced yet) to think that the servant of chapter 53 is an audacious claim that the exiled Isaiah makes about the exiles themselves.

For the most part I come to this point from the connections between punishment and banishment. The servant is "taken away" and "cut off from the land of the living" to go to Babylon, taking the punishment on behalf of the whole nation. Conversely, it's the "people" the "many" and the "multitude" who are both at fault for the punishment and who are the reward once the punishment is complete.

It almost goes without saying that the familiar Christian-revisionist1 account of the passage throws all of this out. I think that Jesus would have had passages like this in mind as he prepared for his trial. He'd already imitated the Psalmist's verses that Jerusalem's king would ride in on a donkey, so why not also invoke the image of the suffering servant by not opening his mouth to the Romans and Jews? It becomes a motif, rather than exilic ideology.

It fits into the notion of penal substitutionary atonement neatly, and I think that makes me somewhat suspicious of the text as explicitly Christian. I think that even if Jesus redeems the motif away from an arrogant supposition of the ruling classes to a crucified peasant as scapegoat, there are a few too many gaps around the edges for the whole thing to fit together. Is Jesus' death really a parallel of the Babylonian exile?

For today only my answer to the slippery question of the identity of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the exiled class of Israelites. Check in again in another decade to find out if I've changed my mind or whether Gottwald has cast an even longer shadow over me.

1. Sorry, should I have said "Christian hermeneutic" instead? It's a fact of Christian history that we claim Hebrew scriptures and imbue them with our own interpretive bias. Jesus did it and so did the rest of the New Testament writers. Call it hermeneutics or revisionism if you like. Maybe we should just call it hijacking.
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