If Jesus is really the Messiah, and if he is so important, why doesn’t the Torah speak of him at all?

You would be surprised to see how many passages and concepts actually point to Jesus the Messiah in the Torah. But before you question my beliefs, are you aware that the Torah doesn’t say much about the “traditional” Jewish Messiah? Does this mean the Messiah is unimportant to traditional Judaism? And the Torah says nothing about the oral law. What does this imply? You might want to think twice about your argument.

In the Torah (i.e., the Five Books of Moses), the four times the word mashiach is found (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15), it refers to the anointed high priest (hakohen hamashiach), not the Messiah. In fact, with few possible exceptions, the term mashiach is almost never used with reference to the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Also, there is no concept of the Messiah as the son of David in the Torah, since David was not born until many years later. So, we are not looking primarily for direct references to “the Messiah” (and certainly not to the “son of David”) as such in the Torah.1 Rather, we are looking for foreshadowings, general predictions, and “pre-illustrations” of the Messiah in the Torah. Here are just a few.

The Akedah (also known as the binding of Isaac), the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son in obedience to God (Genesis 22), points to the Messiah in several ways, particularly as this story was developed in Rabbinic tradition. You will remember from our earlier discussion (vol. 2, 3.15) that in the Akedah, the rabbis stressed both Abraham’s obedience and Isaac’s willing participation, also teaching that although Isaac was not actually sacrificed, it was counted as if he were.

So, for the rabbis, the actions of both the father and the son were of great significance in this biblical account, an account referred to daily in the traditional Jewish prayer service. As we look back at Genesis 22, bearing in mind the importance of the Akedah in Rabbinic thought, we can draw a few parallels between the Akedah and the Messiah.2

  1. We see that Abraham proved his total dedication to God through his sacrificial actions: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Gen. 22:12). In the same way, God demonstrated his love and commitment to us by giving us his own Son: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
  2. Isaac is referred to in Genesis 22 as Abraham’s only son (yachid): “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (Gen. 22:2; see also 22:12, just cited).3 In the same way, the New Testament describes Jesus in his sacrificial death as God’s only Son: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  3. Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed illustrates the Messiah’s obedience, even to the point of death. (The difference, of course, is clear: Isaac died only in the mind of Rabbinic tradition; the Messiah literally gave his life. For more on this, see vol. 2, 3.15.)
  4. Abraham was confident that even though he was about to sacrifice his son on the mountain, he would somehow return from the mountain with his son: “He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you’ ” (Gen. 22:5). The writer to the Hebrews comments: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb. 11:17–19). Thus, Isaac’s return from virtual death prefigures the Messiah’s return from literal death.

Genesis records, “As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ ” (Gen. 22:6–8).

Yes, God himself did provide the lamb for the burnt offering to take Isaac’s place on that fateful day on Mount Moriah. Centuries later, God provided the final sacrificial Lamb, when the Messiah took our place on Mount Calvary. As John the Immerser (known to Christians as John the Baptist) said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). You can see that the account of the binding of Isaac is rich with Messianic imagery!4

Moving to another prefigurement of the Messiah in the Torah, we see that the life of Joseph also points to several unique aspects of the ministry of Jesus. (Remember that events and people that foreshadow the Messiah are not meant to be specific in every detail but rather illustrative in broad, sweeping ways. The parallels in the lives of Jesus and Joseph, however, are really quite striking.)

Joseph was rejected by his own brothers (Genesis 37), suffered because of false accusations and slander even though he himself was righteous (Genesis 39), but was then exalted to become the savior of Egypt and the world (Genesis 41). And during the entire time that he was respected and revered by these Gentiles, he was unknown to his own brothers, considered as good as dead. In fact, the first time they saw him in his exalted position in Egypt, they did not recognize him (Gen. 42:7–8).

It was only the second time that he revealed himself to them: “So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers” (Gen. 45:1). Ironically, it was his brothers’ betrayal of him when he was only a teenager that caused Joseph to go to Egypt, resulting in the saving of the lives of many Gentiles and then, ultimately, of his own flesh-and-blood family: “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7).

So also, Yeshua was betrayed by his own people, slandered and falsely accused (though he was perfectly righteous), delivered over to death, and then exalted to be the Savior of the Gentile world—precisely because his own nation rejected him. In the end, in what is commonly called his second coming, he will make himself known to his brothers, and the weeping will be great (Zech. 12:10–14; note also Gen. 45:2). Even traditional Jewish scholars have noted the pattern of a rejected, then hidden, then revealed, Messiah.5 It is certainly apt!

Let’s turn now to the sacrificial system, a subject that receives far more emphasis in the Torah than the dietary laws or even the laws governing human relationships and conduct (see vol. 2, 3.9). This sacrificial system was undeniably important to the biblical Jew, and it points to the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, Yeshua the Messiah. It was Rashi who said the heart of the sacrificial system was “life for life,” an innocent victim taking the place of the guilty party.

That’s why it was the blood that made atonement, since the life of the flesh is in the blood (Lev. 17:11; for more on this, see vol. 2, 3.10). But was God primarily interested in the blood of bulls and goats? Could their blood really take away sins? Certainly not. Rather, the rivers of blood that flowed from the countless thousands of sacrificial animals served to point the way to the truly innocent one who would lay down his life on our behalf.

These truths are most fully spelled out in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) rituals, as outlined in Leviticus 16. Two goats played a central role in these rituals. One was slain, and its blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to cleanse it from the defiling sins of the nation.

In this way [the high priest] will make atonement [kipper] for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness.

Leviticus 16:16

The other goat, commonly known as the “scapegoat,”6 was to be kept alive, and the high priest was to

lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.

Leviticus 16:21–22

These two goats, the sacrificial center of the central day of Israel’s calendar, ultimately point to the twofold role of the Messiah: (1) His blood makes atonement for our sins, breaking down the barrier of defilement that stood between us and God, and (2) as we confess our sins, he carries away all our rebellion and wickedness.

These insights lead to an important observation. The anti-missionaries (see vol. 1, xvi) claim that Christianity overemphasizes the issue of atonement for sin, arguing that the Rabbinic approach is better, which emphasizes study of the law and observance of the law. Yet the fact of the matter is that Christianity derives its theology of atonement from the law. Therefore, because the New Testament faith recognized the centrality of the sacrificial system in the Bible, it also built its Messianic beliefs on that very foundation. It’s hard to get more Torah-centered than that! Yes, belief in Jesus the Messiah is totally grounded in the Torah, even more so than the traditional Jewish beliefs about the Messiah.

Even the high priest points to the Messiah, since his main role—a tremendously important, God-ordained role in ancient Israel—was to make intercession and atonement for the nation. Indeed, as he wore his priestly garments, whenever he would enter the Holy Place, he would “bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart,” and the turban on his head signified that he would “bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be” (Exod. 28:29, 38).

So important was his role as mediator of the people that his very death brought atonement (see vol. 2, 3.15 for this crucial topic). Later Rabbinic tradition even taught that the garments of the high priest atoned (see b. Zevahim 68b; cf. also b. Moed Katan 28a).7 How powerfully this points to the high-priestly role of Yeshua our Messiah!

Here is just a sample of this rich teaching as found in the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus became like one of us so as to atone for our sins (see below, 4.35), and he was (and is) the greatest high priest we have ever had:

Now there have been many of those [earthly] priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Hebrews 7:23–28

When [Messiah] came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of [Messiah], who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason [Messiah] is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

Hebrews 9:11–15

What a high priest we now have! In every way, through his life and death, he fulfilled that which the biblical high priests could only point toward. They were the shadow; he is the very substance. In fact, he fulfills the images of both the sacrifice of atonement and the priest who offers that atoning sacrifice to God. The Torah does point to Yeshua, without doubt. He even pointed this out himself, informing his disciples after his resurrection: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).8

The New Covenant Scriptures record a conversation between Jesus and a member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus in which our righteous Messiah pointed to the Torah to explain his impending death for the sins of his people, saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [meaning, in crucifixion], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

Yeshua was referring to the account in Numbers 21:4–9, when the Israelites who sinned against God were bitten by poisonous snakes and then found healing and relief when they looked to the bronze snake Moses erected on a pole (in obedience to divine command). In similar fashion, all humanity, guilty of sin and smitten with deadly spiritual poison, has only one antidote for this mortal condition: the cross of the Messiah.

As one commentator pointed out, in both cases “the object elevated before them was the emblem of their judgment,”9 the snake being a symbol of the judgment that came against the Israelites for their sin in Numbers 21, and the cross being the symbol of terrible judgment and death in Jesus’ day. What a fitting analogy!10

But Jesus was not the first to draw attention to the symbolism of the lifted-up snake in the desert. In the intertestamental work known as The Wisdom of Solomon (probably composed between 120–100 B.C.E.), it is written:

For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people

and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents,

your wrath did not continue to the end;

they were troubled for a little while as a warning,

and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command.

For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld,

but by you, the Savior of all.

And by this also you convinced our enemies

that it is you who deliver from every evil.

The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5–8 NRSV11

So, by looking at the symbol of deliverance—the snake raised up on a pole—the people of Israel put their hope in God their Savior and were healed and set free. How much more can this be said of Yeshua, the Savior himself, the fullness of God incarnate!

The Book of Acts also records a sermon by Peter—one of Yeshua’s first twelve disciples and therefore a man taught by the Messiah himself—in which he too claims that Moses pointed to Jesus, specifically as the divinely sent prophet par excellence (see Acts 3:22–23). Although the passage to which Peter referred (Deut. 18:15) is not exclusively a Messianic prophecy, Peter was right on target in applying it to Yeshua. We read in Deuteronomy 18:9–22 that God promised his people he would raise up for them a prophet like Moses, someone who would hear God’s words and declare them to the people so that they would not be dependent on the superstitious practices of the surrounding nations (the ancient equivalents of things like astrology, sorcery, and séances). This prophet was to be of great importance, and God strictly warned Israel, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account” (Deut. 18:19).

You might say, “But doesn’t this refer to a key prophet being raised up in every generation in Israel?” I believe so. And Jesus was the last and greatest national prophet among our people, the preeminent prophet of his generation or of any other generation, the Prophet with a capital P. He predicted the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, warning of the consequences of rejecting his words. Also, because there was a conspicuous lack of prophetic voices in the centuries immediately preceding the coming of the Messiah into the world,12 the people began to look more and more for a great end-time prophet, a forerunner of the Messianic kingdom they were expecting. We know this from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QTestimonia; cf. also 1QS 9:1) as well as from the New Testament (e.g., John 1:19–21; 7:40; see also Luke 7:16; Acts 7:37).13

When Jesus ministered on the earth, people recognized him to be a great prophet (see Luke 7:16, “ ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ ”). After his death and resurrection—there was no arguing with the resurrection!—Peter did not hesitate to proclaim that Yeshua was the ultimate prophet spoken of by Moses (see Acts 3:22–23). To this day, we still have not fully recovered from the destruction of the Temple and the devastation of Jerusalem, which Yeshua foretold in graphic detail (see esp. Luke 19:41–44; see also vol. 4, 5.22). And he was the prophet who foretold his own death, resurrection, and ultimate return, also assuring his followers that his message (called “the good news of the kingdom”) would spread throughout the whole world before his return, something that is being rapidly and remarkably fulfilled (see vol. 1, 2.2). We would do well to heed that prophet’s words!14

But the story doesn’t end there. Let’s take a closer look at the passage in Deuteronomy 18. Moses said to the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.… The Lord said to me: ‘… I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers’ ” (Deut. 18:15a, 17a–18a). The meaning, it seems, is fairly straightforward: Just as God raised up Moses to hear God’s words and declare them to the people of Israel, so also in the future (or in every generation), God would raise up a prophet like Moses who would also hear God’s words and declare them to the people. The problem is that according to Deuteronomy 34:10–11, “… no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.” The identical phrase is used in both passages (namely, raising up a prophet like Moses), but we are told explicitly that no such prophet arose again in Israel’s history.15

So, Deuteronomy 18 tells us that the Lord would raise up such a prophet for his people, but Deuteronomy 34 tells us that, in the fullest sense, no such prophet arose. It is quite natural, then, that Jewish people reflecting on these Torah passages would begin to ask, “Where, then, is that prophet like Moses? Where is that leader to whom the Lord will speak face-to-face, who will work signs and wonders and deliver us from bondage?” And this passage helps to explain why there is clear evidence that the Jewish people in the first century of this era expected that there would be a great prophet associated with the Messiah or identical to the Messiah. This hope is grounded in the Torah of Moses itself.16

Finally, we should look at Genesis 49:10, a prophetic promise to Judah, often pointed to as a key Messianic prediction.17 Before examining this specific passage, however, some background from the Torah is necessary. When God called Abram in Genesis 12, he promised him that through his offspring the entire world would be blessed (Gen. 12:1–3).18 This promise was reiterated several times in Genesis, to Abram/Abraham himself, as well as to his son Isaac and to his son Jacob (see Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). Over the course of these generations, there was a process of selection: Abraham had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac—but the promise of worldwide blessing came through Isaac. Isaac in turn had two sons (twins)—Esau and Jacob—but the promise of worldwide blessing came through Jacob (later called Israel). Jacob had twelve sons, all of whom, as descendants and then tribes of Israel, would be heir to the promise in a limited sense. But the specific Messianic promise would come through only one son. Which son would that be?

All of us know the Tanakh teaches that the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, who was a descendant of Judah (1 Chron. 2:3–15). But Genesis 49:10 indicates that the kingship coming to Judah was actually prophesied by Jacob on his deathbed, hundreds of years before David was ever born. This important verse has been translated several different ways, in both Jewish and Christian versions. The overall meaning is clear, however, as will be seen by comparing a number of key modern translations (the first two quotations are from Christian translations, the second two, Jewish):

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,

Until Shiloh comes;

And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. (NASB)

The scepter will not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until he comes to whom it belongs

and the obedience of the nations is his. (NIV)19

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet;

So that tribute shall come to him

And the homage of peoples be his. (NJPSV)20

The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be the assemblage of nations. (Stone)21

The differences in translation arise primarily because of the Hebrew word shiloh in the second half of the verse. Is it a person’s name or title (Shiloh), perhaps meaning “man of rest”? If so, to whom does it refer? The Messiah? Is it the name of a place (again, Shiloh), mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Josh. 18:1; Judg. 18:31; Jer. 7:12)? If so, it is difficult to understand exactly what the prophecy means. Should the Hebrew be divided into two words, shai lo, meaning “tribute to him,” in which case the translation would be “until tribute comes to him” (from the nations of the world, cf. Ps. 72:10), or should it be read as she-lo, meaning “to whom it belongs”? Both of these renderings could well refer to the Messiah.

Is Genesis 49:10 a Messianic prophecy? I believe a good case can be made for this, since (1) it points to Israel’s legitimate kingship coming through Judah; (2) David, the first king in the Judean dynasty, became the prototype of the Messiah; and (3) the obedience of the nations is promised to that royal leader.

Does this verse, then, point specifically to Jesus? If the passage clearly indicates that the Messiah had to come before a certain time in history—namely, before the scepter departed from Judah and the ruler’s staff from between his feet—and if that time in history ended shortly after Yeshua’s death and resurrection, then we could say the passage pointed specifically to him. However, as Dr. Walter Riggans has explained, it is difficult to be dogmatic about this, since the Hebrew can legitimately be translated in several different ways. His conclusion is that “although there must be a genuine modesty about the presentation of the Messianic interpretation of this verse vis-à-vis Jesus, nevertheless, Christians can be confident that their reading of it has integrity and perhaps even probability.”22

This much is sure: (1) There is nothing in Genesis 49:10 that would rule out Yeshua from being the one who fulfilled the prophecy, especially since hundreds of millions of people around the world obey him and follow him (see below, 4.32–4.33). (2) If it is Messianic and points to a king who had come more than nineteen hundred years ago, then it must be Yeshua, in which case the day will come when his Jewish people will also acknowledge him as king. (3) If it is not Messianic, then quite obviously it does not apply to the “traditional” Jewish Messiah either.

This leads to an important closing observation: While our traditional Jewish friends challenge us and question why the Torah doesn’t speak of Jesus, it is really the Messiah of Jewish tradition who is hardly mentioned at all,23 while Yeshua is pointed to in many different ways—as the promised seed through whom the entire world would be blessed by the God of Israel; in the binding of Isaac; in the figure of Joseph; in the sacrificial system; in the priestly order; as the prophet greater than Moses. Yeshua is there! I encourage you to pray as the psalmist did in Psalm 119:18: “Uncover my eyes, and I will behold wonders in your Torah.”

Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (3). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.