In order to dismiss the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, who suffered and died as a sacrifice for our sins, rabbis of our time try to claim that the Messiah was never supposed to suffer or to die at all, but rather that the Messiah was to be a King who would come to save and conquer. See for example the words of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who declared that when the Messiah comes, he will wipe out all the Arabs: “With one ‘poof’ he will blow them all away, who are the nations of the world? What are they? When the our righteous Messiah comes he will not be afraid of anyone. And will send all these Arabs to hell.”
But is the Messiah supposed to be a suffering son of Joseph, or a reigning son of David? Why is the concept of Messiah so confused in Judaism? Why there are so many different ideas of who the Messiah is in Judaism? Here are some answers.
As previously mentioned in the video about Isaiah 53, the Sages and all the wise men of Israel, up until 1,000 years after Jesus, interpreted Isaiah 53 as a prophecy about the suffering of the Messiah. The truth is that you will not find one rabbi that did not believe Isaiah 53 to be about the Messiah until long after the time of Jesus. The alternative interpretation of that the chapter only appeared due to the need to deny that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in that chapter. In other words, the claim that the Messiah would only come to conquer, to rule and to reign, is currently how the rabbis hide the fact a “suffering Messiah” does exist – or in other words, hide Jesus from us. But the reality is that the ancient sages of Israel recognized, understood, and taught about the sufferings and death of Israel’s Messiah.
In the Old Testament, there are seemingly contradictory descriptions of the image of the Messiah. At times he is rejected, suffers and dies, and at times he rules, reigns and conquers. This contradiction caused classical Jewish thought to believe in two Messiahs who will appear; one is a conquering King who was named “Messiah Son of David”, while the other suffers and is rejected by his people, and was named “Messiah Son of Joseph.” But modern rabbis try to hide the idea of Messiah Son of Joseph, a suffering Messiah, from Jewish thought.
In his book “Days of Messiah”, Rabbi Menachem Brod from the Chabad movement, writes: “By his suffering, the Messiah atones for his generation and enables every Jew to gain salvation. As it was said: ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… But he was pierced for our transgressions ; he was crushed for our iniquities;’” He based this on Isaiah 53.
Even the book of Zohar explains that by the Messiah’s suffering, Israel is saved from judgment. This is also based on Isaiah 53. The Ramban interprets the chapter like this: “Because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us; God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.” (Zohar II, 1)
Rabbi Moshe El-Sheikh adds and says that the Messiah willingly accepts the suffering upon himself: “As he himself desires to carry them… And we thought of him as he would not take them upon himself, only he who is afflicted and smitten by God. But when the time will come for him to reveal himself in all his glory, then all will see and understand how great is the strength of the one who suffers for his generation.” El-Sheikh also bases his interpretation on Isaiah 53.
But not it was not only Isaiah who predicted the suffering of the Messiah for our transgressions and iniquities. The prophet Zechariah in chapter 12 also predicts that he would die by the piercing or puncturing of his body, and that in his death the Messiah would take our transgressions upon himself. In the book of Zechariah, the prophet writes: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zec. 12:10) Zechariah predicts that one day, the people of Israel will mourn for the one they pierced; the Messiah, as they mourn for the death of a firstborn son.
In Yalkut Shimoni of the Talmud, it was said about Zechariah’s words: “As it was said on Messiah Son of Joseph who was killed, as it was written: ‘they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him…’” Rabbi Moshe El-Sheikh adds that: “‘they look on me’, they fixed their eyes on me in complete repentance, when they saw that the one they pierced, is Messiah Son of Joseph, who will take upon himself all the blame of Israel.” Rabbi El-Sheikh understood that Isaiah, in chapter 53, and Zechariah in chapter 12, prophesied that the Messiah should suffer and die for our transgressions and iniquities.
Rashi, in Sukkah 52:71, interpreted Zechariah 12:10 saying: “‘The land shall mourn,’ is found in the prophecy of Zechariah, and he prophesies of the future, that they shall mourn on account of Messiah, the son of Joseph, who shall be slain…”
The Jewish historian, Dr. Raphael Patai, summarizes the main points that the sages taught regarding the sufferings and afflictions of the Messiah: “Despised and afflicted with non-healing wounds, he sits in the gates of Great Rome and winds and unwinds the bandages of his festering sores; as a Midrash expresses it, ‘as if pains have adopted him.’ One of the most moving and psychologically meaningful of all Messianic legends, says that when God created the Messiah, He gave him the choice of whether or not to accept the sufferings for the sins of Israel. And the Messiah answered: ‘I accept it with joy so that not a single soul of Israel should perish.… In the later Zoharic [i.e., mystical] formulation of this legend, the Messiah himself summons all the diseases, pains, and sufferings of Israel to come upon him, in order to thus ease the anguish of Israel, which otherwise would be unbearable.”
Dr. Raphael Patai concludes the Sages’ sayings about the suffering Messiah, and says: “The Messiah himself… must spend his entire life in a state of constant and acute suffering, from the moment of his creation until the time of his advent many centuries, or even millennia later.”
And indeed today, several hundred years after Jesus suffered for our transgressions, more and more Jews recognize that Jesus gave his life for them and took our sins upon himself. The many references of this suffering in the Talmud, in the Midrash, in the Zohar, and among Old Testament interpreters, reminds us that classical Judaism actually does believe in a suffering Messiah. All this while modern rabbis like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Daniel Asor try to make Israel forget about the Suffering Messiah.
Jesus the Messiah is the most famous Jew of all times, and yet he was beaten, rejected, humiliated, and was hung on a cross. He is the Messiah with whom we, the Jewish people, can identify with, being such a famous people group throughout history, who have also been beaten, rejected, humiliated and almost destroyed.
Jesus is the suffering Messiah, who gives life, redeems and provides victory to anyone who puts their trust in Him.