Jesus of Nazareth, the True Israel of God (Part 2): Corporate Solidarity in Isaiah and Numbers

In my previous article, I surveyed some examples of the concept of corporate solidarity in the New Testament — that is, the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus as the true Israel of God. But is the idea of the Messiah having corporate solidarity with Israel a New Testament invention, or is it something that can be traced back to the prophets? It is to this question that I now turn. 

Corporate Solidarity in Isaiah

Isaiah 41:8-10 speaks of the nation of Israel as being God’s servant:

8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

However, in the next chapter the individual referred to as God’s servant is an individual, not the nation of Israel. Here is Isaiah 42:1-7:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

How do we know that the servant in view in this text is an individual, and not a personification of the nation of Israel? The answer lies in the second half of the chapter (verses 18-25), in which God contrasts the righteous servant described in the first part of the chapter, with the unrighteous servant Israel:

18 Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. 21 The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious. 22 But this is a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say, “Restore!” 23 Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come? 24 Who gave up Jacob to the looter, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? 25 So he poured on him the heat of his anger and the might of battle; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart.

As further evidence that the servant spoken of in Isaiah 42:1-7 is an individual rather than national Israel, the servant spoken of is clearly one and the same individual as spoken of in Isaiah 11:1-10, as can be discerned from various literary parallels and the similitude of the servant’s job description, including Isaiah 52:13-53:12; 42:1-9; 11:1-10 and 9:1-7, as well as Zechariah 9:9-11. Examples of such intertextual parallels include the description of the servant’s mouth as being like a sword (Isa 11:4; 49:2); the fact that the servant in all of these texts is given the task of establishing worldwide peace and justice and global dominion upon the earth; the fact that the servant is described as being a “light to the nations” (Isa 42:6; 49:6) or similar language (e.g. Isa 11:10; 52:15); the fact that this individual is tasked with releasing the captives and bringing those sitting in darkness into the light (Isa 9:2; 42:7; Zech 9:11); the fact that the spirit is said to rest upon the servant (Isa 42:1; Isa 11:2); that the servant will be despised and yet kings shall see and arise, and shall shut their mouths because of Him (Isa 49:7; Isa 52:15); and that the servant would be the heir of David (Isa 9:7 and Isa 11:1). These instances of intertextuality ought to be enough to reasonably conclude that the servant spoken of in Isaiah 9, 11, 42, 49, 53 and Zechariah 9 is one and the same figure. This argues forcefully for an interpretation of the servant as being a single individual, not a corporate entity such as the nation of Israel (as many orthodox Jewish interpreters have understood it). But that servant of the Lord is to be a direct descendant of Jesse and King David (Isaiah 11:1 as well as Isaiah 9:7). Surely, an individual is in view here.

There appears, then, to be both continuity and discontinuity between Israel’s Messiah and the nation of Israel. This becomes even more striking in Isaiah 49:1-7:

Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 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. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” 5 And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Notice that in verse 3, the servant is actually given the title of Israel, but then in verse 5, as Dr. Michael Brown observes [1], he is nonetheless distinguished from Israel because He is the one chosen “to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him.” This is also evidently the same servant who is spoken of in Isaiah 42 as well as 11. Verse 7 also suggests that it is the same servant as the one spoken of in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, since the parallel between Isaiah 52:15 and 49:7 is striking.

The Oracles of Balaam

Scholars have also observed the concept of corporate solidarity in other parts of the Hebrew Bible as well, such as in the oracles of Balaam in Numbers 23 & 24 [2] [3]. Balaam’s second oracle is given in Numbers 23:18-24, in which we read,

18 And Balaam took up his discourse and said, “Rise, Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor: 19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? 20 Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. 21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. 22 God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. 23 For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’ 24 Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey and drunk the blood of the slain.”

Attentive readers will notice that verse 22 strikingly parallels Hosea 11:1, alluded to in Matthew 2:13-15 and the subject of our discussion.

We now turn to the third oracle, which is given in Numbers 24:2-9:

And the Spirit of God came upon him, 3 and he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 4 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 5 How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! 6 Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. 7 Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. 8 God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. 9 He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”

Here, Jacob’s king is said to be “higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” The text goes on to say “God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox”, the very same language used to describe the nation of Israel in the previous oracle. Is the antecedent of the “him” in this verse (and by extension the pronouns that follow in the rest of verse 8 and 9) referring to Jacob (who represents the nation of Israel), or is it referring to Jacob’s (and Israel’s) King? The key lies in the next and final oracle, which is recorded in Numbers 24:15-19:

15 And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. 19 And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!”

Notice that the final oracle speaks of the King to come from Jacob’s line, saying that he “shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!” This parallels the previous oracle, which speaks of the one who “shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows.” This is almost certainly speaking of the same character, which entails that the antecedent of the pronouns in Numbers 24:8-9 must be referring to the king to come from Jacob’s line, not to the nation of Israel as a whole. That means that the same expressions that are applied to Israel (Numbers 23:22-24) are also applied to the King to come from Jacob’s line (Numbers 24:8-9). There is therefore a link between the identity of Israel and the identity of that Messianic King to arise from David’s line.

I will now address the question of whether this text is referring to the Messianic King or King David. The Messianic interpretation seems to me to be more likely. For one thing, David never ate up the nations and exercised dominion over the earth, but that is precisely what the Scripture anticipates about the Messiah’s reign (e.g. Zechariah 9:9-11; Zechariah 14; Isaiah 2:1-5; Isaiah 11:1-10, etc etc). Furthermore, the text parallels texts in the Psalms that have been traditionally understood to be Messianic (although defending their Messianic nature is beyond the scope of this article). For example, Psalm 2:7-12, says,

7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This text is interpreted to be a reference to the Messiah in the Jewish Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you”, as it is said, “I will tell of the decree … this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance” (Psalms 2:7–8).

Similarly, the Midrash Tehillim teaches:

R. Jonathan said: “Three persons were bidden, ‘Ask’—Solomon, Ahaz, and the King Messiah. Solomon: ‘Ask what I shall give thee’ (I Kings 3:5). Ahaz: ‘Ask thee a sign’ (Isaiah 7:11). The King Messiah: ‘Ask of Me’, etc. (Psalms 2:8).”

Furthermore, we read in Psalm 110,

The Lord says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your enemies! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. 4 The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” 5 The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. 7 He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.

Finally, Balaam’s oracles also closely parallel another Messianic text, to be found in Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses his sons. In verses 8 and 9, we read,

8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until shiloh comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 

The Messianic interpretation of this text is actually also not a Christian invention. Indeed, it goes at least as far back as the Targum Onkelos (1st century CE), and the text has been interpreted to be referring to the Messiah in most traditional Jewish writings.

In part 3, we will consider how the concept of corporate solidarity relates to the Danielic Son of Man vision and the Old Testament notion of the Messiah as occupying the offices of both priest and king.


[1] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Volume 3: Messianic Prophecy Objections (Baker Books, 2003), p. 43.

[2] Richard M. Davidson, “Corporate Solidarity in the Old Testament,” revised 2 December 2004, accessed 6/26/2020. 

[3] Gregory K. Beale, “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: One More Time.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55:4 (2012): 697-715.

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