Posts Tagged ‘עבד יהוה’

It is impossible to engage the enigmatic figure of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) without the immediate realization that paradox lurks in every syllable. There is no escaping this quality of the Servant figure, and the challenge to a ‘Who is this exactly?’ investigation must be acknowledged from the start. Answers to that particular question may not come easily, they may not come in the singular, and they may not come at all unless the question is reconfigured.

A layer of paradox occurs in the first six verses of Isaiah 49 that is true to the iconic experience of biblical prophets. On the one hand, there is profound divine engagement in their calling to the prophetic vocation, so here in the divine purpose that commissions the Servant into his improbable task.

On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of weariness, inadequacy, and even failure in the prophet’s experience. So here in the case of the Servant of YHWH.

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”  

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NRSV)

The Servant’s prenatal, in vitro calling and naming introduces the passage. This prior description then cedes to the imagery of YHWH’s preparation of the servant, still rendered in the Servant’s voice. Then a promissory note that might seem like just another brick on the road from glory to glory.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:3 (NRSV)

Yet this optimistic anticipation is not borne out, at least in the near term. The progress of the narrative seems trapped in an eddy of perceived insufficiency on the part of the Servant. The emphatically disjunctive ואני אמרתי (‘But I said…’) breaks the hopeful momentum established in the chapter’s first three verses.

The Servant’s complaint is met with divine reassurance that still greater achievements will issue from the Servant’s efforts. Yet this oscillation between divine reassurance on the one hand, self-doubt and exhaustion on the other, will beleaguer the Servant passages or songs for the duration. It is likely that we ought to read the famous passage at the end of chapter 40, with its deployment of יגע (‘to be[come] weary’) and its interaction of exhaustion and divine supply, as cut from the same cloth. This should not surprise us as it is Jacob/Israel who complains there as it is Jacob/Israel that is identified as the Servant of YHWH in most or arguably all of the so-called Servant Songs.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31 (NRSV)

Divine purpose and human experience thus live in uneasy tension and persistent dialogue throughout the Servant passages. In the sea of paradox that is Isaiah’s Servant discourse, this restless antithesis constitutes one undeniable drop.


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