Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The “Footsteps of the Messiah” and the Messianic Tribulation

Since Michael wrote such an excellent post below on Jesus as the royal and Davidic Suffering Servant, I thought I would toss out something I discovered this morning on Jesus and the Psalms. Hope you all like it (I know Michael will).

Many people who have studied eschatology know that many ancient Jews expected the coming of the Messiah to be preceded by a period of eschatological tribulation. And many also may be familiar with the fact that the messianic tribulation is frequently referred to by the Rabbis as “the birth pangs of the Messiah”—an expression which appears in both the Talmud and the Gospels (b. Sanh. 98b; Mark 13:3-8). But what many people are not familiar with is that the Rabbis had another expression—a very ancient expression—for referring to the time of tribulation. The Rabbis also spoke of “the footsteps (or footprints) of the Messiah”. We find an ancient reference to this in the Mishnah, which reads:
With the footprints of the Messiah presumption shall increase and dearth reach its height… the wisdom of the Scribes shall become insipid and they that shun sin shall be deemed contemptible, and truth shall nowhere be found. Children shall shame the elders, and the elders shall rise up before the children, for “the son dishonors the father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.” The face of this generation is as the face of a dog… (Mishnah Sotah 9:15, citing Micah 7:6).
Here we have a classic Rabbinic description of the time of tribulation and the wicked “generation” that was supposed to accompany the coming of the Messiah. As the great translator of the Mishnah, Herbert Danby, says in his footnote to this passage, “the footprints of the Messiah” are
The signs which herald the coming of the Messiah at the end of the time of exile. (Danby, The Mishnah, 306 n. 9)
It took me six hundred pages to explain the connection between the tribulation and the end of the exile, but to anyone familiar with the Gospels, the Mishnah should sound familiar. Indeed, Jesus himself—in one of his most mysterious sayings—quotes the exact same prophecy from the book of Micah to describe the eschatological tribulation:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. (Matt 10:34-36; cf. Lk 12:51-53)
As I argued in the book, here Jesus is declaring that he has come to inaugurate the eschatological tribulation that was supposed to precede the coming of the messianic kingdom of God. He has come not to bring an era of peace, but to set in motion “the footprints of the Messiah”—the time of tribulation—spoken of later by the Rabbis.

So far, so good. This should be old hat for some of you out there. But what I learned this morning, which I had never known, was this: Not only do the Rabbis refer to the Messianic Tribulation as “the footsteps of the Messiah,” but they derive this expression from the sufferings of David described in Psalm 89! Consider the following texts, one from the Midrash Rabbah and the other from the Babylonian Talmud, which speak of the tribulation as accompanying the coming of the Davidic Messiah:

Rabbi Jannai said: If you see one generation after another cursing and blaspheming, look out for the coming of the Messiah, as it says, “Wherewith thine enemies have taunted O Lord, wherewith thine enemies have taunted the footsteps of thine anointed” (Midrash on Song of Songs 2:13, citing Ps 89:52 [trans. M. Simon, p. 127]

Our Rabbis taught: “In the seven year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come… the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink, and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the septennate the son of David will come… Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O Lord; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed [Ps 89:52]. It has been taught, Rabbi Judah said: In the generation when the son of David comes, the house of assembly will be for harlots, Galilee in ruins, Gablan lie desolate… the wisdom of scribes in disfavour, God-fearing men despised, people be dog-faced, and truth entirely lacking. (b. Sanhedrin 97a; trans. I. Epstein)

These texts are clearly drawing on the same tradition found in the Mishnah. What is striking about their presentation of the Messianic Tribulation is that they both cite the line from Psalm 89 that speaks of “the footsteps of thine anointed” (Ps 89:51). The Hebrew word for “anointed” here, is, of course “Messiah” (Hb. mashiach).
All of this is important because if you go back and read Psalm 89 in context (I strongly encourage you to reread the whole psalm), you will see that it is not focused on the tribulations of the world, but on (1) the establishment of the Davidic covenant (Ps 89:1-37) and (2) the sufferings of the Davidic “messiah” (Ps 89:38-52).

Thou has renounced the covenant with thy servant;
Thou hast defiled his crown in the dust…
Lord, where is thy steadfast love of old,
Which by thy faithfulness thou didst swear to David?
Remember, O Lord, how thy servant is scorned;
How I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which thy enemies taunt O LORD, with which they mock
the the footsteps of thy messiah. (Ps 89:39, 49-51)
I won’t say anything about the prominence of the “servant” imagery; Michael’s already covered that in his awesome post below.
But one reason all this is so striking for me is that in my dissertation, I argued that Jesus saw himself as the messianic Son of Man and suffering Servant, who would take upon himself the sufferings of the eschatological tribulation, in order to usher in the kingdom of God (see Mark 10:35-45). I argued that the tribulation was not only messianic because it would accompany the coming of the Messiah, but because the Messiah would actually undergo the tribulation and die in it. At the time, the only text I had in mind that contained an explicit link between the eschatological tribulation and the “messiah” was Dan 9:24-27, in which the Messiah dies in the tribulation. When we add the ancient Jewish interpretation of Psalm 89 to the matrix, the evidence suggests that Jesus also saw himself as the Davidic Messiah who would suffer the messianic tribulation by undergoing the days of “the footsteps of the Messiah.” And he did this—as Michael showed below—by interpreting his own imminent fate in light of the Davidic messianic psalms.


enkratic said...

I wonder if the rabbis ever make a midrashic connection with Gen 3:15, where aqev (heel, footprint) is used?

Brant Pitre said...


You'd better believe they did! But I was going to leave that for another post. Let's just say this: does "birthpangs of the Messiah" have an Adamic ring to it? Anything about birth or a woman or birth-pangs in Genesis 3???

Will say more in future posts. Michael and I are still working through the Adamic connections. But you're right on target.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing! I loved the book on the tribulation, but this takes opens up a number of interesting doors. Thanks for the post!

Josh B from OLHCC said...

Dr. Pitre,

Congrats on the little one! It's good reading your stuff on here. I'll be in touch soon.


Charles Sommer said...

Dr. Pietre,
Congrats as well on the little one...I hope you stored up sleep.

Interesting interpretation. I always knew that there were connections between OT and NT, but the conference two weekends ago and this post show that I still have a lot to learn and re-discover.

Johnny Vino said...

congrats on the girl!

I find the idea that the Messianic troubles were visited first upon the Messiah to be intriguing. It seems I'm learning something new about Revelation every day - and if you view the imagery of the scrolls and the horsemen in that way, it opens up yet another amazing angle.

Charles Sommer said...


Something to dovetail with your post. One of my professors argued that the scenes in the early part of Revelation (up to chap. 12) relate events that happened in John's past. There are issues with this interpretation that I haven't quite worked out, but it is intriguing.

Stuart said...

I know what follows is a "Moses" point rather than a "David" point, but I just wanted to stick it in somewhere, although I'm sure you've had a look at it already Dr. Pitre!

On the roots of the Eucharist, what about the meal of Moses, Aaron, and the elders on Mount Sinai in Exodus, where they ate and drank and beheld the LORD? In terms of typology, could this not be seen as a type of the Eucharist? It is followed by the golden calf incident, and then by Moses' plea to God for him to be allowed to offer himself as an atonement sacrifice to take away the people's sin (which God refuses, presumably because God has someone else in mind, beyond even Aaron and the cultus).

peter t said...

I am a student in Chinese Lutheran Seminary, Taiwan. I am working on my MD essay which focused on the Psalm 69. Many Christian books told me that this is a messianic psalm according to Rabbi's writting. But I wish to find out that what did Rabbis really said? Where can I find the original text ? Is that midrash tehillim ?
Thank you.

Anders said...

Hello Brant!

I found your website. My name is Anders Branderud, I am 23 years and I am from Sweden.

You haven't yet realized that the historical pro-Torah Ribi Yehoshua and the post-135 C.E. anti-Torah Christ are two different persons.

So who then was the historical Jesus?
The first century pro-Torah Ribi Yehoshua – the Messiah - said:

"Don't think that I came to uproot the Torah or the Neviim [prophets], but rather I came to reconcile them with the Oral Law of emet (truth). Should the heavens and ha-aretz (the land, particularly referring to Israel) exchange places, still, not even one ' (yod) nor one ` (qeren) of the Oral Law of Mosheh shall so much as exchange places; until it shall become that it is all being fully ratified and performed non-selectively. For whoever deletes one Oral Law from the Torah, or shall teach others such, by those in the Realm of the heavens he shall be called "deleted." Both he who preserves and he who teaches them shall be called Ribi in the Realm of the heavens. For I tell you that unless your Tzedaqah (righteousness) is over and above that of the Sophrim and of the [probably 'Herodian'] Rabbinic-Perushim (corrupted to "Pharisees"), there is no way you will enter into the Realm of the heavens! “
Netzarim Reconstruction of Hebrew Matityahu 5:17-20.

For words that you don’t understand; se www.netzarim.co.il ; the link to Glossaries at the first page.

Ribi Yehoshua warned for false prophets who don’t produce good fruit = defined as don’t practise the commandments in Torah according to Halakhah (oral Torah in an unbroken chain since Mosheh (Moses); commanded by Mosheh in Torah; oral Torah is recorded Beit-Din (Jewish Court)-decisions of how Torah shall be applied). See Devarim (Deuteronomy) 13:1-6.

If you don’t follow Ribi Yehoshuas Torah-teachings, then you don’t follow Ribi Yehoshua.
So you need to start follow the historical Ribi Yehoshua – the Messiah – by practising Torah (including oral Torah; see above)!!

Finding the historical Jew, who was a Pharisee Ribi and following him brings you into Torah, which gives you a rich and meaningful life here on earth and great rewards in life after death (“heaven”)!

From Anders Branderud
Geir Toshav, Netzarim in Ra’anana in Israel (www.netzarim.co.il) who are followers of Ribi Yehoshua – the Messiah – in Orthodox Judaism