By H. Rosa
The subject of prophecy comes up in the Christian writings in connection to the persona of Jesus, and why Christians regard Jesus as Israel's messiah. We need to take a look at the case for Jesus as messiah, but first we need to address the matter of the Bible's prophets, and what prophecy consists of.
What is prophecy? The Rambam (R. Moshe Ben Maimon), in his wonderful book, The Guide for the Perplexed, has a very deep answer for this question. I will put forth a summarized answer based on his understanding.
“Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most Perfect development of the imaginative faculty. Prophecy is a faculty that cannot in any way be found in a person, or acquired by man, through a culture of his mental and moral faculties: for even if these latter were as good and perfect as possible, they would be of no avail, unless they were combined with the highest natural excellence of the imaginative faculty.”
A prophetic individual, furthermore, will possess these three perfections, again, according to Rambam:
“Mental perfection acquired by training, perfection of the natural constitution of the imaginative faculty, and moral perfection produced by the suppression of every thought of bodily pleasures, and of every kind of foolish or evil ambition.”
Prophets use their intellect as well as their imaginative faculties to explain that which they have received by the Devine Being. They acquire a level of perfection which gets them to the point that they can serve as a prophet. You’ll also find that they are high in courage and intuition, and that all these prophets spoke in similes. But, “all true prophets undoubtedly conceived ideas that resulted from premises which human reason could not comprehend by itself, thus they’d tell things which men could not tell by reason and ordinary imagination alone; for [the action of the prophets’ mental capacities is influenced by] the same agent that causes the perfection of the imaginative faculty, and that enables the prophet thereby to foretell a future event with such clearness as if it was a thing already perceived with the senses, and only through them conveyed to his imagination.”
Moses, however, stands on an even higher level than that of the other Biblical prophets. The Rambam says that Moses’ prophecy was distinguished from that of all his predecessors. His prophetic perception was different from that of the Patriarchs and excelled it. Furthermore, as for all the succeeding prophets, the Rambam validates the uniqueness of Moses with (Deut. 34:10) “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face”; meaning that he had a higher prophetic perception than the later prophets of Israel (and even more so than any of the prophets of other nations), because he received prophecy directly from G-d “face to face,” whereas the others received prophecy by dreams and visions, or inspiration of the holy spirit.
Rambam teaches further: “The general distinction between the wonders of Moses and those of other prophets is this: The wonders wrought by prophets, or for them, are witnessed by a few individuals, e.g., the wonders wrought by Elijah and Elisha” whereas in the case of Moses, his wonders were witnessed by many. To give an example: In Egypt “the Pharaoh, all his servants and all his land, the opponents of Moses, and also all the Israelites, his followers” (Rambam’s Guide), were witness to the wonders leading to the Exodus and later to the giving of the Torah.
According to Rambam, there are also different degrees in which a prophet may receive prophecy. A true prophet may get his prophecy from visions or dreams and is described as being given by an angel that speaks to him. This is the highest form of prophecy; here we find Abraham, Isaiah, Micaiah and Ezekiel to name a few. Other’s; such as David, Solomon and Daniel, these fall in another degree which is that of inspiration by the ruach hakodesh or holy spirit. For further reasons why Daniel falls into this category, please refer to The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter XLV, by Rambam. The lowest degree of a true prophet is that “of those who introduce their speech by the phrase, “And the word of the Lord came unto me,” or a similar phrase. The prophet sees an allegory in a dream-under those conditions which we have mentioned when speaking of real prophecy (see “Guide” for more info) -- and in the prophetic dream itself the allegory is interpreted. Such are most of the allegories of Zechariah.” These are just examples of the degrees. You can read all the information Rambam has in The Guide for the Perplexed if you wish to get a better understanding.
With this in mind, what can we make of the areas where the Christian writings say Jesus was prophesied about in the Hebrew Scriptures? I hope to examine these areas from the perspective of what is understood within the tradition of Israel and not from any foreign theological misconceptions.
Isaiah 7 & 53- Is it really about Jesus?
From my personal research, there are really only two places in the Hebrew Scriptures (“old testament”) that the Christian faith can really attempt to read into the context of the text any reference to Jesus in prophecy by the Prophets of old.
Before I go into these two areas, I'd like to first deal with the issue of the prophet and the false prophet. Many times it's overlooked that when a prophet made a prediction or gave a prophecy there was a system that is found within the text that gives us the proof of why the prophet speaking is a prophet. In one of our studies with Jack Saunders, we found that Prophecy comes in two types:
1. Positive, and
I will address firstly the latter. What is negative prophecy? This can be answered simply with the accounts of Jonah in chapter 3. Chapter 3:4 says the following:
(4) And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.."
This is a perfect example of a negative prophecy. This prophecy is saying that the city will be destroyed. They will be punished. A negative prophecy, however, leaves room for what? Repentance! Let's look at the next verses,
"..5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. 6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger that we perish not? 10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.."
In this group of verses we see that the King, the people and even the animals repented, thus, negating their punishment. Now the question is; “Is Jonah a false prophet?” The answer is a resounding NO. The reason it didn't come to pass was because they repented. If they had not repented then it would have come to pass.
So, how does positive prophecy differ from that of negative prophecy? Though I'm not going to deal with it here, Jeremiah the prophet, dealt with this issue extensively. Where? In Jeremiah Chapter 28, when he had a verbal duel with Hananiah the prophet. Jeremiah spoke in a negative form while Hananiah spoke in a positive form and was proven to be a false prophet.
This issue is much different and very important in being able to accept the prophet who gave the prophecies, which Christianity claims, talk about Jesus. I'm speaking about Isaiah chapters 7 and 53.
Remembering that a negative prophecy that doesn't come true doesn't make you a false prophet, we need to consider what the claims, about chapters 7 and 53, do for the reputation of Isaiah. For one it would mean that, if chapter 7 was talking about the "virgin" birth of Jesus (many years later), it would make Isaiah a false prophet and no other prophecy would have been accepted by him. This would in turn make the supposed prophecy of Isaiah 53 not be important since the last one didn't come true within its allotted time frame. What do I mean by "its allotted time frame"? Just that! Every prophecy has a time in which it’s going to come to pass, unless specified otherwise.
Every time a prophecy is given you have to ask yourself a series of questions to try and get a better understanding of why the prophecy is given. What are these questions, you might ask?
1. Who is the prophecy being given to?
2. Why is the prophecy given?
3. What time frame is the prophecy given for?
4. What is the prophecy given within context?
Let's look at Isaiah 7 first and try to answer these questions:
Who was the prophecy given to? It was given to King Ahaz. Why? It was given as a sign, 'ot' in Hebrew, because his kingdom was going to be attacked by enemies. What was the time frame in which this would take place? The time frame is by the time that the child that will be shortly born unto a "young woman/alma", not "virgin" as it's been translated, is responsible for his own actions. This would normally be the age of 13 within Hebrew traditions. What was the prophecy? The prophecy was a sign.
So, that's the sign, i.e., the birth of this child and before a certain age and during their own lifetime the kings plotting against King Ahaz will be done away with by G'd.
This is the true context of the text of Isaiah chapter 7. In no part of the context does it say that it's in a distant future (about 700 years distant). This has been used, very weakly, by the Christian theologians to convince people of the "virgin" birth that supposedly happened according to the Christian text. In reality, only that text is its own dependant source.
Now, how was this prophecy seen in it's time? It was seen as a positive prophecy that came true. Thus, any other prophecy about a distant future can now be accepted.
So, what do we make of Isaiah 53 and how it relates, or doesn't, to Jesus in Hebrew Scripture prophecy? The question should be if chapter 53 is really a prophecy and if it's about the Messiah or not? There are different points of view, but when you look at the text that surrounds this chapter it has a makeup of being a more detailed account of prior comments and further comments surrounding it. What is the chapter dealing with and why? This chapter deals with the idea of "the servant of G'd". Now we have to ask:
1. Who is this servant?
2. Why is he being spoken of?
3. What is being said about him?
When we look at Isaiah we find out that he deals with this "servant" everywhere, before and after chapter 53, as always being reference to the nation of Israel and their forefather Jacob. From a friend of mine, as well as from an article entitled “Isaiah 53- Plagiarism not Prophecy,” by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, I learned that this chapter has a past tense perspective. He also says that Isaiah is giving the narration of the nations' views of Israel, and G'd's words as well.
Here is an excerpt from his article:
The Nations’ words:
“1. Who would believe what we had heard? For whom has the arm of G-d been revealed? 2. Formerly he grew like a sapling or like a root from arid ground; he had neither form nor grandeur; we saw him but without such visage that we could desire him. 3. He was despised and isolated from men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness. As one from whom we would hide our faces; he was despised and we had no regard for him. 4. But in truth it was our ills that he bore, and our pains that he carried – but we had regarded him diseased, stricken by G-d, and afflicted. 5. He was pained because of our rebellious sins and oppressed through our iniquities, the chastisement upon him was for our benefit, and through his wounds we were healed. 6. We have all strayed like sheep, each of us turning his own way, and G-d inflicted upon him, the iniquity of us all.7. He was persecuted and afflicted, but he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to the slaughter or an ewe that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8. Now that he has been released from captivity and judgment, who could have imagined such a generation? For he had been removed from the land of the living, an affliction upon them that was my people’s sin. 9. He submitted himself to his grave like wicked men; and the wealthy submitted to his executions, for committing no crime, and with no deceit in his mouth. 10. God desired to oppress him and He afflicted him; if his soul would acknowledge guilt, he would see offspring and live long days and the desire of G-d would succeed in his hand.
11. He would see the purpose and be satisfied with his soul’s distress, with his knowledge My servant will vindicate the Righteous One to the multitudes, and their sins does he shoulder. 12. Therefore I will assign him a portion from the multitudes and he will divide the mighty as spoils, in return for having poured out his soul for death and being counted among the wicked, and he carried the sins of the many, and prayed for the sinners.”
Also, "A simple reading makes it clear that Isaiah 53 is describing the ‘past’ state of the downtrodden Jews, not forecasting a future messiah"
Also, "Isaiah describes the Jews as “one man.” “Man” here is not referring to an individual, but to the collective - the whole - of Israel. The Torah uses “man” in place of the entire nation in dozens of other locations. (See Deut. 27:14, Joshua 9:6, Judges 8:22 and 9:55…there are numerous other cases.)"
I chose these words from his article because they prove my understanding of the text within the context of the prior chapters and the chapters after Isaiah 53.
The last quote above clarifies what is evident in the text, i.e., Isaiah's description of the "one man" is about Israel. Just look at chapters 41-59 and the "servant of God" is always Israel. Why would 53 be about Jesus? In one specific area, Isaiah actually deals with the first question that is asked by the nations. On Isaiah Ch. 43 we see a distinct language by the prophet Isaiah that we can't over look:
9 [If] all the nations would assemble together, all the nationalities congregate, who among them could predict such things, or tell us of things already come. Let them bring forth their proofs and be justified, or let them hear and say, "it is true."
Here we see that Isaiah is talking about the nations and what they will say about Israel.
Let's compare to Ch. 53:
“1. Who would believe what we had heard? For whom has the arm of God been revealed? (Read the rest of this verse above for entire context)
G-d's answer already given before:
Isaiah 41:9-10 "Thou whom I have taken hold of from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the uttermost parts thereof, and said unto thee: 'Thou art My servant (Israel), I have chosen thee and not cast thee away'; 41:10 Fear thou not, for I am with thee, be not dismayed, for I am thy God; I strengthen thee, yea, I help thee; yea, I uphold thee with My victorious right hand."
Here we see the same question, but from the perspective of the nations as previously attested to in Chapter. 43. We can even see that in earlier chapters Isaiah is setting the mood up for the dialogue of the nations and G-d found in Ch. 53. Furthermore, if you put verse 10 of the same chapter with ch.59:21 you see a connection as well.
10.”You are My witnesses (Israel), says HASHEM, and My servant (Israel) whom I have chosen, so that you should know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me was nothing created by any god and after Me shall not be.”
“And as for Me, this is My covenant with them, said G-d, My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, said G-d, from this moment and forever.”
Again, here "servant" is referring to Israel and we know that Israel was given the covenant and that's who G-d means by "them" in the above quote.
So who was the suffering servant and who was always called the servant of G-d in Isaiah and else where? Israel. That's who!
Think about it for a minute. What about the Muslims? They say that Jesus was a great prophet and came to pave the way for Muhammad, the last prophet. I think that if G-d changed his mind and did away with his own Torah with the sacrifice of Jesus, then he also changed his mind and did away with the sacrifice of Jesus with the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad. By this progressive mind change, then, we should all be Muslims. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be an atheist if G-d really did change His mind that many times!
Hopefully, those reading this will stop and think for a moment on how in the world G-d would give his chosen people a way to live by and then undo it by somehow having to need a sacrifice of a man to take away the sins of anyone. We can't forget that when Moses requested this very notion he was turned down (Exodus 32:31-34). G-d clearly states that "he is no man that he should repent, nor a son of man that he should lie" (Numbers 23:16-19), he told Moses that only "those who sinned against him would be blotted from the book of life"(Exodus 32:33). What does this all mean?
1. G-d is only One. He's the unknowable G-d and sustainer of all. G-d exists therefore all else does.
2. He never required the blood of any man to take up the sins for any other man. The death of a person can pay only for that person's own sin.
3. Also, that Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of the future, but a telling of the accounts of the "servant" of God and how the nations dealt with this servant, i.e., Israel. In the words where G-d is speaking, we see that He transmits to us how the nations try to justify or vindicate the nation of Israel. The Torah makes it a point that G-d is the only one who will vindicate Israel.
In his article, Rabbi Ben-Chaim, using the words of Radak, clarifies that G-d is trying to teach Israel, the people receiving the information, that the nations seek to understand them and their relation to G-d. This seeking is what Israel is being encouraged by G-d to take advantage of and teach the nations so they understand better G-d's plan for them and all of humanity.
It's very unfortunate that the misunderstanding of the text has been what has taken center stage instead of the correct understanding from the context of the text surrounding the chapter. In my personal journey to Truth, I've had to deal with this very topic and thanks to the help of my Torah teacher, friends and Rabbi Ben-Chaim's article; I can finally get a better understanding of why it is the nations and not Jesus which this chapter deals with.
I'd like to conclude with two more quotes. Genesis 12, verse 3: "I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse; and through you, will be blessed all the families of the earth." And, Genesis chapter 17, verse 7, "I will sustain My covenant between Me and you, and between your descendants after you throughout their generations as an eternal covenant, to be a G-d to you, and to your descendants after you."
Let these last two quotes make the reader ask themselves, who is Abraham's G-d, the G-d of Israel? And, what is His Name? This is the G-d of our Creation. This is the God that sustains all. May all the nations seek to know Him in the same sense as did Adam, Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham - and Abraham's descendants as well, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Children of Israel! Let the nations not only be familiar with God's aspect of Elokim, i.e., the Judge, the Powers, but also with His aspect of Merciful Kindness, i.e., HaShem (the Tetragrammaton, the Name Y, H, V, and H).
Words of Encouragement
1 Kings 8:41-43
"..Moreover concerning a stranger, that [is] not of thy people Israel, but cometh out of a far country for thy name's sake; Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to thee for: that all people of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee, as [do] thy people Israel; and that they may know that this house, which I have builded, is called by thy name.."
"..O Praise HaShem, all ye nations: praise Him, all ye people. For
His Merciful Kindness is great towards us: and the Truth of
HaShem endureth forever. Praise ye HaShem.."
© 2006 H. Rosa.
HaShem (lit., "the Name"): this term is used in reference to the four-letter Name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton. The Children of Israel, as well as informed Noahides, generally say Adonai (lit., "my G-d"), in prayer, or HaShem, in other contexts, when it comes to this extremely holy Name. We don't invoke G-'d's great Name presumptuously.