Messianic Commentary: Prophecy Through Jewish Eyes

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 |  Tsvi Sadan

Strange as it may sound, such cardinal beliefs as resurrection from the dead and the Messiah are not to be found in a literal reading of the Bible. Despite this, both are so essential in Judaism and Christianity that negation of either is regarded as heresy.

The fact that the Messiah does not appear literally in the Bible means that he can be perceived only through interpretation. The genre known as “messianic prophecies” therefore essentially consists of drawing messianic significance out of biblical verses.

In contrast to Christianity, which engages in messianic prophecies in order to prove Jesus’ messiahship, Judaism regards them merely as plausible interpretations concerning the Messiah. Unfortunately, this disparity frequently leads to the use of messianic prophecies as a tool to prove the other tradition wrong, both Jews and Christians attempting to claim the truth to be on their side.

This column rejects this form of polemics, seeking instead to examine the many Jewish interpretations of messianic prophecies as a way of enriching one's faith rather than justifying it.

Our first "messianic prophecy" comes from “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 2:4).

The messianic clue in this verse requires a brief explanation. The scribes who copied the biblical text are called sofrim in Hebrew because they “counted” the letters, words, and verses in each book in order to ensure a faultless manuscript. This process revealed numerous irregularities, particularly between plene (full) and defective (short) spellings, Hebrew allowing words to be written with or without vowels.

For example, the word toledot (generations) in this verse can be spelled with or without the letter vav so that it can look like toledot, tledot, toledt, or tledt. These divergences were meticulously copied, not being considered “scribal errors” but intentional spellings hinting at possible hidden meanings.

The plene spelling toledot (generations) in Genesis 2:4 appears only here and Ruth 4:18, the latter verse stating “this is the genealogy (toledot) of Perez.” According to Jewish commentators, this unique spelling is that which links the two genealogies and juxtaposes Adam with the Messiah, the son of Perez.

The Midrash explains why these two are the only places in the Bible which use the plene spelling: “R. Judan said in R. Abun's name: The six [the letter vav, which equals six] corresponds to the six things which were taken away from Adam: his lustre, his immortality, his height, the fruit of the earth, the fruit of trees, and the luminaries … R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Samuel b. Nahman: Though these things were created in their fullness, yet when Adam sinned they were spoiled, and they will not again return to their perfection until the son of Perez [Messiah] comes; [because] ‘… toledot (generations) of Perez’ … is spelled fully, with a vav. These are they: his lustre, his immortality, his height, the fruit of the earth and the fruit of trees, and the luminaries" (Gen. Rabbah 12:6).

This interpretation asserts that Adam's perfect state of being has been lacking in all succeeding generations and will only be restored by the Messiah, who will give man back his primordial splendor. According to this midrash, therefore, the Messiah is the second, perfect Adam.

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