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From Metaphor to Theology

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The Suffering Servant

image of Religion and the Arts

Theological change suffers under the obligation to seem—and the danger of seeming—both consistent with what has come before and genuinely new. Where does the idea of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 come from? Leaving aside those acts of warfare and violence against the innocent, which seem more matters of brute aggression than symbolic atonement, we can find well-acknowledged roots for the doctrine of a suffering servant in the practice of symbolic animal sacrifice and in the figure of the prophet who suffers with, and perhaps for, the people. But there is a third root as well that goes back to the language of the divine attributes and to the ambiguous Hebrew idiom of noseh avon, bearing sin or forgiving sin. If the servant of God bears iniquity, he can be imagined not just to remove sin from the head or shoulders of many but also to carry what he removes; he himself can “bear” it. And when all the people in the Gospel of Matthew call down the blood of Jesus on their heads, they “own” (own up to, but also claim for their own) the rich history of ambiguous responsibility and atonement.

Affiliations: 1: Yale University


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