Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Vayechi

Torah: Genesis.47:28-50:26.Haftarah:1 Kings 2:1-12

The Ironic Benediction

The choice of Haftarah for this week’s Torah reading could not be less congruous. David’s death bed advice to Solomon about bumping off his enemies is the polar opposite to Jacob’s blessings on his sons.  

In Genesis 49, Jacob gathers together his sons to tell them what will befall them in ‘days to come’ (v1) and although there is a measure of rebuke, notably for Reuben, Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s swan song takes the form of a series of blessings on his sons. His fullest blessings are reserved for Joseph and Judah. We might well expect special blessing to be bestowed on Joseph, who was not only Jacob’s favourite son but who also saved his family and the ancient Middle East from starvation. Nevertheless, it is Judah who will be praised by his brothers and to whom they will ‘bow low’ (v8). It is from Judah that the kingly line of Israel will spring: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet’ (v10).

There are Jewish and Christian scholars who regard ‘Shiloh’ as a proper name of the Messiah and verse 10 has been a major bone of contention between those who believe the Hebrew word ‘Shiloh’ is a proper name and those who don’t.

The 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible renders Genesis 49:10 as: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.’

Seventy years later, in 1985, the translators of Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures, the ‘New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text’ changed the second half of the verse significantly: The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of the people be his.’

Acknowledging in a footnote that that the literal reading of verse 10 should be, ‘Until he comes to Shiloh’, the publisher justifies the translation by suggesting ‘Shiloh’ should be understood as shai loh, meaning ‘tribute to him’. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the translators have deviated from ‘the Traditional Hebrew Text’ and are following their own agenda.

Without wishing to get unnecessarily bogged down in the technicalities of Hebrew, it is crucially important to know if Genesis 49:10 is a reference to the Messiah and, if so, what it teaches us about him.

The ancient Targums, or interpretations of the Tanakh, recognised Genesis 49:10 as a prophecy of the Messiah. The Targum of Onkelos, for example, renders Genesis 49:10: ‘The ruling of the house of Judah will not be over … until the coming of the Messiah whose kingdom is his, and nations will listen to him.’

Jonathan ben Uzziel interprets Jacob’s prophecy in this way: ‘The kingdom and rule will not cease from the house of Judah … until the time of the coming of the Messiah, and to him people will gather.’

The Babylonian Talmud states clearly that ‘Shiloh’ in Genesis 49:10 is the Messiah. In tractate Sanhedrin 98b, Rabbi Johanan says: ‘The world was created … For the sake of the Messiah. What is his [the Messiah's] name? …  His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come.’

The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis says: ‘Until Shiloh comes’ alludes to ‘the royal Messiah. AND UNTO HIM SHALL THE OBEDIENCE (YIKHATH) OF THE PEOPLE BE...

The Midrash links ‘his foal and his colt’ to the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9) which states that Messiah will enter Jerusalem ‘lowly, and riding upon an ass’.

He washes his garments in wine’, says the Midrash, ‘intimates that he [the Messiah] will compose for them words of Torah’, or, according to the footnote, will ‘Propound new meanings and interpretations of the Torah’.

‘And his vesture in the blood of grapes,’ says the Midrash, means Messiah ‘will restore to them their errors,’ that is, ‘He will point out where they [presumably the Jewish people] have misunderstood the Torah.’

Jacob appears to be prophesying that Judah will be the royal tribe in Israel and that the Messiah would come when Israel lost her independence, the sceptre being the symbol of rule. Israel lost her independence at the Babylonian exile and the sceptre departed from Judah under the Roman occupation when Rome placed puppet kings on the throne of Judah.

Jesus, whom many Jews and Gentiles believe to be King Messiah, lived during the time of the Roman occupation of Israel. In his teaching he did not so much ‘propound new meanings and interpretations of the Torah’ as point people to the true meaning of Torah that had become buried under the ‘Oral Torah’:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Torah … You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…’ You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart… Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery... Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all… You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies … that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (The Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 5)

 

One of the most striking aspects of the prophecy is that the Gentiles will gather to the Messiah or, as the Onkelos puts it, will ‘listen’ to him. Millions of Gentiles around the world have gathered to Jesus. They listen to him and follow his teachings because they recognise him not only as the king of Israel but also the Saviour of the world. Many years ago, when I was the minister of a Christian congregation, we often used to start our services by singing: We are gathering together unto him / We are gathering together unto him / Unto him shall the gathering of the peoples be / We are gathering together unto him.

It is not uncommon to hear Jewish anti-missionaries state that when Messiah comes, the Jewish people will be the first to recognise him. But how many will be prepared to accept a Messiah who propounds ‘new meanings and interpretations of the Torah’ and points out where they have misunderstood the Torah’?

If the Jewish people are looking for Messiah to appear for the first time, they do so in vain. No messianic candidate could ever prove he is descended from the tribe of Judah. The tragic irony is that although many Jewish people reject Jesus precisely because he pointed out where they had misunderstood the Torah and the prophets, millions of Gentiles around the globe have gathered to him and gladly listen to him.


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