The fourth song of the Suffering Servant as it appears in Isa. 53.1-11 is a fascinating text. Here I will attempt to look at the text and introduce few ideas concerning the Suffering Servant and make an intriguing suggestion concerning who is/are being described.Our patriarchal western tradition connects suffering and pain in most cases to women. It is to the woman that God says: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (NRSV, Gen 3.16). In the Icelandic translation of the Bible both from 1912 and 2007 the word “þjáning” is used in both Gen 3.16 and in Isa. 53.3, making an interesting connection between the pains of childbearing and the Suffering Servant. The word “þjáning” is used in few places elsewhere in the OT in the Icelandic Translation, often referring to the suffering of Israel, sometimes as a female, like in Exodus 3.7.
John J. Collins, in his book Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, claims that the top individual candidates for the position of the Suffering Servant are Moses, Cyrus, and the prophet himself. He then goes through all of them and gives the highest mark to the idea of the Suffering Servant as Israel in general (Collins 388).
According to Bruce C. Birch in his book Let the Justice Roll Down it is obvious that the Suffering Servant is Israel (295). Susan Ackerman points out in WBC, that Second Isaiah uses vocabulary which describes Jerusalem/Zion as a woman. I am probably on a weak limb here. However, one might assume that looking at the nation as a woman and describing the nation as suffering for a good cause, is more acceptable in a patriarchal society then a description of a suffering male.
This idea of the suffering woman for the wellbeing of all nations, or for family or even her children is one of the most common images we have of a good or a decent woman, whether we like that image or not.
Of course the main problem with looking at Isaiah 53.1-6 as a description of women’s ongoing suffering in the world is the fact that even though the writer is clearly referring to Jerusalem/Zion which is described as woman, the writer uses a masculine noun to refer to the Suffering Servant, at least in the translation I have looked at. Birch does not look to women, as a substitute for Israel but mentions Daniel L. Smith and talks about Joseph and Daniel as examples of faithfulness in suffering. The suffering of what he calls diaspora heroes is understood to have broad “redemptive meaning” (298). It is also discouraging to see that Susan Ackerman does not makes this connection in her chapter on Isaiah in WBC. Which might indicate that I am way off track. I am also aware of how this text has been used for ages in the Christian tradition.
Having pointed out the fact that that a masculine noun is used, and the fact that the academics I looked at did not even entertain the thought that Second Isaiah is referring in one way or the other to women in general. One might claim that my thought has little substance.
However, I like to state that this understanding of the Suffering Servant as women in general is more common then we might think at first. The idea of suffering as some kind of a privilege of the marginalized appears in Jung Young Lee’s book Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (159-161) an idea that has often been used to explain or even justify male dominance and the oppression of women. Here comes to my mind Lars Von Trier’s film-trilogy, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in The Dark, and Dogville that all deal with the ultimate suffering of women.
If we entertain the thought of the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah being women in general. Then it could be read as the suffering of women atone for the sins of others, in a direct response to the idea that Eve’s actions in the Garden led to the Fall.