Who Is the Servant Of Isaiah 40-55?


(Notes from The Other Part of a Study on the Servant Songs of Isaiah, Session Two)

As one reads over Isaiah 40-43 and listens to it, what themes and impressions come across?

  • It is concerned with issues of power, punishment, and relief.
  • Humans are lowly and small – maggots!- while God is the powerful one who created everything.
  • The impression of the creator God speaking here is similar to how God comes across in the Book of Job when he answers out of the whirlwind.
  • There are great swings and contrasts.
  • Various people speaking. The prophet. God. The Nations.
  • God will literally create a highway in the desert so that the Judean exiles in Babylon will take the straightest most direct route back to Jerusalem. Exile is over, salvation is here.
  • People are identified – “the one from the North” (probably Cyrus the Great), “those who worship idols”, “Israel and Jacob”, a proclaimer, a voice, “coastlands/isles”, “nations”.
  • The servant described comes across as
    • a philosopher king?
    • a spokesman
    • an interpreter
    • Israel
    • ambiguous, being both a person and a community
    • in communion with God
    • something evolving and changing
  • Who speaks in the four servant songs?
    • 42.1-4: God
    • 49.1-6: the servant
    • 50.4-9: the servant
    • 52.13-53.12: God (verse 13 certainly, perhaps 52.13-15); otherwise “We”, “Us all”
  • So who is the servant?
    • It is not clear if he is a particular individual, who is a representative for Israel, or the community that hears these words.
    • Is is Deutero-Isaiah, or Israel?
    • As prophetic words, does it apply only to a particular people of God – late 5th century BCE Jews, or to all people of God, including us?
  • What is the meaning of “servant”?
    • The word in Hebrew is ‘ebed, in Greek it is doulos. The Hebrew word is related to the root word for “to work”. Thus, a servant is a worker, but not a hired worker (that’s a “sakhir“). Thus ‘ebed could be translated as slave.
    • In the ancient Middle East and in Greco-Roman times slavery was not ethnically, religiously, or “racially” based, as in modern times in British North America, pre-1865 USA. In ancient times people usually were slaves because of conquest, debt, indenture, or because of  being born to slaves. Israelites and Jews could have Israelite and Jewish slaves, although they had to be freed after six years. Most slaves were agricultural workers. Alien slaves could be held in perpetuity.
    • Kings are frequently described in scriptures as the slaves of God. Paul describes himself as a slave of God, and Gentiles as enslaved to sin.
    • A slave is part of a household. Even a freed slave remains in a patron/client relationship.
    • Interestingly, the Septuagint (LXX) translates ‘ebed as pais – as child.
    • For more on slavery in Judaism see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/slavery.html

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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