Judaism teaches that Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in the suffering and survival of the nation of Israel, which bore the sins of the Gentile nations. Rashi, the great 11th century French rabbi, and other sages developed this response during the Middle Ages, when Jewish people were often persecuted for not believing in Jesus. This persecution is a blight on history and does not reflect the truth as God intended it to be lived out. It is understandable that some of our great rabbis chose to interpret Isaiah 53 in this way, but this explanation does not reflect the clear teaching found in the text.
Here are a few reasons why this prophecy cannot refer to the nation of Israel:
1. Israel is not an innocent sufferer, as is the individual described in the passage.
Israel as a nation was sinful, as described in the preceding chapters of the Book of Isaiah — especially chapters 1 and 5.
2. Israel is not a silent sufferer, as is the individual described in the passage.
Many excellent arguments have been made to demonstrate that the Jewish people have never been silent sufferers. Even when the Holocaust is used as an illustration of Israel’s suffering without complaint, it can be equally demonstrated that our people had well-organized resistance movements.
3. Israel never died, as did the individual described in the passage.
It is evident that Israel has never died; the nation has continued to maintain a distinct national existence throughout the centuries. Some might say that the nation of Israel died, in a sense, during the Holocaust and therefore the resurrection passage in Isaiah 53:10-12 is fulfilled in the rebirth of the modern State of Israel. But in that case, the passage would have to be interpreted allegorically or symbolically and the language does not warrant this method of interpretation.
4. The text points to the suffering of an individual, not a nation.
This is very clear from the words of the text. One has to really allegorize the words of Isaiah in order to make them apply to the entire nation. In addition, the theme of redemptive suffering in rabbinic tradition is specifically focused on traditions related to the suffering of an individual called Messiah son of Joseph.
5. The nation of Israel is the beneficiary of the Servant’s sacrifice.
In verse eight, the prophet described the one who would suffer as being “cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people to whom the stroke was due.” The Hebrew term translated as “cut off ” refers to the death of the individual and, if taken literally, clearly refers to an individual person dying for the sins of God’s people, the Jewish people.
It is fair to ask the question, “How can Israel be killed on behalf of Israel?” This is impossible. The subject of Isaiah 53 simply cannot be Israel as a nation.
The traditional Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a reference to the nation of Israel is simply not accurate. It is an explanation driven by history, culture and politics — but not by the text.