Diminishing References and Dr. Brown’s Staggering Mistake – Part 3
This article is a response to Dr. Brown’s most recent contribution to the discussion generated by our debate on the subject of “The Real Jewish Messiah.”
I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Brown for investing time and effort to keep this conversation going. It is only when we keep putting our cards on the table that we can hope to move this conversation to any type of conclusion. Thank you Dr. Brown, and please, as long as you still have cards in your hand, keep on sharing them.
The recent focus of this conversation has moved to two distinct areas; the question of Dr. Brown’s credibility and a discussion about the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Dr. Brown accuses me of raising questions about his credibility as a teacher as an effort on my part to distract attention from the Scriptural issues, specifically as they relate to Isaiah 53. This accusation is false. I raise the question of Dr. Brown’s credibility as a teacher in order to bring the discussion back to the Scriptural issues.
Dr. Brown has publicly painted a stereotype of Orthodox Jews as people who cannot read the Bible for what it says. According to Dr. Brown, Orthodox Jews can only read the Bible through the lens of rabbinic commentary. Dr. Brown contrasts this negative stereotype over and against the Protestant Christian who supposedly reads the Bible plainly and naturally. Furthermore, Dr. Brown speaks of a “spiritual blindness” that prevents the Jew from seeing the truth of the Bible, while implying that the Christian is free of this spiritual malady.
The upshot of these disparaging descriptions of Jewish people is that Christians feel justified in dismissing the Scriptural arguments of the Jew without considering them. After all, hasn’t Dr. Brown assured us that the Jews cannot read the Bible honestly? It is this wholesale dismissal of the Jewish arguments by Churchmen like Dr. Brown that distracts people’s attention from the real Scriptural issues. The Christian presupposition which assumes that the Jewish arguments are meaningless is one of the biggest impediments to a meaningful discussion between Christians and Jews about the Scriptural issues.
It is to counter this contention of Dr. Brown that I highlight his lack of credibility as a teacher. The next time you hear Dr. Brown preaching about the spiritual blindness of the Jew please remember what happened in our debate and in the months that followed. For over a year Dr. Brown failed to realize an obvious Scriptural truth (i.e. the intense focus on national Israel in Isaiah 49 thru 52). Next time you hear Dr. Brown dismissing the Jewish read on Scripture because of the Jew’s supposed inability to read Scripture for what it says please remember that for over a year, Dr. Brown touted a Scriptural argument that turned out to be based on dishonest mathematics without him realizing it.
I believe that all of Dr. Brown’s Scriptural arguments are faulty but I wouldn’t call Dr. Brown’s credibility into question on the basis of my disagreement with his Scriptural interpretations. As long as he still maintains those arguments, he can claim that they are correct and that it is my refutations to his arguments are faulty. But in this case, Dr. Brown presented an argument that was so openly inconsistent with Scriptural reality that no one, not even the most biased fanatic, could defend it. It is on this basis that I call Dr. Brown’s credibility into question.
Let us now move on to the Scriptural issues that stand between us. This conversation is actually a continuation of our debate and of the follow-up articles that we each have written. In order to follow the full scope of this conversation I advise that you watch the debate and read our respective articles.
But for the sake of those who find this too tedious, allow me to summarize the flow of the conversation up until this point. For the sake of clarity, I will only address what has become the direct focus of the conversation in the main body of this article. I hope to address some of the other issues in supplementary notes that will be posted below this article. I will be using Dr. Brown’s terminology (Blumenthal 1, Blumenthal 2, Brown 1 and Brown 2) to refer to our respective articles.
This is a discussion about the role and function of the Messiah described in the Jewish Scriptures. Dr. Brown acknowledges that the Jewish expectation of a monarch who will lead mankind in a glorious era of universal peace and knowledge of God is rooted in the words of the prophets. However, Dr. Brown contends that there is an additional function assigned to the Messiah by the prophets of Scripture. According to Dr. Brown’s read on Scripture, the Messiah is to die as an atoning sacrifice before he is to reign as a glorious king.
In an effort to support this contention, Dr. Brown pointed to Isaiah 53 (52:13-53:12). This passage speaks of a servant of the Lord who suffers for the sins of others and Dr. Brown claims that this servant is the Messiah. My response to Dr. Brown is that this passage refers to the righteous of Israel and not necessarily to the Messiah. This then has become the focus of our discussion; who is Isaiah 53 talking about? Is it the Messiah? Or is it the community of Israel’s righteous?
The fact is that no one is explicitly identified as the Lord’s servant in the book of Isaiah aside from national Israel. This would seem to tell us that the unidentified servant of Isaiah 53 is national Israel. In the first segment of our debate, Dr. Brown presented a textual argument in an effort to prove that the servant of Isaiah 53 is not national Israel but rather, the servant in this chapter (53) is the Messiah. Dr. Brown argued that chapter 49 serves as a pivot in the prophetic unit of Isaiah 40-53. According to Dr. Brown, up until Isaiah 49, the Lord’s servant is primarily national Israel while from 49 onward the servant is the Messiah.
Dr. Brown presented two lines of evidence to support this “pivot argument.” The first line of evidence points to the fact that from 49 onward the word “servant” is used to describe an unidentified individual within the nation (who Dr. Brown believes is the Messiah) and is no longer used in reference to the nation. And the second line of “evidence” proposed by Dr. Brown points to the “fact” that the prophet’s spotlight in chapters 49 thru 53 is, to quote Dr. Brown; “on a person, not a people.”
In the second segment of our debate I responded to the second of these two lines of evidence by pointing out that the calculation that Dr. Brown used to arrive at his conclusion (the spotlight is “on a person, not a people”) is faulty and the prophet’s focus on the nation actually intensifies after the alleged pivot and does not diminish as Dr. Brown had claimed.
When Dr. Brown finally realized that the second line of evidence that he presented for his “pivot argument” actually works against him, Dr. Brown presented a new calculation in an effort to salvage his argument. Dr. Brown argued that while the references to the nation do indeed increase in 49-52 but the references to the individual servant increase at a steeper rate than do the references to the nation. So instead of contrasting an increase (for the individual) versus a decrease (for the nation), Dr. Brown is now contrasting a more pronounced increase (for the individual) versus a less pronounced increase (for the nation).
I responded to this new argument by pointing out that it simply invalid. Since the grand total of references to the nation still outnumber the references to the individual so the primary focus of the prophet is still the nation and not the individual. To paraphrase Dr. Brown’s words; the spotlight of the prophet is on the nation and not on the individual. And according to Dr. Brown’s own argument, it is the primary focus of the prophet (or his “spotlight”) which is going to tells us the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53.
The pronounced increase in references to the individual may perhaps tell us that the prophet has a stronger secondary focus on the individual in these chapters than he does in the previous chapters. But as long as the total references to the nation outnumber the total references to the individual, the primary focus of the prophet is still the nation and not the individual.
Furthermore, if as Dr. Brown argued, that the focus of the prophet in the chapters immediately leading up to Isaiah 53 is to tell us the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53, then we would end up with the nation and not with the individual servant. In the entirety of chapters 51 and 52, the individual servant is not mentioned once while the focus on the nation intensifies dramatically. So if the focus of these specific chapters will determine the identity of the servant of 53 we would have to conclude that the servant is the nation and not the individual.
Yet another line of reasoning that Dr. Brown introduced (Brown 1) in his effort to salvage his “pivot argument” is the distinction between the agent of redemption and the object of redemption. According to Dr. Brown the individual servant is the agent of redemption while the nation is the object of redemption. Dr. Brown goes on to claim that this distinction is highlighted in the chapters preceding Isaiah 53. This, according to Dr. Brown sets the stage for Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 presents the servant as a vehicle of redemption (or so says Dr. Brown) it would then follow that the servant of Isaiah 53 is the individual servant and not the nation.
I responded to this contention by pointing out that while it is true that the nation is primarily the object of redemption, but the nation is also a vehicle bringing about that redemption and that this Scriptural truth is actually emphasized and highlighted in chapters 51 and 52, the chapters that set the stage for Isaiah 53. If we are going to identify the servant of Isaiah 53 by finding the nearest vehicle of redemption described by the prophet, we would conclude that the servant is the nation since the chapters immediately preceding Isaiah 53 explicitly describe the nation as a vehicle of redemption.
This is a brief summary of where the conversation stood before Dr. Brown’s most recent article (Brown 2). In his most recent article, Dr. Brown attempts to maintain his Scriptural position (that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah) and he does so by presenting 28 different lines of reasoning to support his opinion. Instead of addressing each of these arguments directly, I propose that we study the Scriptures together. It is my hope that the light of the truth will dispel the darkness of Dr. Brown’s arguments without attacking them directly. For those readers who are interested, I will expose the faults of Dr. Brown’s arguments as well as some of the overall tactics employed by Dr. Brown in the additional notes following this article.
Dr. Brown ended his article (Brown 2) by encouraging his readers to study Isaiah 40 thru 53 and that is precisely what we shall do.
Isaiah 40 opens with a call to console God’s people. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her, for her time (of exile) is filled and her iniquity has been forgiven, for she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all of her sins” (40:2). The prophet goes on to tell us that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh together will see that the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:5). “Ascend upon a high mountain, O herald of Zion, raise your voice with strength O herald of Jerusalem, raise it, fear not, proclaim to the cities of Judah; behold, your God” (40:9).
How is this a consolation for God’s people? How will the universal revelation of God’s glory comfort the nation that suffered such a harsh exile?
The prophets answered this question when they taught us that the revelation of God’s glory is Israel’s joy. When God is exalted, and it will be God alone that is exalted (Isaiah 2:11), Israel’s hope and prayer is vindicated. This is the goal towards which Israel has been striving for and yearning to see. When this goal is achieved, Israel will be consoled. Isaiah gives expression to Israel’s joy at the time of the revelation of God’s glory; “Behold, this is our God, we hoped to Him that He would save us, this is the Lord to Whom we hoped, we exult and rejoice in His salvation” (25:9). Psalm 97 describes how God’s glory is revealed to all the nations, the worshipers of idols are shamed and Zion rejoices (verses 6, 7, 9). Psalm 102 portrays the universal revelation of God’s glory in Jerusalem and describes this as an answer to Israel’s prayer (verses 16-18). Micah 7 describes Israel yearning in exile for the revelation of God’s glory to the shame of her enemies (verses 8-10). Micah goes on to describe how God will show us wonders as He did when Israel left Egypt upon which Israel’s enemies will be rendered speechless (Micah 7:15-17). It is clear that the Israel that Isaiah is addressing in this section of his book is an Israel that rejoices in the revelation of God’s glory. Despite all of Israel’s sins, there is still an underlying trust in God that is vindicated with the revelation of God’s might. And the joy that Israel experiences when all of mankind sees the revelation of God’s glory is compensation for all of her pain. This is the cause that Israel had been yearning and praying for (Psalm 115:1, 2), and it is for this cause that Israel was willing to spill her blood (Psalm 44:23).
Let us get back to our study of Isaiah. Isaiah continues by describing God’s great power (40:12-26). The prophet is drawing Israel’s attention to God’s power thereby reassuring them that it is God’s might that will ultimately prevail and all other powers will be proven empty.
Isaiah continues by addressing Israel’s despair as the nation languishes in her exile. “Why do you say O Jacob and declare, O Israel; my way is hidden from the Lord and my cause has passed by from my God?” The prophet replies to Israel’s expression of hopelessness by pointing again to the awesome strength of God and how those who hope to God are granted strength and vigor (40:27-31).
In summary we can say that chapter 40 comforts the people of Israel by reassuring them that their hope to God will be vindicated. The prophet articulates this truth by illuminating it from several different angles. The prophet speaks of the scope of God’s might and of His knowledge (verses 6-8, 12-26, 28-29). The prophet emphasizes that it is only God’s strength that will ultimately prevail (verses 3-8, 10). Isaiah describes how God will gather those who hoped to Him (verse 11) and how He grants power to His servants (verse 31). All of this is contrasted over and against the powerlessness of idols (verses 19-20) and the helplessness of the nations who do not trust in God (verses 7, 8, 15, 17, 23, 24, 30). The prophet describes the doubt that the one who trusts in God experiences while waiting for the ultimate vindication and the prophet reassures the servant of God that his trust will indeed be vindicated (verses 1, 2, 27)
The same foundational concept of chapter 40 is repeated throughout the following chapters (41-53) and it is illuminated from the same basic angles that we saw in chapter 40. The prophet speaks of God’s power and His foreknowledge of the future. These are sometimes presented as arguments against those who trust in idols and against those who claim to possess their own foreknowledge of the future. In speaking of God’s power, the prophet refers to God as the Creator of the universe, as the One who moves the events of history for His purpose and as One who destroys His enemies. (41:1-7, 21-29; 42:5, 8-16; 43:7-13, 15-20; 44:6-8, 24-45:8; 45:12, 13, 18, 20-23; 46:4, 8-13; 48:12-15; 50:2, 3; 51:2, 9, 10, 13, 15.)
Isaiah describes the restoration and future glory of God’s servant, the strength and foreknowledge that God grants to His servant and the cosmic ramifications of the servant’s vindication. (41:8-20, 27; 42:1-8; 43:1-6, 10,1 2, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21; 44:1-8, 21-23, 24, 25; 45:4, 13-17, 19,25; 46:3, 13; 48:17; 49:1-26; 51:1-3, 11-52:12.) In this context, the prophet addresses Israel’s sin, explaining that their suffering is a refining process to purge them of their sin and is not a sign of God’s inability to save. (42:18-25; 43:21-28; 48:1-11, 17-21; 50:1.)
And finally, the prophet speaks of the impotence of the idols, the ultimate embarrassment of their worshipers and the consternation of Israel’s enemies. (41:5-7, 11, 12, 15, 16, 23, 24, 25, 28, 29; 42:17; 44:9-20,25; 45:9-11, 16, 20, 24; 46:1, 2, 5-7; 47:1-15; 48:9; 50:9; 51:8).
These themes often overlap and weave together, but the picture is remarkably consistent. God is exalted, those who serve Him partake in that exaltation while those who have opposed Israel and her God are put to shame.
This brings us to chapter 53 (more precisely 52:13). This section opens with the prophet drawing attention, not to the person of the servant as Dr. Brown insists, but rather, the prophet draws attention to the future glory of the servant. This is confirmed by a simple read of the Hebrew and is further confirmed when we realize how the prophet has been filling in the picture of Israel’s future glory in the preceding chapters (40:11, 31; 41:16, 27; 42:16; 43:4-6, 19, 20; 44:1-5, 23, 26, 28; 45:14-17, 25; 46:13; 48:20, 21; 49:10-13, 17-23; 51:3, 11; 52:1, 9-12.)
Verse 52:15 concludes by describing the speechless shock of the leaders of nation when they see God’s might revealed on behalf of Israel. And 53:1 gives expression and articulation to that shock and consternation. The next several verses continue with the words of shame expressed by those who reviled Israel and persecuted her precisely because Israel is God’s servant.
The nations of the world had been thinking that Israel is suffering because Israel is following a corrupt message. Dr. Brown himself confirms this Biblical truth when he tells us that it is our rejection of Jesus that brought all of our suffering upon us (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 1, pg. 107). Our rejection of Jesus is rooted in the core of our message, the testimony with which God entrusted us. If our rejection of Jesus brought us suffering according to Dr. Brown, he would have to believe that our message is corrupt. But now the nations see that Israel’s message is true and they realize that it was their own crooked theology and wicked behavior that caused them to revile the message that Israel was carrying. God had made Israel the target for haters of God throughout history and Israel bore the brunt of the sins of the world.
The fact that it is Israel’s enemies who are shamed by the revelation of God’s strength should come as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to Isaiah’s words in the chapters leading up to this passage. In the preceding chapters, it is those who contend with Israel that are shamed with Israel’s exaltation. (41;11, 12, 15, 16; 44;27; 47:1-18; 49:17, 19, 23, 25, 26; 51:7, 8, 22, 23.) Dr. Brown’s interpretation that has Israel expressing shame at the revelation of God’s glory has no basis in the words of Isaiah.
The confession of the kings of nation concludes in verse 9. From verse 10 until the end of the chapter, it is the prophet speaking, encouraging the servant by pointing to his reward and to his role in God’s plan.
If you are a Christian, I would imagine that you are not used to thinking about Isaiah 53 in this way. I encourage you to try to read the text for what it says, nothing more and nothing less. If you do not believe in replacement theology you would have to accept that the object of consolation in these chapters is the people of Israel. The very people in whom God preserved His covenantal sign of the Sabbath for the past few thousand years (Exodus 31:12-17).
Please pause to digest that truth. Please think about a people whose suffering turns to joy when they hear but one phrase; “your God has reigned” (52:7). Stop to absorb the consolation of Isaiah as he addresses this specific group of people and look to the heart and spirit of his prophetic words.
What challenges did these people face? Who opposed their efforts to remain loyal to the God they encountered at Sinai? And what do their opponents think about them?
If you are familiar with the history of God’s nation you will know that it was the Church and the Mosque that were the greatest obstacles in the path of the Jew who tried to stay loyal to Israel’s covenant with God. If you studied the history of Israel you would have read about her willingness to suffer and die for her message of loyalty to God. It would then follow, that when God consoles His people by telling them that their opponents will be confounded (41:11, 12; 49:25, 26; 51:7, 8, 22, 23; 52;1), He is talking about these theological entities that set themselves up as opponents to the Jew’s loyalty to God.
Imagine if the Jewish loyalty to God is vindicated. Imagine that God intervenes to save Israel from her enemies, those who threaten her physically and those who ridicule her from a theological standpoint. And imagine that heavenly intervention in the form of open stupendous miracles that reverberate to the ends of the earth. And it suddenly becomes clear to all that Israel’s message is true. That every human is called to approach God directly and that every iota of trust in the human heart belongs to the One God to whom the Jewish people were praying and to Him alone.
What will the churchmen then say? How will they feel about their evaluation of Israel’s suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure with them for having rejected Jesus? How will the church theologians react when they realize that Israel’s rejection of Jesus was not her greatest sin but was actually mankind’s greatest blessing? What will they say when they realize that Israel had been carrying God’s true word which they now recognize as the most precious possession of all mankind? (53:4, 5)
Will they not say; “we had seen their suffering as evidence of God’s displeasure with them, but now we see that their suffering is evidence of our own sin”? Will those who ridiculed Israel for rejecting Jesus not say: “we had thought that their loyalty to God without loyalty to Jesus was legalistic and hypocritical but we now recognize that their loyalty to God and to Him alone under the most trying circumstances brought blessing to all of us”?
This is the interpretation of Isaiah 53 that is confirmed when we follow Dr. Brown’s directive of studying the book of Isaiah from chapters 40 thru 53. The revelation of God’s glory described in these chapters brings Israel joy and brings her enemies shame. Dr. Brown’s understanding of the text, which has Israel shamed and her enemies vindicated, runs contrary to everything that the prophet has been trying to teach us.
As it was with the “pivot argument,” we find that Dr. Brown’s own method of Scriptural interpretation confirms the message he is trying to refute. When Dr. Brown puts forth a valid approach to reading the Bible, the message of Israel is confirmed and the message of the Church is refuted. Dr. Brown’s own suggestion, that we read Isaiah 53 in light of the preceding chapters, confirms the very message that Dr. Brown is attempting to reject.
At this point we will address each of Dr. Brown’s 28 arguments exposing their logical incoherence.
1. The “servant” argument.
Dr. Brown had pointed to the fact that the prophet does not use the word “servant” to refer to national Israel in an explicit way from chapter 49 onward. This indicates to Dr. Brown that the servant of chapter 53 is not national Israel.
I responded to this argument by pointing out that the prophet has other words to use to tell us that Israel is God’s servant. In fact, merely two verses before the passage in question, Israel is referred to as the “armor bearers of the Lord” (52:11). There is no question that the prophet wants us to see Israel as an entity working on behalf of God’s purpose as we approach Isaiah 53.
2. The “rate increase” argument.
I responded to this argument above. To summarize; when Dr. Brown realized that his pivot argument works against him he presented this new argument. While acknowledging that the proportion of references to the nation increase in the chapters leading up to chapter 53 (49-52) over and against the preceding chapters (40-48), Dr. Brown still argues that the rate of increase of references to the individual servant increased even more pronouncedly. This then serves as an indicator for Dr. Brown that the servant of 53 is the individual servant and not the nation.
My response to this argument is that as long as the total references to the nation outnumber the total references to the individual servant (and they do, especially in chapters 51 and 52), the primary attention of the prophet is still focused on the nation and not on the individual servant. And it is the primary focus of the prophet in the lead-up chapters (49-52) that will determine the identity of the servant of 53 and not the secondary focus.
3. Dr. Brown’s attempted rebuttal to his own argument, once he realized that it works against his position.
In our debate Dr. Brown argued that in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53, the primary focus of the prophet is the individual servant and not the nation. He pointed to this “fact” as an indicator that the servant of Isaiah 53 is the individual and not the community. When he finally realized that the primary focus of the prophet in chapters 49-52 is still the nation he shifted to a new argument (the “rate increase” argument, see above #2). However, Dr. Brown’s original assumption, that the primary focus of the prophet in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53 will determine the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53 still stands. And this assumption now works against him. In this article (Brown 2) Dr. Brown attempts to address his own argument now that it works against him.
Interestingly, after quoting my words (from Blumenthal 2) in which I point out that his own argument works against him he launches into a peripheral discussion (see below, tactic #2). Only after many pages, towards the end of his article, does Dr. Brown attempt to answer this question. He argues that the prophets always spoke about Israel, there is nothing unusual about this and that the prophetic focus on Israel is to be expected. But what is unusual about chapters 49-53 is that there is an unusual focus on the individual servant. So now, it is the “unusual focus” in the chapters preceding Isaiah 53 that will determine the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53.
It is interesting to note that Dr. Brown didn’t discover this Scriptural principal (that the prophets always spoke about Israel) until his diminishing references argument turned out to be faulty. It is also interesting to note, that as it has happened before, this new argument that Dr. Brown proposes, works against him as well. In chapters 51 and 52, there is not one mention of the individual servant. Instead there is an unusual focus on Israel’s righteousness, a theme rarely spoken of in Scripture and on Israel’s active role in God’s plan. If the “unusual focus” in the chapters leading up to 53 is going to determine the identity of the servant we end up with Israel and not with the individual servant.
4. The call to “behold the servant.”
Dr. Brown reads Isaiah 52:13 as a call to national Israel to direct her attention to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. This would then indicate that the servant is not national Israel, but is rather an entity with its own identity, apart from the nation.
The fact is that the original Hebrew of the verse in question (52:13) calls upon the audience to behold the future success and exaltation of the servant. It does not call upon the audience to behold the person of the servant. The person of the servant is the same audience that the prophet is addressing as confirmed by the direct words “upon you” in verse 52:14. Throughout the preceding chapters of his book, Isaiah calls upon Israel to view the future blessing of the nation.
5. The “My Nation” argument.
Dr. Brown contends that the Hebrew word for “my nation” (53:8) should identify the speakers of Isaiah 53. According to Dr. Brown, the word “my nation” throughout the book of Isaiah invariably refers to Israel, so Israel would have to be the speaker of Isaiah 53 and not the kings of nations as I argued in my article.
First, it should be noted that Dr. Brown failed to realize that “my nation” of Isaiah 19:25 refers to Egypt and not Israel, so his claim about the usage of this word “throughout Isaiah” is false. And second; the foundation of Dr. Brown’s argument is invalid. The assumption that a given pronoun (”my”) must have the same meaning throughout one of the Biblical books is simply not true. The same exact Hebrew word for “my nation” appears 16 times in the book of Exodus. In 15 cases, the word is used as a reference to Israel while in 1 case it refers to Egypt (12:31). (When we consider every construct of the word we get 16 for Israel and 3 for Egypt.) The Scriptural context is supposed to determine the meaning of these words and these words, being as vague as they are, will not determine the meaning of the context.
6. Who needs Messiah?
Dr. Brown argues that according to my interpretation of Scripture which assigns an active role to Israel in the redemption process, there is no need for a Messiah.
I explained the Messiah’s role in the opening segment of our video debate. The Messiah is a monarch whose role is to rule, to judge and to lead. Like David before him, the Messiah will lead mankind by highlighting his own utter helplessness before God. This is consistently confirmed by the Scriptures that describe the Messiah according to everyone’s interpretation.
7. What happened to the Messiah in Isaiah 40-53?
Dr. Brown argues that according to my interpretation, the prophet’s failure to mention the Messiah would be uncharacteristic of a prophetic segment that focuses on Israel’s redemption.
In response I would point out that Dr. Brown himself tells us that references to the Messiah can be found “once in fifteen or twenty chapters.” In the closing 27 chapters of the book of Isaiah my interpretation sees 3 references to the Messiah (42:1-4; 55:3, 4; and 59:20). According to Dr. Brown’s own Biblical standard, this is the percentage that we should expect.
8. Dr. Brown’s attempt to respond to my contention that his “sinless” argument is rooted in Christian theology.
Dr. Brown had put forth the claim that the prophet contrasts the sinfulness of national Israel over and against the “righteous guiltless” nature of the individual servant. My response to this claim was that nowhere does the prophet say that the individual servant is “sinless.” It is Dr. Brown’s theological read on Isaiah 53 which brings him to this conclusion and not the plain meaning of the text.
Dr. Brown responds by telling us that he never said that the servant is “sinless” although he believes this to be true (see arguments # 13 and # 14 below). The word he used was “guiltless” which he explains as undeserved suffering, or to use Dr. Brown’s words; “entirely vicarious.”
The text, however, does not say “entirely vicarious” either. The text does say that the servant bore the sins of the onlookers, but this does not necessarily mean that the suffering is “entirely vicarious.” Israel suffers for its own sins, and this suffering expiates her own sins (Isaiah 40:2; see also Psalm 25:18). Her own suffering and God’s mercy purge Israel’s sins but this does not mean that Israel’s suffering serves no other purpose in God’s plan. Aside from expiating her own sin, Israel’s suffering also brings God’s blessing to the world (see below # 10).
The prophet’s focus is not on the innocence of the servant, because the servant is not innocent. The prophet speaks of the sins of the nations which led them to stand in Israel’s way as she carried the banner of God’s truth through the corridors of time.
9. The arm of the Lord.
Dr. Brown claims that the revelation of the arm of the Lord describes in Isaiah 53:1 is the person of the servant. In Dr. Brown’s words, “he is the arm of the Lord personified.”
The text openly refutes this strange interpretation and a study of Scripture, especially the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53, refutes this interpretation. The text tells us that the arm of the Lord is revealed “upon” the servant (this word can also be translated as; “on behalf” of the servant). The kings of nations are shocked to see who it is that God is moving to save. It is clear that the arm of the Lord is an entity that is separate from the servant.
Furthermore, Dr. Brown acknowledges that every other mention of the arm of the Lord in Scripture has God acting with strength to save Israel from her enemies. We have two explicit references to the arm of the Lord working on behalf of Israel in chapters 51 and 52 (51:9 and 52:10). On what basis should we accept Dr. Brown’s interpretation which sees this “arm of the Lord” (of 53) as something different than the “arm of the Lord” mentioned in the previous chapters? Why is Dr. Brown not heeding his own advice which calls us to interpret Isaiah 53 in light of the chapters that precede it?
10. How does Israel’s suffering bring healing to the nations?
Dr. Brown challenges the interpretation which has Israel as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. According to the prophets, those who persecuted Israel will be punished by God. How then can Israel be the suffering servant if the servant is described as bringing healing through his suffering?
In response to this challenge, I suggest that we look to the passages that precede Isaiah 53. Chapter 52 alludes to Israel’s role as a priestly nation (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 61:6). Jerusalem is called upon to wear her garments of glory (52:10 just as the priests are called upon to adorn themselves with garments of glory (Exodus 28:40). Holiness and purity, the qualities associated with priesthood, are associated with Israel (52:1,11). And Israel is described as the bearers of God’s vessels (52:11), the work of the priests and Levites (Numbers 10:21; Joshua 3:8).
The priests are charged with the responsibility of safeguarding God’s presence in the midst of the nation (Numbers 18:1). The sanctuary was a blessing for all of Israel and it should have been the responsibility of the nation as a whole to uphold and preserve the purity and the sanctity of the Temple. But God placed the responsibility in the hands of the priests and they had to bear the brunt of the punishment associated with this weighty task (Numbers 4:17-20; 18:1).
So it is with Israel. Israel carries the blessing of God’s message throughout the corridors of history. This message is the blessing of all mankind and all of mankind should share the responsibility of carrying this holy message, but God placed this responsibility squarely in Israel’s hands. Carrying this message is a weighty and dangerous responsibility. Those entrusted with the message are more quickly punished for the slightest deviation just as the Levites who carried the holy vessels of the tabernacle were punished for the slightest deviation. And those who are entrusted with God’s message must suffer the hatred and persecution of those who oppose God’s message. This burden should have been shared by all of mankind. But Israel carried it alone. Israel’s suffering is the price of carrying God’s message and they pay this price not only for themselves, but for the world at large. This is how Israel’s suffering brings healing to the nations of the world.
This concept brings us one step further. Israel has been carrying a message of faith in One God to the exclusion of all else. The price of carrying this message was the persecution and ridicule of the nations that surrounded them. And it was Israel staunch loyalty to this message, to the word of God, that slowly but surely helped the nations see through some of their errors. Israel’s loyalty to One God and to the truth of His word had a civilizing effect on the nations that persecuted them. In this sense too, did Israel’s suffering bring healing to the nations.
11. Ezekiel 39:23, 24.
Ezekiel prophesied that when God’s glory is ultimately revealed, the nations will then know that Israel was exiled for her sins. Dr. Brown argues that this prophecy of Ezekiel tells us that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot be Israel. In the case of Israel, the nations realize that she had been suffering for her own sins, while in the case of the servant of Isaiah 53, the onlookers realize that he had been suffering for their sins.
I responded to this argument in the opening segment of our video debate. I explained that the two prophecies complement each other. The nations had been thinking that Israel is suffering because the God that Israel believes in is powerless, and that the message that Israel carries is corrupt. This thought-process of Israel’s enemies is described by the prophets (Joel 2:17; Micah 7:7-10; Psalm 42:4, 11; 79:10; 115:2). Isaiah describes how the nations come to realize that it was their own message that was corrupt and that it was their own sinfulness that brought them to persecute Israel. While Ezekiel illuminates this same truth from another angle and he tells us that the nations will realize that it was Israel’s behavior that removed God’s protection from them and it was not because of the inadequacy of the God that they trusted in.
In an amazing feat of logical incoherence, Dr. Brown presents an argument that is refuted by the very text that he is quoting. Dr. Brown argues that the nations presently believe that Israel suffers because of her bad behavior. If this is true, then how will the nations “realize” that Israel is suffering because of their bad behavior? Isn’t this something that they knew all along?
And in an amazing feat of insolence Dr. Brown sarcastically asks; “do the nations of the world believe that we have been exiled for observing the Sabbath or for proclaiming that there is only One God or for believing that He spoke to us at Sinai?”
Dr. Brown is trying to convince us that the nations of the world appreciate Israel’s loyalty to God in these areas.
But Dr. Brown himself is one of the most vocal proponents of the age-old Christian argument that our belief in One God is precisely what causes all of our suffering because it is this belief that moves us to reject Jesus. Oh yes, Dr. Brown argues that our concept of One God is corrupt, but there is no way that he can deny that the nations of the world believe that Israel is suffering because of her message. And as it relates to the Sabbath and to our belief that God spoke to us at Sinai, all Dr. Brown has to do is to read his own books where he ridicules our observance of the Sabbath and our belief that we possess a communiqué from God that was entrusted to us at Sinai (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, volumes 4 and 5, respectively). Did Dr. Brown forget what he wrote in his own books?
12. Who is talking in Isaiah 53:1-9?
Dr. Brown argues that since Israel is being addressed in chapter 52 (and I agree with this), so it is Israel who speaks in chapter 53. If this is the case, then Israel is the one who confesses confusion about the servant and cannot be the servant itself.
Dr. Brown has failed to note the closing verb in 52:15. 52:15 describes the speechless shock of the kings as they contemplate the sudden glory of the servant. The last word in this verse is a verb that describes the contemplation of the kings. This pivotal verb introduces us to the words of these same kings. This literary device has already been employed by Isaiah twice before. In 14:16 and in 45:14 Isaiah gave us a verb which describes an activity of a given group of people (“they shall contemplate,” and “they shall pray,” respectively) and this verb leads into an articulation of that same activity as verbally expressed by those people. The text makes it clear that it is the leaders of nations described in 52:15 that utter the confession of 53:1-9.
13. If the servant did not stray, he must then be sinless.
Dr. Brown attempts to support his claim that the suffering servant is sinless. The prophet has those who are contemplating the sudden glory of the servant declare; “we have all gone astray like sheep” (53:6). This would then indicate that the servant did not stray, this leads Dr. Brown to conclude that the servant must be sinless.
This argument fails when we recognize that the straying described by the prophet is not a reference to personal sin, but rather to a sinful ideology. In the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53 we see how the nations come to realize that their trust in idols was misplaced. It is this “straying like sheep” that those who have reviled the servant now confess.
Furthermore, if the sinlessness of the servant is the point that the prophet is trying to highlight, why then does he focus on the guilt of his persecutors? If the supposed sinlessness of the servant is the most important point of this passage, why did the prophet rely on us to extrapolate the servant’s sinlessness from the sins of his persecutors? Why didn’t he spell out the servant’s sinlessness explicitly?
14. If the servant is a “guilt offering” he must then be spotless.
53:10 tells us that the soul of the servant is to be offered as an “asham,” a guilt offering. Dr. Brown assumes that this is a reference to the guilt offerings described in Leviticus 5. Those animal offerings needed to be free of physical blemish. Dr. Brown extrapolates that in the case of the servant, he would need to be free of spiritual blemish and this brings him to the conclusion that the servant must be sinless.
Dr. Brown’s flight of fancy is not rooted in Scriptural reality. The word “asham” means an offering that acknowledges guilt, not necessarily an animal offering. Numbers 5:8 and 1 Samuel 6:8 use the word “asham” to describe an offering of money or gold. The Hebrew word “asham” simply denotes an offering that acknowledges guilt and the prophet is calling upon the servant to acknowledge his own guilt in order to have God’s purpose succeed through him. The very word in which Dr. Brown sees the servant’s sinlessness is the word that tells us that the servant needs to acknowledge guilt.
15. Isaiah 51:13.
In his effort to establish a contrast between the nation as a whole and the individual servant, Dr. Brown pointed to Isaiah 51:13 (Brown 1). In this verse God rebukes the nation for forgetting Him. Dr. Brown sees this as an indication of Israel’s sinfulness which he contrasts over and against the alleged sinlessness of the individual servant.
I responded to this argument (Blumenthal 2) by pointing out that this passage actually compares national Israel to the individual servant and does not serve to depict them as opposites. The individual servant of 49:4 also expresses hopelessness and despair when he exclaims; “I have said that I have toiled in vain, and I have used up my strength for nothingness and naught.”
Dr. Brown responds (Brown 2) by contrasting the “forgetting of God” attributed to the nation over and against the despair expressed by the individual servant. In Dr. Brown’s eyes, the nation has completely forgotten God, while the individual servant “remains confident.”
But when we follow Dr. Brown’s directive to read these passages in the context of the chapters leading up to this passage we see that the nation’s “forgetting of God,” is not a denial of God’s existence. It is the despair and the fear that Israel experiences when they suffer in exile. This theme is repeated several times in these chapters (40:27; 41:10, 14; 43:1, 5; 44:3 ,8; 45:19; 49:14; 51:7). In a certain sense, the entire thrust of all of these chapters (40-53) is addressing this fear, to console Israel and reassure her that her toil has not been for naught. By putting the same words of despair into the mouth of the individual servant (49:4), the prophetic narrator is creating a parallel between the individual servant and the nation and he is not setting up a contrast.
I went on to point out that the parallel between the nation and the individual servant is further strengthened when we realize that both are encouraged with the cosmic ramification of their mission (49:6 and 51:16, respectively).
Dr. Brown ignored this aspect of my argument in this context, presumably because he will dispute my read on this verse further on in his article (see #21). But Dr. Brown fails to tell the audience that he accepted my read on this verse in all of his previous articles as we shall shortly demonstrate (see # 21).
16. Vehicle of redemption versus object of redemption.
Dr. Brown (Brown 1) attempted to set up a contrast between the individual servant of chapters 49 and 50 who is portrayed as a vehicle of redemption over and against national Israel who is the object of redemption. Since the servant of 53 is a vehicle of redemption, Dr. Brown concludes that this servant must be the individual and not the nation.
I pointed out in response (Blumenthal 2) that chapters 51 and 52 of Isaiah emphasize and highlight Israel’s righteousness and their role in God’s plan. According to Dr. Brown, this is the last thing we should expect to find in these critical chapters leading up to 53. It is clear that the prophet wants us to arrive at chapter 53 with a clear understanding that the nation is a vehicle of redemption and not just the object of redemption.
Dr. Brown responded by telling us that; “Rabbi Blumenthal fails to explain how the prophet can excoriate the nation as wicked throughout the entire book (indeed, the Divine Author does so throughout he Tanakh) if the people are so righteous.”
How is this a response to my argument? And why is this question a challenge to my position? This is a question that needs to be asked by any reader of Scripture. But Dr. Brown’s position has no leg to stand on. According to Dr. Brown, the lead-up to chapter 53 is supposed to highlight the contrast between the righteous individual and the sinful nation, but the Scriptural reality does not cooperate with Dr. Brown’s argument.
17. The individual servant is the “bringer of salvation,” while the nation witnesses God’s salvation.
In his effort to create this contrast between the individual servant and the nation Dr. Brown points to the fact that 49:6 commissions the individual “to be a light to the nation and the bringer of salvation to the ends of the earth.” But when God speaks to the nation, He speaks of His own salvation going forth (51:4-6, 8; 52:10).
However, Dr. Brown failed to notice that the nation is also commissioned to play an active part in God’s plan. 41:15 has Israel as God’s threshing board, actively destroying mountains and hills, which represent God’s enemies. 51:16 has Israel bearing God’s word to plant the heavens and establish the earth. 52:11 describes Israel as God’s armor bearers, hardly an appropriate description for a passive recipient of God’s work. And 60:1-3 commissions Israel to rise and to shine in order to have the nations and kings walk by her light.
Isaiah left us with no doubt in our minds. Israel is not only the object of God’s redemption but she clearly plays an active part in that redemption in a way that parallels the commission of the individual servant of 49:1-6.
18. Isaiah 49:1-9
As part of his effort to establish a contrast between the individual servant and national Israel, Dr. Brown pointed to the explicit individual language of 49:1-9 (Brown 1).
I responded to this argument by demonstrating that the metaphors that the prophet uses to describe the individual servant are similar to the metaphors used to describe the nation (being called from the womb, and created to be God’s servant). The point I was making is that the prophet is not setting up a contrast between the nation and the individual servant, instead, the prophet is creating parallels between them.
It seems that Dr. Brown has misunderstood my point and he accuses me of denying the explicit individual language of 49:1-9. He tells his readers that the rabbinic commentaries identify the servant of 49:1-9 as the prophet within the nation and not the nation as a whole (Brown 2).
Fact of the matter is that I affirm that 49:1-9 is a reference to the individual prophet within the nation and I was not trying to deny this. I was simply demonstrating that this individual prophet is described with similar metaphors that the author used to describe the nation.
The reason I believe that Isaiah 49:1-9 refers to the prophet is not because of the usage of singular language. Isaiah 41:8-16 gives us 9 continuous verses in which national Israel is addressed in the singular. And all of chapter 60 (22 verses) addresses national Israel in the singular. The prophets speak of nations in the singular. This is not the textual indicator that tells us that Isaiah 49:1-9 is talking about Isaiah.
The reason I believe that 49:16 refers to the prophet is because the prophet speaks about himself in the first person and because the mission ascribed to the servant in these verses is the mission of Isaiah himself. Isaiah had been commissioned to call Israel back to God in the days of Ahaz and Hezekiah. Although the people returned to God in the days of Hezekiah, but Isaiah foresaw that this repentance was temporary and Israel would sink back into sin. He felt that his mission was a failure. But God reassured His prophet that he would yet be the herald for the ultimate restoration of all mankind to God. And we see this prophecy being fulfilled in our day. Of all of the prophets who ever lived it is Isaiah’s words that are most often quoted when men want to refer to the ultimate redemption. It is Isaiah’s words that are written on the side of the U.N. building, expressing mankind’s hope for a future of peace. And it is the prophecies of Isaiah that most clearly articulate the glory of the Messianic era.
19. Redeemer or redeemed?
Dr. Brown calls on his readers to read Isaiah 40 thru 53 and ask themselves if Israel is the redeemed or the redeemer. He encourages his readers to then ask the same question about the individual servant. Dr. Brown is again trying to emphasize the contrast between the nation and the individual servant.
Again, I never made the claim that the nation is not the object of redemption. What I did say is that the nation also plays an active role in the redemption process and that this truth is highlighted in the very chapters where Dr. Brown would want to see them downplayed. According to Dr. Brown, the chapters immediately preceding Isaiah 53 are supposed to be setting up this stark contrast between redeemer and redeemed but instead we see that in these very chapters, the prophet emphasizes Israel’s active role in the redemption process.
Furthermore, Dr. Brown has failed to note that the individual servant, like national Israel also looks forward to God’s help, salvation and vindication (51:7-9). The individual servant calls on Israel to put their trust in God just as he has done.
All men are helpless without God. This is true of the nation and this is true of the individual servant. And the underlying message of these chapters in Isaiah is that all who hope to God will rejoice with the revelation of God’s glory. All of God’s servants are fused together by the prophet when he declares that those who hoped to God, a description which fits the nation and the individual servant, will not be shamed (49:23).
20. Will repentant Israel play a key role in world redemption at the end of the age?
Dr. Brown answers this question with one word; “absolutely.” But he goes on to say that this was not the focus of Isaiah in these chapters.
Dr. Brown does not tell us exactly what role “repentant Israel” will play in world redemption. And Dr. Brown also does not tell us that Israel’s active role is highlighted in the chapters and verses leading up to Isaiah 53. But there is a larger piece of the puzzle that Dr. Brown is missing.
In the very section of Isaiah (49:10-26) that about which Dr. Brown declared; “there is not the slightest hint that the nation is the agent of redemption” (Brown 1), the prophet explains how Israel serves God’s purpose in an active way even while they are in exile.
Isaiah 49:23 ends with God’s promise that we shall know that; “I am the Lord, and those who put their hopes in Me shall not be shamed.” The entire thrust of these passages (Isaiah 40-53) is that when God’s power is ultimately revealed, the world will then see how those who trusted in God had put their trust in the right place. This is the picture that God desires to set before the world; that every iota of trust belongs to the One God that Israel prays to and to no one else. In order for God to set this picture before the world, He commissioned Israel to trust in Him from the midst of the darkest exile. And when God’s glory is revealed to all, then Israel’s trust in God will be vindicated. This is how Israel participates in an active sense in bringing God’s plan of redemption for mankind to fruition.
This is not merely a “repentant Israel” as Dr. Brown would have us believe. This is an Israel that languishes in exile for her sins. This is an Israel that holds steadfast to her trust in God despite the persuasions of people like Dr. Brown who would have us put our trust in Jesus. Not a sinless Israel. But an Israel who refuses to bend her heart to anyone but the God she married at Sinai (Isaiah 26:13).
21. Isaiah 51:16.
God addresses Israel in this verse and tells the nation that He has set His word in the nation’s mouth in order to plant the heavens and to establish the earth and to say to Zion; “you are My nation.” Here, Israel, the nation, is being assigned a most active role in God’s plan of redemption, in language that parallels the commission of the individual servant. This text refutes Dr. Brown’s contention that the prophet is attempting to set up a contrast between the nation and the individual servant in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53. Here we have, in the most explicit language, God commissioning Israel to do His work on earth.
Dr. Brown responded to my argument by suggesting that this verse may perhaps refer to the prophet or to the Messiah. Dr. Brown bases this suggestion on the closing phrase in this verse which commissions the subject of this verse to speak to Zion. This would then indicate that the subject is not Zion itself.
Dr. Brown does not tell his readers that up until this point he accepted that this verse speaks of Israel. When Dr. Brown counted the verses of these chapters, assigning some to the individual servant and others to the nation, Dr. Brown agreed that this verse refers to the nation. The grammar leading up to this verse leave us with no doubt that it is Israel who is being addressed in this verse. It is only now, that Dr. Brown realizes how the implications of this verse refute his position, that he changes his interpretation of the verse.
The individual servant frees the captives and opens the eyes of the blind, not by dying for their sins as Dr. Brown would have us believe, but by bringing God’s word into the world (49:2; 61:1). It is God’s word that accomplishes His purpose on earth (55:11) and those who are commissioned to declare God’s word to the world are seen as the ones who accomplish God’s purpose on earth (Jeremiah 1:9, 10). While the prophet carries God’s word in a more precise and concentrated way, Israel carries God’s word in a more general sense (Isaiah 51:7; 59:21). And those who carry God’s word are agents to accomplish His purpose here in this world. When that purpose is accomplished, all will see that Zion was God’s nation all along. And in this way, Israel carries God’s word so that it be said to Zion; “you are God’s nation.”
22. Isaiah 51:7
This verse describes Israel as a nation with God’s Law in their collective heart. I pointed out that the prophet identifies this very Law as the light that will come to the nations (51:4). This again, highlights Israel’s active role in God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.
Dr. Brown responded to this argument with his own speculation. Dr. Brown claims that since Israel has been disobedient it will be the Messiah who brings the Law to the nations. Dr. Brown cites 42:4 and 49:6 to support this contention.
These verses do indeed speak of individual servants (the Messiah and the prophet, respectively) bringing God’s word to the world. But in no way do these verse cut Israel out of God’s plan as Dr. Brown would have us believe.
23. Armor Bearers of the Lord.
Isaiah 52:11 describes Israel as the armor bearers of God. I pointed to this verse to demonstrate that the prophet is not downplaying Israel’s active role in God’s plan in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53, instead, Israel’s active role is being emphasized.
Dr. Brown responds to this quotation from Scripture by telling the audience that “the whole focus of chapter 52 is Israel’s redemption from bondage, not Israel’s mission to the world.”
This is a classic example of circular reasoning. According to Dr. Brown, Isaiah 52:11 cannot speak of Israel’s active role in God’s plan because we already “know” that this is not the focus of the chapter. But this is exactly what we are discussing. Is the prophet also speaking of Israel’s active role or not? When I quote a verse that supports my position, Dr. Brown responds by telling us that his conclusion is correct (that the prophet does not discuss Israel’s active role) so the evidence that I brought to undermine his conclusion can be ignored.
24. Does Isaiah 51 and 52 highlight the differences between the individual servant and the nation?
I acknowledged (in a comment on my blog) that the role of the individual servant goes beyond the role of Israel in the process of redemption. However, I pointed out that those differences are not highlighted in chapters 51 and 52, the chapters that set the stage for Isaiah 53.
Dr. Brown responded to my argument with the claim that Isaiah 51 and 52 speak of Israel’s redemption from bondage which he contrasts with the role of the individual servant who is the redeemer from bondage.
This is no response. The individual servant is only a redeemer inasmuch as he bears God’s word (49:2; 61:1). And in these very chapters (51 and 52) Israel is described as the bearer of God’s word 3 times (51:7, 16; 52:11). Hardly the “contrast” that Dr. Brown is looking for.
25. Why is the servant of Isaiah 53 not clearly identified?
In the course of our debate (and in the articles I wrote following the debate) I pointed to the fact that the servant of Isaiah 53 is not clearly identified. This brought me to the conclusion that the identity of the servant is not a critical component of the message that the prophet wants us to walk away with when we read this passage.
Dr. Brown responded by telling us that when the Author of Scripture tells us to look at a particular individual and goes into great effort to describe that individual, we should take this seriously and try to determine who this individual is.
It would seem that Dr. Brown did not feel the weight of my argument. According to Dr. Brown, the question of the identity of this servant is one of the most important questions in the universe. So why did the prophet leave this question to our detective work? Why does the prophet fail to identify any of the individual servants, from Isaiah 40 thru Isaiah 53?
It is clear that the prophet felt that his primary message will come across without us knowing with clarity the precise identity of the individual servant. For the primary message of these prophetic passages is that God uplifts, redeems, and vindicates His servants. All of God’s servants are entrusted with His word to one degree or another and all are vindicated when the power of God’s word is revealed. The precise identity of each servant is not foundational to the message of these passages. It might be a worthy endeavor to attempt to uncover the identity of the servant but it is not critical to the core message of the prophet.
26. Isaiah 53 is still convincing people to put their faith in Jesus.
I have responded to this empty contention in a 2007 article entitled “Contra Brown.” To summarize what I have written there I will say that the passage (Isaiah 53) could be divided along the lines of the practical identifying features of the servant and the theology of the servant. When we study the practical identifying features of the servant we see clearly that the servant is not Jesus. It is the theology of the servant that people identify with Jesus and this should come as no surprise. The Church has built its entire theological understanding of Jesus on their misunderstanding of this passage and they have spread their message to the ends of the earth. The immediate association that comes to mind when people hear about someone dying for someone else’s sins is “Jesus.” This tells us nothing about the passage, it only tells us about the success of a 2000 year missionary campaign. Do those people who think of Jesus when they read Isaiah 53 begin with a careful study from Isaiah 40? Do they have a thorough understanding of the theology of Scripture when they think of Jesus?
They do not. If they would have an understanding of the theology of Scripture that harmonizes with their Christian read on this passage they would have shared it with us. After 2000 years, the explanation still falls short.
27. Servant or “co-equal”?
I put forth the argument (Blumenthal 2) that the word “servant” (as in “God’s servant”) is not the word we would use to describe someone who is seen as equal to God.
Dr. Brown responded to this argument by expressing astonishment at my lack of understanding of Christian theology. Although Christians believe that Jesus is divine, but they also believe that he became fully human, praying to his Father (i.e. God) and serving Him during his stay on earth.
Is this an answer? The first quality of a servant of God is the recognition that every iota of one’s existence is but an underserved gift from God. A servant is someone who recognizes his complete helplessness before God and his complete dependence upon God’s grace and mercy. Following someone’s directives, even following them perfectly, does not make you a servant of that someone. Friends and partners can also choose to follow directives of their respective counterparts. A servant is someone who sees himself as belonging, completely and totally to the master that he serves.
Do Christians believe that Jesus gave up his alleged “pre-existence” when he “became human”? How can Christians hear Jesus declare “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) and see him as a servant of God at the same time?
Furthermore, if Dr. Brown wants to argue that Jesus is the individual servant of Isaiah 49 and 50 is Jesus, he would have to reject the trinity. The primary message of the servant to his people is; “look, my trust is in God, put your trust in Him as well” (50:7-10). Who was Jesus’ God? Did Jesus give his heart to Jesus? Did Jesus worship Jesus? If the first person in the Christian god-head was an adequate God for Jesus, then he should be an adequate God for you as well. If Dr. Brown wants to believe that Jesus is that servant of Isaiah 50, he would have to then abandon his belief in the alleged divinity of Jesus.
28. What is the “report” of 53:1?
In the course of the debate (and in Blumenthal 2) I pointed out that in Isaiah 53:1 the prophet speaks of a report that reaches the kings of nations. In 48:20 we are called to spread the report of Jacob’s redemption to the ends of the earth. It would then follow that these two reports are one and the same. Both of these reports have the glory of God and His awesome might announced to the ends of the earth.
Dr. Brown responded to my reasoning with the argument that the two reports are different from one another. In the one (48:20) Israel is redeemed, while in the other (53:1) the focus is on how the servant brings redemption.
This response is refuted by the text. The text (53:10) describes the exaltation of the servant and how his exaltation shocks the kings of nations. The arm of the Lord, which always denotes God’s redemption of Israel, has been revealed on behalf of the servant and the report of this event has reached the ears of the kings. Where does the text say anything about “how the servant brings redemption”? The report that the kings hear is the report of God’s glory revealed on behalf of His servant (40:5; 52:10) and this is the very same report that is described in 48:20.
A Brief Expose of Some of Dr. Brown’s Tactics.
1. Speak half-truths
Dr. Brown makes sweeping statements that are only half true, distorting the audience’s view of reality.
For example; in recapping the error he made in the debate he attempts to minimize the magnitude of his mistake. He had claimed that the spotlight of the prophet in Isaiah 49-52 is on the individual servant and not the nation when the truth is precisely the opposite. Dr. Brown spends several paragraphs discussing this matter without mentioning even once that the total prophetic references to the nation in these chapters outnumber the references to the individual servant. In his summary, Dr. Brown tells us what he should have said in the first segment of the video debate now that he realizes his mistake. He writes that his argument would have been more accurate had he said; “While the prophet speaks more and more about the nation, even more pronouncedly, in fact much more pronouncedly, he focuses on a person within the nation…”
This statement is misleading. One could walk away from this statement thinking that the prophet speaks about the individual within the nation more times than he speaks about the nation. But this is false. Dr. Brown is trying to say that the rate of references increases more pronouncedly for the individual than it does for the nation, but the words he uses to express this are misleading.
2. Conflate, confuse and obfuscate.
When addressing a challenge, Dr. Brown often does what career politicians are known to do. He brings in other, unrelated subjects and he leads the discussion to a different direction. By the time he gets to his answer (if he does), the force and impact of the original question has dissipated in the reader’s mind.
For example; when addressing my response to his “servant argument” (see above, # 1), Dr. Brown discusses arguments #4 and #5. How do these arguments relate to my response? (See also Supplement to Contra Brown, volume 5 # 40.)
3. When your opponent doesn’t conform to the straw-man image you created for him, instead of acknowledging that your presentation of your opponent’s position was inaccurate, declare that your opponent has made a “significant admission.”
For example; in this same discussion about the “servant argument,” Dr. Brown quotes me as acknowledging that the particular word “servant” is not used to describe the nation in chapters 49-52. He trumpets this as a “major admission.” How is this an “admission”? I never claimed otherwise, none of my arguments were rooted in the assumption that the word “servant” is used to refer to the nation in those chapters and nothing I said or did would indicate that I disagree with Dr. Brown on this point. By calling my words an “admission” Dr. Brown is telling the audience that I am conceding a point which weakens my position, when in fact nothing of the sort occurred.
4. Slip in your own assumptions as if they are proven facts.
When presenting Scriptural evidence, Dr. Brown presents his own interpretations, the very interpretation that we are disputing, as if it were a proven fact.
For example; when describing the role of the individual servant of Isaiah 40-53, Dr. Brown tells us that he is; “sent on a mission to liberate and restore captive Israel, to give sight to the blind, to pay for the nation’s sin that it might find acceptance before the Lord.” While all agree that the individual servant is sent to liberate and restore Israel and to give sight to the blind, the concept of “paying for the nation’s sin” is the very concept under discussion. Until Dr. Brown establishes his premise it is dishonest for him to speak of it as if it was part of the Scriptural landscape.
5. Misrepresent your opponent’s position
This one needs no explanation. And as an example I will point to Dr. Brown’s response to my argument that his belief that the servant of Isaiah 53 is sinless is rooted in Christian theology and not the text. In that context Dr. Brown exclaims: “My claim that a Jewish prophet put a great emphasis on the Jewish Messiah is hardly rooted in “Christian theology” (actually the claim is bizarre).”
The claim is indeed bizarre, but I never made that claim. I never said that the Jewish prophets cannot emphasize the Jewish Messiah. I did say that the Jewish prophets never said that the Messiah needs to be sinless, and that statement still remains unchallenged.
6. Use circular reasoning.
For example; in responding to my argument (# 23) where I pointed out that the prophet called Israel; “armor bearers of the Lord,” thereby telling us that Israel is not only the object of redemption but also participates actively in the redemption process. I pointed to this verse to prove that the prophet highlights this active role of Israel in the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53.
Dr. Brown responded to this point by saying; “he (meaning myself) forgets that the whole focus of Isaiah 52 is Israel’s redemption from bondage, not Israel’s mission to the world.” But this is the very point under discussion. Is the prophet also focusing on Israel’s active role? Or is he not? In essence, Dr. Brown is saying that he will dismiss the evidence that would prove my point because he has already concluded that my argument is wrong.
Perhaps Dr. Brown is not using these tactics with conscious foreknowledge, but he is using them. My humble request to Dr. Brown is that whether conscious or subconscious, please try to stay away from these tactics.
Let us now wrap up some loose ends.
Credibility and Responsibility
In my last article (Blumenthal 2) I discussed Dr. Brown’s staggering mistake. I pointed out that in his apology video Dr. Brown gave us to understand that he “didn’t quite get” my refutation to his argument. In Brown 1 he implied that, he did get my refutation but was waiting for me to deliver the precise calculations before conceding the point. I closed my article by asking Dr. Brown to clarify, which is it? Did he not grasp the refutation? Or did he grasp it but was waiting for my precise calculations?
When Dr. Brown published his most recent article (Brown 2) I was hoping to find an answer to my question. Instead, I got more confusion. Towards the opening of the article Dr. Brown states; …he (meaning myself) didn’t make himself sufficiently clear. Once he did (in our subsequent private interaction), I acknowledged his point.” So it would seem that he didn’t get the point.
But at the end of the article he tells us; “But when there was so much ambiguity in how the counting was done (from over 100 to well over 150 to 200), I can hardly be blamed for saying, “I understand the point you are making – that’s quite self-evident – but I need you to give me all your data, because your counting is not clear.”” It would then seem that Dr. Brown understood everything, but was patiently waiting for me to give him my numbers, but all the while he was still defending his argument which he knew to be wrong from the beginning.
The facts are not as Dr. Brown is remembering them. I went through our private e-mails and with Dr. Brown’s permission, I give you the precise quotes, with the respective dates.
“Second, and much more importantly, when I heard/read your answer, I initially thought you were saying there were more references to the nation in 49-53 than in 41-48, which I didn’t buy. My quick check of the data confirmed this to me. (So, yes, I did a count, but only roughly in my head.) Then, subsequently, I realized you were simply saying, “Hey, there are a lot of references to Israel in 49-53, so how can you say the focus is on the individual servant?” But whoever said there were no or few references to the nation in these chapters? My point was there were less references, especially in contrast with the increased references to the individual servant. So, let’s say there are 250 references to the nation in 41-48 and 150 in 49-53, that again would prove my point.
This leaves me with three choices: 1) You’re claiming there were more references to the nation in the latter chapters than the former, in which case one of us is miscounting. 2) You’re still failing to see the force of my argument, because of which you think I’m saying there shouldn’t be 150 references to the nation in the latter chapters. 3) You fully understand my argument and cite the 150 figure simply to distract from the force of it, since you know there are more than 150 references to the nation in the earlier chapters.”
Dr. Brown had written this on November 14 2017
It is clear that at that point in time, Dr. Brown had still not grasped the point of my refutation which was that when judged proportionately, the references to the nation increase in 49-52 over and against 40-48.
And then this from Dr. Brown on November 15 2017
“When I did the final, detailed count last night, I saw that my Israel/Jacob argument was much less effective than initially thought, since it primarily has meaning in light of direct connection to the term servant. As you know, I did not make this argument in my book but picked it up from another author, and having gone through the analysis more carefully, writing down the results, etc., I would not make the argument again. So, my expectation, before writing out the computations, was wrong. On the flip side, the actual shift in focus was even more dramatic than I realized, so my main point was greatly strengthened and I would absolutely use it; my minor support with Israel/Jacob references turns out to be no support at all.”
These words make it clear that even after he understood my refutation, he still did not accept it until he counted the references himself.
After reviewing our communication I realize that I did not stress the point that we need to compare the references in the respective chapters proportionately. It did not occur to me that someone would not realize that. After all, 40-48 includes 9 chapters while 49-52 only includes 4 chapters. There is no honest way to compare the intensity of the references without considering proportion, but this seems to be precisely the point that Dr. Brown missed. Once he realized that he needs to consider the factor of proportion, he did not immediately concede the point, simply because he didn’t trust my count. Which is fair, why should he trust my count? I never expected him to trust my count. Only after he counted himself did he concede the point.
And after everything is said and done, it was his responsibility to do this count before he made his argument and as long he was still standing by his argument this count remained his responsibility and his responsibility alone.
How Was Dr. Brown’s Argument “Strengthened”?
Dr. Brown repeats his assertion that even after his “diminishing references” argument was proven false, his overall argument was “strengthened.” What does he mean by this? Isn’t the contrast between “increase versus decrease” (which is what he originally thought) a greater contrast than “increase at one rate versus increase at a steeper rate”?
I think that even Dr. Brown realizes this. What Dr. Brown means when he says that his argument has been “strengthened,” is that before he did a detailed count of all the references he wasn’t fully aware of the steep rate of increase of references to the individual servant. When he did his final count, and it was our argument that encouraged him to make this count, he realized that the references increase at a steeper rate than he had originally thought.
If this is what we are talking about, then please ask yourself; is the word “strengthened” the appropriate word to describe what happened here? Dr. Brown’s overall argument had been weakened. Because, whichever way you slice it. Had the references to the nation decreased in contrast to an increase of references to the individual servant, as Dr. Brown originally believed, his argument would have been much stronger. The “newly found” facts that; the references to the nation increase and do not decrease, and the fact that the total references to the nation outnumber the references to the individual servant, weakens Dr. Brown argument and does not strengthen it.
It would be more accurate for Dr. Brown to say that the calculations that he was encouraged to make on the basis of our argument showed him that the rate of increase of references to the individual servant was more pronounced than he had originally believed. But I see no way that he can honestly say that our debate “strengthened” his overall argument.
Messiah Son of Joseph
Dr. Brown faults me for not mentioning the concept of Messiah son of Joseph, a Messiah who dies, according to Jewish tradition, in my most recent article (Blumenthal 2).
I will not stand my ground on this argument because I do not see its significance in the overall scheme of things. If I am an irresponsible teacher as Dr. Brown contends, let it be so. I never wanted anyone to accept my arguments on the basis of my authority or reputation. I encourage anyone who studies any of my writings to examine my arguments and accept or reject them on their own merits.
I will however point out that Dr. Brown’s rejection of this tradition (that there is a Messianic figure from the tribe of Joseph) is the rejection of a prophetic word. The closing verses in Obadiah assign an active redemptive role to the tribe of Joseph and speak of a plurality of saviors. Dr. Brown rejected the implication of this passage with the argument; “to point to “saviors” in Obadiah as some sort of scriptural proof for a Messiah son of Joseph is to go far beyond the biblical text. Just look at all “saviors” raised up in Israel’s history, including in Judges. They were hardly Messianic in character.”
Dr. Brown is ignoring Obadiah’s prophetic words. These saviors in Obadiah are assigned the role of judgment which is the role of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:4; 42:3). Furthermore, the prophet explicitly associated these saviors with the establishment of God’s kingdom, a Messianic theme, if there ever was one.
This has been a long read. What has been accomplished and where do we go from here?
To answer these questions let me point out that this conversation has been most fruitful. This unofficial written debate has brought more clarity then any live debate could hope to achieve. We are hammering out the details of our Scriptural disagreement thoroughly and in detail. There is no question that a seeker of truth will gain much clarity about our respective positions by reading this exchange. At this point it is clear that the arguments that Dr. Brown brought to substantiate his position are invalid. Many of them actually work against him. His appeal to such a large number of Scriptural arguments (28) only raised more questions against his position.
Just to remind you, here is a sampling of those questions. If the servant of Isaiah 53 is expiating Israel’s sin, then why does the prophet tell us that Israel’s own suffering expiates her sin (40:2)? If the chapters leading up to Isaiah 53 are supposed to be setting up a contrast between Israel and the individual servant, then why does the prophet fuse them together by using the same word “servant” to describe them as well as using the inclusive description “those who trust in God” (49:23)? If the main focus of the prophet in Isaiah 53 is the innocence of the servant then why does he only explicitly speak of the guilt of the servant’s opponents? And these are just a taste of the textual arguments.
When we open our hearts to the spirit of these chapters (40-53) we see the consolation of Israel and not her shame. It becomes clear that Dr. Brown’s read on Isaiah 53 runs contrary to everything that Isaiah was trying to teach us in these chapters.
Yes, still and all, we are only talking about one minor aspect of what we covered in the debate. We are only talking about the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53, which is really a minor point if we do not also talk about the Christian call for faith in the one they believe to be the servant. But the clarity that has been achieved in this minor point is also shedding light on many of the other issues that stand between us.
I respectfully ask Dr. Brown not to ignore this article as he has done to “Contra Brown” and “The Elephant and the Suit.” Please, Dr. Brown, write a response. I understand that your schedule is packed and you have little time to write. But please recognize the importance of this exchange and devote a little time to it every once in a while. I have patience.
To those of you who are benefitting from this exchange, please take the time to write to Dr. Brown and respectfully ask him to keep this conversation going. After all, it is the truth that will set us free.