There are two very distinct lines of prophecy in the Scriptures concerning the Messiah which pose an interesting dilemma. One line of prophecy portrays the Messiah as a humble and suffering servant, while the other line of prophecy depicts Him as a conquering king and redeemer. The ancient rabbis recognized these competing functions and labored to resolve the two roles of the Messiah which seem to be at variance with one another.
When the death of the Messiah became an accepted tenet in Talmudic times, it posed a challenge to reconcile this idea with the belief that the Messiah was the Redeemer Who would usher in the Kingdom and the blissful Messianic age. The dilemma was resolved by splitting the person of the Messiah into two persons: Messiah ben Joseph would raise an army against Israel's enemies only to fall in battle after many victories and miracles, while Messiah ben David would come after him and lead Israel to victory and ultimately triumph.
This wasn't the only purpose this splitting of the Messiah achieved. According to our Sages, the person of the Messiah is perfectly prefigured in Moses. Mose died before he could enter the Promised Land, and so the Messiah, also, had to die before accomplishing His great task of ultimate redemption. The solution was to let one Messiah, like Moses, die, and then assign the completion of the work of Redemption to a second Messiah.
And every one who has been delivered from the evils that
I have foretold shall see my wonders. For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who
are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and
all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence
for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall
be left (4 Ezra 7:27-30).
And the land shall mourn, every family apart (Zech. 12:12). What is the reason of this mourning? R' Dosa and the rabbis differ about it. R' Dosa says: "[They will mourn] over the Messiah who will be slain," and the rabbis say, [They will mourn] over the Evil Inclination which will be killed [in the days of the Messiah] . . . " (Sukkah 52a).
Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May
he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said,
I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy
But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him,
‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’.’As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your
father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou
gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever] (Sukkah 52a).
Zechariah was said to be prophesying of the Messiah ben Joseph:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey."
He is depicted as the King of Zion and yet lowly and riding on a humble donkey. This passage is quoted three times in the Babylonian Talmud and always in connection with the Messiah. The first occurrence is in a passage that is dealing with dreams:
He that sees a donkey in his dream should expect salvation because it says: 'Behold, your King comes to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding upon an ass (Berachot 56b).
Another Talmudic reference is found in Sanhedrin 99a where a retort is given to Rabbi Hillel citing the Zechariah Scripture, noting that it prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Finally, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, referring to the Zechariah Scripture, said that if Israel is not worthy, then the Messiah will come lowly and riding upon an ass. This is Messiah ben Joseph - the Suffering Messiah. The rabbis also argued that the Messiah was not only humble, but oppressed as well:
'He is humble and riding upon an ass.' This refers to the Messiah and He is called anee [poor, humble, and oppressed] because he was oppressed all those years in prison, and the sinners of Israel derided Him . . . (Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 35).
The prophet Isaiah also wrote concerning the Messiah:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the L-RD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:6-7)
There was no other way for the Messiah to come. The Midrashim hold to the view that Isaiah is speaking of the Redeemer in this passage. Concerning these chapters (i.e. Is. 52-53), Rabbi Moshe Alshekh, 16th century Sfat, commented:
[Our] rabbis with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of King Messiah (Isaiah 53, According to Jewish Interpreters, Oxford 1899).
The Targum paraphrases:
Behold My Servant the Messiah shall prosper (Targum in Isaiah 52:13).
The Targum continues:
He will build the Temple that was polluted because of our sins. We all have been scattered like sheep, each was dispatched into captivity to his own way, but it was the will from before the L-rd 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)
No one was to build the Temple except the Messiah according to Jewish tradition. Also, several of the sages in the Midrashim, understand the threefold expressions contained within those Scripture, "exalted, extolled, and to be very high." as an indication that the "Messiah shall be more exalted than Abraham . . . more extolled than Moses . . . and be very high . . . ; that is, higher than the ministering angels." (cf. Midrash Tanhuma and Yalkut vol. ii, para. 338, Edersheim, p. 727).
The Targum clearly paraphrases these verses as consistent references to the Messiah. A tractate in Sanhedrin relates Isaiah 53 to the sufferings of the Messiah:
The rabbis say the Messiah's name is The Suffering Scholar of Rabbi's House [or the Leper Scholar] for it is written: 'Surely He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of G-d and afflicted.' (Sanhedrin 98a)
The upshot of all this is that the rabbinical authorities have been acutely aware of the clear teaching of Scripture concernng the suffering of a Messiah Who would die.
"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. An had He thus not 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 sickness He has carried.'" (Zohar II, 212a)
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch