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published: 3/17/04
updated: 5/1/13

The Messiah in Judaism




Who is the Messiah?

Many of the world's religions have hope in a future heroic figure who will rescue the righteous, judge the wicked, and restore peace to the world (Krishna in Hinduism, Maitreya in Buddhism and the Second Coming in Christianity). In Judaism, this figure is the messiah. Christians believe the messiah has come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth; Jews emphatically do not.

Identity of the Messiah

The concept of the messiah seems to have developed in later Judaism. The Torah contains no specific reference to him, though some Jewish scholars have pointed out that it does speak of the "End of Days," which is the time of the messiah.

The Tanakh gives several specifications as to who the messiah will be. He will be a descendent of King David (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Jeremiah 23:5), observant of Jewish law (Isaiah 11:2-5), a righteous judge (Jeremiah 33:15), and a great military leader.





Jews do not believe that the messiah will be divine. A fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity is the Jewish conviction that God is so essentially different from and beyond humanity that he could never become a human.

Moreover, Jews find no foundation in the scriptures for such a belief about the messiah. Passages viewed by Christians as indicating a divine messiah (such as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53) are viewed by Jews as speaking of the people of Israel. In general, only the following passages are accepted as referring to the messiah:

  • Isaiah 2, 11, 42; 59:20
  • Jeremiah 23, 30, 33; 48:47; 49:39
  • Ezekiel 38:16
  • Hosea 3:4-3:5
  • Micah 4
  • Zephaniah 3:9
  • Zechariah 14:9
  • Daniel 10:14

When Will the Messiah Come?

The "when" of the messiah's arrival is not made clear in the Tanach, and has been a source of much scholarly speculation. In general, attempts to predict the exact date are discouraged. Though millennial fervor has never been as strong in Judaism as it has been in Christian and Islamic movements, there have been those who either claimed to be the messiah or to know the date of the messiah's arrival. One notable example of the former is Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th-century man who claimed to the messiah, then converted to Islam under threat of death.

A wide variety of opinions have been given by Jewish scholars as to the circumstances that will prompt the messiah's arrival. Some say the messiah will come when the world is especially good; others say when the world has become especially evil. The biblical clues that are offered suggest the messiah will come after a period of war and suffering (Ezekiel 38:16).


The Messianic Age

When the messiah does come, he will inaugurate the messianic age (sometimes called the Olam Ha-Ba, World to Come). The Tanakh employs the following descriptions about this period:

  • Peace among all nations (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)
  • Perfect harmony and abundance in nature (Isaiah 11:6-9) (but some interpret this as an allegory for peace and prosperity)
  • All Jews return from exile to Israel (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5)
  • Universal acceptance of the Jewish God and Jewish religion (Isaiah 2:3; 11:10; 66:23; Micah 4:2-3; Zechariah 14:9)
  • No sin or evil; all Israel will obey the commandments (Zephaniah 3:13; Ezekiel 37:24)
  • Reinstatement of the Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-27)

Ezekiel 37:24-28 sums up many of these requirements when it proclaims:

And David my servant shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. they shall also follow my judgments and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Yaakov my servant, in which your fathers have dwelt and they shall dwell there, they and their children, and their children's children forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever.

Moreover, I will make a covenant of peace with them, it shall be an everlasting covenant with them, which I will give them; and I will multiply them and I will set my sanctuary in the midst of them forevermore. And my tabernacle shall be with them: and I will be their God and they will be my people. Then the nations shall know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary will be in the midst of them forevermore.




References

  1. Tracey R. Rich, "Messiah." Judaism 101.
  2. George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).
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