The Anti-Missionary’s Charge:
The Jewish translation of Isaiah 53:10 is the most accurate. This is the rendering found in Tanakh:
“And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill; if his soul makes itself restitution (acknowledge guilt) he shall see children, he shall prolong his days and God’s purpose shall prosper in his hand.”
The King James Version (KJV) renders the Hebrew in such a way that is implies Jesus and is inaccurate. Isaiah 53:10 KJV:
“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he had put him to grief: when thou shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”
In addition, Jesus never had children so Jesus cannot be referred to in Isaiah 53:10.
The anti-missionary is objecting to the KJV’s rendering of Isaiah 53:10. He points out that the KJV differs from the Jewish rendering found in the Tanakh version. He feels that the KJV is making a deliberate effort to twist the meaning of the verse. He feels that the verse is being distorted so that it will appear to talk about Jesus when, in reality, it does not. Let us take a look at the important phrases and see if the essential meaning of the text is being changed.
- We would agree with the anti-missionary that “crush” is a better translation than “bruise.” This would be a figurative use of the word as in Psalm 143:3, 94:5; Isaiah 3:15; and Proverbs 22:22. “Crush” is also the word of choice in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New International Version (NIV). The Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society (JPS), NASB, and NIV translations have all done a better job than the KJV rendering of this phrase.
- The translation “put him to grief” is probably better and to be preferred than “made him ill” because it communicates the meaning of the phrase. “Chalah” is the word under discussion here. “Chalah” is a word with a fairly broad range of meaning, and, of course, “sick” is the primary thought. The word is in the Hiphil stem here. One of the uses of the Hiphil is in reference to feelings. For example, “hope deferred makes the heart sick,”-grieved. This is a reference to mental anguish in Proverbs 13:12. Isaiah 53:10 KJV reads, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief.” That is “he has made him sick” in the sense of mental anguish. But it could be in a physical sense too, i.e. “he has wounded him.” The KJV seems to be an acceptable rendering of the thought.
- Now let us examine the phrase “an offering for sin.” The word used here is the masculine singular noun “asham.” With few exceptions, this masculine noun denotes “Trespass Offering” or “Guilt Offering” (22 times in Leviticus). The rendering “offering for sin” is acceptable but a little weak. The clear cut rendering as a noun would be best, “Guilt Offering” (as in the NASB and the NIV). The JPS renders the phrase “to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution.” This rendering is also a rather weak rendering of “asham,” although it does get the idea across. The KJV does an acceptable job, but the NIV and the NASB provide the best translation.
Regarding Jesus not fathering children, the entire argument centers around whether the term seed, “zerah” has a metaphorical use or whether it is limited strictly to a literal use in Scripture. If the term can rightfully be viewed in a metaphorical sense then the “seed” of the suffering individual in Isaiah 53:10 can be spiritual descendants or disciples rather than literal offspring. If the term cannot be viewed metaphorically then it is a reference to children born to the suffering individual.
Firstly, let’s consider the context of Isaiah 53:10. The key question to ask is, “How can a dead man who has been sacrificed as a guilt offering (vs. 10), see his literal children and prolong his days?” It is affirmed by scores of respected Jewish commentators that the suffering individual of Isaiah 53:10 actually dies in verses 8-10. (See: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah, Driver and Neubauer, pages lxx-ixxii) The only way this can happen is if the individual is resurrected. So, there is something more going on here than the normal. God is intervening with the miraculous. This immediately should alert us to the possibility that normal, natural course of events may be superseded. The literal offspring of the servant may not be the intended thought. The context supports a metaphorical meaning of the word zerah.
Secondly, let’s explore the range of meaning found in the word “zerah.”
- The word can mean sowing as repeatedly happens each agricultural season (e.g. Gen. 47:24).
- The word often means the actual seed that is planted in the ground. (e.g. Gen. 47:19).
- Zerah occasionally means “semen.” (e.g. Lev. 15:16)
- The term often means offspring. (e.g. Gen. 4:25)
- Finally, is used to identify groups and individuals that are united by a common quality. (e.g. Pr. 11:21)
Already a number of metaphorical uses have made their appearance. It is self-evident that usage number one, sowing, does not mean “literal descendants.”
Under usage number two we discover a figurative or metaphorical usage as well. The idolatry of Judah is likened to seed in Isaiah 17:11. In Psalm 126:6 the fortunes of Zion are likened to seed and sheaves (See also Ezk. 17:5).
Another self-evident metaphorical usage is usage number three where seed means “semen” rather than literal descendants.
Usage number four is the usage the anti-missionary wants to emphasize. Zerah often means literal offspring, but it does not mean that exclusively. This is the fact that the anti-missionary is trying to obscure. One notable aspect of this usage is the fact that the word can refer to future generations (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:46). To quote Dr. Michael L. Brown, from his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Vol. 3, page 84), “In the context of Isaiah 53:10, this would mean that the servant of the Lord would see future generations of his people serving the Lord.” This is a very apt description of the fulfillment of this verse in Jesus.
Finally, the fifth usage is highly metaphorical. One example is Proverbs 11:21. If you take Proverbs 11:21 as strictly meaning “literal descendants” that would mean that the literal descendants of a wicked person are doomed to punishment even if they live a Godly life. Why? Because they are not the children of a righteous man. You would be forced to interpret Proverbs 11:21 as teaching that your punishment or deliverance is decided by your forbears, no matter what your personal righteousness happens to be. Of course that is a ridiculous interpretation that is totally nullified by the lives of righteous individuals whose forbears were wicked. Godly King Hezekiah, the direct descendent of wicked King Ahaz comes to mind, as does Ezekiel 18:20 (Tanakh),
The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.
In contrast, according to Proverbs 11:21, the righteous person will be delivered because he is identified with and united with a group that shares a common quality. In this case he is considered among the descendents of the righteous not because his father is necessarily righteous but because he shares that common quality personally and with all those people who live by God’s standards.
In addition, the metaphorical aspect of zerah is an interpretive tool the sages of old utilized. In his book The Rabbinic Messiah, Tom Huckel points out metaphorical nature of Genesis 3:15. In Genesis 3:15 there will be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and in the Fragmentary Targum of the Pentateuch the woman represents good and the serpent represents evil.
The Sforno, likewise viewed the serpent metaphorically. In his commentary the serpent is the evil inclination. Now, good, evil and the evil inclination are abstract concepts that do not bear children except in a metaphorical sense. Consequently, the rabbis utilize the metaphorical sense in their interpretation. By the way, both renderings of Genesis 3:15 in the Targumim are linked to the coming of the Messiah by the rabbis.
Another metaphorical usage of zerah is linked with Genesis 4:25. There, when Eve stated “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” (Tanakh) the rabbis say she alluded to the Messiah (Jewish Encyclopedia, Internet Edition, Article: Seth). The rabbis say that the word offspring (zerah) is not a reference to Seth, the literal offspring of Eve, but an allusion to the Messiah.
Finally, let me quote Dr. Brown again (page 84),
…the weakness of this argument is seen when we realize that no less a traditional Jewish authority than Sa’adiah Gaon applied Isaiah 53 to Jeremiah the prophet, yet God commanded Jeremiah never to marry or have children (Jer. 16:1) … More recently, Isaiah 53 was applied to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, yet he and his wife were unable to have children.
These two rabbinic applications refute the anti-missionary who states that the servant of the Lord has to bear literal children of his own.
I hope I have established my point. This anti-missionary objection is again baseless. It depends upon an unfamiliarity with Hebrew or lack of access to resources that enable close examination of the statement. Since the term zerah can rightfully be viewed in a metaphorical sense then the “seed” of the suffering individual in Isaiah 53:10 can be spiritual descendants or disciples rather than literal offspring.
In the case of Jesus the unusual did occur. He did offer Himself as a guilt offering. He actually died and was miraculously resurrected. Today He lives, prolonging His days. He sees His disciples, His spiritual offspring, and the will of the Lord does prosper in His hand.
Summary: There is no tampering with the text but simply some stronger or weaker translations into English. The essential meaning of the text is not changed. The texts of Isaiah 52 and 53 are about the Messianic Person. The modern rabbinic position states that the text of Isaiah 52 and 53 speak of the nation of Israel rather than the personal Messiah. However, the ancient rabbis agree with my statement in spite of the modern rabbinic position. The ancient rabbinic position preponderantly sees Isaiah 52 and 53 referring to the personal Messiah. A few examples will suffice to establish this fact.
- Isaiah 52:13 — Targum Jonathan to the Prophets.
- Isaiah 53:4 — Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.
- Isaiah 53:5 — Midrash Rabbah, Ruth V, 6.
Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful.
…What is his [the Messiah’s] name?-“The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come. The School of R. Yannai said: His name is Yinnon, for it is written, His name shall endure forever: e’er the sun was, his name is Yinnon. The School of R. Haninah maintained: His name is Haninah, as it is written, Where I will not give you Haninah. Others say: His name is Menahem the son of Hezekiah, for it is written, Because Menahem [‘the comforter’], that would relieve my soul, is far. The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.”
…The fifth interpretation makes it refer to the Messiah. COME HITHER: approach to royal state. AND EAT OF THE BREAD refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions (Isa. LIII, 5).
Isaiah 52 and 53 describe the Messianic Person. The Messianic Person will be the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice for sin-a “Guilt Offering.” Isaiah 52 and 53 are quoted over and over again in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament). The sections are used because the first-century Jewish Believers in Jesus literally understood the passage in that manner. They saw in Jesus a literal fulfillment of that expectation.
- ^ Brown, Driver, Briggs. Brown-Driver_Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (electronic ed.) Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems.
Vine, Unger, White. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: T. Nelson.
Harris, Archer, Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) Chicago: Moody Press.
- ^ Ibid. Brown, Driver, Briggs.
- ^ Huckel, T. (1998). The Rabbinic Messiah (Is. 52:13). Philadelphia: Hananeel House.