Compiled by Jonathan Sacks:
The passage known as “Isaiah 53” actually begins at Isaiah 52:13 and includes the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. This passage speaks in detail of the life, suffering, and death of Messiah. (This passage is quoted below.) The overwhelmingly dominant Jewish view throughout history has been that this extended passage speaks of Messiah. (See “What Rabbis Have Said about Isaiah 53.”) Therefore, the Jewish view of the Messiah traditionally has included the understanding that the Messiah would suffer and die as the ultimate kaparrah (atonement) for the sins of Israel and of the world.
For over a thousand years after the death of Yeshua, this remained essentially the only Jewish view concerning Isaiah 53. In the late 11th century a new view, that the passage spoke of Israel, was introduced, but was vehemently rejected by the vast majority of rabbis for the next 700 years. Following are ten reasons why Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Israel. These include some of the reasons the rabbis overwhelmingly rejected this novel view.
52:13 Behold My servant shall prosper, He shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
52:14 According as many were appalled at thee—so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike the sons of men—
52:15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.
53:1 Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?
53:2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
53:3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised and we esteemed him not.
53:4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
53:5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushedbecause of our iniquities: The chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.
53:6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.
53:7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
53:8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? For he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
53:11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.
53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The Ten Reasons
1. The consistent use of pronouns in the passage makes it clear that the suffering servant is an individual who is distinct from the Jewish people to whom Isaiah was speaking. Throughout the passage, the suffering servant is always referred to in the singular (he, him, himself, and his), while the people of Israel are referred to in the plural (we, us, and our) or simply as “my people.” Thus, the suffering servant cannot be Israel. For example, Isaiah 53:3-8 states:
He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely our disease he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way;
And the Lord hath made to light upon him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, though he humbled himself, and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that is before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? For he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
In addition, when “Israel” is inserted for the pronouns, the passage makes no sense. For example, the servant is righteous yet is dying for Israel’s transgressions. (See, for example, verses 8 and 11.) Either Israel is righteous or she isn’t, not both. In addition, Israel cannot die vicariously for her own sins.
2. Israel is distinct from the suffering servant for three additional reasons:
a. In this passage, Israel observed the suffering of the righteous servant. (See, for example, verses 3-6.)
b. The suffering servant died for the transgressions, or sins, of the Jewish people. This is seen in the closing sentence of Isaiah 53:8, which says:
For he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
Clearly, “my people” is Isaiah’s people, the people of Israel. The passage would make no sense if the suffering servant were Israel. In that case, Israel would die for Israel’s sins. In other words, Israel would have gotten what she deserved, which makes no sense. The entire passage speaks of the suffering servant suffering and dying for, on behalf of, or in place of Israel.
c. In verse 10, the suffering servant is offered as an “asham,” or guilt offering. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, or Jewish Bible, the guilt offering was never Israel, nor could it ever have been Israel. The guilt offering, or “asham,” was always offered on behalf of or in place of the one who had committed the trespass or sin. It was never offered for or on behalf of the asham itself. (No one could ever be an “asham” for his or her own sins.) An asham offering was always offered by an individual and never by the nation of Israel. (See Art Scroll commentary on Leviticus, volume 1.) In addition, the offering had to be without blemish, or sinless. Because the offering was without blemish, it was always offered for the sins of someone other than the asham itself. For all of these reasons, Israel cannot be the suffering servant who offers himself as an asham offering.
3. The “asham” always had to die. Likewise, the suffering servant clearly died. See Isaiah 53:8, 9, 10, and 12. He was “cut off out of the land of the living,” he had a grave; he was with the rich “in his death;” and he “poured out his soul unto death.” However, Israel never died. In fact, it is impossible for Israel to ever die, because G-d promised Israel that she would live forever. (See, for example Jeremiah 31:35-37.)
4. The suffering servant suffered a vicarious and substitutionary death (Isaiah 53:4-6, 8, 10, 12). He suffers for the sins of others, so they need not suffer for their own sins. Nowhere in the Jewish Bible nor in Jewish history do we ever see Israel suffering for, on behalf of, or in place of the Gentiles, so that the Gentiles do not have to suffer. Israel often suffered at the hand of Gentiles or because of Gentiles, but never for, on behalf of, or in place of the Gentiles. Israel suffers, but she always suffers for her own sins.
5. The suffering servant “sprinkles” many nations (or Gentiles) in Isaiah 52:15. The Hebrew word for sprinkle is repeatedly used for the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice, which was always offered for, on behalf of, or in place of Israel. Israel’s blood was never “sprinkled”, as Israel could never be a sacrifice for herself.
6. The suffering servant has qualities that were never true of Israel:
a. The suffering servant is depicted as being innocent. He did no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:4-6, 8b, 9b). Israel is never told she would suffer for being innocent. (See, for example, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.) In addition, Israel is never depicted as being innocent. A cursory reading through Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, and all the prophets make this abundantly clear. (See, for example, Isaiah 59:1-15, esp. verses 4-7 and Psalm 14:3. These are just two of hundreds of examples that could be cited.) That was why so many sacrifices were needed. Israel was never righteous, or even close to being righteous. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is pictured as continually rejecting God and being repeatedly judged for her sins. This is in sharp contrast to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who is portrayed as an innocent sufferer.
b. The suffering servant is the most righteous person described in Scripture. In Isaiah 53:11, he is called “Tsadeek ahvdee”, or “My righteous servant.” This is the only place in the entire Hebrew Bible where this phrase is used. It certainly is never used of Israel. In addition, neither Abraham, Moses, David, nor any other prophet or ruler was ever called “Tsadeek ahvdee”, or “My righteous servant” in the Hebrew Bible—except for the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Only one righteous or without any blemish could die as a sacrifice for sin. However, no normal human was ever considered righteous on his or her own. (See, for example, Psalm 14:2-3 and Psalm 53:2-3.) This suffering servant must, therefore, be someone greater than Abraham, Moses, or David. It is no wonder that the great majority of rabbis throughout the ages concluded that this righteous servant was none other than the Messiah of Israel.
c. The suffering servant is depicted as being a silent sufferer, in that, like a lamb, he did not protest his execution nor did he defend himself (verse 7). He, instead, suffered willingly and voluntarily. While Israel has suffered immeasurable persecution, she has never done so willingly or voluntarily. Israel has always cried out against the inhumanity of people against her.
7. In this passage, the suffering servant is depicted as suffering for, on behalf of, or in place of others. This was never true of Israel. In the Jewish Bible, every time Israel suffers, including the Babylonian captivity and the present day Dispersion or Diaspora, Israel suffered for her own disobedience—not for the sins of others.
8. The Jewish people (Israel) were promised that if they obeyed G-d, they would be greatly blessed. Only if they were disobedient would they be cursed. (See, for example, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.) If Israel were the righteous servant of Isaiah 53, it would have been impossible for her to have suffered and died under the conditions and in the manner described in this passage.
9. In this passage, the suffering servant bore the sins of the people, so they would not have to bear their own sins or be judged for them (Isaiah 53:4-6, 8, 10, 12). If the servant is Israel and the people are the Gentiles, then the Gentiles would not need to be punished for their sins, as they would have been vicariously borne by Israel. This has never been the case. The Gentiles were never deemed innocent after Jews suffered at their hands. Instead, they were judged for mistreating Jewish people. (See, for example, Genesis 12:3, Numbers 24:9, and Jeremiah 46:28.)
10. Isaiah 53:1 refers to the suffering servant as “the Arm of the Lord.” There are 37 references to the Arm of the Lord in the Tanakh. Never does that phrase refer to Israel. The Arm of the Lord acts on behalf of Israel, but is never Israel. Among other things, the Arm of the Lord redeems and delivers Israel when Israel is not able to deliver herself. (See, for example, Exodus 6:6, Exodus 15:16, Deuteronomy 4:34, 5:15, 9:29, 26:8, II Kings 17:36, Psalm 44:3, and Ezekiel 20:33-34.) Clearly the suffering servant, the Arm of the Lord, cannot be Israel.
For these ten reasons, the passage cannot refer to Israel. Therefore, as leading rabbis have held throughout the centuries, the passage must refer to a special individual—the Messiah—who would suffer and die as the ultimate sacrifice or atonement.
 The translation used throughout this document is from The Holy Scriptures, by the Jewish Publication Society of America, Copyright ©, 1917, 1945. This version was given to the compiler by his conservative Jewish synagogue for his Bar Mitzvah.
 See, for example, Leviticus 5:6-7, 15-19; 6:6, 17; 7:1-7, 37; 14:12-28; 19:21-22; Numbers 5:6-8, 27.
 For example, it is used four times in Leviticus 16:14-19, referring to the blood that was sprinkled for atonement on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.