Thursday, October 15, 2009

1) Messiahship and Messianic personalities in the Tanakh

The term Messiah, Anointed, is known to Jews, Christians, and Muslim. As each of them has his particular understanding of its meaning, it seems appropriate to elucidate its denotation in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, whence it originated.

Christians know only of Jesus as The Messiah (=The Christ, The Anointed), and expect his second coming as the redemption from the world’s confusion and troubles.

Jews focus on King David who is called Messiah of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible, and hope for a “Son of David” as the Redeemer.

Muslim speak, on the one hand, of Rassul Mohammed as the last, and final, one of the prophets – the “Seal of the Prophets” – yet are aware of a passage in the Koran which speaks of Jesus as Messiah; and of another passage which predicts the coming of a Comforter (Ahmed).

In non-Biblical religions, we meet the Hindus who expect an Avatar who would terminate the present Kali Yuga (=Age of Darkness), and would usher mankind into the Satya Yuga (=Age of Truth). And we meet the Parsees (“Zarathustrians”) whose scriptures foretell a re-appearance (“Second Coming”) of Zarathustra who would deliver the peoples of truth from the abyss, and establish righteousness and truth on earth.

While Hindus and Parsees do not apply the term Messiah in connection with their respective hopes, it is yet obvious that there is much in common with the hopes nourished by the three religions which relate to Abraham.

All of us became aware in the recent years that we are one mankind, living in one “global village” – either living together, or perishing together by the means developed by human brains and hands.

What can we in this situation learn from King Cyrus, an extraordinary world leader as well as an unique Biblical figure?

Since he is little known, even ignored, in that latter aspect, let us have a deeper look into the subject.

The Persian King Cyrus, known as Cyrus the Great, is called both Shepherd and Messiah (Anointed) of the Lord in the Book of Prophet Isaiah. It is important to note that the Prophet does not speak here is own mind, rather, he brings the word of the Lord, as follows1:

“Thus says the Lord thy redeemer... that says of Cyrus, he is my Shepherd, and shall perform all my desire: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the Temple, Thy foundation shall be laid. Thus says the Lord to his Messiah [למשיחו], to Cyrus, whose right hand I have beholden..."

We should note that most English translations of the Bible render here the Hebrew word משיח (meshiah, Messiah) as anointed2 , while this word as well as its Greek version Christos (Christ) got in the Western world solely applied to Jesus. At the same time, consequently so-to-speak, those figures who are mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh, so-called OT) as Messiahs, are simply called anointed in the translations.

In our endeavor to understand the intrinsic denotation of the word Messiah, we have first of all to acknowledge that it is a unique and peculiar Hebrew term, and subsequently we have to deduce its basic meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures3. We have to find answers from there to the questions:

>Who is termed Messiah in these Scriptures?

>What were their specific qualities?

>What were the peculiarities which distinguished them from other great personalities known in the Tanakh or in the mundane world?

>What message do these Scriptures want to convey to us in this respect?

Especially mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as Messiahs are:

The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)4

The Kings Saul and David5

King Cyrus

Speaking of Cyrus as Messiah is outstanding and remarkable insofar as

a) the term Messiah as title appears in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) only in connection with the Patriarchs, the Kings Saul and David, and King Cyrus. High Priests, other kings, and prophets who were anointed6, are nowhere called Messiahs. Since a gentile who engages sincerely in Torah, is considered like a High Priest in Jewish thinking, he could well be seen as anointed by the spirit of the Lord speaking through the Torah - which, of course, would not make such a Gentile a Messiah.

b) no non-Jew besides Cyrus was ever called Messiah;

c) Judaism did not acknowledge other personalities as Messiahs although some were called so by their followers (e.g. Jesus in the Gospels, and in the Koran7; Bar-Cokhba by Rabbi Akiba; Shabtai Zvi; and others).

The common denominator for the Messiahs mentioned in a) seems to be their walking in the spirit of the Lord, their acting accordingly, and their success therein:

"The spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord"8.

In general, it is apparently through the act of anointment that this spirit of the Lord comes upon the Anointed9. Explicitly mentioned in this regard are King Saul and King David:

"And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you -Saul- (...'וצלחה עליך רוח-ה ) and you shall prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man".

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him [David] in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David (. אל-דוד.'(תצלח רוח-ה from the day forward."

Although there is no specific mentioning in the Tanakh, we may safely assume that the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who learned from Shem and 'Eber10, were also anointed by them.

Saul was anointed as Messiah by Prophet Samuel, but there is no mentioning in the Scriptures that the Prophet anointed him also as king11. Yet many scholars understand Samuel's word to Saul: "Is it not because the Lord has anointed thee captain over is inheritance"12, not as part of a question as the structure of the whole verse may suggest, but as a positive statement that Saul was indeed anointed ruler. If so, he was anointed directly by the Lord, without the intermission of a prophet or elder, as there is no mentioning whatsoever that Samuel actually performed the act of anointing him. Such a scriptural statement would have quite some bearing in our probing of Cyrus' anointment.

It seems that the sages acknowledged the possibility of such a direct anointment. When Rabbi Aqiba proclaimed Bar-Cokhba as Messiah, he did so although there was no prophet or Elder around who could perform an act of anointment.

In contrast, of David it is said that besides his spiritual anointment he was also anointed as king of Judah, and later on also as king of Israel by the Elders. Thus, David got anointed three times13.

While all these cases may lead to the conclusion that an act of anointing by the hand of a prophet or the Elders is the general rule for recognizing a person as Messiah, the case of Bar-Cokhba shows that this must not necessarily be so in Jewish thinking:

Apparently there is a difference in the respective positions of the Patriarchs, the High Priests, and the kings: the latter officiated also as rulers. The Tanakh hints at this differentiation. There the Patriarchs are called Anointed and the High Priests are spoken of as anointed, while the kings are in addition also mentioned as נגיד [nagid] which means ruler14.

The Kings of Judah after King David received only the anointment to be kings but were not called Messiah15.

Looking back at the chain of relevant events so far, we may say that the Patriarchs referred to as Messiahs in Ps. 105:15 re-introduced monotheism into mankind after Nimrod’s and Babel’s deviation16, and laid the spiritual and ethnical foundation for Israel17

King Saul, anointed by Prophet Samuel, discontinued Israel’s tribalism, and established the Kingship18;

King David, anointed by Prophet Samuel and the Elders of Judah and Israel, defeated the enemies around, secured peace for Israel, founded Zion, and proclaimed foremost in his Psalms the Kingship of the Lord over all mankind19.

These two Kings, Saul and David, introduced the period of the First Temple (which was then actually built by David’s son Solomon). The temple building itself may be seen as the visible and touchable focus of Zion, this term describing the linkage between the people, the land, and the Divine Teaching (Torah).

King Cyrus, then, made Jerusalem’s Divine status legal also in the realm of international politics, and introduced through his activities the period of the Second Temple19.

In fact, he set up a new era in man’s history altogether, as we will see in the following chapters.

From this we may infer that a crucial characteristic of a Messiah is the direct preparation for the Temple and what it stands for, even if these preparations involve wars. What is more, in their officiating as kings and in their preparations for the Temples, they introduced new epochs in the history of mankind. Each one of them brought a special aspect of the Divine into it, something which can be attributed also to the Patriarchs, whence also they were called Messiahs. These criteria certainly distinguish them from saviors or redeemers.

However, the First Temple was actually built by King Solomon who was not called Messiah. Likewise the construction of the Second Temple was actually begun by Sheshbazzar, Zerubabel, and Yehoshua20, neither of whom is called Messiah; nor were Cyrus' successors called Messiah although the actual building of the Temple took place under their reign21.

We may infer that the successful preparation for the building of the Temple and what it stands for, is in respect to the title Messiah more important than its actual building. As said, the Messiahs introduced by their God-related activities new periods in the culture of mankind. In the following chapters we will see what that means in view of Cyrus.

The Jewish Temples are Houses of Peace with other nations, and not houses of war against them. This was true for the First and for the Second Temple, and more so will it be with the Third Temple. That means to say that the Messiahs who introduced the periods of peace symbolized by the Temple, are not merely warriors (as so many other kings of history were). By fighting wars of righteousness against evil forces they prepare the ground for building the Temple spiritually and materially (politically), but apparently it is not their task to actually build it. We may say the Temples were outer expressions and manifestations of a state of mind represented and pursued by these Messiahs. Jewish Temples are the visible and touchable residence for God's Name on earth amidst men prepared by men of His Will.

True, there were kings in history who fought wars and then introduced long periods of peace, however without being called Messiah. An outstanding example is Emperor Ashoka of the 2nd Century BCE who made India a Buddhist country with a long period of peace. We may conclude that he was not given the title of a Messiah as he was neither anointed by a prophet, nor did he prepare for a Temple (in this case, the Second Temple) and the Divine teaching (Torah) it stands for.

This shows us that peace in the meaning of absence of war is not the ultimate goal. It is the guidance of mankind in God's spirit of truth and righteousness which will eventually achieve peace as an expression of God’s glory on earth.

This explains also why Judaism could not recognize Jesus, Bar Cokhba, Shabtai Zvi, etc, as Messiahs: They did not bring about the conditions for restoring the Temple and what it stands for.

For the sake of clarification, we should reflect here briefly on the wide spread expectations of the Coming of the Messiah (or Second coming, in Christian thought). The Rambam formulated he Jewish expectations masterly in the respective passage of his 13 Articles of Faith. It reads:

אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח...

“I believe in complete faith in the coming [of the] Messiah…”

The term ביאת המשיח, coming [of the] Messiah, is grammatically a gerund by intention, that is, it speaks of a readiness or openness of the people(s) in view of his coming; and simultaneously of a permanent presence and readiness of the Messiah to appear and take up rule – inasmuch as the people(s) are truly ready for it. In fact, he is much more waiting for us than we are waiting for him22. Let it here be mentioned for the readers of the Gospels that the latter express the very same idea, at least in their original Greek version23.

In case the teaching of Jesus should ever induce the nations to ready spiritually, theologically and physically for the Third Temple and what it stands for, Judaism would probably have no qualms to recognize him as an anointed who helped preparing the coming of the Messiah, this in spite of all the spiritual and physical sufferings inflicted in his name on his people by Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, Holocaust, etc. The reflections on Cyrus in the following chapters may help clarify the point in question.

Summing up our above findings, we may describe the bearing features of a Messiah-King as follows:

a) He is dyed in the Spirit of the Lord as outlined by Prophet Isaiah, and is subdued to it (in Hebrew, the word Messiah, , משיחderives from the word שחwhich means bent, bowed);

b) in that Spirit, he does not do away with the commandments, nor does he alter them; he rather helps to bring them to their fulfillment and fruition as symbolized by the Temple;

c) he saves the people of Israel from the lowest pits of degradation and lifts them up to their true status. King David saved Israel from the hands of the Philistines who had overpowered King Saul and his state; and King Cyrus saved Israel from its captivity in Babylon, even before the completion of the 70 years forewarned by Prophet Jeremiah24;

d) he prepares for the actual building of the Temple;

e) he introduces by his activity a new period in the history of mankind;

f) apparently two Messiah-Kings cannot function side by side at the same time25;

g) God in his absolute sovereignty can even from the Gentile nations call forth a Messiah;

h) while Cyrus had the full sovereignty of a king, he granted the Jews religious/cultural autonomy.

i) King Cyrus, in addition to the above, was called also "My Shepherd", besides Messiah, as mentioned. In the Holy Scriptures, we find this term nowhere applied to a human being except for Cyrus. A shepherd, by definition, provides for the flock and tries to protect it - that's just what Cyrus did in regard to the Jews, as well as to other peoples.

The above points provide also an answer to our question about the distinctive characteristics between a Messiah, a savior, or a prophet, notwithstanding the fact that there can be overlappings. King David, for instance, can well be seen as a savior, too; and he was definitely also a prophet26. Many of his Psalms contain prophecies, and the Prophets after him from Isaiah to Malachi base upon them. On the other hand, King Cyrus did not speak as a prophet, although his famous edict implies prophetic aspects (as we will see in the following).

Why were the Persian Empire, nor the Second Temple, then not graced by a permanent state of peace although Cyrus and most of his successors endeavored to stride for that Divine righteousness which would bring about lasting peace? In the following, we will have to deal with that question, too.

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