The Glorious Branch

In some English versions of Isaiah 4:2, the translators capitalized the word “Branch.” This tells the reader that the branch here is not literal but someone unique, namely Messiah. So we read, “In that day the Branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious.” The Hebrew allows for that and more. Since “shall be beautiful and glorious” can also mean “shall become beautiful and glorious,” it is possible to capitalize these two words as well. In this way, one should read Beautiful and Glorious as the transformation of Messiah from the ordinary to the magnificent. Glorious, therefore, becomes yet another name for the Messiah: The Branch is Glorious.”

That Messiah is called Glorious (kavod) is no small thing, since Jewish in thought, glory is one of the attributes of God. In the language of theologians, Jews see glory as a divine attribute. One can see why this is so from verses such as “And the glory of the LORD appeared to them” (Numbers 20:6). Accordingly, what appeared before the people of Israel was no mere cloud, but rather Glory personified.

This and other verses lead to some fascinating conclusions.

-Tsvi Sadan, from his upcoming book
The Concealed Light: Names of Messiah in Jewish Sources”
“Glorious,” pp 120-1

I often ponder the nature and character of the Messiah. I suppose these thoughts have been especially accentuated given that I’m currently reading Sadan’s book (available for purchase on March 15th from First Fruits of Zion/Vine of David). I’ll write a full review of this book when I finish it, but so far, examining each of the multitude of names for the Messiah found in the Bible, in Talmud, in the Zohar, and other Jewish writings is like peeling away the different layers of an onion: the more that I explore, the more that is revealed. It’s also like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle whereby, the more pieces that I gather and put together, the more complete a picture is presented. If I can rely on all of these “pieces;” all of these names to be accurate descriptors for Messiah, then I see that he is more amazingly complex than I could have possibly imagined.

Yesterday, I read and commented on Derek Leman’s blog post Quick Thoughts: Yeshua as the Radiance of God, which also describes something of the nature and character of the Messiah, particularly in relation to his “deity”. Leman said in part:

But hold on a minute. Many ideas in Jewish monotheism were formed in the centuries after Yeshua and specifically as a reaction against Christian persecution of our people and missionizing of our people. Yet in spite of the desire of many Jewish sages and thinkers to take monotheism in a direction incapable of being harmonized with the idea of a Divine Emanation of God who could take on humanity and be the Divine Man, Judaism has too much vested in the idea of God’s Emanations to go completely in that direction.

From reading the comments, it seems as if most people see what Leman wrote as confirming the traditional interpretation of Jesus as part of the “Godhead,” and as literally co-equal with God the Father and God the Spirit. As Leman references in the quote above, this concept seems to collide rather uncomfortably with Jewish monotheism, yet most of Leman’s readership seems to believe that Trinitarianism and monotheism can be reconciled and “harmonized”. I guess I’m still something of a theological blockhead, or maybe I just don’t like taking anyone’s word for it, especially since the explanation for the Trinity is a “mystery” that isn’t supposed to be questioned.

But that isn’t quite what Leman said. In his comment responding to mine, he wrote:

The emanations of God in the Tanakh were, in fact, God. Spirit. Name. Glory. Word. Voice. Presence. So the idea that Yeshua must be some exalted being of lesser status than God is not a requirement from the standpoint of Jewish theology. The “separate” part means he is not the totality of God. The “equivalent” part means emanates from God as part of God’s Being. Yes, Yeshua is under the authority of God (Father, Direct Being of God).

I’m not sure how the Messiah can be God the Son, co-equal to the other manifestations of God (Gods?) and also be “not the totality of God,” but maybe that’s a part of the puzzle that hasn’t been revealed to us yet (if it ever will be). Somewhere in my heart, I cannot accept the finality of the statement Jesus is God followed quickly by the statement, “discussion over.” In peeling away the layers of the onion and shuffling through the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that I can’t yet fit into the rest of the picture, what I hear instead is, I don’t know.”

Who is the Messiah and in what way does he possess the divine quality (one among many) of being “glorious?” Sadan continues his commentary on “Glorious” as a name of the Messiah with a compelling midrash (and remember that midrash is not fact, so please don’t bite my head off):

In an outstanding Jewish commentary from the ninth century CE on Psalm 36:9, “In Your light we see light,” the author offers an imaginary conversation between God, Satan, and Messiah which reflects his own understanding of who is Messiah and what is his role. In this conversation, Satan attempts to deter God from honoring Messiah. Challenged, God asks Messiah what he intends to do in light of the suffering inflicted upon him because of those whom he came to save, and the Messiah answers:

“Master of worlds, with the joy of my soul and the pleasure of my heart, I accept upon myself that none from Israel will perish and that not only the living will be saved in my day but also those hidden in the soil…and not only those will be saved, but all hosts whom you have thought to create but have not. This is what I desire, this is what I accept upon me” (Pesikta Rabbati, 36).

Ironically, this is not unlike other words of the Messiah we find here:

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. –Luke 22:41-44 (ESV)

Moses at SinaiIn my morning meditation for Torah Portion Tetzaveh, I commented how alike Moses and Jesus were in that they were willing to sacrifice everything including their lives for the sake of their people Israel. We know that Moses was a man and that men, even courageous and righteous men, do not lay down their lives lightly. If Messiah is God and death means nothing to him, then why was he in agony, why did his sweat become “like great drops of blood,” and why did he need an angel to appear out of heaven to strengthen him? I’m not saying that the Messiah can’t encompass more than man in some mystic sense, but I see him as more than just a flesh and blood “placeholder” for God. Otherwise, what did he sacrifice that can compared to Moses?

Sadan continues:

This astonishing midrash says in no uncertain terms that Messiah is willing to suffer and give up his life for the sake of all Israel, even those who were not yet conceived…The same midrash goes on to say that “on that hour God appointed for him the four creatures who carry the throne of glory, of Messiah.” Messiah, who in this midrash is seated underneath God’s throne, is elevated, glorified, and given the permission to sit on his own separate throne. Messiah’s willingness to give up his life is that which turns him from the ordinary Branch to Glorious , whose throne now is alongside God’s throne.

Psalm 110:1 is probably the most well known example of the Messiah sitting in the highest place of honor at God’s right hand, and in Revelation 22:1 we see the throne of God and of the Lamb in the restored Eden at the end of all things, so it’s not as if midrash is totally undescriptive of the Messiah we, his disciples, have come to know.

We must know certain things to be true and to trust in God in order to be called by His Name, and we must believe in the Messiahship of Jesus in order to be his disciples and worthy of his teachings. One of the things we know about God is that He is unknowable in any absolute manner. Among the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, we know that God alone has created everything and rules over everything. We know that He is a perfect and complete One and in that, He is alone. We know that He is not a physical body and that physical laws and limitations do not apply to Him in any way. I wrote a four-part series about the Divine nature of the Messiah, starting with Exploring Messianic Divinity and you can review those writings for more details, but to give a brief summary, I believe the Messiah is of a Divine nature but not simply and literally God transformed into a human being. I don’t know who Messiah is exactly. And I don’t know who God is at all…well, maybe just a little, as some of His tiny shards and sparks have been revealed.

I’m continuing to struggle and at the same time continuing to find some sort of peace while wrestling with God. Judaism is, in many ways, illustrated as a people who struggle with God at every step of the path, and while I’m hardly Jewish, I too feel the struggle. Christianity is founded on accepting theologies, and platitudes, and pronouncements, and woe be on the believer in the sanctuary, the Bible study, or on the Internet, who actually questions any of these “conclusions.” I will probably never understand those things that everyone else seems to know so well that they take them (and maybe the Messiah) for granted. I only know that the glory of God and the eternal light of Messiah are blinding me and I can see neither one with any sort of detail. All I have are questions and no answers. All I see is the human me and not the “more than human” me that somehow contains the image and the Spirit of God.

It is said in Judaism that the Torah is not in heaven, meaning that once the Torah was given at Sinai, it was not up to God to interpret its meaning, but men. But the Messiah was given to men at Bethlehem. Can he be “interpreted” by men in the world, or is his glory still a concealed light under the Throne of God in Heaven? I don’t know. A lot of people seem to think they know, but I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just that I’m not terribly knowledgeable in this area and am making up mysteries around Jesus that don’t exist, but as I continue to explore the “trail” left for me by Tsvi Sadan and the names of the Messiah, I find more there than I can find in what I’ve been told to expect.

The puzzle is there on the table in front of me and I’m not even sure I have all of the pieces in order to make a complete picture. I take that back. I’m sure many of the pieces to the “Messiah puzzle” are missing. Even if I had all the pieces, I’m like a three-year old trying to put together the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle in the dark. It would be a challenge even for the best puzzle builders. How am I supposed to do this?

Maybe I’m not supposed to see the picture or to understand the mystery. Perhaps all that is expected of me is to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). Maybe all I can ever hope for is that God strengthens me enough so that I’m able to continue to put one foot in front of another on this path he has set me upon. And as much as I want to stop and to appreciate the scenery and the beauty that surrounds me, the path calls and demands I try to take one more step, to place one more tiny piece correctly in the puzzle. In doing this, I know that while I live, the destination will elude me, and the picture will always be incomplete. Is the Messiah given to men so that men may know him, or is he still hidden under the Throne of God?

I envy those of you who can see everything the Master is and all that he teaches. I still think that my Master is concealed and yet even hidden, his light blinds me.

The true teacher is most present in his absence.

It is then that all he has taught takes root, grows and blossoms.

The students despairs for his teacher’s guidance,
and in that yearning, the teacher’s work bears fruit.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Present in Absence”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

The sages say, the Torah cannot be taught from the Heavens.” So the only place I have left to seek his teachings is here on earth. That’s going to have to be enough, because I have no where else to look.

For more, go to The Concealed Light: A Book Review.

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