In this series, I attempt to assess Second-Temple-era Jewish messianic expectation. Start at Part I or see all parts in the series.
Perhaps the most familiar conception of the messiah—both to contemporary thinkers and to Second Temple Jews—was the royal figure of the Davidic line: a King. After the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the former nomads’ primitive government began to pale in comparison to more advanced Near-Eastern monarchies.1 In spite of Samuel’s warnings about exploitative human monarchy, the Israelites caved to social pressures and the rising tide of Philistine conflict to knit together disparate tribes and clans and demanded a king.2 Naturally, Mowinckel tells us, Israel assumed not just the governmental structures but also “a great many ideas and conceptions of kingship, the royal ideology, the ‘manner of the kingdom’, its etiquette and customs, the whole pattern of life which was bound up in it”—all acknowledged in the Old Testament.3
Folded into these pagan ideologies was the notion of the divine kingship. Certain elements were syncretized, contextualized, or otherwise watered down for Yahwist consumption. Canaanites believed that their king was literally divine, God in flesh; Israelites gave their king the same absolute authority, but instead decided that the king was divine only in the sense that God imbued him with divine license and wisdom. The New Year was about the rebirth of the pagan king; Israel instead made the New Year about renewing the king’s divine covenant. And any rituals requiring the physicality of the god-king were instead replaced with Israelite symbols or texts—the Ark of the Covenant and the law.4
One of the major implications of inheriting the pagan god-king was the difficult notion that even with a divine being in power—a divine man in either the pagan or Hebrew sense—things could still go wrong. In the case of Saul, for instance, it became very clear that if things are not going well for the people, “there must be something wrong with the king himself and his righteousness.”5 In this case, the people immediately look to the next king as the potential ideal king who would bring absolute, divine justice and righteousness. This disappointment is soon enough inducted over all possible cases until we arrive at a hope for some future King, a final Anointed One who would not fail.
When this hope is applied to a people conquered, evicted, and scattered across the earth in exile, it takes on a new importance, as it represents the strength and resumption of the covenant and election faith. It is a constant “hope of restoration”—both of a rightful and lasting divine king and of a national order precluded by foreign, pagan invaders.6 Prophecy, then, encapsulates this hope and is its guardian through time; and the Messianic King is inextricably tied to the ethos of hope fragilely binding together the scattered nation.
God’s promised fulfillment of this hope is associated with nobody but David, the only person in the Tanakh whom God himself is said to have anointed, and with whom he founded an eternal covenant.7 The prophets foretell his titles and lineage—“Wonderful Counselor-Mighty El-Father of Eternity-Prince of Peace”, the shoot from Jesse, the righteous branch named “Yahweh Our Righteousness”, “the anointed one”. But Isaiah is clear that even as this promised leader is of David’s line, it is not David: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” Isaiah says of the Anointed One, in contrast to the description of David as handsome and ruddy.8 This messiah-king was expected to be, if nothing else, a restorer expected by Jews to renew Israelite glory.
In Jesus we see the pagan notions of kingship that Israelites had entertained in one form or another come to pass. That is, Jesus and his death and resurrection narratives take the Near-Eastern conceptions of the sacral king and the Israelite restorative hope found in them, and they play them out in real life. This is Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’s “true myth”—that is, a story told before in myths with echoes or shadows of truth that comes into fruition when it actually happens.
1 Mowinckel 22
2 1 Samuel 8
3 Mowinckel 22
4 Mowinckel 82
5 Mowinckel 96
6 Mowinckel 133
7 Block 41
8 Isaiah 53:2, 1 Samuel 16:12