Fredrik Hagglund ( Isaiah 53 in the Light of Homecoming After Exile (Forschungen Zum Alten Testament) ) argues against the common notion that Isaiah 53 is about the atoning suffering of Yahweh’s Servant. The Servant’s suffering is vicarious (i.e., he suffers for the sins of others) but it is not atoning (i.e., it does not expiate sin). But the more he argues, the more convincing he makes the opposing case.
His discussion (ch. 8) of passages using the phrase “bear iniquity” ( nasa’ ‘avon ) is a case in point. Leviticus 10:17 uses the phrase in Moses’ rebuke of the priests who failed to eat the purification offering in the sanctuary. Moses reasons that “God has given it to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement on their behalf before Yahweh.” Hagglund acknowledges that “bear iniquity” “does signify that the guilt is removed” and he concedes that “Aaron’s sons are the principal agents in the rite that removes the people’s sins.” Yet he insists that the sin offering ( hattat ) removes the guilt/iniquity, and says that the passage does not indicate that the priests “carry the guilt in any vicarious way” (86).
The conclusion that the sacrifice rather than the priests bear the iniquity is questionable (see the opposing arguments of N. Kiuchi in Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature Its Meaning and Function (JSOT supplement) and more recently in Leviticus (Apollos Old Testament Commentary)), but even if Hagglund is correct, you still have this argument to death with:
The sin offering removes iniquity. The rite of the sin offering involves the killing of the animal; a live animal cannot be a sin offering. Therefore the animal acts as an atoning substitute, suffering death to remove guilt. And then we note that the Servant is described as a sheep led to slaughter (Isaiah 53:7).
Hagglund denies that the slaughter is a sacrificial one, but that denial is strained. He points out that the phrase in Isaiah 53 (“bear sin”) is normally used of a person who suffers the consequences of his own sin, and argues that the word asham (“guilt offering”) had a sacrificial connotation when Isaiah 53 was written. But in a passage full of vicarious action by the Servant, the phrase “bear sin,” and the comparison of the Servant to a sheep, sacrificial connotations seem to be very much in play. If the phrasing is not precisely what we find in sacrificial texts, it takes some doing to delete a sacrificial reference. The difference in language between Leviticus 10 and Isaiah 53 (“bear sin” v. “bear iniquity”) might be understood to serve the purpose of highlighting the unique character of the Servant’s suffering. When “our” is inserted into the phrase “he bore . . . sin,” the effect is to push in the direction of substitutionary sacrifice and not vicarious suffering only but vicarious atoning suffering.
Similarly, Hagglund argues that Leviticus 16:22, where the scapegoat is sent off to the wilderness “bearing iniquities,” means that the goat “carries away” guilt/iniquity rather than “suffering” (87). Even if we grant that, it remains the case that Isaiah 53 describes the Servant as a scapegoat and it certainly remains the case that the Servant suffers for the people. It’s not a stretch to put these two together to conclude that as scapegoat the Servant suffers to bear the sin of the people. That is, that his suffering is atoning.
Behind these particular complaints is a larger frustration with Hagglund’s method. He is very good at uncovering the hidden echoes of other Scriptures in Isaiah 53, but having let us hear the echo, he immediately insists that the texts are quite distinct. Sure they are. But he fails to reckon with the catalytic effect of putting two texts in the same test tube. When language drawn from the Torah, and from the sacrificial system in particular, is embedded in a text that describes Yahweh’s suffering Servant, we have to reckon on a new product emerging from the chemical reaction.
So maybe the Aaronic priests don’t bear iniquity (though I think they do!); but something new is being said when sin-bearing is ascribed to the Servant. So the scapegoat doesn’t bear sin away by suffering; but when the suffering Servant is described as a scapegoat, the product is clearly a suffering scapegoat, and arguably a scapegoat who bears sin (away) by suffering.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.