Michael Rydelnik. The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
I would like to thank B&H Academic for my review copy of this book. See here for B&H’s page about it.
The question of whether or not the Hebrew Bible predicted the coming of Jesus Christ has long occupied my mind. I suppose that, somewhere in my mind when I was reading the Bible as a teenager, I was wondering whether the New Testament’s application of Old Testament passages to Jesus was actually faithful to what those Old Testament passages meant in their original contexts. That question was pushed to the forefront of my mind, however, after I listened to a tape in which an Orthodox Jew attempted to systematically dismantle Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Listening to that tape inspired so many aspects of my academic journey: my decision to focus on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, as well as two of my theses, one on ancient biblical exegesis, and another on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
To be honest, several evangelical attempts to explain the New Testament’s use of the Hebrew Bible have not satisfied me. I have appreciated evangelical scholars’ acknowledgment that how the New Testament interprets the Hebrew Bible is often inconsistent with the sense of the Hebrew Bible’s passages in their original, immediate contexts. But it is how they then go on to defend Christianity that really baffles me. Some evangelical scholars argue that a passage in the Hebrew Bible may have meant something non-Christian in its original context, and yet it could also have a deeper meaning that relates to Jesus Christ. Other evangelical scholars point out that ancient exegesis did not limit itself to the original, literal, historical, immediate contexts of biblical passages, and thus the New Testament is participating in acceptable interpretational practices of its time. These scholars would shy away from saying that Christians today can employ creative exegesis (or eisegesis) that disregards a biblical passage’s immediate context, however, arguing that the New Testament authors were divinely-inspired, whereas Christians today are not.
Why have I not been satisfied with such evangelical arguments? It is not because I deny that New Testament authors may have used a form of midrash or pesher in approaching the Hebrew Bible. Rather, it is because the evangelical arguments present a rather disjointed picture of the Bible. I would have an easier time being an evangelical were I to believe that the Old Testament directly predicted Jesus Christ, and that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, for that is neat and linear. I would have a harder time being an evangelical were I to believe that the Hebrew Bible only predicted Jesus Christ in a secondary sense, or that New Testament authors were simply echoing the eisegetical methods of their own time.
Michael Rydelnik’s The Messianic Hope is an argument for the Hebrew Bible being Messianic, as well as a direct prediction of Jesus Christ. Rydelnik is disturbed by how many evangelical scholars have approached this issue, believing that it robs evangelicals of a significant piece of evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, namely, that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament Messianic prophecy. I have wanted to read this book for a long time, but I became more exposed to Rydelnik’s thought when my church went through a Bible study curriculum that he hosted: The Unbreakable Promise: God’s Covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David With Michael Rydelnik. While I did not agree with a lot that Rydelnik argued in that curriculum, what he had to say did intrigue me and make me think. The same was true of The Messianic Hope. (Actually, reading The Messianic Hope cleared up some of the confusion that I had after watching The Unbreakable Promise.) In this book review, I will summarize key points in each chapter, then I will give my overall assessment and critique.
In Chapter 1, “Why Messianic Prophecy Is Important,” Rydelnik highlights the predictive value of Messianic prophecy for Christianity. Chapter 2, “The Nature of Prophecy and Fulfillment: How Old Testament Scholarship Views Messianic Prophecy,” is a survey of how biblical scholars, including evangelical scholars, have approached the Hebrew Bible’s passages that the New Testament applies to Jesus, as well as the apparent problem of how the New Testament interprets those passages for Christianity.
In Chapter 3, “Text-Critical Perspectives on Messianic Prophecy,” Rydelnik argues that the Masoretic Text de-eschatologizes or historicizes biblical passages that were originally eschatological and Messianic. For example, the Septuagint for Numbers 24:7 is about a coming king of Israel who will contend with Gog, the eschatological enemy of Israel in Ezekiel 38-39. The MT, however, says that the King of Israel will be above Agag, who was the Amalekite king of I Samuel 15. According to Rydelnik, the MT is making the Hebrew Bible less Messianic and more historical, possibly in an attempt to counter Christian claims that the Hebrew Bible was Messianic and predicted Jesus Christ. Rydelnik defends the LXX and other readings as the original ones, by considering what makes more sense within the passage’s immediate literary context. Rydelnik holds that certain passages within the Hebrew Bible not only predicted a Messiah, but also presented the Messiah as divine (i.e., long-living).
In Chapter 4, “Innerbiblical Perspectives on Messianic Prophecies,” Rydelnik argues that certain passages in the Hebrew Bible that Christians considered to be Messianic were interpreted as such elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. This is an argument that appears throughout Rydelnik’s book. Rydelnik seems to believe that seeing how a passage was interpreted elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible can not only clue us in on how the passage was interpreted at early stages, but can also give us insight as to what the passage originally meant. In Chapter 5, “Canonical Perspectives on Messianic Prophecies,” Rydelnik contends that the order of books in the Hebrew Bible, their internal organization (in the case of Psalms), and even their inclusion in the Jewish canon related to the Jewish hope for the Messiah. For example, the Book of Judges laments the time when Israel lacked a king and people did what was right in their own eyes, and many scholars maintain that this reflects a defense of ancient Israelite monarchy, such as that of King David. Rydelnik notes, however, that Judges 18:30 mentions the exile, and so Rydelnik concludes that the Book of Judges is expressing a longing for God to restore the Davidic monarchy after Israel’s exile: to raise up the Messiah, in short.
In Chapter 6, “New Testament Perspectives on Messianic Prophecy,” Rydelnik argues that New Testament authors believed that the Old Testament literally and directly predicted Jesus Christ. There was no belief within the New Testament that a biblical passage had another meaning in its original context, yet applied to Christ in a secondary sense. Rather, according to Acts 2:29-30, David was knowingly speaking of Christ when he was discussing resurrection, not himself. According to Mark 12:36-37, David was speaking about his Lord, seated at the right hand of God. According to I Peter 1:10-11, the Old Testament prophets were aware that they were predicting the coming of the Messiah, even if they may not have known all of the details. In Chapter 7, “Decoding the Hebrew Bible: How the New Testament Reads the Old,” however, Rydelnik does not believe that every passage from the Hebrew Bible that the New Testament relates to Jesus Christ originally pertained to Christ, or Christ’s time. Rachel weeping for her children in Jeremiah 31:15, for example, concerned the exile, even though Matthew 2:18 relates it to Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. For Rydelnik, Matthew was recognizing that Rachel has wept for her children since the time of Babylonian exile, since God’s people Israel has continued to suffer. Rydelnik also in this chapter offers an interesting explanation for Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, as Matthew applies to Jesus a passage that originally concerned Israel coming out of Egypt. Rydelnik believes that Numbers 24:8, in which God appears to lead the king of Israel out of Egypt, is relevant to how Matthew approaches Hosea 11:1.
In Chapter 8, Rydelnik discusses the contribution of the eleventh century Jewish interpreter Rashi to biblical exegesis, specifically exegesis that interpreted passages in the Hebrew Bible as related to historical events, rather than to the coming of the Messiah. According to Rydelnik, Rashi still employed a Messianic interpretation of certain passages, but not for many of the passages that Christians were interpreting in reference to Jesus Christ. In those cases, Rashi tended to interpret the passages as relating to their original historical contexts, not the coming Messiah. In doing so, Rydelnik points out, Rashi was departing from a lot of traditional Jewish interpretation.
In Chapter 9, “An Example of the Law: Interpreting Genesis 3:15 as a Messianic Prophecy,” Rydelnik argues that Genesis 3:15 is about Messiah’s defeat of Satan, not the hostility between humans and snakes (who were a common threat to people in that day), as some Jewish commentators, and even a number of evangelical scholars, have maintained. In Chapter 10, “An Example from the Prophets: Interpreting Isaiah 7:14 as a Messianic Prophecy,” Rydelnik argues that Isaiah 7:14 was Messianic and was predicting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. Because the prophecy is directed to the house of David in general, Rydelnik does not believe that its significance is limited to the time of King Ahaz: it could have addressed Ahaz’s situation, while foretelling an event far in the future. In addition, Rydelnik looks at the use of the Hebrew word almah in the Hebrew Bible and sees good reason to believe that it means a virgin, not just a young woman. Rydelnik also brings ancient Near Eastern languages into the discussion. In Chapter 11, “An Example from the Writings: Interpreting Psalm 110 as a Messianic Prophecy,” Rydelnik contends that Psalm 110 is Messianic. He not only looks at Psalm 110 itself, but also at what he believes are interpretations of Psalm 110 elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
After chapters of heavy (and yet very lucid) biblical exegesis, Chapter 12 was quite refreshing to read. There, Rydelnik tells the story of when he was a high school student and was challenging an educated Jewish speaker on the interpretation of biblical passages. Rydelnik was quoting to the speaker passages that he (Rydelnik) believed predicted Jesus, and the speaker offered alternative explanations for all of them. Rydelnik would go on to get degrees related to the Bible, and the speaker would later become a national radio talk show host (and I have my guess about who that is), who did not want to debate Rydelnik because the host was afraid of alienating his Christian listeners. Rydelnik narrates that he long felt like a failure because he could not defend Jesus being the Messiah back when he was a high school student, but a later event would convince him that God could use even his ineptitude for God’s glory. One of Rydelnik’s high school teachers, a Jew, decided to investigate the Bible and later became a Messianic Jew as a result of that high school encounter between Rydelnik and the speaker. The passages that Rydelnik was quoting sounded Messianic to the high school teacher, whatever the educated speaker was saying, and so the teacher decided to study the issue.
Now, for my critique. Here are some items:
—-Rydelnik states that the Masoretic Text contains rabbinic traditions. Why, however, would rabbinic traditions want to de-eschatologize and historicize passages in the Hebrew Bible, as Rydelnik says the MT does, when even Rydelnik acknowledges that the rabbis strongly believed in the coming Messiah and even interpreted as Messianic some of the passages that Christians deemed to be Christological? And yet, while I believe that there is a possibility that certain passages were originally historical and later became interpreted as eschatological, I do not thoroughly dismiss Rydelnik’s argument regarding the Masoretic Text. There are scholars who have argued that there is strong Karaite influence behind the MT, and I wonder if that could have contributed to the MT embracing a more historical reading of certain passages.
—-Rydelnik regards Micah 5:2 as a direct prophecy of Jesus Christ, specifically Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. My problem with that interpretation is that Micah 5 mentions aspects of Micah’s historical context: the threat of Assyria, for example. Micah 5 could reflect Micah’s hopes of what God would soon do about the Assyrian threat, namely, raise up a Davidic king, rather than being a prophecy about a Messiah who would enter the picture about five hundred years in the future. Rydelnik should have addressed this issue. Come to think of it, Rydelnik, overall, should have addressed historical context more often than he did: Even if passages are Messianic, how were they relevant to their original historical contexts?
—-Rydelnik argues that Genesis 3:15 is interpreted in reference to the Messiah and Satan elsewhere within the Hebrew Bible. Why, then, is there such a dearth of depictions in the Hebrew Bible of Satan as the grand enemy of God, as opposed to being merely a prosecuting attorney? Moreover, while we are talking about inner-biblical interpretation, why is Isaiah 11:8 irrelevant to Genesis 3:15? In Isaiah 11:8, the young child plays on the hole of the snake. That seems to me to interpret Genesis 3:15 in reference to the struggle between humans and snakes, the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 that Rydelnik disputes, for the point of Isaiah 11:8 appears to be that humans will no longer need to be afraid of snakes.
—-Rydelnik argues that the serpent in Genesis 3:15 is Satan rather than a simple snake, and that the second part of Genesis 3:15 concerns the Messiah (the seed of the woman) smiting Satan. While Rydelnik is open to the possibility that the first part of Genesis 3:15 is about the descendants of the woman being in conflict with the followers (the seed of) Satan, the serpent, he maintains that the second part concerns a conflict between two specific individuals: the Messiah and Satan. Rydelnik notes that the conflict is between the woman’s seed and one specific snake, the one from the Garden of Eden. This would not fit the interpretation that Genesis 3:15 is about the conflict between humans and snakes, Rydelnik contends, for the snake who will be defeated will be the one from the Garden of Eden. According to Rydelnik, that shows that the snake from Eden must be more than a simple snake, for this snake will be around for a very long time, living far longer than other snakes do! I am not entirely convinced by Rydelnik’s argument here, and the reason is that, within the Hebrew Bible, it seems to me that an individual can be equated, on some level, with his offspring. When the prophets talk about David ruling over Israel in the future, are they referring to David specifically, or is David being equated with his dynasty, or his descendants, or one of his descendants? The latter makes more sense to me. I think that recognizing that a person can live on in his descendants, not only allows for the serpent in Genesis 3:15 to be equated with his offspring, but also explains passages that Rydelnik believes indicate that the Messiah will be divine. When Psalm 72:5 says that the king will last as long as the sun and moon, is that saying that a specific individual will live that long, or rather that the king’s dynasty will last that long? (I should also note that, in the Book of Daniel, people express the hope that the kings of Babylon and Persia will live forever. How literal is that?)
—-Rydelnik makes a fairly decent case that the Hebrew word almah (used in Isaiah 7:14) means a virgin, rather than merely a young woman. For example, Rydelnik refers to Song of Songs 6:8, where the alamot seem to be distinguished from wives and concubines. If the alamot had sex, Rydelnik argues, then they would have been in the concubine category, and thus the alamot probably refer to ladies who are virgins, yet will eventually become either wives or concubines. I am not entirely convinced, however, that almah has to mean a virgin, or primarily concerns virginity. Almah is arguably the feminine form of elem, which appears in I Samuel 17:56 and 20:22. Elem most likely means a young man: When Saul in I Samuel 17:56 wants someone to inquire who exactly the elem David is after David has killed Goliath, I don’t think that he is focusing on David being a virgin, but rather is saying that David is a young man. Moreover, while Rydelnik says that the Greek word parthenos, which the LXX uses in Isaiah 7:14 to translate almah, means virgin, many scholars have noted that parthenon in Genesis 34:3 refers to Dinah after she was raped, as Shechem is said to love her and to attempt to comfort her. I do not rule out that Song of Songs 6:8 sees the alamot as virgins, for young women probably were virgins in that day; I am doubtful, however, that the word almah itself has the innate meaning of virgin.
—-In The Unbreakable Promise, Rydelnik said that there is a sudden shift to the singular in Genesis 22:17 as Abraham’s seed is discussed. According to Rydelnik, the seed in the second part of Genesis 22:17 refers to a single individual (whom Rydelnik interprets as the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ), not the collective nation of Israel. This puzzled me, since it did not look to me as if there were any shift in Genesis 22:17. Rather, it seemed to me that zera in both of its uses there was a singular noun, most likely applied to Abraham’s seed in a collective sense. In The Messianic Hope, however, Rydelnik explains his stance more fully. He noted that the second part of Genesis 22:17 affirms that Abraham’s seed will inherit the gate of his (singular) enemies. In addition, on page 140, Rydelnik refers to a scholarly article by Jack Collins, which (in Rydelnik’s words) “demonstrated that when a biblical author has a collective sense for ‘seed’ in mind, he uses plural pronouns and verbal forms to describe it[, whereas] when he has an individual in mind, he uses singular verb forms and pronouns to describe the ‘seed.'” I did a quick search on zera. I believe that zera can be used with a singular verb form and still have a collective sense. At the same time, I do notice that there are times when plural pronouns are used with zera when zera is obviously collective. Can a singular pronoun be used when zera is collective? I do not yet know. Perhaps I should look at more of the passages at some point! This article by a Jewish counter-missionary looks at examples in the Hebrew Bible in which a singular pronoun can have a collective sense, and that might be relevant.
—-Even if Rydelnik is right that the Hebrew Bible is Messianic—-and he may be on to something there, as far as the organization and inner-biblical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is concerned—-does that mean that the Messiah has to be Jesus? Even rabbinic Judaism believed that the Hebrew Bible was Messianic, but it did not think that Jesus was that Messiah! I suppose that it depends. Rydelnik makes a fairly decent case that Psalm 22:16 means that someone’s hands and feet are being pierced. Rydelnik believes that this predicts Jesus’ crucifixion, but is there reason to believe that piercing hands and feet could have been a way that people were tortured in the Psalmist’s time? How plausible is that? Moreover, Isaiah 53 could be significant in that it may be about someone who dies for the sins of others; unfortunately, Rydelnik does not engage that passage or its many interpretations that much, at least not in this book. (He does host a Bible study curriculum about it, though!)