Margaret Barker proposes the original setting for the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 53).

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Margaret Barker

Margaret Barker, "The Original Setting of the Fourth Servant Song,", accessed June 12, 2023

Margaret Barker
Margaret Barker
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The servant in the Song has been made the `sm, (Isa.53.10), the reparation offering for damage to

sacred things. Milgrom, in his treatment of this type of offering, shows that it was the cultic

component of the required reparation for damage to the LORD’s property10. It is interesting to note

here that when the Philistines returned the ark, after they too had been smitten with plague, they sent it

with five gold plague tumours (‘pl) and five gold mice as an `sm, a reparation offering to the LORD for

the theft of the ark (1 Sam.6.3).

There are also the two instances of the hiph’il of pg` in the Fourth Song: in 53.6 hpgy` is usually

rendered ‘the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all’ and in 53.12 ypgy` ‘he made intercession for the

transgressors’, which is not a good translation. The verb pg` in both these instances describes the

servant’s role as the one who stands between the sinners and the wrath. ‘The LORD laid on him the

iniquity of us all’ does convey this, but in the last line of the Song, the servant did not make

intercession but rather he interposed himself, as in 59.16 mpgy` ‘the one who intervenes’. The

rewriting of the Korah incident in the Wisdom 18 captures this well. ‘(Aaron) withstood the anger and

put an end to the disaster... he intervened and held back the wrath.... showing that he was thy servant’

(Wisd.18.21,23). It is interesting to observe that holding back the wrath could be recognised as the

sign of the Servant even the end of the second temple period.

From Hezekiah’s own circumstances come several other details in the Song. Hezekiah turned his face

to the wall and the suffering servant ‘hid his face from us’ (rather than the one from whom men hide

their faces, Isa.53.3.). The line ‘He shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days’ (Isa.53.10)-

refers to the fact that Hezekiah lived a further fifteen years, and, since Manasseh was twelve when he

became king, the royal heir must have been born after his father’s recovery from the plague. (2 Kgs

20.6; 2 Kgs 21.1). Josephus 11 had Isaiah say to Hezekiah not only that he would live a further fifteen

years, but also that he would have children. The remnant of the Assyrian army left his kingdom, and

so Hezekiah divided the spoil, an otherwise rather curious line in the Fourth Servant Song (Isa.53.12) .

Later writers do seem to have known an understanding of the Fourth Servant Song that reflects

Hezekiah’s situation. The LXX of the Fourth Song is well known for its difficulties, but it is worth

noting that Isaiah 53.10 usually understood as ‘It was the will of the LORD to bruise him’, became in

the LXX ‘It was the will of the LORD to purify him from the plague’. This is usually explained as an

Aramaism, a confusion of dkh, crush and zkh, purify, and the translator of the LXX somehow chose

the wrong word. But the translator must have had a reason for thinking that this was the sense of the

text, that it was the will of the LORD to remove the plague from the Servant. And if the translator

thought thus, are we in a position to know better? This Servant Song described a man who was

smitten by plague and then recovered, having been the wrath bearer for his people.

The Targum too, presents an understanding of the servant in the Fourth Song very different from the

one we usually assume. In the Targum, the Servant is a triumphant figure who protects his people

from their enemies, one who delivers up to destruction the mighty ones of the people. ‘He was cut off

from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people, they made his grave with the

wicked’ became ‘He shall take away the dominion of the peoples from the land of Israel and the sins

which my people sinned he shall transfer to them. He shall deliver the wicked to Gehinnam’

(T.Isa.53.8-9). This is exactly how the plague on the Assyrian army would have been understood, if

my proposal is correct. Hezekiah took the people’s punishment onto himself, he withstood the wrath,

and then deflected it to their enemies. The king recovered from his ordeal but the enemy did not.

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