Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The Messiah

Some time ago I became engaged in a heated debate on a Xian website about the nature and identity of the Messiah. Naturally much of the debate centered around why I denied the Xian claim that Jesus was the Messiah. After a while one of my opponents asked me just what the Jewish messianic expectations were. In response I drafted the following essay. I don't claim any amount of originality as a culled much of it from the knowledge base at the Jews for Judaism website as well as from my own Judaic library. I ran across it while cleaning my harddrive out & thought it was worth sharing again

The Messiah
The word "Messiah" is an English rendering of the Hebrew word משׁיך - Mashiach, which translates literally as "Anointed One". It usually refers to a person initiated into G-d's service by being anointed with oil. (ie Having oil poured on his head). Exodus 29:7, I Kings 1:39, II Kings 9:3). There are many Messiahs in the Bible. Since every King and High Priest was anointed with oil, each may be referred to as "an anointed one" (a Mashiach or a Messiah). For example: "G-d forbid that I [David] should stretch out my hand against the L-rd's Messiah [Saul]..." (I Samuel 26:11. Cf. II Samuel 23:1, Isaiah 45:1, Psalms 20:6). The Hebrew word HaMashiach (lit. the Messiah) describing a future anointed person to come does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Since the Bible makes no explicit reference to the Messiah, it is unlikely that it could be considered the most important concept in the Bible. Indeed, in Jewish thought, the Messianic idea is not the most crucial. However, one of the central themes of Biblical prophecy is the promise of a future age of perfection characterized by universal peace and recognition of G-d. (Isaiah 2:1-4; Zephaniah 3:9; Hosea 2:20-22; Amos 9:13-15; Isaiah 32:15-18, 60:15-18; Micah 4:1-4; Zechariah 8:23, 14:9; Jeremiah 31:33-34). Many of these prophetic passages speak of a descendant of King David who will rule Israel during the age of perfection. (Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5). And since every King is a Messiah, by convention, we refer to this future anointed one as The Messiah. Because his reign will be an historically verifiable reality, self-evident to any person, it won't require belief or faith.

Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet) will reappear before the coming of the Messiah to reconcile fathers with thier children and children with thier fathers. (Malachi 4:5-6)

As mentioned above, the Messiah will be a King of the House of David. He will gather the Jewish people from exile and return them to Israel -"And he shall set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth." (Isaiah 11:12). He will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem - "...and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever and my tabernacle shall be with them.." (Ezekiel 37:26 - 27). He will rule at a time of world-wide peace - "...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Micah 4:3) He will rule at a time when the Jewish people will observe G-d's commandments - "My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow My ordinances and be careful to observe My statutes." (Ezekiel 37:24). And he will rule at a time when all people will come to acknowledge and serve one G-d - "And it shall come to pass that from one new moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before Me, says the L-rd" (Isaiah 66:23)

These expectations are summed up quite well in Ezekiel Chapter 37 verses 24-28:
"And David my servant shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall also fallow My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Yaakov my servant, in which your fathers have dwelt and they shall dwell there, they and their children, and their children's children forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever. Moreover, I will make a covenant of peace with them, it shall be an everlasting covenant with them, which I will give them; and I will multiply them and I will set my sanctuary in the midst of them forevermore. And my tabernacle shallbe with them: and I will be their G-d and they will be my people. Then the nations shall know that I am the L-rd who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary will be in the midst of them forevermore."

The great Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) spelled out the fundamental Jewish concept of the messiah in his monumental work Mishneh Torah:
"The King Messiah will in some future time come, restore the kingdom of David to its former power, build the Temple, bring together the scattered of Israel, and all the ancient laws will again be in force. Sacrifices will be offered, and years of release and Jubilees will be kept as prescribed in the Torah. Whoever does not believe in him, or does not hope for his coming, shows a lack of faith not only in the prophets, but also in the Torah. For the Torah testifies concerning him in the words: 'And the L-rd your God will again bring back your captivity, and show mercy unto you, and again gather you from all the nations...If your outcasts be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the L-rd gather you...and the L-rd will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed...'(Deut. 0:3-5)

You must not imagine that the messiah must prove his messianity by signs and miracles, doing something unexpected, bringing the dead to life, or similar things. The principle thing is this: the statutes and precepts of our Torah remain forever, and nothing can be added to them or taken from them.

If, therefore, a descendant of David earnestly studies the Torah, observes what the written and oral Torah enjoins, causes all Israelites to act similarly, exhorts those who are lax in the performance of the commandments, and fights the wars of the L-rd, he may possibly be the messiah. If he does not succeed, or is killed in war, it is certain that he is not the messiah promised in the Torah. He is like all the other noble and good kings of the House of David who have died, and God only caused him to rise in order to try us thereby, as it is said, `And of the wise some will stumble, and through them the people will be tested, purified, and made white, till the time of the end comes; for there is yet a vision for an appointed time.' (Dan. 11:35).

Also, Jesus the Nazarene, who imagined that he would be messiah and was killed, is alluded to in the book of Daniel, as it is said, `And the sons of the transgressors among thy people will rise, in order to establish a vision, and will stumble' (Dan. 11:14). Can there be a greater stumbling then this? All the prophets said that messiah will be a redeemer and a savior to the Israelites, will bring together their outcasts, and will strengthen their obedience to the Divine precepts, but he (Jesus) caused destruction by the sword to Israel, the dispersion of those left, and their humiliation. He changed the law, and misled many people to worship a being beside God. But the thoughts of the Creator of the universe cannot be understood by any human being, for the ways of men are not His ways, nor their thoughts His thoughts. For all the events connected with Jesus, and with Mohammed that rose after him, served only to pave the way for the King Messiah, who will reform all mankind and lead them to the unanimous service of God, as it is said, 'For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that all may call by the name of God, and serve him unanimously' (Zeph. 3:9).

How can this be done? Almost all people have through them (Jesus and Mohammed) become acquainted with the idea of messiah, with the words of the Torah and the Divine precepts. Through them the knowledge of the Bible spread even unto the remotest islands and unto many nations 'uncircumcised' in heart and uncircumcised in flesh. These nations seek to justify their disobedience to the precepts of the Torah. Some of them say that these precepts are Divine, but are not in force at present, and were never intended to be permanent laws. Others maintain that they must not be taken literally, as they are mere symbols, the meaning of which has already been explained by their 'messiah'. But when the true King Messiah will rise, he will prosper, be high and exalted. All will then at once know that it was falsehood what their fathers have inherited, and that their prophets and their teachers have misled them.

It is not because they desired to have dominion over all lands and nations and be honored by all people, or because they desired to have plenty to eat and drink and other pleasures, that the wise men and the prophets longed for the days of the messiah, but because they would then be at leisure to study the Torah and its teachings without being interrupted by any oppressor, and would thus make themselves worthy of life in the World to Come.

There will not be in those days any famine, war, jealousy, or quarrel, because the good things will be in plenty and even luxuries will be found everywhere. All people will busy themselves with trying to know the L-rd. Therefore, the Israelites will be great sages, knowing things which are at present hidden. They will obtain a knowledge of their Creator as far as possible by human understanding; `For the earth shall be full with the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea.' (Isaiah 11:9). "

- Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim XI - XII.


The background image on this page is a Hebrew translation of the verse from Bob Dylan's song  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), from which the title of this blog is taken. Translation courtesy of Yoram Aharon of Hod-HaSharon's page--found via YudelLine-- which has many Dylan lyrics in Hebrew.