Shabbat Pekudey: The Messiah

March 14, 2024 by Jeremy Rosen
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As we come to the end of the book of Exodus and look back at the structure of the book it contains three elements.

Narrative, the story of the personalities, and the story of the people of Israel. The revelation on Mount Sinai and the laws that followed. And finally, the function of the Tabernacle and the role of the priesthood.

The universal political structure of the ancient and near Middle East had that the king functioned as both Monarch and High Priest with the king always above the law. And sometimes delegating the religious and the legal to priests and judges.

The first Jewish model had Moses as the equivalent of the King as well as the legislator. And Aaron and his family fulfilled the role of priest. Moses was followed by Joshua and then the Judges before Samuel started the monarchy with Saul and then David.

Both these models proved themselves inadequate for the job and failed to unite the people and with a few exceptions, maintain the religious tradition.

This week we read about Moses anointing Aaron and his sons. The term that is used repeatedly in the Torah ( Exodus 40:13-15) is “ uMashachta. The same word we now use for the Messiah, Mashiach. There were two Mashiachs in the Torah, the priest anointed to run the Tabernacle and the Priest who went out to war. How did this world then come to refer to the concept we now have of a Messiah?

After Joshua, the judges ushered in a period of constant flux and uncertainty where the priesthood under the sons of Ellie proved corrupt. The people turned to Samuel asking for a king and it was Samuel who then anointed Saul when he proved to be inadequate for the job, he then anointed David who was described as the Mashiach of God, the Anointed one of God.  At the end of David’s life, because there was political upheaval and the succession of Solomon was challenged by Adoniya, Solomon was anointed with oil to confirm his appointment. After him, in Judea, no one was anointed again, and the assumption was that only after a break in the dynasty would a future king be anointed again.

After the Babylonian conquest and exile, the dream was a return of the Kingdom of Judea under the leadership of the David dynasty and that was where the idea of a Mashiach as we now think of it. A descendant would be anointed and reestablish the royal household of David. At the same time, the ten northern tribes who are known as the Kingdom of Joseph looked to a leader to come back and reestablish their state. Which is where you get the idea of a Messiah of the household of Joseph. Later, these two would be merged into one process, starting with Joseph and culminating with David.
You can see there was no apocalyptic, supernatural, or complex theological concept of messianism at this stage which many people think emerged during the era of the Maccabee era fighting for Jewish independence from the Syrian Greeks. But with the destruction of the second Temple, the idea we know today of the Mashiach began to emerge of somebody who would as remove all political hatred and wars that prevent us from fulfilling our potential and usher in a perfect state of happiness and self-fulfilment. Unlike this world now.

As with most ideas in the Talmud, there are contradictory and different opinions as to what the Messianic era is and how it works, and who the Messiah might be.  Then the Christian idea of a Messiah emerged followed by over 70 False Messiahs since. Zealous supporters of Messianism have assured us regularly that the Messiah is about to come, and you don’t need me to tell you that so far, he or she has not.

From this brief history, it should be clear that unless you have a leader who brings everybody together and brings peace on earth, he or he will not be considered the Messiah.  However, that has never stopped people from predicting that one was or would be coming right away. Indeed, one opinion in the Talmud says ( Sanhedrin 97b)
“R. Natan said  may the bones root of those who try to predict when the Messiah will come because they predict, and he doesn’t come, and people will then lose faith altogether rather we should wait in hope.”

In the meantime, we must do our level best to make this world a much better place. And who knows, perhaps every one of us has the potential to become a Mashiach !

38:21-40:38

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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