The Messiah in Ruth Rabbah

Jacob Neusner, The Midrash: An Introduction (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1990) 176.

In the case of Ruth Rabbah, the issue is the nature of leadership, the leader from the periphery, the Messiah from Moab…All contemporary scholarship reads the Book of Ruth as a powerful statement on that very issue: the Messiah from Moab.

I was wondering what Neusner meant by “Messiah from Moab,” so I googled the phrase and found his The classics of Judaism: a textbook and reader.  What I got was that the Messiah himself would not come from Moab, but he’d be the “Messiah from Moab” in the sense that he’d descend from Ruth the Moabitess.  And the Messiah would receive God’s blessings and his qualities on account of Ruth’s devotion to God.  Neusner summarizes this view by saying that the Messiah is what he is on account of his ancestors, including Ruth.  I wonder if this also means that the Messiah will have the DNA of faithfulness from his great, great grandmother.  Joel Osteen talked about a similar idea in a sermon: when we become Christians, the faithful of the Old Testament become our ancestors, so we have all sorts of positive attributes in our bloodline.

I searched for “Messiah” on my Judaic Classics Library, and I didn’t find much in Ruth Rabbah (sixth century C.E.), but here are a few interesting morsels:

1.  In Ruth Rabbah 5:6, we see various interpretations of Ruth 2:14, which states, “At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over” (NRSV).  One of the interpretations applies to the Messiah:

 The fifth interpretation makes it refer to the Messiah. COME HITHER: approach to royal state. AND EAT OF THE BREAD refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions  (Isa. LIII, 5). AND SHE SAT BESIDE THE REAPERS, for he will be deprived of his sovereignty for a time, as it is said, For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken (Zech. XIV, 2). AND THEY REACHED HER PARCHED CORN, means that he will be restored to his throne, as it is said, And he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth (Isa. XI, 4).   R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Levi: The future Redeemer will be like the former Redeemer.  Just as the former Redeemer revealed himself and later was hidden from them (and how long was he hidden? Three months, as it is said, And they met Moses and Aaron (Ex. V, 20), so the future Redeemer will be revealed to them, and then be hidden from them. And how long will he be hidden? R. Tanhuma, in the name of the Rabbis, said: Forty-five days, as it is said, And from the time that the continual burnt offering shall be taken away… there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. Happy is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days  (Dan. XII, 11-12).  What are these extra days? R. Isaac b. Kazarta said on behalf of R. Jonah: These are the forty-five days during which Israel shall pluck saltwort and eat it, as it is said, They pluck salt-wort with wormwood  (Job XXX, 4). Where will he lead them? From the land of Israel to the wilderness of Judah, as it is said, Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness (Hos. II, 16); while some say to the wilderness of Sihon and Og, as it is said, I will yet again make thee to dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed season (ib. XII, 10). He who believes in him will live, and he who does not believe will depart to the Gentile nations and they will put him to death.6 R. Isaac b. Marion said: Finally the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to them, and He will rain down manna upon them, And there is nothing new under the sun  (Eccl. I, 9).

We see here a grand narrative about the Messiah: that he will suffer for the sins of Israel and be deprived of his sovereignty while the Gentiles are ransacking Jerusalem; that he will return to his throne; that the Messiah will be revealed to Israel, then will be hidden from her for a time; that Israel will go to the wilderness of Judah and receive manna, as in the time of Moses; that the unbelieving Jews will go to the Gentile lands and die, either literally or to Judaism.

This passage applies Isaiah 53 to the Messiah ben David, although there is another view that interprets the Suffering Servant as the Messiah ben Joseph, who will die (see Messiah ben Joseph).  Does the former view say that the Suffering Servant will not die, whereas the latter affirms that he will?  In modern biblical scholarship, there is debate over whether the Suffering Servant will actually die, or merely suffer a near-death experience, since “death” was a fluid concept in the ancient world.  Maybe the same debate existed in ancient times.  When I read Neubauer’s book on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, I encountered medieval Jewish scenarios in which the Messiah suffers for the sins of Israel but does not die, and his experience is tied to Isaiah 53. 

2.  Later in Ruth Rabbah 5:6, we read the following: R. Cohen and R. Joshua of Siknin said in the name of R. Levi: In the past when a man performed a good deed, the prophet placed it on record; but nowadays when a man performs a good deed, who records it? Elijah records it and the Messiah and the Holy One, blessed be He, subscribe their seal to it. This is the meaning of the verse, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him (Mal. III, 16). 

I wonder what this passage means.  It says that, “today,” Elijah, Messiah, and God record the good deeds of human beings.  Did Rabbi Levi believe that the Messiah was around in his time?  There’s so much that I don’t know about Jewish conceptions of the Messiah!

3.  Ruth Rabbah 7:2 states: Hezekiah, as it is said, That the government may be increased, and of peace there be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it, through justice and through righteousness (Isa. IX, 6). And his name is called Pele- joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom (ib. 5). Some observe that l’marbeh (be increased) is written with a closed mem.  A note at the bottom of the page says, “ The Rabbis maintain that God intended Hezekiah to be the Messiah, but the closed mem teaches that he was shut out from that honour because he had not sung God’s praises (Sanh. 94a).”

I’ve heard this concept before, but I still find it profound.  Many historical-critics of the Hebrew Bible maintain that the OT prophets believed their prophecies about Israel’s restoration and paradise under a Davidic king would be fulfilled in their time, not in the far-off future.  But Ruth Rabbah 7:2 actually agrees with this sort of idea, for it applies Isaiah 9:6 to Hezekiah.  Hezekiah was to be the Messiah who’d reign over an age of peace, but he blew it when he failed to offer God praise.  Yet, the rabbis believed that these prophecies would still have a future realization, for they express God’s will, even if those originally intended to carry that out blew it. 

And, from a Christian perspective, perhaps I can take this a step further: of course they blew it, for only Christ, the perfect man, could carry these prophecies out.  Yet, God wanted to show human beings their weakness in carrying out his will, the same way Luther said God gave Israel the law knowing she couldn’t keep it, influencing her to recognize her need for Christ.  This sort of view combines a regard with the prophecies’ original contexts with the view that they can be future as well, with a Christian viewpoint thrown into the mix.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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