Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for June 2009

ISAIAH 52, 13 – 53, 12


In Deutero-Isaiah (chapter 40 and following), the prophet is not named as Isaiah.

Bernard Duhm wrote in an 1892  commentary on Isaiah that the book should be divided into three (chapters 56 – 66  forming the third division) rather than two parts, to include a Trito-Isaiah, and Duhm believed that the four Servant Songs had separate authorship from the rest of  Isaiah.

These were the four songs: Isaiah 42, 1 – 4, the second: 49, 1 – 6,the third: 50, 4 – 9, and then there is the song which is in our machzor in the YK mussaf service, 52, 13ff.

The  Substitute King

Assyrian texts of the seventh century BCE, 200 years before Deutero Isaiah, refer to a ritual of the Substitute King, which is relevant to the imagery of Isaiah 53. If the king was threatened by ill-omens, for example an eclipse, a substitute would be chosen to sit on the king’s throne for a designated period of time, in order that the expected misfortune should fall on the substitute and not on the king. John H Walton of Wheaton College, Illinois has written on the parallels between these texts and Isaiah 52 – 53. He mentions seventh century Assyrian texts from the time of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. The royal substitute was not intended to rule but to act as a decoy, to draw misfortune away from the true king. There is some resemblance to a scapegoat or a whipping boy, but the ritual here serves to avert a perceived danger. Of interest  in the Assyrian account is that the substitute had to wear the king’s crown, sceptre and robes and, if the substitute was put to death, to avert the perceived danger to the king, he was given a royal funeral. As John Walton points out, there is no king is involved in the Isaiah text. However,  the servant is considered a lowly person who becomes exalted and, in verse 9 as we shall see, his tomb is among the wealthy. Walton  suggests that the prophet is promulgating an ideal image of kingship

 …portraying the ideal king as a Servant who functions as a humble instrument of God’s will.

Walton contends that the language of the servant songs is consistent with this imagery and contains:

…elements that were reminiscent of other kingship-focused observances from the ancient Near East. [1]

Isaac Avishur, the author of the EJ entry on Isaiah, [2] mentions the view that the prophet has utilised and customised  liturgy in respect of the Mesopotamian god Tammuz.It is interesting that pagan Mesopotamian tradition, Hebrew prophecy and Christian theology all seem to idealise a paradoxical figure who is both afflicted and exalted, lowly and elevated. No doubt this figure is an archetypal reflection of  human sorrow and aspiration in the context of religious striving.

 ‘The Apologetic Impulse’

As the subject of second Isaiah is the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile; not merely the return but the exaltation of the people through the intervention of God, there is a good case for regarding the Servant as a representation of Am Yisrael, rather than an individual.

Gershom Scholem suggests that the tendency to interpret this passage in terms of the destiny of the Jewish people is a sign of:

…an apologetic impulse at work which must not be underestimated. The representatives of the rational tendencies stood in the forefront of the theological defences mounted against the claims of the Church.[3]

If Scholem is right, it would explain why Talmud and Midrash were so much more willing to believe in an individual Messiah than the medieval biblical commentators, who were operating in the face of the hostility of  medieval Christianity.

Hyam Maccoby commented on the earlier development of  the representation of the Messiah in folkloric aggadic literature, believing that this altered significantly after the failed rebellion of Simon Bar Kokhba:

The modern view of the Suffering Servant passage, interpreted as referring to the Messiah, is that this interpretation is not found in the earliest aggadic material, which regards the Messiah as a happy, triumphant figure. It was not until the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (135 CE) and the resulting miseries of the Jewish people that the idea of a suffering Messiah entered Jewish thought and was reflected in aggadah.[4]

Chapter 52, verse 13

Ibn Ezra and Redak took the view that the Servant refers to the Jews in exile. Rashi explains: ‘Behold, at the end of days, My servant Jacob, ie the righteous among him, shall prosper.’

The verb יַשְֹכִּיל is translated variously as he will be prudent, he will be wise, he will prosper, he will be successful. It appears in 1 Samuel 18, 14, in the present tense:

וַיְהִי דָוִד לְכָל דְּרָכָו }דְּרָכָיו{ מַשְׂכִּיל וַיהֹוָה עִמּוֹ

And David was successful in all his ways, and the Lord was with him.

Targum Jonathan uses a synonymous word, צ ל ח, for ‘prosper;’ the Targum has הָא יַצְלַח עַבְדִי מְשִיחָא which is ‘Behold my servant, the anointed, shall prosper.’

שֹ כ ל is often used in the sense of behaving wisely, especially in the book of Proverbs; Ibn Ezra therefore explains the verse: ‘My servant shall understand that he will be exalted and lifted up,’ which is found also in the Septuagint.

Verse 14

ש מ ם can be translated as ‘astonished,’ ‘appalled’ or ‘desolate.’ The Servant arouses a negative reaction which is neither hatred nor pity. Note the shift in this verse from second person to third person. Yamim Norayim  has ‘Many were appalled at him,’ but the Hebrew and many translations say ‘Many were apalled at you…’ before switching to the third person.

Mishhat מִשְחַת is often translated as ‘marred’ and BDB has ‘disfigured’. This usage is a hapax legomenon. It comes from a verb ש ח ת meaning ‘to corrupt’ or ‘to destroy’ and connected also with bowing down. Perhaps this is linked with ש ח ח, the root for bowing down in worship, or with  ש ח ט, as in shechita.The mem is a prefix so the root is not linked with מ ש ח, to anoint. The Targum has a word meaning ‘lean,’ ‘poor,’ ‘reduced’: חֲשִיךְ which is related to חֹֹשֶךְ, ‘darkness’.

There can be no doubt that the appearance of the servant is the very opposite of all those described as having a fair countenance:   Sarah (Genesis 12, 14); Rebecca (Genesis 24, 16); Rachel (Genesis 29, 17); Joseph (Genesis 39, 6); David (1 Samuel 16, 14); also Absalom (2 Samuel 14, 25); and not forgetting Esther(Esther 2, 7), Vashti (Esther 1, 11), the daughters of Job (Job 42, 15) and both male and female speakers in the Song of Songs. Good looks are attributed mainly to good characters – matriarchs, kings etc but also to Vashti and the dubious Absalom.

Why then is the Servant’s appearance insignificant at best and disfigured at worst?

We are familiar with the convention in film of a flattering depiction of  a physically unprepossessing character, whereby the  heroine is depicted by a beautiful actress, given thick eyebrows to denote plainness, or where a male superstar is cast as an historical personage who was not very good looking in real life (eg Richard Harris plays Oliver Cromwell). Portrait artists also are said to have flattered their subjects, not only to be paid by them but because art is enhanced by depicting beauty.

A literary depiction  loses less by failing to create an image of physical beauty because, if there is beauty, it resides in the language rather than the image.

The Servant, being unprepossessing, does not arouse compassion but appalled astonishment, which impedes the ‘many’ from identifying with him. He is therefore particularly isolated.

Verse 15

In this verse, Rashi’s identification of the Servant with Am Yisroel seems more plausible. Rashi interprets: ‘So now, even his hand will become powerful and he will cast down the nations who scattered him.’

The word י ז ה interested the commentators. The root is נ ז ה, to sprinkle or spatter; perhaps scatter, as in the Targum rendering:  ‘He will scatter the peoples…’  The kings are silenced because they have never experienced anything like this; the verse does not say what exactly silences the kings, but it seems to convey their astonishment at the  transformation of  the Servant

Ibn Ezra and Redak both explain that the other nations did not expect to see Israel’s redemption, and are now astonished by their reversal of fortune.

Chapter 53, verse 1

The rhetorical question in 53, 1 emphasises that the elevation of the Servant must be seen to be believed, but what this change reveals is God’s power, the זְרוֹעַ יי which has redeemed Israel before, especially in the Exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2

What do the metaphors of the sapling and the root from dry ground suggests about the rise of the Servant? That it is unexpected, as we have seen, perhaps relatively quick, that it has taken place in discouraging circumstances (dry ground) but that it is nevertheless deeply rooted in these circumstances. One could say that this refers to the Exile, which is in fact the interpretation of Redak, who added that the growth of the sapling in dry ground is miraculous.

The next part of the verse, which alludes again to the Servant’s unimpressive appearance, is interpreted by Redak as still referring to the Exile: ‘As long as he was in exile, he did not have a beautiful appearance.’ בּעוד שֶהיה בְּגלות לא היה לו תאר ולא הדר

The last word in this verse is וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ ‘And shall we desire him?’ or ‘[no beauty] that we should desire him’ – ‘…nothing drew us near,’ in the Days of Awe machzor.   The word ח מ ד occurs in the ten commandments, as ‘Thou shalt not covet…’ (Exodus 20, 14): לֹא תַחְמֹד.

To whom does ‘we’ refer? If the Servant is Israel, then ‘we’ must refer to the other nations.who are shocked at Israel’s redemption.

A comment from Maimonides (Letter to Yemen, 12th century)

“What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . .  Isaiah speaks …of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at his fame of him… and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.”

Verse 3

The word ‘despised,’ here in the passive נִבְזֶה is not unusual; it is the word used when Esau despised his birthright  (Genesis 25, 34), when Michal despised David in her heart (” Samuel 6, 16) and when David says that he is ‘less than human, scorned by men, despised by people.’ (Psalm 22, 7)  לֹא אִישׁ חֶרְפַּת אָדָם וּבְזוּי עָם:

חָדֵל is connected with ceasing or lack so could be translated a forsaken.

The Servant is a lonely figure. He does not have disciples or followers. A man of sorrows: אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת.

In Jeremiah 15,18) Jeremiah’s use of כְאֵבִי  ‘my pain,’  is from the same root as מַכְאֹבוֹת.

Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?

More than once, Jeremiah stood in the courtyard of the Temple, denouncing corrupt and unethical practices. He became an outcast and was punished and later banned from the Temple area.He  was beaten and put in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:16) and later imprisoned (Jeremiah 37, 15 – 16) at least twice (Jeremiah 38, 4ff).

I am not contending that Jeremiah was personally the model for the Suffering Servant, but that his narrative attests the ideal of a righteous and persecuted prophet in Hebrew prophecy. However, there is a precedent for linking the Servant with Jeremiah.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942 CE)  regarded  Jeremiah as a fulfillment of these verses, not the only person to fulfil them but as a representative of many righteous servants.

Perhaps there are thirty-six  in every generation: the lamed-vavniks.

The bible often speaks of God hiding his face, in the sense of punishing someone, eg the Psalmist, or punishing the people, Israel, by withdrawal. It is less often that a person hides his face, although Moses does so in Exodus 3, 6 at the burning bush, and Job, who is most certainly a man of sorrows and acquainted with illness, speaks of hiding his face from God and of God hiding His face from Job:

 Only grant two things to me, then I will not hide myself from thy face:  withdraw thy hand far from me, and let not dread of thee terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and do thou reply to me.  How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.  Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy?  Wilt thou frighten a driven leaf and pursue dry chaff? (Job 13, 20 – 24)

Verse 4

This verse develops a theology of vicarious suffering and atonement. Rashi said ‘…he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering.’

According to this view, ‘we’ are the nations, and ‘he’ is Israel.

Ezekiel took a different view, that each individual bears responsibility only for his own deeds:

 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18, 20)

Redak says that the view expressed in Isaiah 53, 4 does not contradict this, since,  if ‘we’ refers to the other nations, it is the other nations who impute vicarious suffering to Israel.

Ibn Ezra and Abravanel take this a step further, explaining that the Servant Israel bore the pains and sorrows inflicted on him by other nations.

The words חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלֹהִים , ‘[We thought him] plagued, stricken by God,’ are often used in connection with leprosy. This words emphasise that the Servant is an outcast, as we might, in modern usage, use the word ‘leper’ as a metaphor for someone shunned by society.

“The Rabbis said:

His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].” [5]

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is a ritual, its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.

Verse 5

This verse continues the theme of vicarious suffering but adds that we were healed by his wounds. A burden of guilt falls on ‘us,’ whoever ‘we’ may be. The theme of the righteous making atonement for the unrighteous is a feature of rabbinic literature. Even in the Avodah of the Yom Kippur mussaf service, the High Priest makes atonement for the people.

The possible meanings of the word מְחֹלָל according to BDB are profaned, defiled, pierced and there is a possible link with ח ל ה to be ill.

Verse 6

While the verse builds on theme of ‘our’ guilt, born by the servant, the sheep metaphor suggests that ‘we’ are essentially, innocent, ignorant, and easily led. Rashi, Redak and Ibn Ezra all interpret the first person plural as referring to the other nations.

In the Christian interpretation, ‘we’ refers to Israel which makes a neater metaphor but there is also the Jewish tradition in Talmud and Midrash of regarding the Servant as a person, variously identified as David, Hezekiah, Zerubbabel and the post biblical Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiva believed to be the Messiah.

Verse 7

Note the use of   רחל which means ewe, but does not occur often as a common noun – only in Genesis (31, 38), in connection with Laban’s sheep, and in the Song of Songs (6, 6).  Midrash attributes to Rachel the virtue of silence and discretion, because she did not reveal to Jacob Laban’s deception regarding the marriage to Leah, and this verse may be used as a prooftext. Certainly the silence of the Servant is regarded as a virtue. The sheep metaphor is applied differently as the sheep is not wandering away, but is here the unprotesting victim.

There is another connection with Jeremiah in this verse:

But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” (Jeremiah 11, 19)

Verse 8

Rashi says that ‘the land of the living’ refers to Eretz Israel, and ‘cut off’ means exiled. The medieval commentators (Ibn Ezra, Redak, Rashi)  believed that the speakers are the other nations, confessing that Israel was afflicted, or stricken with plague because of the sins of the other nations, particularly in this case the Babylonians.

Verse 9

Consistently, the medieval rabbis explain that the grave among the wicked was the grave in exile, in Babylon. Rashi also suggests that the grave among the wicked and the tomb among the wealthy means that the Servant was willing to let the ruling power take his life rather than deny the Torah.

Now if the prophet’s imagery  was influenced by knowledge of the pagan practice of the Substitute King, the grave among the wealthy could refer to the practice of killing the Substitute King and burying him in a king’s tomb. ‘Among the wicked’ fits in with this too. The wicked and the wealthy seem to be linked together and the Servant submits in some way to be martyred by them.

Jeremiah’s grave was, as far as anyone knows, in Egypt, perhaps Tahpanes,where he was taken with other refugees, as Nebuchadnezzar advanced on Judah. There is a midrash that he was stoned to death (Midrash Aggadah to Numbers 30, 15).[6] This is also attributed to Tertullian (ca. 155 – 230), a patristic writer who said that the Jews stoned Jeremiah, a hostile interpretation of the Jews being par for the course in early Christian writings.

Nachmanides, who was forced to enter into a disputation with the Christian authorities of Barcelona in 1263, repudiated the view that the Suffering Servant refers to the Messiah, or that the Messiah would be put to death and buried among the wicked:

Friar Paul claimed: “Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and ho he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?

I said to him: “In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call ‘Israel My servant’ or ‘Jacob My servant.’ ”
Friar Paul said: “I shall prove from the words of your sages that it speaks of the messiah.”
I said to him: “It is true that the rabbis in the aggadah explain it as referring to the messiah. However, they never said that he would be killed ,at the hands of his enemies. For you will find in no book of the Jews, neither in the Talmud nor in the Midrash, that the messiah, the descendant of David, would be killed or would be turned over to his enemies or would be buried among the wicked. Indeed even the messiah whom you made for yourself was not buried. I shall explain for you this section properly and clearly, if you wish. There is no indication that the messiah would be killed, as happened to your messiah. They, however, did not wish to hear. [7] 

Verse 10

This difficult use of  ד כ א to crush occurs also in Job (6, 9 and 19, 2). How are we to understand this verse, unless by comparing the servant with Job, who was blameless and upright. (Job 1, 1)?  The crushing of the Servant, according to the verse, serves a Utilitarian purpose: that God’s purpose would be fulfilled by him; that he would see offspring and prolong his days. What does the Servant need to do to achieve this purpose? He has to offer his soul as a guilt offering: א ש ם – and the asham was one of the Temple offerings prescribed in Leviticus.

Verse 11

To whom does tsadik refer? Some translations say ‘The Righteous One,’ meaning that the Servant, through his knowledge, brings many people to God; other translations make ‘righteous’ apply to the Servant. The word order is:

He will justify/ the righteous one/My servant

It could be translated as ‘The Righteous One will justify my servant,’ or ‘My servant will justify the righteous.’ According to the rest of the verse, the Servant is the subject of the verbs.  ס ב ל means ‘to bear a heavy load.’  The Servant  sees, justifies and bears a burden. The Judaica Press translation seems to me better than some others:

From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My Servant would vindicate the just for the many, and their iniquities he would bear.’[8]

The servant song in Isaiah 42,1 ff  throws light on this verse, by its use of the motifs of ‘servant,’ ‘righteousness’ and being silent.

1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

These words are addressed to ‘You, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham who loved me’ (Isaiah 41, 8).

Note that it is through  knowledge that the servant  justifies:

 ‘for Torah will come out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ (Isaiah 2, 3)

Verse 12

The traditional medieval view, also found  earlier in the Targum, is that the nation of Israel will intercede for the welfare of the other nations.

Rashi says ‘Because he did this, I will allot him an inheritance with the Patriarchs.’

Ibn Ezra and Redak said that although Israel suffered at the hands of their oppressors, they prayed for their welfare, giving as prooftext  Jeremiah 29, 7: ‘Seek the peace of the city to which I have brought you.’

‘He poured out his soul to death’ seems to be the figure of speech which often translates  הֶעֱרָה לַמָּוֶת נַפְשׁוֹ but Yamim Noraim has ‘he exposed his soul to death,’ taking into account the connection of  ע ר ה with nakedness.

The last image in this text is a familiar paradigm: one who is martyred and dishonoured but takes on the role willingly while striving for the welfare of his oppressors.  Clearly this is at the heart of Christianity but it originates in a Hebrew context. As Jews suffered martyrdom so many times under the various oppressive empires,  it became a frequent subject of discussion in rabbinic literature. It is not chance that this text appears in the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur mussaf service.

It does not conform to an ideal of the heroic that appeared later in Greek literature, is the opposite of tyranny or hubris, but is consistent with many aspects of Hebrew scripture, especially the Psalms, as in Psalm 113, 7 – 8 for example:

 מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן

 לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ:

He raises the poor from the dust, the beggar from the dunghill, to sit them with princes, the princes of his people – or Psalm 22, אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי , My God, my God, whu hast Thou forsaken me?attributed to David, and used famously in the New Testament but readily applicable to Job, Jeremiah and all the Suffering Servants across the generations.


Gillian Lazarus   Ellul 5767

August 2007

1] The Imagery of the Substitute King Ritual in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Songby John H Walton (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 122, No. 4, 734 – 743)

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica 1971 Vol 9, p 66

[3] The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Gershom Scholem, Schocken Books NY 1971 p33

[4]Judaism on Trial by Hyam Maccoby Associated University Press 1982 p43

[5]Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb. He asked him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’ He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’ R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognise him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’ So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘peace upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When wilt thou come Master?’ asked he, ‘To-day’, was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, ‘What did he say to thee?’ — ‘peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, ‘He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.’ ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ he rejoined, ‘stating that he would come to-day, but has not.’ He [Elijah] answered him, ‘This is what he said to thee, Today, if ye will hear his voice.’

[6]Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol 6 p399  Johns Hopkins UP 1998

[7]  Nachmanides’ report of  The Barcelona Disputation, 1263

[8]Translation by Rabbi A J Rosenberg

This is the traditional haftarah for Toledot, and it fits in very well with the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27. This features the episode where Rebecca instigates the deception of Isaac by Jacob, her favourite son, to obtain the birthright which would have gone to Esau.  Jacob and Esau will later take the names Israel and Edom and Genesis 27 is the prototype for many struggles which ensue between their descendants.
 The dates of most  Hebrew prophets are indicated in the superscription of their book by the names of the kings reigning at that time. No kings’ names are listed in the superscription of Malachi. The language and the situation are post-exilic (after 536 BCE) and later than the initial return to Jerusalem  because the the Temple which has been rebuilt, is up and running.
In our reading, Malachi talks about the Edomites who have a long adversarial history with the Israelites, and who, in the fifth or sixth century BCE,  were driven out of their homeland by the Nabateans, a tribe of Arabs advancing from the desert.  He goes on to criticise Temple practices whichs seems to imply that some time has passed since the second Temple’s completion around 515 BCE. Malachi’s interests and views coincide with those of Ezra and Nehemiah, being against divorce and  intermarriage, and emphasizing the paying of tithes and the proper use of the sacrificial system.
The chronology of rulers during the period of the Persian Achaemenid empire is  like this: Cyrus ruled from 559-530 and authorised the return of the captives to Jerusalem in 536 or 537. Cambyses succeeded, followed by Darius I (c.522-486), and Xerxes I; then Artaxerxes ruled from 465 to 424.  Ezra and Nehemiah  returned to Jerusalem in 458 and 450  respectively. There is a question of Artaxerxes I being the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, but there are also opinions that Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II is a likely Ahasuerus.
The book of Ezra makes it clear that Artaxerxes, like Cyrus, was supportive of the continuing return of exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.[1]

In  the book of Ezra, the king is called  אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ.

After 424, the Achaemenid kings were Xerxes II, Sogdianus, Darius II, Artaxerxes II (423-359), Artaxerxes III, Arses, Darius III  and after that, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in 330.

Jerusalem was  in the Persian province of Trans-Euphrates (west of the river), called   בַּעֲבַר נַהֲרָא , ‘Beyond the river,’ in Ezra and Nehemiah. The prophets who were active at this time, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi,  were concerned with the restoration of the the Temple and its cult, according to the law of Moses. There is not a consensus of academic opinion as to whether Malachi is earlier, later or contemporary with Ezra and Nehemiah.In  the book of Ezra, the king is called  אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ.

Although the Temple had been rebuilt, it was not a panacea for the problems caused by  bad harvests and heavy taxes imposed by the  Persians.

The subjects addressed in the three chapters which make up the book of Malachi are: God’s love for Judah and His hatred of Edom; Malachi’s accusations against the priests for neglecting the sacrificial cult, his  rejection of divorce and of mixed marriages and his condemnation of the people for  their lack of social justice and inadequate payment of tithes. He is concerned for the upkeep of the Temple, because the Temple practices represent the relationship of the people to God.  In Malachi 2, 11, the prophet denounces husbands who divorce their wives to marry ‘the daughter[s] of a strange god.’

Chapter 1, verse1

The identity and the name

As for Malachi’s identity, there is a question of whether Malachi is a proper name or simply ‘My messenger. In Malachi 3:1, the usage seems to imply that Malachi is not a proper name:

הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָכִי וּפִנָּה דֶרֶךְ לְפָנָי

Behold I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before me.

If Malachi means ‘My Messenger,’ the prophet’s  anonymity encourages the midrashic interpretation that he is the same person as Ezra.[2] Targum Jonathan to Malachi says, for verse 1, ‘By the hand of my messenger, whose name is Ezra the scribe.’ Jerome, in his preface to the commentary on Malachi, mentions that in his day the belief was current that Malachi was identical with Ezra (“Malachi Hebræi Esdram Existimant”). The LXX translates his messenger, rather than my messenger, referring to Malachi as  αγγελου,  ‘his angel,’ which has the same angel/messenger ambiguity as the word מַלְאךְ. The Hebrew noun is derived from the root ל א ך which means to be sent, or to minister.[3]

Midrash also describes him, with Haggai and Zechariah, as the last of the prophets and a companion of Ezra.[4] A Talmudic tradition identifies him with Mordecai, punning on the name Malachi and the ‘kingliness’ of Mordecai in Esther:

כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ  [5]

This is the passage from the Bavli:

R Nahman said: Malachi is the same as Mordecai. Why was he called Malachi? Because he was next to the king. The following was cited in objection to this: Baruch the son of Neriah[6] and Serayah the son of Mahseyah[7] and Daniel and Mordecai, Bilshan, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all prophesied in the second year of Darius.[8]

The names in this passage are associated with the return to Judah in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah but the rabbis also interpreted Bilshan as Mordecai’s surname.[9]

Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah.[10]

These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town),  in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum and Baanah.[11]

I am not sure why the chronology which makes Malachi and Mordecai active in the second year of Darius refute identification of Malachi with Mordecai. Rashi’s note suggests that this is a later Darius, האחרון

Why might the rabbis  have wanted to identify Malachi with Mordecai?  Both are from the period of the Persian Empire, but there is another connection, which is anti-Amalek, anti-Edom and anti-Esau. Amalek was one of Esau’s descendants.[12]

The identification with Ezra[13] is based on the similarity of their views on intermarriage:

R Joshua ben Korha says: Malachi is the same as Ezra, and the Sages say that Malachi was his proper name. R Nahman said: There is good ground for accepting that Malachi was the same as Ezra. For it is written in the prophecy of Malachi, Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.[14] And who was it that put away the foreign women? Ezra, as it is written, And Shecani’ah the son of Jehi’el, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land.[15]

מַֹשָֹּא is translated as oracle, message, ‘burden’ in some translations. It’s derived from the verb נ שֹ א, ‘to lift up,’ and is used in Zechariah, used in the same way.[16]

Verse 2

Against the Edomites

The people of Israel respond with a sceptical question: How/wherein have You loved us? This question and answer format is the didactic-dialectic style characteristic of Malachi, but found also in Isaiah, Micah and Haggai.[17]

For rhetorical effect, he makes a statement and follows it with the objection he expects from his audience.

Verse 3

The sibling relationship with Esau is mentioned up front here.

Esau’s descendants are called Edomites and they lived in the region south of the Dead Sea called Mount Seir, a name which puns on Esau’s hairiness:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק[18]

Edom of course means red, Esau being אַדְמֹונִי at birthEsau himself traveled from Canaan, in the west, to possess his land, with the territory of Ammon and Moab  on the borders. He is identified with Edom in  Genesis 36:1:

וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת עֵשָׂו הוּא אֱדוֹם

Esau made multiple marriages and his descendants include many of the neighbouring peoples, Amalekites included.

The context of the animus against Edom in this Malachi text is that Edomites occupied the fertile grazing land of Judah following the exile of 586. The Nabataeans who were Arabian nomads then occupied the former Edomite territory, including Petra, the gulf of Aqaba and Elat.  Their Aramaic  inscriptions begin to appear in the fourth century BCE, according to archaeological findings.

Although there is some expression of fraternal friendliness to Edom in the Torah – You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother,[19] Obadiah makes the perfidious Edomites and their comeuppance his  entire subject.

The grudge against the Edomites for their complicity with the Babylonians  in the destruction of Jerusalem and their opportunism in benefiting from it is expressed famously in Psalm 137:

Remember O Lord the Edomites in the day of Jerusalem, who said Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations… [20]

Obadiah, the shortest of the prophetic books, is believed to have written in the 5th century BCE, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. He denounces the Edomites for assisting the Babylonians, ravaging and looting Jerusalem after the Jews were exiled. He draws attention to the kinship between Israel and Edom, which makes Edom particularly treacherous.

Malachi’s statement of God’s hatred is sometimes explained as ‘I chose Jacob, but not Esau,’ or ‘I loved Esau less.’ It is also explained by treating Edom as a symbol of wickedness, as it is used  in midrashic literature, especially during Roman times where Rome is called Edom. In later midrash, Edom may represent the church.

James Kugel, commenting on the changing portrayal of Esau in Midrash, writes:

Part of the motive for this change is to be found in the later history of Israel, as reflected in the bible itself. After all, Esau was the ancestor of the Edomites, Israel’s close neighbour and sometimes fierce enemy. Later biblical texts frequently heaped scorn on the Edomites, and sometimes this scorn was couched in terms that reflected back on the founder of that nation.[21]

The enmity of the Amalekites contributed to the bad press received by Esau and by the Edomites as a people. This adds dramatic impetus to the identification of Malachi, scourge of the Edomites with Mordecai, scourge of the Amalekites.

Esau was a hunter, living by the sword,[22] and was a natural symbol for the martial power of Rome:

[Isaac’s words] The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau[23] [really refer to the people of Israel and Rome] for Jacob rules only through his voice, but Esau rules only through his hands.[24]

Verses, 3- 4.

These verses speak of retribution  towards Edom.

According to Malachi, the desolation of Edom is an accomplished fact rather than a threat to be fulfilled in the  future, probably referring to the devastation of Edom caused by  the migration of  Nabateans. The word tanot, translated in my bible as jackals, is translated elsewhere as dragons, presumably because it resembles the tanim, dragons or sea monsters of Genesis 1, 21. Sea monsters of the desert would not be suitable. The ‘jackals of the wilderness’ are the marauding Nabateans.  The Edomites were forced south, to the Negev,  in Roman times was called Idumea. The fact that Idumea provided the Herodian dynasty, clients of the Roman regime, also contributes to the identification of Edom with Rome.

Verse 5

God’s greatness reaches beyond Israel and His retribution is suffered by other peoples, especially those who attack Israel, so he regarded as  universal but not fatherly.

Rashi comments:

He will show His greatness over our border, to make known that we are His people. And Jonathan[25] rendered: May the glory of the Lord be magnified, and He has widened the border of Israel.

This verse completes Malachi’s section on Edom, and in the next verse, he attacks a home grown target.

Verses 6

Corrupt priests and unkosher sacrifices

Malachi turns to the subject of corruption among the priests who misuse the sacrificial system. Theseare reminiscent of charges from the author of Samuel  against the sons of Eli[26] and the sons of Samuel.[27]

The relationship between God and the cohanim is affirmed as that of a father to His children or a master to His servants, but the priests have failed in their duties as children and servants.

The designation here for God is Lord of Hosts; the LXX has παντοκρατωρ.

Verse 7

‘Polluted bread’ is less likely to refer to bread than to the unsuitable animals offered at the altar.The word for offering – מַגִּיֹשִים – is derived from נ ג ֹש, which means to approach, and in this form means to bring near. The word for pollute, ג א ל, is composed of the same letters as a more familiar word which means ‘redeem.’  BDB[28] draws our attention to a similar word ג ע ל, meaning ‘to abhor.’[29] All the occurences of  ג א ל as pollute belong to books (with the exception of Zephaniah, seventh century BCE[30]) which have a strong Persian connection: Daniel,[31] Ezra[32] and Nehemiah;[33] it appears twice in Isaiah,[34] but in the later chapters, where the prophet’s acquaintance with the rule of Cyrus.[35] The word for defilement in the Torah is usually ח נ ף or ט מ א, unclean.

As Rev Dr Cohen points out in his commentary to the Soncino edition, ֹשֻלְחַן, table, stands for the altar, and he cites a similar use in Ezekiel, when the angel, who provides  Ezekiel with a vision of the future Temple, shows him the altar, saying:

This is the table which is before the Lord. [36]

זֶה הַשֻּׁלְחָן אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה

Verse 8

The sacrificial cult insisted that only animals without blemish were fit for sacrifice,[37] and the priests had to cleanse themselves so as not to offer sacrifices in a state of ritual impurity. Blindness and lameness counted as blemishes which precluded the animal from being offered as a sacrifice.

Malachi uses the Persian word for governor, פֶחָה ,which is found, as one would expect, in the books of the bible which are concerned with Persian domination: Haggai, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah and second Chronicles. Pekhah is used also in non-Persian contexts, in Kings,[38] Isaiah,[39] Jeremiah[40] and Ezekiel,[41]  usually in speaking of international dealings with the Assyrians and the Babylonians, or, in the case of King Solomon, the Arabians:

וְכָל מַלְכֵי הָעֶרֶב וּפַחוֹת הָאָרֶץ[42]

The Greek word is ηγουμων, hegemon.

The Priestly Blessing

If  the governor would not find it acceptable – literally, ‘lift up your face’ – how much less should it be offered to God, and how much less will God lift up the face of a corrupt priest. The question makes ironic reference to the priestly blessing:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

 יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

יִשָּׂא יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם [43]

Verse 9

Again Malachi makes an ironical allusion to the priestly blessing:  יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ To be gracious is ח נ ן.

The Mishnah describes how, in Temple times, the priests used to recite the Priestly Blessing, morning and evening at the daily offerings.[44] The priests made the blessing with uplifted hands,[45] to which  מִיֶּדְכֶםmay allude – this is from your hands.

Michael Fishbane comments:

Malachi’s vitriolic critique of cultic and priestly behaviour in the post-exilic period is, at once, a systematic utilization of the language of the Priestly Blessing and an exegetical transformation of it…In brief, the prophet has taken the contents of the Priestly Blessing, delivered by the priests, with its emphasis on blessing, the sanctity of the divine Name, and such benefactions gracious/favourable countenance, and peace – and negated them![46]

Verse 10

Closing the doors

It is preferable to close the Temple doors than to bring inappropriate sacrifices. Rashi’s comment on this verse is:

If only a good man would arise among you who would close the doors of My sanctuary so as not to allow this abominable sacrifice there.

Rashi also cites Sifra, a midrashic work on Leviticus, where the sages say:

If a person says to his friend, “Close this door for me,” he does not demand compensation for it; [or if he says,] “Light this candle for me,” he does not request compensation for it. But you – who is there among you who closed My doors, gratis? Neither did you kindle fire on My altar gratis. Surely, things that are customarily done for compensation you did not do gratis. Therefore, I have no desire in you.[47]

Malachi’s criticisms of the Temple priesthood  provided ammunition for the Church Fathers, in their attempts to Christianize the Hebrew prophets. Cyril of Alexandria, for example, writing in the fifth century CE, interprets the shutting of the doors as the shutting out of Jews from God’s favour, asserting that the Jewish priesthood had failed only to be replaced by the Christian church. This was part of the general thrust in Patristic writings to lay claim to Jewish patriarchs and prophets as harbingers of Christianity.

It must be difficult to reconcile this view with ‘I have loved you…I loved Jacob’ in verses 1 and 2.

Verse 11

Among the nations

This is an allusion to Psalm 113, the first psalm of the Hallel, and in this verse, the nations from east to west are encompassed in universal worship of  the one God. The prophet asserts that God is worshiped beyond Israel, by the goyim who bring acceptable sacrifices: מִנְחָה טְהֹורָה.  Psalm 113 also invokes the nations in a universalizing context from east to west:

מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ מְהֻלָּל שֵׁם יְהֹוָה:

 רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם יְהֹוָה עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ:

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised!  The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens[48]

From the rising of the sun to its setting may also signify a sequence of time – from the beginning to the end – but in this context, the intended meaning seems to be ‘everywhere.’

Rashi interprets among the nations as referring to Jews in the diaspora:

Our Sages explained: These are the Torah scholars who are engaged in the laws of the Temple service everywhere, and likewise, every prayer of Israel that they pray anywhere is to Me as a pure oblation. And so did Jonathan paraphrase: And every time that you do My will, I accept your prayer, and My great Name is sanctified through you, and your prayer is like a pure offering before Me. This is the explanation of the verse: Now why do you profane My Name? Is it not great among the nations? As for Me, My love and My affection are upon you wherever you pray before Me

The verse does indeed say בַּגֹּויִם and not הַגֹּויִים – among the nations, rather than the nations.

In verse 11, Malachi twice bears  God’s message:  My name is great among the nations,  and again in verse 14:  My name is feared among the nations.

Verses 12 to14 accuse those who offer ritually impure animals and show contempt for the sacrificial laws. In verse 14 Malachi says that the person is cursed who possesses healthy animals but  yields up for sacrifice a מָֹשְחַת, which has connotations of being spoiled or corrupt, reflecting back on the person who brings the blemished animal.

Why is there is emphasis here on בַּגֹּויִם, among the nations?  This expression sums up the topography of  Israelite diaspora in the tochechot of Leviticus[49] and Deuteronomy,[50]   in the prophecies of Jeremiah[51] and Ezekiel[52] and many times among the Trei-asar, when they speak of exile. In the Psalms, בַּגֹּויִם has another significance, where the Psalmist extols God among the nations, that is, to bear witness to the greatness of God, for the edification of non-Israelite nations.[53]

In Psalm 126, the point is that the nations should see what God has done for Israel:

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’[54]

The Chronicler speaks o f the universal worship of God:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’[55]

A clue to Malachi’s meaning is the use of the expression מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ from Psalm 113, which goes on to say that God is רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם, above all nations, and it may be that Malachi is making the point that God is greater than the Persian Empire and its provincial governors.

Minchah in Malachi’s time

The ‘pure oblations’ contrast with the unacceptable sacrifices of unfit animals.

The NASB translates  מִנְחָה טְהֹורָה as a grain offering that is pure. Minchah, in biblical times, was usually a grain offering, and in Talmudic times, it became the afternoon prayer, which took the place of a sacrificial offering.[56] The meaning of the verb  מ נ ח, from which Minchah is derived, is to make a gift or a loan.[57]There are five kinds of sacrifices: Olah (The  burnt offering, Minchah (The flour offering),  Shelamim (The peace offering),  Chatat (The sin offering) and Asham (The trespass offering).

The first people in Tanakh to offer minchah are Cain and Abel.[58] In Leviticus we find instructions for the Temple practice:

 When someone brings a grain offering (מִנְחָה) to the Lord, his offering is to be of fine flour. He is to pour oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the fine flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings made to the Lord by fire[59]

November 2008

1] Ezra 7:11-15

[2] Megillah 15a; Jerome’s commentary of Malachi


BDB p521

[4] Zevahim 62a

[5] Esther 10:3

[6] Jeremiah 32:12


Jeremiah 51:59


Megillah 15a see also Haggai 1:1  and Zechariah 1:1 re the second year of Darius.

[9] Menahot 64b

[10] Ezra 1:1-2

[11] Nehemiah 7:6-7

[12] Genesis 36:12

[13] Megillah 15a

[14] Malachi 2;11


 Ezra 10:2

[16] Zechariah 9:1 and 12:1

[17] See also Isaiah 40,12-17;  Micah 2, 6-11 and Haggai 1, 4-6

[18] Genesis 27:11

[19] Deuteronomy 23:8

[20] psalm 137:7

[21] The Bible As It Was, James Kugel, Harvard University Press1997 p202

[22] Genesis 27:40

[23] Genesis 27,22


Genesis Rabbah 65:19

[25] Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel

[26] 1 Samuel 2:12-17


1 Samuel 8:3

[28] BDB p146


loc cit p171.


Zephaniah, 3:1


Daniel 1:8


Ezra 2:62


Nehemiah 7:64


Isaiah 59:3; 63:3


Isaiah 45:1 and 13

[36] Ezekiel 41:22

[37] Leviticus 1:3

[38] 1 Kings 10:15,20:24; 2 Kings 18:24


Isaiah 36:9


Jeremiah 51:23, 28 and 57


Ezekiel 23:6, 12 and 23

[42] 1 Kings 10:15

[43] Numbers 6:24-27

[44] Mishnah, Tamid 5:1


Leviticus 9:22 Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings.

[46] Form and Reformulation of the Biblical Priestly Blessing, Michael Fishbane,  American Oriental Society, 1983

[47] Torath Kohanim (Sifra) 7:154

[48] Psalm 113:3-4

[49] Leviticus 26:23ff


Deuteronomy 4:27; 30:1


Jeremiah 29:18


Ezekiel 4:13


2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49

[54] Psalm 126:2

[55] 1 Chronicles 16:31

[56] Berakhot 26b


BDB p585

[58] Genesis 4:3-5

[59] Leviticus 2:1-3

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