THE SUFFERING MESSIAH IN JEWISH SACRED WRIT
According to the Scriptures and Sages of Israel
By Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen © 2001
Congregation Beth El of Manhattan
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Obviously central to “Two Testament” Judaism, also known as “Messianic Judaism” are the “New Testament” and “Messiah.” While vastly differing levels and manners of Jewish observance and practice exist within these faith-streams, the common threads making them a distinct presence in the Jewish world are:
1. Belief that the b’rit khadasha (new covenant or testament) foretold in the writings of the Jewish prophet Jeremiah (chapter 31, verse 3-37) has already been enacted by G*d in history; and
2. Acceptance of the historical person Yeshua (Jesus ) of Nazareth as the figure Talmudic Sages call, “Messiah son of Joseph, who will be killed.” (Sukkah 52a)
In the absence of our Temple (destroyed two millennia ago, in 70 c.e.), we have no sacrificial system to deal with the justice demanded by our human sins. Without atonement (just punishment for wrongdoing), G*d cannot simply “forgive” sin and remain just. Without blood-sacrifice, there can be no atonement: and without our Temple, there can be no sacrifices, and thus no forgiveness of sin through that means.
Our Hebrew Scriptures are not silent on this subject. In direct context of the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the prophets point concretely to only one method of atonement: faith in the death of Messiah (Daniel 9:25-27, Isaiah 53).
Below are the reasons why we Messianic Jews cannot see an authentic Judaism leading to relationship with the G*d of Israel existing apart from atonement through Yeshua of Nazareth: the foretold suffering, redeeming Messiah our Scriptures and many writings by Chaza”l (our Sages of blessed memory) foretell.
The founder of Judaism that rejects Yeshua of Nazareth as Messiah arrived at his own deathbed spiritually bankrupt: racked with fear over his eternal destiny, and without any security that he had been spiritually on the right path before G*d. [Talmud Bavli: Berachot 28b] That is no way to face eternity.
Let us explore Messiah and his atonement for our sins further in the sacred writings of our people.
I. WHERE AND HOW MESSIAH IS DESCRIBED
Messiah is defined and described authoritatively in Jewish faith by the sacred literature of the Torah, Prophets and Writings comprising the “Tanakh” ;known in some circles as, “the Old Testament.” While commentaries such as the Talmud may amplify our understanding of Messiah, only the Scriptures speak with final authority on Messiah, or any other matter of Jewish faith. (Isaiah 8:20)
II. WHY THE TANAKH DESCRIPTIONS HAVE AUTHORITY
These sacred Scriptures (writings) derive their authority as “the Word of G*d” above mere philosophy or human religious commentary by meeting the demand placed upon their authors in Deuteronomy 18. A speaker of spiritual revelation (“prophet”) had to pass a test no human author could pass: to foretell future events and/or disclose hidden knowledge with perfect accuracy. (Deut. 18)
The Jewish Scriptures were formed across the centuries as differing writers gave religious teaching based on the Torah of Moses. Those teachings had to be consonant with the Torah (Isaiah 8:20), and be confirmed at some point as prophetically accurate so as to pass the Deuteronomy 18 test, as well as being historically accurate on a factual basis.
Instances of such as the forecasts, knowledge or historicity are: the fall of the region of Ephraim in Isaiah chapter 7, or the predictions of the next several hundred years of Middle Eastern political alliances in Daniel chapter 11), the Hubble-expansion of the universe or the spheroid shape of the earth and its gravitational suspension in the void [Isaiah 40:22], or historical matters like the accounts of the reigns of the kings of Israel.
III. TWO MESSIAH PORTRAITS IN SCRIPTURE
In the theology commonly offered our Jewish people in faith-communities outside Messianic Judaism, Messiah is most often portrayed as a triumphal descendant of King David who conquers the world, subdues and alters the natural order, and rules from Jerusalem. This figure is indeed evoked by the Tanakh in segments like Isaiah chapter 11 and elsewhere. The Sages of Israel refer to this Conquering Messiah in the Talmud (a sixty-six volume compendium of rabbinic commentary across the ages) as “Mashiach ben Daveed” (Messiah son of David).
However did you know there is another portrait of Messiah not having gotten equal attention across the years? There is a Messiah predicted in Scripture who will not rule and reign, but be killed?
Did you know Jewish Scripture says Messiah will die?
The fifty-third chapter of the Old Testament Jewish prophet Isaiah (who wrote about 700 years before the common era forecasts the Suffering Messiah with the utmost clarity:
Isa. 53:1 “Who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the L*rd been revealed? 2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he has no form, nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the L*rd hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors
This startling passage of Jewish scripture foretells a Messiah who will be rejected by our nation (see verse 3), suffer for our transgressions (willful sins) and our iniquities (acts erupting from a skewed nature). This Messiah will be killed (see verses 8, 9, 12), and in dying He will bring atonement for sin to us.
Did you know the Talmudic rabbis are quite aware of this suffering Messiah? In Sanhedrin 98b, some of the Talmudic rabbinic Sages of Israel state their belief the above passage from Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah.
“What is the name of the Messiah?” The Rabbis said: His name is ‘Stricken’ as it is written, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.'”[click here to see Hebrew Text from Soncino Edition of Talmud Bavli]
“As it is written?” Written where? Written in Isaiah 53:4. As you can see, the Talmud leaves no doubt Isaiah 53 is seen by our rabbinical Sages as referring to Messiah.
In Sukkah 52a, the Talmudic Sages go on in great detail discussing the two portraits of Messiah [click here to see the Hebrew from the Soncino Talmud for the English passage below]:
What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]? R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination. It is best (Talmudiic halakha favors the interpretation) in accord with him who explains that the cause is the Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son; but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep? Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David who will redeem us in the future (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, he [Messiah son of David] will say to Him [G*d], ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’. ‘As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, even length of days forever and ever.
As you can see, awareness of a Suffering Messiah has long been a facet of authentically Jewish faith-discussion for centuries, right alongside the portrait of the Davidic conquering Messiah more familiar to our people down through the ages.
This fact makes appalling the falsehoods published in the alleged name of ‘Judaism’ stating such an idea is supposedly totally foreign to authoritative Jewish thought, as did Gerald Sigal in his well-known, “A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity,” wherein he states:
“In order to arrive at the theological concepts they desire [agreeing with the Messiahship of Yeshua of Nazareth), missionaries [an intendedly prejudicial reference to Messianic Jews] propose their own radically altered constructions of the meaning of biblical verses. These altered constructions bear no relation to any of the beliefs taught by priest and prophet, the authentic teachers in ancient Israel.” (Sigal, G. p. xv)
As this treatise goes on, you will see for yourself how Sigal’s allegation becomes increasingly clearly untrue in regard to Judaism’s relationship to the Suffering Messiah who will be killed.
The Scriptural passages to which the Rabbis refer above in Sukkah 52 is give us a fascinating glimpse into the kind of long-extant view of Messiah that has become taboo as a Jewish in-house matter over the last seventeen centuries of theopolitical confusion.
IV. WHAT ELSE ABOUT MESSIAH IS NOT COMMONLY KNOWN?
Let us allow the Talmudic Sages to show us facets of Messiah they believed were revealed by the Tanakh. Below is the exact same passage of Talmud quoted above, but below, the color-coded capital letters in brackets denote a passage of Scripture being quoted by the Talmudic rabbis in reference to Messiah.
What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]? R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination. It is well (better founded) in accord with him who explains that the cause is the Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, [A] And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep? Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David who will redeem us in the future (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), [B] ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. [C] this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance.’ (Psalm 2:8) But when he will see Messiah the son of Joseph who was slain, he [Messiah son of David] will say to Him [G*d], ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’. ‘As to life’, He would answer him, [D] ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, ‘He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, even length of days forever and ever.’ (Ps. 21:4) [click here to see the Hebrew from the Soncino Talmud for the English passage above]
What Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) passages are these that the rabbis cited to support their views of Messiah?
A.Zechariah 12:10 a truly amazing passage, in which HaShem (G*d) tells us our nation’s inhabitants in Jerusalem will actually see Him at a certain point and will recognize him as “Me, whom they have pierced” and will, for that reason, “mourn for Him as for an only son.” For us to have pierced Him, He would have to have been here on earth BEFORE the scene described in Zechariah 12. He could not have pierce-marks on Him that we would RECOGNIZE as having been given him by us (humankind) unless there were something recognizable about Him and the pierce-marks on Him. This begs the questioned answered by the following passage:
B. Psalm 21:4 King David speaks of G*d granting him eternal life. The Messiah is accepted in Jewish thought as descending from King David. This reference shows the Talmudic rabbis see BOTH portrayed Messiahs (Suffering and Conquering) having their ancestry in King David.
C. Psalm 2 King David calls the Messiah the “Son of G*d,” and He is foretold as ruling all nations. Thus, Messiah descended from David is declared Son of G*d who will rule the whole earth. The Essenes of Qumran near Jerusalem knew this to be so two thousand years ago. In the recently discovered and published Qumran fragments we find they wrote:
The heavens and earth will obey His Messiah [DSS-4Q521]
He shall be called ‘Bar Elyon’(‘Son of the Most High’) [DSS-4Q246]
There is even an apparent reference to the Head of the Assembly (of Israel) being killed by piercings. [DSS-4Q285] That Qumran text is couched in references to, and quotes of, Isaiah the prophet’s writings that clearly denote the Messiah and his lineage in King David.
Were you aware that Jewish understand of the coming of a suffering, dying Messiah went back this far into Jewish antiquity?
V. WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?
The Messiah is not merely a subject for armchair philosophic conversation. The Messiah bears directly on the issue of atonement: that is, how our sins and the justices due those sins are dealt with by G*d in this life and the next.
Without atonement, there is no way for unholy, sin-defiled humanity to interact with the Holy One of Israel. In the past, the Temple Sacrificial system provided that atonement. During brief spans of our history when the Temple was not functioning, we have a vacuum in Scripture concerning the issue of atonement. We face no such vacuum now.
Our Scriptures point directly to the death of the Suffering Messiah as THE means of atonement for humankind once the Second Temple is destroyed. (See Daniel 9:24ff and Isaiah 53).
Sitting in shul on Yom Kippur one day a year will not do it.
Prayer and repentance alone will not accomplish it.
Only repentance PLUS an atoning sacrifice to pay for the justice due the crimes of sin in our lives will together produce a “new-birth” into relationship with G*d.
The founder of non-Messianic Judaism declared to us on his deathbed that his manner of Judaism produced in him no security in regard to his eternal destination once his life was over. He knew he would face G*d, and did not know which way his life’s deeds would take him: into a peaceful eternity or a punishing one. [Talmud Bavli: Berachot 28b]
No one ever expressed the essence of Two Testament Judaism better than its founder, Yeshua of Nazareth:
“This is eternal life: to know You, the One True G*d; and Yeshua the Messiah whom You have sent. Yokhanon 17:3
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