What do we envision when we think of the Messiah? Maybe peace on earth, goodwill towards mankind, or the lion lying down with the lamb? Or possibly we imagine the Kingdom of Heaven, and the end of death, disease, famine, and war? It all boils down to the same thing, some future age in which all the problems have magically vanished and everybody lives together in everlasting bliss. It is one of the greatest ironies of human history that possibly no single idea has caused so much war, death, and destruction, so much oppression and hatred, than this very vision of universal peace and love reigning over all humanity. It is almost as if we do not possess the ability to actually allow it to happen. Or maybe we really don’t want it even if we could have it. What will happen to those most natural of human urges to dominate, to hate, to fight, and to need to feel better than the next guy? Will they just evaporate into the air? What really is the messianic vision and under what circumstances is it supposed to come about?
First of all we must look into the origins of the idea. Surprisingly, there is nothing in the Chumash that even remotely calls for a messiah figure. Sure, there are glorious predictions of a future redemption, but that all happens through the revealed hand of God. A human being with messianic qualities is simply not to be found. This fact alone is quite fascinating. It seems that the messianic concept was a development within Judaism and not something that was always there. It likely developed slowly and evolved through the centuries, from a relatively ‘normal’ individual who had great spiritual abilities, to a kind of ‘miracle man’ who would be expected to play the role of the hand of God on earth.
Probably the earliest and ultimately the clearest statement of a messiah is found in the book of Isaiah (11:1-10): “And a rod shall go from the stem of Yishai (the father of David) and a branch shall grow from his roots. And the spirit of Hashem shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and fear of Hashem. And he shall smell (sense) with the fear of Hashem, and will not judge (merely) by the sight of his eyes and not reprove (only) by what his ears hear…And his loins shall be girded with righteousness and faith. And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and fattened ox shall be together, and a young child shall lead them…They shall cause no evil or destruction on all of my holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Hashem like water covers the sea.”
Before beginning serious analysis of these verses, it is worth pointing out a curious detail: in the middle of all this is something resembling the famous metaphor of ‘the lion shall lie down with the lamb’. Except that in the actual verse it is the wolf with the lamb and the lion with the calf. And neither of them are lying down together. Nevertheless, this is the verse where the saying comes from. How it managed to get mistranslated is beyond us. We believe the origins of the mistranslation are fairly recent but we couldn’t trace it. Perhaps somebody out there in cyberspace can enlighten us.
There are a number of striking things in this text
The word ‘messiah’ or anything resembling it does not appear.
The power of this mysterious person, whatever he may be called, rests not in his own intelligence or diplomatic skills, but in his fear of God.
The metaphor of the beasts of prey dwelling with the grazing animals hints at some sort of miraculous intervention, but doesn’t quite state any outright miracles.
The shield against evil is not physical strength or military might or even persuasive arguments, but by the spread of the knowledge of God over the earth.
As far as the first point is concerned, the word ‘messiah’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew word moshiach (actually closer to mawshiach), although the two words hardly look the same in English. The ‘sh’ sound in Hebrew was pronounced ‘s’ in Greek. The term moshiach meant ‘anointed one’, and it applied specifically to a king or a high priest, both of whom were anointed with olive oil upon assuming their posts. It is likely that both the early Christians and the Jews of that time used this term in applying both kingly and high priestly authority to their image of what a messiah should be. As far as the standard translation of ‘messiah’ to mean ‘savior’, this is likely a corruption of the similar sounding Hebrew word moshi’a, which does indeed mean savior.
Concerning the second point, this is a crucial element of the original Jewish image of the messiah. His power rests not on his innate gifts, nor on his social skills, nor on his ability to perform miracles. Rather, it rests on his fear of God. The anticipated messiah need not be a great orator or a military genius or a profound scholar. But the job requirements do include a deep awareness and awe of God. His awe of God would enable him to ‘smell’ good from evil, and to judge right from wrong.
Point three is as interesting as it is controversial. While a literal interpretation of the wolf and the lamb suggests some sort of miraculous change in nature, the verse lends itself to metaphor. The messianic age will be not be the time when good triumphs over evil, but when evil willingly comes over to the side of good. There is nothing miraculous about this, though admittedly it does seem a bit far-fetched. We all have experienced our own ‘evil side’ and have occasionally managed to subdue it until it can live with our ‘good side’. Such an experience is no miracle, unless one considers the will choosing good over evil to be a miracle.
Point four is intertwined with points two and three. Evil will still exist in messianic times - it just will have no power over the spirit of godliness that will permeate humanity. This indeed seems miraculous, if not outright impossible. Isaiah gave us no real indications as to how and when he expected this ‘miraculous’ change would take place. Perhaps he himself did not know. But one thing is clear - he prophesied that it would happen. Maybe it will come about through the ‘miracle’ of computers and the Internet. Maybe it will be through some technological development hundreds or thousands of years in the future. Maybe it will require humanity to survive some disaster or some near-catastrophic brush with extinction. Who knows? But is it so unbelievable, that we human beings will someday be more interested in God and understanding our ultimate purpose, our place in existence, than in making money and being comfortable? It may indeed require a messiah figure to bring about such a revolution, such a revelation. But that messiah, whoever he (or she) may be, will only be guiding us all to be what we were created to be.
Christianity took this messianic vision and made a world-dominating religion out of it. Even though Christianity made great use of the sword in spreading the gospel around the globe, there is no question that without a message that resounds within the human soul they would not have succeeded to anywhere near the degree that they did. They added significant features to the original Jewish version, features that both Biblical and post-Biblical Jews could never countenance. Nevertheless, the original foundation remains quite evident in the more popular offshoot. Things will somehow work out – humanity will be saved. How it will happen, ironically, has been the cause of enough spilled blood to dampen anybody’s messianic enthusiasm.
Perhaps it is a little unfortunate that the messianic vision became so intertwined with religion. If the two could be untangled, maybe we would be able to appreciate what the messianic idea is all about as opposed to it being monopolized by religious agendas. The bottom line of it all is the knowledge of God. Would it really be so terrible if the world was ‘filled with the knowledge of God like water covers the sea’? If there is any vision of a grand goal for humanity, a purpose towards which we should all be striving, it is hard to imagine a better one than this. Forget for a minute about all the baggage of one religion dominating over the world and one group showing all the rest that they were right all along and everybody else was wrong. That’s religion. We’re talking about knowledge of God. The two, sadly enough, frequently have very little to do with each other. The messianic idea supersedes all religions and boils the whole thing down to knowing God. What if that, and that alone, was the meaning of life. Simply coming to grips with the great mystery of how we came to be here, and understanding our place in the great scheme of things, is more than enough to bring all those messianic visions to fruition.
If the messianic age means that some messianic figure will come and solve all of our problems with some wave of his messianic wand, then all we really have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. The temptations of evil will have been overcome, as will the need for the distractions that keep us from pursuing the godly life. Of course, it won’t be all fun and games. It really means, among other things, spending all one’s time knowing God, revolving one’s life around religion, and leaving homes and lives in the exile and returning to the Holy Land to participate in a life based around the newly built temple in Jerusalem. The meaning of it all will be obvious to all who merit witnessing it.
On the other hand, if the messiah will be no more than a spiritual guide who will reveal spiritual pathways that were not so evident, his followers will still have a lot of hard work ahead of them. Evil will still be out there, trapping those who do not resist its pulls and challenging those who do choose to struggle against it. The difference will be a matter of perspective. Unlike the present time, in which the struggle between good and evil frequently seems stacked in the favor of evil, in messianic times the inherent goodness in the human soul will see the path towards good gaining the upper hand. Instead of being bombarded by selfish desires, people will yearn to understand their true purpose, and strive to realize it. The messiah will provide a light through the fog, but attaining that light will still require raw willpower. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of messianic times in our own lives, in those moments of clarity when we peek through the haze and briefly understand why we are here. Those moments are fleeting flashes, islands in the flow of the daily rat race. But in truth, they are visions of the messianic era; visions of what life could be if we would only will it.
Would it really be so terrible if the entire world were to unite under the banner of one individual who could somehow find that common essence that we all seek, even though we are barely aware of it? Is such a faith really a cop out, an irrational crutch that distracts us from the more pressing problems of reality? Or, is it possible that it is only with such an optimistic vision that we have something to hope for and to keep us keeping on. We may know very little about the ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ of the messiah. But we certainly know quite a bit about the ‘why’ – it is the reason we are all here.
Food for Thought
Many religious and humanistic movements have rejected the idea of the messiah in favor of everybody just pitching in together and making the world a better place. Is this messiah thing just a grand escape from straightening out our lives and our world right now by putting it off until some future messianic redemption?
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Date: 07/21/16 at 04:09:53
Excellent piece. Kol HaKavod.