Though you have not seen him you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8
This Christmas season—whether you observe Christmas or not—it’s heartening to realize how far Jewish-Christian relations have come in the past generation or two. Just this month the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation issued an “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity” with this introduction:
After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe recognize the historic opportunity now before us. We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.
A week later, the Roman Catholic Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued another statement, which includes this:
While affirming salvation through an explicit or even implicit faith in Christ, the Church does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel. A replacement or supersession theology which sets against one another two separate entities, a Church of the Gentiles and the rejected Synagogue whose place it takes, is deprived of its foundations.
Amen—but another part of the statement might be more controversial: “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Couple this with the idea above of “implicit faith in Christ”—meaning that some might benefit from Messiah’s saving work without consciously professing faith in him—and you get some major internet buzz, even though the next line reads: “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah.”
When I read this concern about mission work among the Jewish people, it reminded me of a verse in this week’s parasha (VaYechi, Genesis 47:28–50:26), or actually of a commentary on it. In my early years as a Messianic Jew, I used a Chumash (Five Books of Moses) edited by the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Joseph Hertz, z”l. In this edition, Genesis 49:10 reads,
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
As long as men come to Shiloh;
And unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.
Rabbi Hertz comments on the line, “As long as men come to Shiloh,” which the Authorized (or King James) Version translates as “Till Shiloh come.” This translation, says the rabbi, “assumes that Shiloh is a personal name or a Messianic title.”
Despite the fact that nowhere in Scripture is that term applied to the Messiah, Christian theologians assume that Shiloh is a name of the Founder of Christianity. In this sense, “Till Shiloh come” is a favourite text of Christian missionaries in attempting to convert illiterate Jews or those ignorant of Scripture.
The rabbi goes on to debunk three other passages in the Tanakh that “missionaries” supposedly misinterpret—Psalm 2:12, Isaiah 7:14, and Isaiah 53—and concludes, “Modern scholarship has shattered the arguments from the Scriptures which missionaries have tried, and are still trying, to impose upon ignorant Jews.”
Now Rabbi Hertz does admit that the interpretation of Shiloh as “a personal name or a Messianic title . . . finds support in Rabbinic literature.” But, he adds, “it is there only a homiletic comment without official or binding authority.” Still, the “Rabbinic literature” that supports a Messianic reading of Genesis 49:10 includes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b), Midrash Rabbah, Rashi, who cites the ancient Targum of Onkelos, and Ramban (Nachmanides). Furthermore, “until Shiloh comes” is the most straightforward and grammatically consistent way to translate the phrase. My point isn’t to out proof-text Rabbi Hertz, though, but to make two observations:
First, Rabbi Hertz’s response to missionaries is understandable. For centuries the main thing that Jews experienced from Christians was their zeal to convert them or, if that wasn’t possible, to prove them hopelessly hardened, in error, and worthy of harsh treatment. Christianity had replaced Judaism—and that should be obvious to the Jews. That’s why the explicit repudiation of replacement theology by the Vatican commission, which reflects the language of the 1964 Vatican II council, is so significant. It’s a game-changer. And so is our Messianic Jewish claim that we remain fully Jewish as followers of Messiah, not adherents of a new or different religion at all.
Second, Rabbi Hertz is right about the ambiguous quality of Genesis 49:10. Even if we stick with the most straightforward translation, “Until Shiloh comes,” we can still wonder who Shiloh is and why the Torah didn’t give us a more obvious name of the Redeemer to come.
Perhaps this hidden quality is deliberate, however. Torah portrays a hidden Messiah, and even when Messiah actually appeared among us, he often concealed his identity.
Mark, for example, opens with the declaration that his account is “the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God . . .” (1:1). He goes on to record the testimony of Yochanan the Immerser (1:7–8), and then of a voice from heaven that says: “You are my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with you” (1:11). But it soon becomes clear that this Son-of-God identity will be concealed. When the demons recognize Yeshua as Son of God (1:24, 3:11, 5:7), Yeshua silences them and tells them not to make him known. He repeatedly instructs those he heals to tell no one about it (1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26). He refuses the Pharisees’ request for a sign to prove that he is sent from God (8:11-12). When Yeshua visits his hometown, the people ask, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom he has been given? What are these miracles worked through him? Isn’t he just the carpenter? the son of Miryam?” (6:2–3). Rather than recognizing him as Messiah the Son of God, they take offense at him. His own disciples, when Yeshua performs the great miracle of calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee, ask “Who can this be, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” (4:41). Yeshua is the hidden Messiah foreshadowed in the Tanakh. He hides his identity in order to reveal it to hearts that are prepared. He foregoes the title of Messiah until he fulfills it through the cross and resurrection.
Perhaps Messiah is hidden in Genesis 49:10 because God wants him to be revealed in living terms, through his spirit and among his people, not apart from Scripture, but not through Scripture alone. We who follow him have to live the message, even as our Messiah lived the message.
Years ago, although after my Rabbi Hertz phase, the father of “Jennifer,” a young Jewish woman in our congregation, was so worried about his daughter that he called on the Jews for Judaism organization. They sent one of their top rabbis from LA to “deprogram” Jennifer. But she agreed to speak with him only on condition that I was there too. So the four of us got together, the anti-missionary Orthodox rabbi, Jennifer and her father, and me, for a nice long discussion of what seemed like dozens of biblical texts, including Genesis 49:10. I was having a good time sparring with the rabbi, and I think he was enjoying himself too, and dad was pretty engaged—but I could tell that Jenny was drifting off. After a couple of hours we forgot all about her and just kept talking, but she resurfaced during hour six, as we were wrapping up, and made it clear that she was still going for Yeshua. When I spoke with her later she said she wasn’t worried about the details. She knew she had found real life and meaning in Yeshua and just wanted to be sure that I had biblical answers for all the objections.
Rabbi Hertz probably shouldn’t have worried so much about the competing interpretations of Genesis 49:10. Surrounded by today’s militant secularism and skepticism, we’re unlikely to win lots of people to Messiah just by proof-texting—even if we’re right. People, especially Jewish people, are unlikely to be persuaded that Yeshua is the Messiah by hearing us win the historical-grammatical argument. But many of us have had an undeniable encounter with God through Messiah Yeshua, or an undeniable encounter with God’s love and compassion through believers in Messiah Yeshua. The hidden Messiah became undeniably evident in our lives.