Suffering Servant, Liberating God

On Monday, 4 April 2016, I will be presenting a paper to the Christian Studies unit at the Ambrose Research Conference. The particular essay I will be reading was first prepared for my course on hermeneutics last fall (2015), and attempts to situate the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 within the larger biblical portrait of God as liberator of the oppressed. For all those who are curious about my current research interests or who would like to get my thoughts on these important issues, I have included the text of that essay as a blog post. A .pdf copy of the paper, with attached abstract, may be found by clicking here.

The Servant, the Christ, and the Reverberating Exodus: Reading the Suffering Servant within the Biblical Portrait of the Liberating God

In its different permutations according to the needs of, for instance, Black, feminist, or Latin American interpreters, the basic contention of liberation theology is that the God of the Bible is committed to the salvation not just of the spiritual but also of the physical and the social dimensions of human existence.[1] Consequently, God is not a passive observer of worldly events but, rather, actively involves himself in effecting justice on behalf of the oppressed and against their oppressors. For liberationists, moreover, this involvement, which finds its paradigmatic expression in the exodus event (Exod 1-15),[2] is ultimately directed not just against these oppressive actors but also against the imbalanced politico-economic structures that enable and perpetuate their injustice. Especially consonant with the hermeneutics of liberation theology is the Suffering Servant Song of Isa 52:13-53:12, both in its affirmation of a multidimensional salvation and in its later typological interpretation by the emerging church to account for the significance of the Christ event.[3] Framing this passage within the exodus theme it evokes, I contend that the deity active throughout the biblical texts, and whose character is best understood in the life, ministry, and crucifixion of the God-man Jesus, consistently identifies himself with the marginalized in promulgating a program of justice applicable to the physical, and not just spiritual, world.

Although my study benefits from the insights of a range of contextual theologies that I have broadly classified as “liberation theology,” my own reading of the Protestant canon comports best with the views of those whom James Fowler terms “theologians of balance;” namely, advocates of that approach to scripture which accepts the biblical message of liberation as a component of a larger program of divine activity that, crucially, need not be immediately applicable to the concerns of marginalized groups in the contemporary world.[4] This model may be contrasted with the theology of, particularly, James Cone,[5] for whom the value of theology generally, and readings of the Bible particularly, are each determined by their direct utility for the liberation of the North American black community.[6] Conditioning my choice of the former framework is first the concern that drawing too close of an analogous relationship between the biblical accounts and contemporary liberation movements easily leads to reading features of the latter, such as modern class distinctions, back into the context of the former. Thus, however much I might sympathize with Cone’s intentions, it is dangerously anachronistic to portray Jesus’ ministry as against the middle and upper classes of the first century C.E.[7] Second is the need to avoid the apparent reductionism in some of Cone’s assertions, as in, particularly, the hyper-contextualization of his theology when he argues that “Christianity is not alien to Black Power; it is Black Power.”[8]

Despite my preference for Fowler’s second class of liberation theologians, and at the risk of blurring the necessary distinctions between the different frameworks just outlined, the common goal of these various forms of liberationist hermeneutics, which is shared with my own paper, is the desire to deliberately relate the biblical texts to the concerns of those traditionally excluded from mainstream biblical interpretation.[9] By committing to this project, furthermore, it should be noted at the outset that my application of contextual theologies to the reading of the scriptures is not, as some conservative evangelical scholars have unfairly suggested,[10] in opposition to orthodox Christian theology. The theological insights derived from marginalized readings, which I contend are supported by the flow of the biblical account, are best viewed instead as offering a valuable corrective against attempts to atomize God’s salvific actions as only applicable to an individual’s spiritual life.[11]

Within the admittedly broad characterization of liberation theology that I have adopted here, hermeneutical priority falls on the account of Israel’s slavery and exodus from Egypt.[12] Rather than being a neutral narrative, however, liberationist readings of Exod 1-15 see these chapters as a defining instance of divine sanctioned revolution against a hegemonic Egypt and its subjugation of Israel within an oppressive politico-economic system (cf. Num 20:14-16; Deut 26:5b-10).[13] Supporting this reading is the biblical text’s portrayal of Egypt’s domination over Israel, which suggests that it consisted of both physical and cosmological aspects.[14] Evidence for the former is found in the violent slaughtering of Israelite children and the forced labour imposed on the people (Exod 1:9-22), while the latter manifests itself more subtly in, for instance, the Pharaoh’s rejection of the Hebrew deity YHWH in favour of his own authority (Exod 5:1-9). When read against the backdrop of each of these spheres, the ostentatious display of divine power in the ten plagues therefore functions both to force Pharaoh to release Israel, and thus alleviate the latter’s physical suffering, and as a public assault against the pretensions to cosmic authority of the “god” Pharaoh (cf. Exod 7:3-5; 8:19; 11:9-10).[15] Israel’s actual departure from Egypt thus carries social implications. Rather than attempting to benefit the people while leaving intact the imbalanced politico-economic structures that had enabled the Egyptians to commit their injustices (cf. Exod 2:11-15), by removing Israel from Egypt YHWH dispenses with any pretenses of neutrality and definitively rejects the value of these systems for the divine purposes.[16]

YHWH’s identification with Israel in her subjugation and, inversely, his opposition to the oppressors of Egypt is indicative of a larger divine commitment to the economic and political wellbeing of the marginalized that extends into the culmination of the exodus event at the giving of the law and the Israelite conquest of Canaan (cf. Deut 7:17-19; 20:1; Josh 3:14-17).[17] That Israel understood the exodus as expressing the divine identity is confirmed by the pentateuchal documents, which repeatedly reference YHWH in relation to his role in manumitting Israel (e.g. Lev 22:33; 26:13; Num 15:41; Deut 8:14; 29:2).[18] Similarly, each instance of the Decalogue is framed with a preface reminding readers of YHWH’s role in bringing Israel out from Egypt (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6).[19] As Gutierrez rightly notes, however, divine solidarity with the marginalized and consequent commitment to justice is not confined to the exodus event, but is further reflected in YHWH’s vision for the ideal Israelite society. Thus in Deuteronomy, which justifies its various laws through reference to the liberation of Israel from Egypt (Deut 6:20-25), liberationists like Gutierrez point to such regulations as the gleaning laws as denotative of YHWH’s continuing commitment to protecting the most vulnerable amongst the Israelites (Deut 24:19; cf. Lev 23:22).[20]

The prime example of this codification of justice in the Mosaic material is the call for wealth equalization and the manumission of slaves at the Sabbath Year (Deut 15:1-18; cf. Exod 21:2-6; Lev 25). The prescribed generosity associated with this event is itself justified by appeal to YHWH’s own blessing of Israel, while the freeing of slaves is meant as an explicit reflection of YHWH’s redemption of Israel from her slavery in Egypt (Deut 15:15). Besides these ostensive connections with the exodus, Ringe further contends that in evoking Exod 1-15 the Deuteronomist intends to allude to the divine sovereignty demonstrated by this event. Thus, readers are meant to relate the promulgation of the Sabbath Year to the earlier application of divine power against the oppression of Egypt, with that power now being exercised to inaugurate a new social order that codifies the divine concern for the marginalized.[21]

The prophetic critique of Israel that frames the rhetoric of Isa 52:13-53:12 builds on this liberationist message identified in the Pentateuch. Particularly in the language of the pre-exilic prophets, Israel is challenged for her failure to maintain the spirit of her covenantal obligations, namely, to concern herself as YHWH does with the preservation of justice. Informing this critique are the pentateuchal curses, which crucially invert the liberation of the exodus by suggesting that Israelite disobedience of the law is tied to an exodus from the promised land and the renewal of foreign subjugation (Lev 26:27-39; Deut 28:58-68). Thus, Amos 2:6-7 chastises Israel for her failure to uphold the Torah’s commitment to enacting justice on behalf of the poor.[22] Notably, Israel’s disobedience in this regard is then juxtaposed with YHWH’s own activities on behalf of the people when they themselves were under Egyptian oppression (v. 10). The covenant lawsuit of Mic 6:1-8 contrasts YHWH’s liberation of Israel with her confusion over what constitutes the heart of the cultic system: rather than desiring the slaughter of animals, YHWH’s ultimate interest is for his people “to do justice and to love covenant fidelity” (v. 8). Within the larger discourse of Micah, which deliberately echoes the events of the exodus, the failure of the people in this regard is elsewhere tied to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. 4:10; cf. Exod 12:31).[23] Finally, and of special note in light of the Deuteronomic regulations highlighted above, Jeremiah’s prediction of a Babylonian exile lasting 70 years implicitly connects this punitive experience with Judah’s failure to enact the justice of the Sabbath Year (Jer 25:8-14), a reading supported by later Second Temple Jewish interpretations of the exile (Dan 9:2, 24; 2 Chr 36:15-21; cf. Lev 26:27-39).

With its three sections spanning the period from the eighth century B.C.E. through the realization of the threatened destruction of Jerusalem (587/6 B.C.E.) and extending into the return from exile, the Isaiah corpus of which the Suffering Servant Song is a part offers further support for the liberationist proposition that YHWH has an ongoing commitment to the social and economic justice expressed in the Pentateuch. That YHWH’s solidarity with the marginalized lies at the heart of cultic practices is affirmed in the opening of Proto-Isaiah, which, similar to later statements by Jeremiah (7:5-7) and echoing the Deuteronomic gleaning laws, suggests that the quality of Judah’s relationship with YHWH is tied to the former’s activities on behalf of the oppressed, orphaned, and widowed (Isa 1:17; 5:7).[24] The image of YHWH as liberator (גאל) is taken up especially in Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah, consonant with their dating in the exilic and post-exilic periods against the backdrop of the conquest of Judah. Here, the prophetic rhetoric mimics the interface between Pharaoh and YHWH in Exodus, with Deutero-Isaiah challenging the claims of imperial Babylon to having divinely sanctioned authority.[25] Contradicting these pretensions to cosmological power, Deutero-Isaiah contends that YHWH alone is God (44:6) and that as a righteous deity YHWH identifies with oppressed Israel against Babylon (47:1f.; 49:26). This message extends into the later Trito-Isaianic chapters, which similarly reject divine neutrality in the face of injustice, as is evident, for example, in the vision of a militaristic YHWH coming to the aid of Israel in her subjugation and enacting vengeance against those who have oppressed her (59:15-20; cf. Isa 60:14-16).

In light of the very tangible nature of the Jewish exile in Babylon and, later, their experience of the rule of imperial Persia, it does violence to the latter half of Isaiah to confine its liberationist message to merely the spiritual realm. Denotative of the fact that YHWH involves himself at this point in history in promoting the political and social welfare of his people is the Cyrus oracle in 45:1-7, in which a military leader ignorant of the divine purposes is elected to subdue Babylon and the nations as part of YHWH’s plan to benefit the exiled Jews (cf. Deut 7:17-19). Neither the election of Cyrus as liberator nor of Israel as beneficiary of the divine action may, however, be accounted for by any predisposition towards righteous action; rather, this pericope suggests that it is because YHWH identifies with Israel in her oppression that he has come to her aid with Cyrus merely an agent in this liberating scheme (cf. Deut 7:6-8; 9:4-5).[26] This theology of election informs the portrayal of the servant figure in the Isaianic Servant Songs, whose value is principally functional, namely, as an agent of the divine bringing justice to the nations (42:1-4) and freedom for Judah in her captivity (49:5-6).[27] YHWH’s identification with the marginalized exiles in Babylon and, through Cyrus, his challenge to the imperial power structures may each therefore be taken as further confirmation of the liberationist view that YHWH’s justice, continuously enacted throughout the biblical account, eschews neutrality in challenging such oppressive systems.[28]

In the Deutero-Isaianic Suffering Servant Song of Isa 52:13-53:12, the servant figure similarly lacks any individual merit that would empower him to effect justice for oppressed Israel (52:14; 53:2-3). Rather, the servant, as the agent of the divine, identifies with this subjugated people by personally experiencing the profound imbalances of the dominant politico-economic structures and ultimately being executed by the ruling powers in what Deutero-Isaiah portrays as a “perversion of justice” (53:7-9 NRSV). Evoking the cosmic power struggle of both the exodus account and the anti-imperial Cyrus oracle, however, these verses reveal that despite appearances to the contrary YHWH has ordained the servant to redeem the “many” from their sin through the very injustice of the servant’s suffering and death (53:10-12). Although a plausible interpretation of this freedom from sin is as a spiritual liberation, the text, especially when read in light of the biblical affirmation of YHWH’s concern for Israel’s economic and physical wellbeing, cautions against such a reading by noting the servant’s taking on of the physical afflictions faced by oppressed Israel (53:4). In addition to this verse we may look to the final elevation of the servant, in which YHWH blesses this figure with progeny, long life, and the spoils of the imperial powers (53:10, 12). Thus, it seems proper to echo Jürgen Moltmann in concluding that while sin as a spiritual phenomenon and sin as political oppression are likely distinct in this pericope, the Isaianic author suggests that freedom from the former is connected with and, indeed, effects liberation from the latter.[29]

For Christianity generally, both scriptural study and theological inquiry are ultimately focused on the incarnation of Jesus Christ as it is, in turn, framed by the crucifixion event.[30] For liberationists the God-man Jesus, as an antitype of the servant of Isa 52:13-53:12, bears particular significance as the strongest example of God’s identification with, and liberation of, oppressed humanity. Croatto’s typological reading represents a common approach, interpreting Jesus’ ministry in light of the various servant songs taken as a cohesive whole. According to this framework, when Matthew portrays the messianic secret as a fulfillment of Isa 42:1-3, the gospel writer was implicitly applying the connotations of the entirety of the servant’s description in Isaiah to Jesus (Matt 12:15-20).[31] Supporting this argument, we may note that Matthew explicitly portrays Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law as a reflection of the servant’s healing function in Isa 53:4 (Matt 8:14-17). As an extension of the theme of liberation I have traced through the Old Testament, the ministry of the God-man in these respects confirms the divine commitment to engaging directly with those who are suffering in order to bring them physical freedom from their conditions.[32]

Besides these connections, however, the heart of the incarnation for liberation theologians is that in the Son’s putting aside of his claims to divinity (Phil 2:5-8) God fully identifies himself with humanity in its oppression to sin.[33] When viewed as the typological fulfillment of the servant’s own suffering, the crucifixion thus becomes the fullest expression of this identification with the marginalized, as the God-man Jesus personally experiences the oppression of the Roman and Jewish power structures and thereby demonstrates definitively the divine solidarity with the oppressed.[34] While the connotations of this event highlight the ongoing divine commitment to liberation, the New Testament authors draw out further the soteriological implications of Christ’s death in relation to Isaiah’s servant. First Peter 2:21-25, as one extended example, connects with the Suffering Servant Song both the manner of Jesus’ death (his silence in the face of oppression [cf. Isa 53:7]; his lack of sin [cf. Isa 53:9]) and the implications for Christians (healing the believers’ wounds [cf. Isa 53:4-5]; returning Christians to right relationship with God [cf. Isa 53:6]). When read in light of the Old Testament’s assertion that right relationship with YHWH, as I observed in the structuring of the cult and the rhetoric of the prophets, entails the obligation to reflect the divine concern for social justice, Gutierrez is therefore rightly able to connect the crucifixion with the inauguration of a new order in which Christians, freed from the dominion of sin by identifying with Christ in his death and resurrection (Col 2:8-3:17), are now themselves called to act out the divine mission of justice on earth.[35]

For liberationists such as Cone, the commitment to justice that led God to identify with humanity at the exodus and in the incarnation extends into the contemporary world where, in light of persistent racism and violence against the vulnerable, Cone’s Black Theology demands that God now identify himself as black.[36] In light of my analysis, Cone is no doubt correct in asserting that God continues to identify with such oppressed peoples. However, the biblical account resists attempts to force the divine program of justice into a particular schedule: the exodus from Egypt occurred after Israel suffered in slavery for “many days” (Exod 2:23), while in the second century B.C.E. Jewish writers were still speculating on when the exile would end and Israel would be restored (Dan 9). Nevertheless, Cone’s intentions are correct, even if his applications appear more conditioned by the concerns of Black Power than the biblical portrayal of God’s intervention in history. God is committed to liberating the oppressed from the subjugation of their oppressors, as was demonstrated definitively in the crucifixion event. And this liberation, captured in the reverberations of the exodus throughout the scriptures and which was affirmed in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus the Christ, is physical and social as well as being spiritual.


[1] James H. Cone, “Christian Faith and Political Praxis,” in The Challenge of Liberation Theology: A First World Response, ed. Brian Mahan and L. Dale Richesin (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981), 54.

[2] A helpful survey of the use of the exodus motif in liberation theology is found in John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 54–57.

[3] Regarding the former, one of the insights of liberation theologians has been that political conflict was fundamental in shaping the rhetoric of the biblical authors; see Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 31; cf. Elizabeth A. Castelli et al., The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 284.

[4] Cf. the “correspondence of relationships” liberationist hermeneutic outlined by Christopher Rowland and Mark Corner, Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1990), 59–61.

[5] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, The C. Eric Lincoln Series in Black Religion (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970), esp. 17; cf. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 6.

[6] The latter are described as “ideological theologians” (James W. Fowler, “Black Theologies of Liberation: A Structural-Developmental Analysis,” in The Challenge of Liberation Theology: A First World Response, ed. Brian Mahan and L. Dale Richesin [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981], 84–85).

[7] James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 36.

[8] Ibid., 34–38. See also the claim that Black Theology has a higher degree of legitimacy than other North American theologies because of its emphasis on freedom (Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 23–24).

[9] Justo L. Gonzalez and Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching: The Pulpit and the Oppressed, Abingdon Preacher’s Library (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 11, 13.

[10] See the curious juxtaposition of liberation theology with “goddess religion[s]” in John S. Feinberg, “Postmodern Themes from Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, ed. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 216.

[11] Against James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 323–328.

[12] E.g. Ezra Chitando and Masiiwa R. Gunda, “HIV and AIDS, Stigma and Liberation in the Old Testament,” Exchange 36 (2007): 194 n. 35; James H. Cone, “God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account,” Anglican Theological Review 90, no. 4 (2008): 709. For the purposes of this paper I am putting aside the obvious difficulties in dating the Pentateuch and am instead focusing synchronically on their role within the Protestant canon as it currently stands.

[13] Jose Pixley, “Liberation Criticism,” in Methods for Exodus, ed. Thomas B. Dozeman, Methods in Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 146–147.

[14] The cosmological paradigm has been drawn from Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 11–12.

[15] As this statement implies, I cannot accept the thesis that YHWH’s actions are not directed at all towards convincing Pharaoh and the Egyptians of his supremacy, as in John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary 3 (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), 96.

[16] So Norbert F. Lohfink, Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology in the Light of the Bible, trans. Linda M. Maloney and Duane L. Christensen (Berkeley: BIBAL Press, 1987), 39–42.

[17] Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 25–26.

[18] An informative study of the role of the exodus in shaping the Old Testament understanding of God has been prepared by Robin Routledge, “The Exodus and Biblical Theology,” in Reverberations of the Exodus in Scripture, ed. R. Michael Fox (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 188–194.

[19] Note, furthermore, that the second giving of the Decalogue justifies the Sabbath regulation through appeal to the exodus rather than to creation (cf. Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15), suggesting that the former event had greater importance for Israel by this point in her history (Eugene H. Merrill, “The Meaning and Significance of the Exodus Event,” in Reverberations of the Exodus in Scripture, ed. R. Michael Fox [Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2014], 11–12).

[20] Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, 167.

[21] Sharon H. Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 28.

[22] Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, 165–167; Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 45.

[23] So Ralph P. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary 32 (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1984), 40.

[24] Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, 110–111.

[25] Leo G. Perdue and Warren Carter, Israel and Empire: A Postcolonial History of Israel and Early Judaism, ed. Coleman A. Baker (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 73–74.

[26] The same view of election in the calling of Israel generally and, consequently, of the Christian church is accepted by Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 64.

[27] While particularly applicable to Cyrus, this assessment has been extended to the entire book of Isaiah by John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 130.

[28] So Lohfink, Option for the Poor, 67.

[29] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), 319–320; cf. Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, 23–24, 103–104.

[30] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), 19–20; Moltmann, The Crucified God, 204–205; Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), 173–206.

[31] J. Severino Croatto, Exodus: A Hermeneutics of Freedom, trans. Salvator Attanasio (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981), 49.

[32] Ibid., 49–51.

[33] Cone, “Christian Faith and Political Praxis,” 57.

[34] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 230; cf. Cone, “Christian Faith and Political Praxis,” 57.

[35] Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, 85.

[36] Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 120–122.


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