A Pagan “Messiah”!? (Revised)

After Jerusalem fell and their Temple was destroyed, Israel’s faith in a nationalistic God who would unconditionally protect them also disintegrated. The Jews succumbed to what could be described as a nervous-breakdown. Their spiritual identity was inseparably linked to the Temple. Many lost their faith entirely during this traumatic period of time.

For many survivors, the “victorious” Babylonian gods seemed more appealing than the vanquished God of the Jews. Others became enamored with the new opportunities to become prosperous in a new land, as they quickly forgot about their spiritual heritage. Undoubtedly, among the faithful were others who expected a new king who would apocalyptically appear and restore the Temple along with its sacrifices. Others felt helpless and sad that the Jewish people were doomed to disappear like other nations of history.

Just as wandering in the wilderness served to restructure the spiritual development of the children of Israel, so too did Babylonian captivity. What emerged from this historical period was a restatement of an old paradigm—God can introduce something novel out of the chaos of destruction. The Babylonian exile thus served to help purge the Jewish people of their misconceptions, and renew their faith in God. However, before this moment of redemption was to occur, Israel had to first lose its parochial view of the universe, and choose to become the instruments of God’s plan of salvation. Norman Cohn, in his book on the origin of ancient eschatology, points out:

“The collapse of the kingdom of Judah, the capture of Jerusalem, the exile itself—these very things represented a victory of chaos over cosmos. Only a god who in the beginning had converted primordial chaos into the ordered world could reestablish such a world. But in that case YHWH could certainly do more than merely restore Israel to its former status. Second Isaiah was positive: the love which YHWH bore to his chosen people was about to be manifested in the most impressive manner conceivable. By an act as wondrous as its original creation, the world was about to be transformed—and   the people of Israel were about to be given a glorious position in the transformed world.”[1]

The author of Second Isaiah[2] (Isa. 40-55) taught that redemption occurs in mysteriously hidden and paradoxical ways and can create new possibilities and hopefulness for the covenantal community. Divine Providence always carries surprise and wonder.

In the forty-fourth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the shepherd metaphor was redefined. Whereas in Ezekiel 34, the prophet speaks of the kings of Israel as God’s shepherds, Second Isaiah teaches that even a Gentile could serve as a shepherd for God, and goes further to describe Cyrus’s ascent to power as being initiated by God. Historically, Cyrus benefited from many fortuitous circumstances that went beyond his military strength. Two Median armies were sent to fight against him, but joined forces with him instead. Babylon’s fortified cities opened their gates to him without resistance (Isa. 45:1) Second Isaiah saw the rapid rise of Cyrus, as God’s shepherd to the Jewish people:

Who says to the deep,

“Be dry—I will dry up your rivers”;

Who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,

And he shall carry out all my purpose”;

And who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”

And of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.”

Isaiah 44:24-28

Isaiah’s language was provocative and shocked the exilic community. How could Cyrus of Persia be God’s own מָשִׁיחַ (mäšîaH = “Anointed One”)? This passage (Isa. 45:1) is the only time in the entire Tanakh where a non-Israelite is called God’s “anointed one,” a term usually designated for the Kings of Israel (cf. 1 Sam. 24, 26:1) and the High Priests (Lev. 4 and 6). This is not to say that Isaiah envisioned Cyrus as the ultimate Messianic king, but rather that Cyrus was the “designated one” and certainly “the shepherd” who God would use in restoring His people back to their ancestral homeland. The fact that Isaiah described Cyrus as a “shepherd” and a “Messiah” is instructive, for the narrative reveals how even a gentile emperor can function as God’s instrument of Messianic redemption.

The people responded to Isaiah’s bold proclamation with utter disbelief and skepticism. Here was a king who did not even know the name of Yahweh! How could an uncircumcised gentile serve as God’s anointed one? Many of the Jews believed that God would orchestrate a new apocalyptic “exodus” led by a new Moses who would lead the Jews out of Babylon, dazzling the world with a theophany of supernatural miracles. Others pragmatically argued that accepting Cyrus as the “anointed one of God” would mean that Cyrus would have political control over the land and Jerusalem.

Undeterred, Second Isaiah foretells how God would soon have Cyrus begin the changes He desires to initiate. The theological message of this section is pretty obvious and clear: in every generation God has acted responsively to the needs of His people, while providing them with rescuers who were always poised to come to the aid of their people. This idea reverberates through much of the Bible;[3] this in itself has always been a profound indication that God has never abandoned His people.

Lastly, in terms of modern history, President Truman played a similar role in his support for the formation of the Jewish State of Israel on May 14th, 1948. Many scholars view America’s and especially President Truman’s role as essential in the creation of this new state. Truman’s historical decision is all the more remarkable when considering the mountain of opposition he faced from leading officials in the State and Defense Departments. From the perspective of biblical history and Jewish theology, Truman functioned much like King Cyrus of Persia, and the Jewish people will forever remain grateful to President Truman for his courage, integrity, vision, and respect for the Jewish people.

[1] Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, (New Haven: Yale University, 1993), 153.

[2] Since the time of Ibn Ezra, biblical scholars generally ascribed chapters 40-55 to an unknown prophet known as “deuteron” (“second”) Isaiah, who presumably lived among the exiles in Babylon. The prophecies include the events that transpired between the first victories of the Persian king, Cyrus (c. 550 B.C.E.), and Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon, which was followed by his decree permitting the Jewish exiles to return to their own country (538 B.C.E.).

[3] See Judg. 2:11-20, 2:16; 1 Sam 12:6-11; 2 Kgs; 13:5; Neh. 9:27  for numerous examples how God provides leaders for each generation.

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  1. Yochanan Lavie  January 10, 2010

    Similarly, Harry Truman and Herzl, although not religious Jews, have played crucial roles in the current phase of redemption. Maybe they too are mini-messiahs.


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