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The Suffering

Ben Yoseph (Joseph)


Rachmiel Frydland

There are two very distinct lines

 of prophecy in the Scriptures

concerning the Messiah.


One line portrays him as a humble suffering-savior.

The other line of prophecy depicts him as a conquering king-redeemer.

   These two competing functions of the Messiah are recognized in Talmudic' and other Jewish sources. (2) One explanation invoked to resolve this dilemma was that there would be two Messiahs: one who would suffer and be humbled and one who would rule and be exalted. The suffering Messiah was referred to as Messiah Ben Yoseph.  Zechariah was said to have prophesied concerning "Messiah Ben Yoseph": Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;  shout O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is just and having salvation; lowly and riding  upon a colt ... . (3)   Perhaps no other prophet has summarized in such a succinct manner the humility of the coming Messiah. He is King of Zion yet He is lowly and riding on a humble donkey.   There is little doubt that the Talmud interprets the verse to refer to the Messiah. It is quoted three times in the Babylonian Talmud, and always with a messianic connotation. The first occurrence in the Talmud is a passage dealing with dreams:   He that sees a donkey in his dream should expect salvation because it says, 'Behold thy King cometh unto thee; He is just and having salvation; lowly and riding upon an ass.' (4)

   Another Talmudic reference was referred to in Chapter Ten.  In response to Rabbi Hillel's statement that "Israel can expect no Messiah because they consumed him in the days of Hezekiah," a retort is given by citing the Zechariah scripture, and noting that it prophesied a coming Messiah after the days of Hezekiah; hence, the Messiah had not yet come (5) Finally, Rabbi Yehoshua Bar Levi, referring to the Zechariah scripture, said that if Israel is not worthy, then the Messiah will come in humility riding upon an ass (6).  This is Messiah Ben Yoseph - the Suffering Messiah. A rabbinic commentary interprets the verse to mean that Messiah is not only humble but is oppressed as well. (7)   Zechariah is not the only prophet who spoke of Messiah's humiliation. As concerning him, Isaiah wrote:  All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.  [Y]et he opened not his mouth. (8)  We are all unworthy, & hence there was no other way for the Messiah to come but by humiliation, suffering & sacrifice. Isaiah refers to this suffering Messiah as "servant." In one passage he says: Behold my servant, whom I uphold ...I have put  my Spirit upon Him .(9)  Many Jewish commentators agree that this passage refers to the Messiah. (10)  One Targum paraphrases it:

Behold my Servant, the Messiah, I will draw Him near,

my chosen one in whom my Memra [Logos] is well pleased.

   Rashi, however, refers the "servant" to Israel, as he does all the servant passages in the Tanakh.  Ibn Ezra disagrees with both of the positions and, instead, refers the passages to Isaiah himself.  A very similar passage by Isaiah with a servant bent is:  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty  to the captive, & the opening of the prison to those who are bound...  (11)  The Midrashim support the view that Isaiah speaks of the Redeemer in this passage. (12)  However, most Jewish commentators on this passage relate it to Isaiah himself. This is very unusual, since both Isaiah passages are so similar. In the first passage the Lord upholds him; in the second passage the Lord anoints him. In both passages the Spirit is upon him. In both passages the one of whom the prophet speaks is meek and brings justice to the oppressed, vindicates the persecuted and brings righteousness to the poor and needy. It makes more sense to relate both passages to the same Person. (13)   These two passages do not exhaust Isaiah's prophecies concerning the servant of the Lord. There is a fuller description of him in the last three verses of the 52nd chapter and in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Although these scriptures are not part of the Haftora (prophetic) readings in the synagogue, they are none-the-less important canon and discussed at length in Jewish religious literature.  Concerning those chapters, Rabbi Moshe Alshekh, a famous rabbinic scholar who lived in Sfat in the 16th century remarked:  [Our] Rabbis with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of king Messiah. (14)

   Rabbi Alshekh's claim is true where it pertains to the last three verses of chapter 52. The Targum begins its paraphrase with:   Behold my Servant the Messiah shall prosper. (15)    The Targum continues into the 53rd chapter of Isaiah:  And He will build the Temple that was polluted because of our sins. (16) This must be the Messiah, for no one else was to build the Temple according to Jewish religious tradition, but the Messiah.  Additionally, several Midrashim take the threefold expressions contained within those scriptures, "exalted, and extolled and be very high," (17) as an indication that "Messiah shall be more exalted than Abraham ... more extolled than Moses ... and be very high; that is, higher than the Ministering Angels. ..." (18)   As concerning Isaiah 53, there is no unanimity of interpretation.  A Targum clearly paraphrases the early verses as consistent with a reference to the Messiah. (19)  A later verse, however, is not as explicit; and it is paraphrased as follows:  It was the Lord's will to purge & to purify the remnant of His people in order to cleanse their soul from guilt; they will see the Messiah's Kingdom ... & those that do God's Torah shall prosper in His will. (20)  Even here, however, there is no inconsistency. There is silence as to how the remnant was to be cleansed.  Since, however, they should see Messiah's Kingdom, it is logical that the Messiah, who should reign in the Messianic Kingdom, was responsible for their cleansing.   In the Talmud, too, we have a diversity of opinion regarding Isaiah 53.  Some verses are assigned to general matters (21); other portions are assigned to faithful Jews in general (22) or to Moses in particular. (23)  However, the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin relates the chapter to the sufferings of the Messiah.  According to it: The Rabanan (rabbis) say that Messiah's name is The suffering Scholar of Rabbi's House [or The Leper Scholar] for it is written Surely He hath borne our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. (24)
  There are Midrashim also that recognize that "He was wounded for our afflictions" speaks of the Messiah's affliction. (25)  The Pesikta Rabbati, a rabbinic commentary, similarly portrays the Messiah as One who, before the creation, consented to suffer for the sins of the souls of men in order to redeem them. (26) The Zohar, in interpreting the scripture from Isaiah 53, "surely our sicknesses he has carried," recognized that the Messiah "summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel." (27)  Generally, then, the Talmud, the Targum, the Midrashim, the Zohar and Pesikta Rabbati recognized a suffering Messiah in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 and other similar descriptions in the Tanakh. 

What seems to be clear from the sources is that rabbinical authorities have been aware of the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the suffering Messiah who would die.  There was, in addition to this concept of a Messiah Ben Yoseph, a Messiah Ben David who would be exalted as King Eternal. Though some rabbinic sources identified these as two Messiahs, they, in fact scripturally are One, a reality the rabbis failed to grasp.

REFERENCES :   (1) Sukkah 52. (2) Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, p. 166; Meyer Waxman, Galut  U'ge'valh Be' Sifrut Yibsra'el (Hotsa'at Oten 1952) chap. 7.(Wayne State Univ. Press '79)   (3) Zechariah 9:9    (4) Berachot 56b   (5) Sanhedrin 99a    (6) Sanhedrin 98b   (7) " 'He is humble riding upon an ass.' This refers to Messiah and He is called anee [poor, humble and oppressed] because He was oppressed all these years in prison, and the sinners of Israel derided Him ..For the merits of Messiah, The Holy One, blessed be He, will protect and redeem you." (Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 35.)   (8) Isaiah 53:6-7.   (9) Isaiah 42:11; see also verses 2-7. (10) Rabbi David Kimchi exposits the scripture as follows: "Behold my servant. ... This is King Messiah ... . I have put my Spirit ... refers to what is said of Him, 'And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him'   (Isaiah 11:2)." The commentaries Metsudat David and Metsudat Zion,  also refer the chapter to Messiah.   (11) Isaiah 61:1; see also verse 2-3.   (12) Midrash Rabbah, Lamentations 3:49-50, 59   (13) Accord, Matthew 12:15-18; Luke 4:16-18, 21   (14) Driver & Neubauer, Isaiah 53 According to Jewish Interpreters (Oxford 1899) [reprinted, KTAV]   (15) Targum on Isaiah 52:13  (16) Targum on Isaiah 53:5. The Targum continues: "We all have been scattered like sheep, each was dispatched into captivity to his own way, but it was the will from before the Lord to forgive all our sins for His sake. ... He removed the rulership of the Gentile nations from the land   of Israel." Targum on Isaiah 53:6,8   (17) Isaiah 52:13    (18) See Midrash Tanhuma (KTAV Publishing 1989) & Yalkut, vol. ii, para. 338, cited in Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Eerdmans 1977) p. 727.   (19) "The Righteous One shall grow up before him. ... He will build the Temple ... ." The Targum of Isaiah 53:2,5   (20) J.F. Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah (Oxford 1953) p. 180   (21) For example, "shall see his seed" is connected with blessing. Berakhot 57b   (22) Berakhot 5a  (23) Sotah 14a  (24) Sanhedrin 98a. Within this chapter of the tractate there is also the story of Elijah revealing to Rabbi Yehoshua Bar Levy that Messiah sits at the   gates of Rome among the poor and sick ones and removes one bandage at a ime, because he wants to be ready when called to the redemption of Israel.   (25) See e.g., Midrash Rabbah, Ruth (v.6)   (26) Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 36:142    (27) "There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel. All of these come and rest upon Him. And had He not thus lightened them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel's chastisements for the transgressions of the law; as it is written, 'Surely our sicknesses he has carried.' " (Zohar 11, 212a)


What The Rabbis Know About The Messiah by  Rachmiel Frydland.
Chapter excerpts reprinted with permission of The Messianic Literature Outreach

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