Is the Messiah Really the Purpose of the Torah?

Seth D. Postell, Eitan Bar, and Erez Soref

Jesus Christ says that Moses wrote about Him. Is that really true? The coming Savior is hardly mentioned in the five books of Moses. A critical examination.

How many verses in the Torah refer to the Messiah and how many refer to the Law? The percentages are staggering. There are about nine prominent verses in the Torah that people commonly consider messianic prophecies (Gen 3:15; 49:8-12; Num 24:17-19; Deut 18:15), out of a total of 5,845 verses, or less than one fourth of one percent (0.15%). On the other hand, there are roughly 3,605 verses dealing with commandments given to the people of Israel. This amounts to nearly 62% of all the verses in the Torah! On percentages alone, we would have to say that the Law is far more important than the Messiah. The Law has to be the Torah’s goal!

Before we come to hasty conclusions about the Torah’s goal, let’s consider an important principle in narrative literature: the principle of quality over quantity. For instance, if we were to ask who is the hero in C. S. Lewis’s classic narrative, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe?, without hesitation, most people would say Aslan. Why is Aslan the hero of the narrative? He only shows up at the end of the book, and most of the story line focuses on four children. Aslan is barely a blip on the screen when it comes to the percentage of time C. S. Lewis focuses on Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy. How do we know Aslan is the hero? We can say that Aslan is the hero of the narrative because of the principle of quality, not quantity. Our equation does not depend on how much Aslan appears in the story, but where he appears in the story and how he brings the story’s plot to resolution. Aslan not only shows up in qualitatively strategic places, but his character provides a resolution to the story line.

We believe the messianism of the Torah might likewise be considered in the light of quality over quantity. Yes, the Law appears in 62% of the story, but as we have seen, the story line anticipates that Israel will break the Law, and thereby break the Sinai covenant. A major obstacle in the Torah’s plot is disobedience to God’s Law and the consequences of the curses that comes with disobedience (exile and death). We see this problem at the beginning and at the end of the Torah’s story (Gen 3; Deut 28). Yet God’s purpose for Israel and for all of humanity is blessing, another theme that appears at the beginning and end of the Torah (Gen 1:28; Deut 33). If disobedience to the Law is the obstacle for receiving God’s blessing, what is the Torah’s remedy?

There are clues that the Torah’s remedy, that is the means through which God will accomplish His purposes to and through Israel, is the coming of the Messiah-King in the last days. Moses clearly regards “the last days” as a matter of great importance, since he uses the phrase four times in the Torah, and each is structurally significant. On three occasions, the phrase appears at the heading of very large prophetic poems: first, at the end of the Patriarchal Narratives (Gen 49:1); second, when Balaam tries unsuccessfully to curse Israel at the transition period from the old to the new generation of Israelites in the wilderness (Num 24:14); and third, at the end of the Torah as the prologue to the Song of Moses (Deut 31:29). The fourth time the phrase occurs is in the context of a prophecy, when Moses calls heaven and earth as witnesses (see Deut 31:28; 32:1) to the fact that Israel will be exiled from the land because of disobedience, but that in the midst of tribulation, Israel will return to the Lord in the last days (Deut 4:25-31).

“Then Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in the last days’” (Gen 49:1).

“And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the last days” (Num 24:14).

“When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the last days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice” (Deut 4:30).

“When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the last days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice” (Deut 4:30).

“For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the last days evil will befall you” (Deut 31:29).

In each case, the phrase appears at such important junctions in the Torah story that, like the theme of faith, it must be considered a key for understanding the theological purposes of the Torah as a whole. Another clue to the importance of the last days is the opening word of the Torah itself: “In the beginning”—a word that in Hebrew requires an “end.” The word in Hebrew for “last” in the phrase “the last days,” is always used as the opposite of the word “beginning” in the Hebrew Bible (Num 24:20; Deut 11:12). The Torah opens with a story about the rise and fall of Adam in the “beginning of days.” The Torah’s introductory story serves as a prologue to God’s ultimate plan to remedy mankind’s greatest problem: our separation from God, caused by unbelief and disobedience. This remedy will not come through the Law, but in spite of Israel’s repeated disobedience to the Law. Instead, God will provide the only sufficient remedy for sin through the Messiah-King in “the end of days” (see Gen 49:1, 8-12; Num 24:14, 17-19).

In what follows, we look at the importance of the Messiah within the story line of the Torah’s narrative.

The fact that the Torah begins with narrative rather than commandments was, for the medieval rabbis, a problem in need of a solution. Rashi, the most famous of all Jewish Bible commentators, begins his commentary on the Torah by writing:

“Rabbi Isaac said, The Torah should have begun with: ‘This month shall be for you’ (Exod 12:2), since this is the first commandment which Israel was commanded to keep. And what is the reason that it [the Torah] opens with ‘In the beginning’?”

Rashi goes on to explain that the Torah begins with a story, from creation to the Exodus (Gen 1—Exod 12), in order to justify Israel’s dispossession of the Canaanites from the Promised Land. Should the nations of the world accuse Israel of stealing the land from the seven Canaanite nations, Israel’s defense would be THE STORY: “The whole world belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He. He created it, and He gives it to whomever He sees fit.” The story is Israel’s “alibi”: both her title deed to, and justification for the conquest of the land.

Though the story may provide a divine justification for Israel’s claim to the Promised Land, this is merely a subcategory of a far grander and universal purpose. It is our contention that the purpose of the story—a story that goes beyond Exodus to include the rest of the Torah as well as the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1—2 Samuel, 1—2 Kings)—is to provide the biblical “alibi” for the messianic hope, as well as the eschatology in the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

Let’s set the stage for this rather bold assertion with a few thoughts about the shaping and the nature of this story.

First, the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings), opens with a single continuous historical narrative that starts with the creation of the world and concludes with the exaltation of Jehoiachin son of David in the Babylonian Exile (2 Kings 25:27-30). This narrative accounts for nearly half of the entire Hebrew Bible in words.

Second, the conclusion of this story can be anticipated by the reader since its plot is already foreshadowed in the introduction (Gen 1—11). In rabbinic literature this phenomenon falls under the category of ma’asei avot, siman l’banim, meaning, “the deeds of the father are a sign to the sons.” In other words, the early chapters of this story, particularly the story of what becomes of Adam and Eve, are there not simply to tell us about what happened to Adam in the past, but to tell what will happen to Israel in the future. Adam’s story in Genesis 1—3 becomes Israel’s story in the book of Joshua all the way through to 1—2 Kings (the gift of the garden/the land; the receiving of the commandments; the failure to resist the temptations of the resident(s) of the garden/the land; disobedience and exile to the east).

Third, the prophetic nature of the Torah’s introduction is reinforced by Moses’ predictions at the end of the Torah:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give” (Deut 31:16-21).

Moses, the greatest of all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, declares in no uncertain terms that Israel, like their father Adam, will enter the Land, eat of its fruit, break God’s commandments as expressed in the Sinai covenant, and be driven into exile (see Deut 4:25-28; 30:1).

When we consider these three points—the substantial narrative of Israel’s disobedience and subsequent exile, the foreshadowing of a story theme in Adam’s disobedience and subsequent exile, and Moses’ explicit predictions of Israel’s disobedience and subsequent exile—a question forces itself upon us: Since Israel’s disobedience and exile are anticipated and predicted by Moses in the Torah, what’s the point of the story? Since Moses knew beforehand that Israel will break the Sinai covenant and go into exile—and that is precisely what happened in the Former Prophets—then the primary goal of the story is not to encourage Israel’s obedience. What is the ultimate goal of the Torah, and the entire Hebrew Bible for that matter, if Israel’s disobedience and exile are assured? We believe that the best answer to that question may be summed up in one word: “messianism.” The Messiah, as we will see, is the point of the story, and the Messiah in the Torah story becomes the “buzz” of Israel’s later sacred writings (the Latter Prophets and the Writings).

According to some Bible scholars, messianism is a rather marginal topic in the Hebrew Bible. The seemingly limited number of overt messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Torah, may cause intellectual dissonance with clear statements in the New Testament about the centrality of the Messiah in the Tanakh. For instance, Yeshua makes the following rather bold claim about the Torah: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47). Other statements in the New Testament claim unreservedly that the Messiah is a central, if not the central theme of Moses and the Prophets. As followers of Yeshua who accept the authority and veracity of the New Testament, we honor Yeshua’s claims about the Torah, though some might be hard-pressed to defend them from the bema (the pulpit) with just the Torah in hand. We would claim that messianism is a major theme in the Torah, and more, that it provides the headwaters out of which messianism flows to the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

Let’s define the terms “messianism” and “Messiah,” given the fact that these terms are not used in the Torah—and very infrequently in the Hebrew Bible for that matter—to describe the one about whom this chapter is written. The word messiah (mashiach), “anointed one,” is used 39 times in the Tanakh, and on some occasions, though rarely, is used as a technical term to refer to the one whom later post-biblical writers call the “Messiah-King” (see, e.g., Ps 2:2; Dan 9:25-26). In its non-technical sense, the term refers to the high priest (Lev 4:3), to kings (1 Sam 24:6), to prophets (Ps 105:15), and to Cyrus (Isa 45:1). Here we use “Messiah” as an all-inclusive term for the individual through whom God will ultimately reestablish His original purposes for creation in the last days. At times, this multifaceted figure is depicted as a king, other times as a prophet, and in some places as a priest. In some passages, he is described as a potentate; in others, a despised and rejected worm. In all cases, however, He is the lynchpin of God’s plan to reestablish His blessed rule over a temporarily curse-ridden creation. “Messiah” refers to the hero of this story, and “messianism” is the term used to highlight those features that are pertinent to His-Story.

(Excerpt from the book Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus, chapter 3:

News from Israel - 02/2020

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