2.2. The central point of Jewish eschatology: the coming of the Messiah

2.2. THE CENTRAL POINT OF JEWISH ESCHATOLOGY: THE COMING OF THE MESSIAH

Judaism is the first Abrahamic religion that promoted the idea of an end of the world. According to the Jewish scriptures, of all the nations of the world Israel was chosen by God to receive the knowledge of the one true faith. All the other forms of worship are abominations in the face of God. This idea represents the essence of the Jewish creed and serves as the basis for all the Jewish prophetic scenarios concerning the end of the world. God offered Israel both material and spiritual gifts. Palestine represents the strip of land that the Israelite people managed to conquer with the help of Yahweh; the heart of Palestine is the holy city of Jerusalem; inside Jerusalem lies Solomon’s Temple, the place where priests brought animal sacrifices honoring God; and finally, inside the Temple lies the Ark of the Covenant, the tangible proof that the Hebrew people has a special destiny. Thus, the fate of the Jewish people, Palestine, Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant are key objects of Judaism and Jewish eschatology. All these had a major role in Jewish history and, according to Judaism, will have an important role in mankind’s evolution toward the end of the world.

The entire Jewish eschatology revolves around one future event: the coming of the Messiah. But the term “messiah” (Romanized Hebrew: mashiah) has a wide range of meanings. Historically, the Jewish scriptures use the term for describing kings and priests that were anointed with oil according to Exodus 30:22-25. “Messiah” literally means “to be covered with oil, anointed.” From an eschatological point of view, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king from the genealogical line of King David, who will be anointed with oil and will rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.10

Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel – important prophets of the Old Testament – enunciated the physical and spiritual features of the messianic being and depicted events with apocalyptic tint: wars, pestilences, famine, discord and enslavement. But they did not speak about the end of the world in the way it is understood in the 21st century; instead, their prophecies dealt with the future of the Israelite people and the calamities brought by the coming of great empires.

The concept of the Messiah was born once with the prophetic advent of Moses during the Egyptian captivity. Moses prophesied the coming of the Messiah but, by freeing and leading the Israelites in Canaan, he involuntarily became a raw model and a precursor of the future Messiah. Due to Moses the Israelites came to envision the Messiah as a leader that rises from among the people and seizes the political power, frees Israel from any foreign domination and brings it to the height of prosperity.

Later, another messianic model rose during the Babylonian captivity. This time the chosen one was a non-Jew, Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia. After he conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, Cyrus freed the Jews and allowed them to relocate in Canaan and rebuilt Solomon’s Temple, previously destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezra 1:1-4, 2, 4-5; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Daniel 9:1-2). In this way Cyrus also gained a messianic aura and contributed at the strengthening of the messianic image (Isaiah 45).

In dark and troubled times all hopes turned toward the image of the Messiah. During periods of distress the Jewish communities experienced an inflation of individuals eager to assume the role of savior. Driven by an honest belief in their sacred mission, this kind of charismatic figures fueled the hopes and the euphoria of their fellows in pain, causing at the same time vigorous reactions from the oppressive powers. Many of the candidates to the throne of the Messiah had a tempestuous emergence, forming small and tight communities of rebels. But most of them disappeared as fast as they appeared. Very few managed to form groups of more than a thousand people and influence the course of history in a profound way.

The Jewish messianic concept had a decisive contribution to the advent of Christianity. During the Roman domination the messianic hope strengthened again and the messianic manifestations intensified. The Samaritan prophet, Theudas, Judas of Galilee11 or the Egyptian prophet – these are only a few of those who assumed the role of the Messiah and started anti-Roman riots. Even Herod Agrippa the Great gained a messianic aura after he had restored the Holy Temple and had reunited all the territories of his grandfather. Among these messiahs was also Jesus Christ who, ironically, was sent to death by the Jews because he had preached the doctrine of universal love and liberation from sin. According to the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides, Jesus was crucified because his actions and his teachings had defied the messianic warlike pattern and the doctrine of superiority of the Hebrew people:

Even Jesus the Nazarene who imagined that he would be Messiah was killed ... So that all the prophets spoke that the Messiah redeems Israel, and saves them, and gathers their banished ones, and strengthens their commandments. And this one caused [nations] to destroy Israel by sword, and to scatter their remnant, and to humiliate them, and to exchange the Torah, and to make the majority of the world err to serve a divinity besides God.12

The dissolution of the Hebrew people and the destruction of the Holy Temple were also due to messianic manifestations. In 66 AD Menahem led a rebellion that expelled the Roman domination from Jerusalem. But in the year 70, under the command of General Titus, the Romans launched the counteroffensive. The Judean resistance was quickly defeated and, in order to properly punish the rebels, the Romans set fire to most of the city, including the Second Temple.13 Later, in 132 AD, the uprising of Simon bar Kokhba (which means “Son of the Stars” in Aramaic) led to the removal of the Romans from Jerusalem for three years. In retaliation, the Romans under Hadrian slaughtered over half a million insurgents, renamed the province “Palestine” (as Philistia, the traditional enemy of the Israelites), destroyed the Jewish objects of worship and replaced them with pagan ones, executed the priests, banned the Jews from entering Jerusalem and scattered them within the territory of the empire.

After the scattering of the Jews in the 2nd century, tens of messianic manifestations have taken place in random locations across Europe and Asia Minor.14 In addition, the Jewish eschatological universe has also been populated by exegetes who have tried in various ways to determine the time of the coming of the Messiah.15 But, according to Daniel 12:9, the moment of the coming of the Messiah is a divine secret. Hence, Maimonides concluded that calculating the time of the end not only is a sin, but it can also bring false hopes to common people or it can confer power to figures that falsely claim to be the Messiah.16

Currently, the Judaic image of the Messiah incorporates the divine inspiration of Moses, the military skills of David and Cyrus and the political and economic ingenuity of Solomon. Most of the details referring to the Messiah, what he will do and what he will achieve during his reign, are found in the Tanakh, Isaiah and other prophets: he will become an example for the entire world (Isaiah 2:4); the entire world will honor the God of Israel (Isaiah 2:17); he will be a descendant of King David (Isaiah 11:2) and King Solomon (1 Chronicles 22:8-10); he will be an observant Jew with fear of God (Isaiah 11:2); the knowledge of God will spread across the world (Isaiah 11:9); all the Israelites will come back to their homeland (Isaiah 11:12); death will be eradicated forever and there will be no more famine or disease (Isaiah 25:8); all dead people will be resurrected (Isaiah 26:19); the people of the earth will turn to the Jewish people for spiritual guidance (Zechariah 8:23); the ruined cities of Israel will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 16:55); the Holy Temple will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 40); the Messiah will turn barren lands into abundant and prosperous ones (Ezekiel 36:29-30).

The scriptures are complemented by numerous commentaries of Jewish scholars. For example, Yohanan ben Nappaha insists on the coming of the Messiah in times of trouble, when the people of Israel will be in great distress. However, he specifies that the “son of David” will come during a generation that will be altogether righteous or altogether wicked.17 By contrast, Maimonides depicts the coming of the Messiah on an optimistic tone. He categorizes the descriptions from Isaiah 11 as metaphorical and gives a naturalistic, non-supernatural interpretation to the messianic image. The Messianic Age – as the reign of the Messiah is called – will be a continuation of the current world, socially stratified between rich and poor, strong and weak. However, the world will be full of wise men, who will lead to the cessation of wars, the eradication of famine and the extension of human life up to thousands of years. There will be no more diseases, sadness and cares. The Jews will regain their independence and they will reestablish the State of Israel. Then the Messiah will come, who is an agent of God and not a genuine divine person. He will be an ordinary mortal, but due to his holiness Yahweh will give him the role of the Messiah. He will reign from Zion for thousands of years and he will make Israel the greatest power in the world. He will rebuild the Temple, will resume the animal sacrifice and will have the Israelites as priests. The Jewish messiah is a nationalist because during the Messianic Age the separation between the Israelites, who will have a privileged status, and the rest of the world will be made on religious and ethnic criteria. The Messiah will promote tolerance, but his holiness will convince the world to convert to Judaism.18



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