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The Suffering Servant

By the time the Talmud was compiled in the 4th Century, Jewish sages had developed an interesting concept. They began to talk of an individual called Messiah Son of Joseph or "Mashiach ben Yosef", in Hebrew.

This character was meant to be linked not only to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, but also to other prophecies in such places as Zechariah, that spoke of a Messiah other than the great king and judge who will bring peace to the Earth, rebuild the Temple and bring back the Jews to the land. It was a fudge to explain away the prophecies fulfilled by Jesus in his first coming. After all, if it could be proved that the Jews still waited for two Messiahs, it gave strength to their argument that Jesus couldn't have been either!

Messiah Son of Joseph is to be of the tribe of Ephraim, the Son of Joseph. That immediately disqualified Jesus, of course, being of the tribe of David, the true messianic line. This "messiah" is to come first, before the second Messiah, the Messiah Son of David, but would have a subservient role. His role resembles that of John the Baptist, in that he would prepare the world for the coming of the main man. That's where any resemblance ends. Despite supposedly fitting the profile of a suffering servant, this Son of Joseph is a politician and a military man. He will wage war against Israel's enemies, particularly the descendants of Esau, whichever nation claim descendancy from the ancient Edomites. Here is the supporting Scripture:

"'The house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble, and they will set it on fire and consume it. There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.' The LORD has spoken." (Obadiah 1:18)

There will be a massive confrontation and the Son of Joseph will be killed, supported by the Scripture often attributed to Jesus.

 "... and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son." (Zechariah 12:10)

His death will be the beginning of the end, the tribulation period, which will present a series of tests for Israel. Then the Son of David will come, avenge his death and resurrect him. Then will come the Messianic era of peace and harmony.

So that's the Jewish end-time script. But there's a twist to it. You see, it's an interactive script and can go in either of two ways. If the World progresses in the current manner (i.e. a steady decline), then the script will be acted out as above. But there's a second possibility, a scenario that doesn't necessarily include the Son of Joseph at all.

In short, it all depends on the spiritual condition of the Jewish people at any given time. If they return to God in a big way, then there would be no need for a Son of Joseph, no tests and tribulations. Instead the Messiah Son of David will come at his allotted time to redeem his people.

For this to happen, Jewish people worldwide, from orthodox rabbis to atheistic humanists, would unilaterally drop to their knees in deep repentance for their sins.

Isn't this ironic, because this is exactly what is going to happen, according to the Christian worldview, but rather than ushering in the rule of their expected Messiah Son of David, the one who is going to appear is none other than Jesus, in his Second Coming. But they will know this because this is the very reason for their repentance, it is this realization ...

"They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo." (Zechariah 12:10-11)

But the rabbis are not yet at that point of realization. Instead they look for a unilateral repentance of the Jewish people worldwide. As there's as much likelihood of this happening as the Pope converting to Judaism, then it's the other scenario the rabbis are looking towards. The passage they refer to here is in the Talmud:

"The Holy One, blessed be He, will set up a ruler over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as Haman's, thus causing Israel to repent, and thereby bringing them back to the right path."

So, the view of these religious Jews is that the Son of Joseph will figure in some way in end-time events. But there are further options, in the grey area between these two main scenarios. The severity of the tribulations depends on how the Jews respond to the Son of Joseph. If they respond well, then perhaps a minor flood and border skirmish or two. If his efforts are in vain then perhaps a major earthquake or two and the nuclear option.

Ironically, this title, "Messiah Son of Joseph" speaks far more of Jesus than it does of this future warrior Messiah. They were referring to the Joseph of the (supposed) multicoloured dreamcoat, son of Jacob, sold into slavery by his brothers but who became Pharaoh's right hand man. Many ancient rabbis saw in the life of Joseph a picture of the 'suffering servant', so much so that this first Messiah was to be named after him. So why the comparison?

It's very useful to look at the life of Joseph and, by doing so, see how it mirrors not just the 'suffering servant' of Isaiah 53, but, more interestingly, the Life of Jesus.

Both were loved by their fathers ... "Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, ..." (Genesis 37:3) "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'" (Matthew 3:17)

But both were hated by their brothers ... "When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him." (Genesis 37:4) "... But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfil what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason.'" (John 15:24-25)

Both were victims of a conspiracy by their enemies to put them to death ... "But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him." (Genesis 37:18) "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus." (Mark 3:6)

Both went to Egypt in their youth ... "Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt." (Genesis 39:1) "So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt," (Matthew 2:14)

Both began their ministry at the age of thirty ... "Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt." (Genesis 41:46) "Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry." Luke 3:23

This is just a taster, but it is very possible to find more and more startling similarities, the closer you look. Read the story of Joseph again through 'Gospel eyes' and see what I mean.

Steve Maltz
December 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Jesus Man of Many Names)

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