Isaiah 53:8 is considered by some Counter Missionary Jews to be the smoking gun evidence that Isaiah 53’s suffering servant is the collective people of Israel rather than a single physical person–certainly not a Messiah, particularly Jesus Christ.
Here is how the RSV translates Isaiah 53:8, I will supply alternate translations including Jewish later.
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?–Isaiah 53:8
The Hebrew text as found in the Masoretic Text (the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls differs)
מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח, וְאֶת-דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ: כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים, מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמוֹ
There are about 3 main reasons I’ve come across that they use for this claim, and they are:
1) The Servant in Isaiah is always Israel, and they consider the servant innocent
2) Lamo לָמוֹ is used in Isaiah 53:8 and “properly translated means to them’ ” and never “to him”
3) The phrase eretz hayim אֶרֶץ חַיִּים “land of the living” is an expression for the “land of Israel”
Counter Missionary claim #1: The Servant in Isaiah is always Israel, and they consider the servant innocent.
My Response: Most of the time in Isaiah the servant is named as Israel/Jacob, however, David is called God’s servant in Isaiah 37:35, the Prophet Isaiah is called His servant in Isaiah 20:3, Eliakim is called God’s servant in Isaiah 22:20. Israel is called God’s servant several times too, the closest appearance where Israel is named is Isaiah 49:3 “you are my servant Israel.” Afterwards the servant is not given a name. Calling the servant Israel is not completely incompatible with Christianity since in the 2nd Century the Christian writer St Justin Martyr wrote:
Accordingly the name Israel signifies this, A man who overcomes power; for Isra is a man overcoming, and El is power. And that Christ would act so when He became man was foretold by the mystery of Jacob’s wrestling with Him who appeared to him, in that He ministered to the will of the Father, yet nevertheless is God, in that He is the first-begotten of all creatures. For when He became man, as I previously remarked, the devil came to Him—i.e., that power which is called the serpent and Satan—tempting Him, and striving to effect His downfall by asking Him to worship him. But He destroyed and overthrew the devil, having proved him to be wicked, in that he asked to be worshipped as God, contrary to the Scripture; who is an apostate from the will of God. For He answers him, ‘It is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’ [Matthew 4:10] Then, overcome and convicted, the devil departed at that time. But since our Christ was to be numbed, i.e., by pain and experience of suffering, He made a previous intimation of this by touching Jacob’s thigh, and causing it to shrink. But Israel was His name from the beginning, to which He altered the name of the blessed Jacob when He blessed him with His own name, proclaiming thereby that all who through Him have fled for refuge to the Father, constitute the blessed Israel. –St Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapters 125
Furthermore, the Messiah, as King of Israel, would represent or embody in some way Israel. Jesus in the New Testament is often described in terms and His life is told in such a way that it embodies Israel’s history, like his nativity story with Herod killing innocent children, or going to Egypt recalls the Exodus story. A number of things concerning Israel are applied to the Christ. However, concerning the actual people of Israel they are not actually blameless like the Servant mentioned in Isaiah 53. Jews present Israel as being the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 that is suffering due to the wicked gentiles, unjustly since they have done no wrong. This is ironic since the Jews will also claim their diaspora and the long period of time they’ve been without their land and government and Messiah is attributed to their sinfulness and lack of faithfulness as a whole–hardly blameless. So, some Jews have to mitigate the innocence of the Suffering Servant as referring to his lack of Idolatry–though no such thing is ever implied in the passage.
Counter Missionary claim #2: Lamo לָמוֹ is used in Isaiah 53:8 and “properly translated means to them’ ” and never “to him”
This claim is largely true, my software shows that לָמוֹ appears 59 times in 57 verses in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew bible, in the vast majority of them its being used in a context of plurality or implied plurality, however, there are a few possible exceptions the most commonly used one is a few chapters earlier in Isaiah:
yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto [לָמוֹ ].–Isaiah 44:15
אַף-יִפְעַל-אֵל וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ, עָשָׂהוּ פֶסֶל וַיִּסְגָּד-לָמוֹ–Isaiah 44:15 (Masoretic Text)
Or as the 1985 JPS translates it “He also makes a god of it and worships it, Fashions an idol and bows down to it.” Most English translations agree, however, some other Jewish translations insist it also means “to them” (Stone Tanach)–suggesting the person is bowing to both the image and the ‘god,’ however, the earlier part of the sentence already addresses the person as worshiping the ‘god’ itself. Counter-missionaries appeal to the LXX for a rare instance to try to bolster their claim, however the LXX differs significantly here, since instead of having 2 almost redundant sentences about making a god/image, it says “But the rest they fashioned into gods and they do obeisance to them.” Which makes a idol’s maker plural, and the deities plural, and omits the second part about “making an image and bowing…” So appealing to the LXX does not solve any issue in this instance!
The LXX for Isaiah 53:8 mentions “death” which fits the context perfectly, incidentally the only different between לָמוֹ and the Hebrew word death is a tau after the vav, (also the only difference between the tav and vav is the tav in older scripts of Hebrew has an extra stroke). The LXX reads:
ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνομιῶν τοῦ λαοῦ μου ἤχθη εἰς θάνατον [thanaton, death]–Isaiah 53:8 LXX
“he was led to death [θάνατον, thanaton] on account of the acts of lawlessness of my people”–Isaiah 53:8 (NET translation of the LXX)
Or, if we were to keep to translations within modern Judaism following the Masoretic text, we have the 1985 JPS which reads “For he was cut off from the land of the living, Through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.” Showing “he” received what they “deserved.”
Counter Missionary claim #3: “land of the living” is a term for the land of Israel.
This is an assertion they make but cannot prove based on context, the most obvious meaning is that it is an expression of death (which Isaiah 53 is full of)–not deportation from Israel. In fact verse 7 even says “as a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and verse 9 “grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb.” In fact verse 8 in the LXX explicitly uses the Greek word for death. Other than being an expression of life/death, its used as a expression for the Temple area. Let’s look at all the instances “land of the living” is used.
The first example is from Isaiah 38:11–the only other time the expression is used in Isaiah:
I said: I shall not see YAH, even YAH in the land of the living [ בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים, b’eretz hahayyim] ; I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.–Isaiah 38:11
אָמַרְתִּי לֹא-אֶרְאֶה יָהּ, יָהּ בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים; לֹא-אַבִּיט אָדָם עוֹד, עִם-יוֹשְׁבֵי חָדֶל–Isaiah 38:11 (Masoretic Text)
The context is the King of Judah (Hezekiah) remembering when he was sick and persecuted, fearing for his life, the previous verse even mentions he feared he would wind up in the netherworld (sh’ol). Land of the living here seems to just be another expression for life/death, though POSSIBLY also of the Temple since the poem ends in verse 20 with “this is why we offer up music all the days of our lives at the House of the LORD.” Regardless, its an expression of physical death here.
My second example is from passage similar to Isaiah 53–Jeremiah 11:19 where the Prophet Jeremiah talks about people wanting to kill him. Here is the passage:
But I was like a docile lamb that is led to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me: ‘Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living [ מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים , méretz hayyim], that his name may be no more remembered.’–Jeremiah 11:19
וַאֲנִי, כְּכֶבֶשׂ אַלּוּף יוּבַל לִטְבוֹחַ; וְלֹא-יָדַעְתִּי כִּי-עָלַי חָשְׁבוּ מַחֲשָׁבוֹת, נַשְׁחִיתָה עֵץ בְּלַחְמוֹ וְנִכְרְתֶנּוּ מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים–וּשְׁמוֹ, לֹא-יִזָּכֵר עוֹד–Jeremiah 11:19 (Masoretic text)
This was a plot of the people of Anathoth to kill Jeremiah. The mention of a lamb led to slaughter, destroying a tree with fruit, cutting from the land of the living, and not letting his name be remember all refer to death, and have nothing to do with being deported from the land of Israel. Interesting, both this passage and Isaiah 53 mention a “lamb led to slaughter,” and being “cut from the land of the living” –מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים méretz hayyim. Verse 15 mentions the “House of God” but it land of the living does not seem to refer to the Temple at all here. There is no reason why we should not think this is not referring to physical death.
My third example is from the book of Job, it is talking about where Wisdom can be found–the point is no where on earth, or as it says “in the land of the living.” Job 28 was not talking about Israel, the most natural understanding is that it cannot be found among living humans.
Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים beretz hahayyim] –Job 28:13 (speaking about where wisdom is found, not on earth)
לֹא-יָדַע אֱנוֹשׁ עֶרְכָּהּ; וְלֹא תִמָּצֵא, בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים –Job 28:13
The closest I have seen verses come to calling the land of Israel the “land of the living” are in the Psalms, where the TEMPLE, not all of Israel’s land is called the land of the living.
If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים, b’eretz hayyim] !–Psalm 27:13
לוּלֵא–הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְה*ה: בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים–Psalm 27:13 (Masoretic text)
We know Psalm 27:13 is referring to the area of the temple because in Psalm 27:4 the Psalmist says “that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life…. to visit early in His temple.” In fact the Jewish Study Bible for this verse notes that land of the living is contrasted with the “land of the dead,” and that it is a “metaphor for the temple.”
The next time the phrase appears is Psalm 52:7
God will likewise break thee for ever, He will take thee up, and pluck thee out of thy tent, and root thee out of the land of the living [ מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים , méretz hayyim]. Selah–Psalm 52:7
גַּם-אֵל, יִתָּצְךָ לָנֶצַח יַחְתְּךָ וְיִסָּחֲךָ מֵאֹהֶל; וְשֵׁרֶשְׁךָ מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים סֶלָה–Psalm 52:7 (Masoretic text)
Verse 10 of this psalm, the psalmist contrasts the person who is rooted from the land of the living with himself who is ‘like a thriving olive tree in God’s house”…God’s house being a common term in the Hebrew Bible for the Temple. The verse correspond to each other, one is “rooted from the land of the living” v.7 and the other is “thriving…in God’s house” v.10. The JSB notes that the Olive Tree metaphor is used because olive oil is used in the Temple, and in v 10 that “It is uncertain if the Psalmist is a religious official in the Temple (God’s house), or is a lay Israelite who wants to enjoy God’s proximity at the Temple (see Ps. 23.6 n).” It seems most likely that “land of the living” here is just an expression for living, since its paralleled with “your tent.”
The next occurrence in the Psalms is in Psalm 116:9, where the plural form is used “landS of THE living” (most of the other verses did not use the word “the” and always used singular “land”):
I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living [ בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים , b’aretzot hahayyim].–Psalm 116:9
אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְה*ה– בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים–Psalm 116:9 (Masoretic Text)
This is plainly an expression of death as seen by previous verse “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” In verse 8 the Psalmist was at the risk of death and stumbling (not being able to walk) and now he can walk (and not stumble) in the lands of the living! Walking being a likely expression for keeping God’s commandments and serving him. Lands of the livings here may also be associated with the temple since the Psalmist goes on and talks about the idea of giving sacrifices to God in the Jerusalem Temple v19.
The last instance I found “land of the living” in the Psalms is 142:6 which states:
I have cried unto Thee, O LORD; I have said: ‘Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים , b’eretz hahayyim].’–Psalm 142:6
זָעַקְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ, יְה*ה: אָמַרְתִּי, אַתָּה מַחְסִי; חֶלְקִי, בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים–Psalm 142:6 (Masoretic text)
Psalm 142 is another psalm about persecution at the risk of death, just as many of the previous examples. Verse 5 states “there is no one that cares for my life!” Here it is just an expression for life on earth.
Finally, the phrase “land of the living” is used several times in the book of Ezekiel, more than any other book in the Hebrew bible–and again all as expressions for life/death.
then will I bring thee down with them that descend into the pit, to the people of old time, and will make thee to dwell in the nether parts of the earth, like the places that are desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited; and I will set glory in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים , b’eretz hayyim];-Ezekiel 26:20
וְהוֹרַדְתִּיךְ אֶת-יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר אֶל-עַם עוֹלָם, וְהוֹשַׁבְתִּיךְ בְּאֶרֶץ תַּחְתִּיּוֹת כָּחֳרָבוֹת מֵעוֹלָם אֶת-יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר–לְמַעַן, לֹא תֵשֵׁבִי; וְנָתַתִּי צְבִי, בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים–Ezekiel 26:20 (Masoretic Text)
The above translation (of וְנָתַתִּי צְבִי ) taken from a very old translation of the JPS and is widely debated by English bible translators and Jews. The new JPS translation found in the Jewish Study Bible says “and shall not radiate splendor in the land of the living” then also notes the Hebrew is uncertain. The Jewish commentary RaShI takes the verse as being positive and says its as if God said, “And I shall bestow beauty upon Jerusalem.” This is absurd considering its completely out of place with the tone of the passage which is nothing but threats to Tyre about its demise. The LXX translates “וְנָתַתִּי צְבִי בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים” as “nor rise upon a land of life.”
The next several instances we find the phrase “land of the living” in Ezekiel is Ezekiel 32, which is unnecessary to comment on since its obviously about simple the destruction of certain pagan nations based on all the talk of the pit/grave, death, sword…:
Asshur is there and all her company; their graves are round about them; all of them slain, fallen by the sword; whose graves are set in the uttermost parts of the pit, and her company is round about her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who caused terror in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim]. There is Elam and all her multitude round about her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who are gone down uncircumcised into the nether parts of the earth, who caused their terror in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim]; yet have they borne their shame with them that go down to the pit. They have set her a bed in the midst of the slain with all her multitude; her graves are round about them; all of them uncircumcised, slain by the sword; because their terror was caused in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim], yet have they borne their shame with them that go down to the pit; they are put in the midst of them that are slain. There is Meshech, Tubal, and all her multitude; her graves are round about them; all of them uncircumcised, slain by the sword; because they caused their terror in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim]. And they that are inferior to the uncircumcised shall not lie with the mighty that are gone down to the nether-world with their weapons of war, whose swords are laid under their heads, and whose iniquities are upon their bones; because the terror of the mighty was in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim]. But thou, in the midst of the uncircumcised shalt thou be broken and lie, even with them that are slain by the sword. There is Edom, her kings and all her princes, who for all their might are laid with them that are slain by the sword; they shall lie with the uncircumcised, and with them that go down to the pit. There are the princes of the north, all of them, and all the Zidonians, who are gone down with the slain, ashamed for all the terror which they caused by their might, and they lie uncircumcised with them that are slain by the sword, and bear their shame with them that go down to the pit. These shall Pharaoh see, and shall be comforted over all his multitude; even Pharaoh and all his army, slain by the sword, saith the Lord GOD. For I have put My terror in the land of the living [בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים ,b’eretz hayyim]; and he shall be laid in the midst of the uncircumcised, with them that are slain by the sword, even Pharaoh and all his multitude, saith the Lord GOD.’–Ezekiel 32:22-32
שָׁם אַשּׁוּר וְכָל-קְהָלָהּ, סְבִיבוֹתָיו קִבְרֹתָיו; כֻּלָּם חֲלָלִים, הַנֹּפְלִים בֶּחָרֶב. אֲשֶׁר נִתְּנוּ קִבְרֹתֶיהָ, בְּיַרְכְּתֵי-בוֹר, וַיְהִי קְהָלָהּ, סְבִיבוֹת קְבֻרָתָהּ; כֻּלָּם חֲלָלִים נֹפְלִים בַּחֶרֶב, אֲשֶׁר-נָתְנוּ חִתִּית בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים. שָׁם עֵילָם וְכָל-הֲמוֹנָהּ, סְבִיבוֹת קְבֻרָתָהּ; כֻּלָּם חֲלָלִים הַנֹּפְלִים בַּחֶרֶב אֲשֶׁר-יָרְדוּ עֲרֵלִים אֶל-אֶרֶץ תַּחְתִּיּוֹת, אֲשֶׁר נָתְנוּ חִתִּיתָם בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים, וַיִּשְׂאוּ כְלִמָּתָם, אֶת-יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר. בְּתוֹךְ חֲלָלִים נָתְנוּ מִשְׁכָּב לָהּ, בְּכָל-הֲמוֹנָהּ–סְבִיבוֹתָיו, קִבְרֹתֶהָ; כֻּלָּם עֲרֵלִים חַלְלֵי-חֶרֶב כִּי-נִתַּן חִתִּיתָם בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים, וַיִּשְׂאוּ כְלִמָּתָם אֶת-יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר, בְּתוֹךְ חֲלָלִים, נִתָּן. שָׁם מֶשֶׁךְ תֻּבַל וְכָל-הֲמוֹנָהּ, סְבִיבוֹתָיו קִבְרוֹתֶיהָ; כֻּלָּם עֲרֵלִים מְחֻלְלֵי חֶרֶב, כִּי-נָתְנוּ חִתִּיתָם בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים. וְלֹא יִשְׁכְּבוּ אֶת-גִּבּוֹרִים, נֹפְלִים מֵעֲרֵלִים: אֲשֶׁר יָרְדוּ-שְׁאוֹל בִּכְלֵי-מִלְחַמְתָּם וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת-חַרְבוֹתָם תַּחַת רָאשֵׁיהֶם, וַתְּהִי עֲוֹנֹתָם עַל-עַצְמוֹתָם–כִּי-חִתִּית גִּבּוֹרִים, בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים. וְאַתָּה, בְּתוֹךְ עֲרֵלִים תִּשָּׁבַר וְתִשְׁכַּב–אֶת-חַלְלֵי-חָרֶב. שָׁמָּה אֱדוֹם, מְלָכֶיהָ וְכָל-נְשִׂיאֶיהָ, אֲשֶׁר-נִתְּנוּ בִגְבוּרָתָם, אֶת-חַלְלֵי-חָרֶב: הֵמָּה אֶת-עֲרֵלִים יִשְׁכָּבוּ, וְאֶת-יֹרְדֵי בוֹר. ל שָׁמָּה נְסִיכֵי צָפוֹן כֻּלָּם, וְכָל-צִדֹנִי: אֲשֶׁר-יָרְדוּ אֶת-חֲלָלִים, בְּחִתִּיתָם מִגְּבוּרָתָם בּוֹשִׁים, וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ עֲרֵלִים אֶת-חַלְלֵי-חֶרֶב, וַיִּשְׂאוּ כְלִמָּתָם אֶת-יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר. אוֹתָם יִרְאֶה פַרְעֹה, וְנִחַם עַל-כָּל-הֲמוֹנֹה–חַלְלֵי-חֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה וְכָל-חֵילוֹ, נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְה*ה. כִּי-נָתַתִּי אֶת-חתיתו (חִתִּיתִי), בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים; וְהֻשְׁכַּב בְּתוֹךְ עֲרֵלִים אֶת-חַלְלֵי-חֶרֶב, פַּרְעֹה וְכָל-הֲמוֹנֹה–נְאֻם, אֲדֹנָי יְה*ה–Ezekiel 32:22-32(Masoretic text)
Conclusion: The phrase “the land of the living” never anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible refers to the land of Israel, but is an expression for physical death, or the Temple itself.