Margaret Barker proposes the original setting for the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 53).
Margaret Barker, "The Original Setting of the Fourth Servant Song," margaretbarker.com, accessed June 12, 2023
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.