Messiah in the Pentateuch

I want to turn quickly to consider the picture of the Messiah in the story as we have it in the first five Books of Moses.  If one hesitates to bring to the Pentateuch what one already knows from the rest of Scripture, the picture of the Promised One is diminished but still of real interest.[1]

The main passages are in Genesis 3:15; 22:18; 49:8-10; Numbers 24:8-9, 17-19, and Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  These are the clearest scriptures.  Other passages, such as the offering up of Isaac (Gen. 22), and the Passover lamb (Exod. 12) are typological, but because they are types they cannot be viewed as revelatory or predictive within the framework of the Pentateuch as we have it.  We do not have information about whether the people in these stories knew and understood about the typology involved.  Even though it is fashionable in the current evangelical milieu to erect intricate whole theological structures based upon typology, this is most often done because of the retrofit-hermeneutics which reads the Old Testament in light of the New.  Since the design of this biblical theology is to conscientiously avoid doing such a thing I will be true to my persuasions and pass by typological foreshadowings.

As we have seen, the Seed of the Woman prophecy in Genesis 3:15 was aimed at the serpent, not our first parents.  It is also apparent that the curse concerns the eventual destruction of the serpent (who will later be identified as Satan) by a man (“he will crush your head”).  Hence, it is through a representative of the humanity which the serpent corrupted that his doom will be sealed.  From this text alone it is a leap to make the human Vanquisher of Satan a savior of humanity also.

The text in Genesis 22:18, which is often (though not always) taken as the place Paul appeals to for his “seed was Christ” doctrine in Galatians 3:16, is not as clear.[2]  Perhaps we would not see Christ in the story if the Apostle had not told us about it?[3]  Sailhamer calls our attention to Genesis 15:4 where God does set up a single-seed precedent (Isaac)[4].  But when all is said and done I don’t think Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son was understood at the time as being loaded with Messianic portents.

When the Lord Jesus said in John 8:58, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad”, He was not claiming that the Patriarch foresaw Christ dying on a Roman Cross for the sins of the world.  That is not what Jesus said.  He said that Abraham knew the He, the Messiah, would come, and that this knowledge made him glad. To put it in one sentence, Abraham knew the Christ would come.  Where did Abraham get this knowledge?  Perhaps through inference?  Maybe he put together the promise of the Vanquishing Seed of Genesis 3:15 with the coming descendant who would realize the three promises within the Abrahamic covenant?  This, at any rate, is plausible.

The passage in Genesis 49 concerning Judah speaks of a coming Ruler and Judge who will reign over the nations.  Balaam’s reluctant prediction of one who “in the latter days” (Num. 24:14) “bows down …lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?” (Num. 24:9), is a direct (and again unwitting) quotation of Genesis 49:9!  Balaam’s inspiration binds together the King from Judah with “the latter days”, and this image is deepened by the next prophecy:

I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult[5] – Numbers 24:17

The expected arrival of this Ruler is pushed back for a great while (”not near”).  But He will come.

But how will He come?  That is, from the texts we have studied, this King is not principally a Savior or even a Deliverer.  He is a Vanquisher of Satan and a Potentate.  That this individual will bring justice is present in Genesis 49:10, so the inference to a deliverance is reasonable.  But we do not yet get a Savior!  To make this claim is simply to let the evidence of the Bible so far speak for itself.  It is also to assume that there is no reason to think that the people who lived in those times had knowledge that we do not have in Scripture.  Even if they did we cannot say that they did as that would be an argument from silence.

There is one more text which should be seen as messianic and that is Deuteronomy 18.  Deuteronomy 18:15-19 predicts “a prophet” like Moses.  That passage emphasizes the role of teacher of God’s word.  The Messiah’s (if I may import the term) role as Prophet should be understood along two lines: the first is that He will be like Moses, who was a speaker for God but also a leader of God’s people.  The second is that the context defines what is meant by the term “prophet” (nabi).  A false prophet can be tested:

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die… when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. – Deuteronomy 18:20, 22.

I want to come back to this passage, but here I just want to say that if we assume that this prophecy refers to the same Conqueror, King and Lawgiver as the previous passages, then this information adds Prophet to that list.  But take note, the first three roles picture Christ in none of the roles He had when He became incarnate in the first century A.D.  This might be fruitfully connected with our previous remarks about observing the teleology and eschatology of the Bible.

Other hints help to fill out the portrait a little.  Redemption by blood at the Passover and through the waters of the Red Sea: sin being heightened through the Law and the sacrifices: both show YHWH to be a God who provides atonement.  The promise of heart transformation and national productivity at the core of Israel’s future restoration in Deuteronomy 30:1-9 shows God’s intention to bring His people into willing concord with His righteous requirements.  But the strands of these theological truths have not been brought together in the Person of Christ – not as yet!  Messiah is there in the first five books, and His presence bodes well for humankind, but we have a long way to go to establish Him as all He will be revealed to be.

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[1] I have greatly benefitted from John H. Sailhamer’s chapter, ‘Is There a “Biblical Jesus” of the Pentateuch?’ in his The Meaning of the Pentateuch, particularly 460- 481.

[2] I want to deal with this issue later.

[3] Doesn’t this also mean that in dealing with this text I am reading the OT by the NT?  Yes it does.  But the Apostle is using very plain speech to get his point across.  There is no ambiguity present the way that is too often the case when the NT is read into the OT.  The reason for this is because usually it is the interpreter’s own view which is being construed as what the NT is saying.  But that is clearly not the case with Galatians 3:16 and 29.  I shall revisit this issue further on.

[4] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 449

[5] The reference to Moab is of course a Divine indictment of Balak, the king of Moab who hired Balaam to curse Israel (Num. 22:4).

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