Circumcision in Tanakh: When, Why & What for?

Probably no rite or ceremony so closely identifies with Jews and being Jewish as circumcision – cutting off the foreskin from the male organ.  Though others also practice circumcision (ex. Muslims also circumcise) it does not define them in the same way as it does Jews.  A Jew can be non-observant, an atheist, orthodox or not, Zionist or not, but few forego the Jewish rite of circumcision.

When did Circumcision begin?

Circumcision began with Abraham.  The Torah records how Hashem told him to circumcise himself and his family as a sign of an unfailing covenant between them on the one side and G-d on the other.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

Genesis 17:1-27

Initiated even before the birth of Isaac, the circumcision covenant, ongoing through the generations, requires the circumcising of all males at 8 days of age. 

Why Circumcision?

So why did G-d establish this rite? 

‘…it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you…’

Genesis 17:11

And what specifically was this covenant that circumcision served as a sign for?

The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God

Genesis 17:8

Moses & Circumcision

After G-d had commissioned Moses at the Burning Bush to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, when Moses began his journey from Sinai back to Egypt

24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

Exodus 4: 24-26

G-d would only accept Moses’ service if he circumcised his son.  Not even Moses was exempt from circumcision.

Mosaic Law & Circumcision

The Mosaic Law inscribed the circumcision rite after the Egyptian exodus.

On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.

Leviticus 12:3

But though instituting a physical rite, the Torah concludes by commanding a ‘circumcision’ of the heart.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Deuteronomy 10:12-16

Recasting this command as a vision for the future, after the curses and exile, and the promised restoration back to the land, Moses wrote.

Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

Deuteronomy 30:4-6

Circumcision in the Prophets (Nevi’im)

The prophets after Moses echoed this heart circumcision.

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    circumcise your hearts,
    you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,

Jeremiah 4:4

Jeremiah went even further, writing that solely a physical circumcision would one day become insufficient.  G-d would punish those ‘only circumcised in the flesh’.  This will include those nations around Israel that today are Arab Muslim nations which also practice physical circumcision only.

25 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”

Jeremiah 9:25-26 (9:24-25 in Hebrew tanakh)

Circumcising the heart?

So G-d envisioned, as well as commanded, a circumcision of the heart after the return of the Children of Abraham’s covenant to Israel.  Since this is where we find ourselves today in the timeline of history would it not be profitable to both understand and put into practice circumcision, not only of the physical rite, but of the heart also?

So what does ‘circumcision of the heart’ entail?

Abraham’s Example

We have a clue given in the example of Abraham from the Torah.  G-d initiated the covenant of circumcision (above) when Abraham was 99 years old, in Genesis 17.  However, G-d had called him previously, declaring covenant promises to him in earlier chapters, in his younger years – before his circumcision.

Covenant first promised

Consider the initial call to Abraham (explored more fully here) when he was 77 years old and G-d promised:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3

What did Abraham do given this promise and call?  The Torah says…

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…

Genesis 12:4

Covenant Promise Re-iterated

Then after a decade of Abraham waiting and still remaining childless G-d made another covenant promise

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Genesis 15:1-5

What was Abraham’s response to this call and promise?

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:6

So G-d ‘credited righteousness’ to Abraham years before his circumcision.  The circumcision given years later did not grant righteousness. It was a sign of righteousness already given, just as a wedding ring does not grant anyone marital status, but is a sign of their marital status.

Following Abraham’s example

Abraham is both the Jewish archetype and also had favor with G-d such that he was ‘credited righteousness’.  Therefore, we do well to follow his example. 

What we see from this man is that he embarked on a journey though the destination was not clear.  Abraham did so because he trusted Him who gave the promises.  He foreknew that G-d would provide all that he needed, and he bet his son Isaac on this, marking the spot that would turn the hinge of history

Circumcision of the heart and the New Covenant

The Tanakh also foresees a New Covenant (Brit) using ‘of the heart’ language very similar to the language it uses for ‘circumcision of the heart’.  Hear the words of Jeremiah

31 “Look, the time is coming,” says the Lord,
    “when I will make a new agreement.
It will be with the people of Israel
    and the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the agreement
    I made with their ancestors.
That was when I took them by the hand
    to bring them out of Egypt.
I was a husband to them,
    but they broke that agreement,” says the Lord.
33 “I will make this agreement
    with the people of Israel,” says the Lord.
“I will put my teachings in their minds.
    And I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

Jeremiah 31: 31-33

Perhaps the coming of this new covenant (Brit) to be written ‘on their hearts’, as opposed to the tablets of stone that Moses used, is how G-d would establish the circumcision of ‘the heart’, as opposed to simply the foreskin circumcision.  If so, then the key to understanding circumcision of the heart lies in exploring this new covenant that Jeremiah foresaw.  We do so here.

Jewish Testimony: Virgin’s Son from David’s Line?

We saw the Jewish origins of the Christmas story in the Brit Chadasha, as well as that of ‘Christ’ in Tanakh.  But what about the controversial questions about descent from David and the ’virgin birth’ which the Brit Chadasha asserted so clearly.

We know that the Tanakh, through the pen of Isaiah, with the image of Branch from a stump, had predicted that the Messiah would come from David’s line.

Was Yeshua really from the line of David?

The Brit Chadasha’s claim of this prophecy’s fulfillment can perceived to be open to bias.  Levi wrote what he did because he wanted us to see a fulfillment of this prophecy in Yeshua.  But who is to say that he didn’t just make it up to get a ‘fulfillment’?  Many of us just leave the question there and either believe or not based on our own biases.  But hold the verdict!  The case has not been fully heard. Accepted Jewish sources from this period have more evidence to bring out.

Distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp) identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Yeshua in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Yeshua:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship” 

Ibid p.56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David. 

Ibid p.57

So, hostile Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Yeshua really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept his overall claim to ‘Messiah’ and they opposed the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Yeshua descended from David’s royal line.  The Brit Chadasha did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   Hostile witnesses agree on this point.

Born of a Virgin?

Now there is always a possibility of this royal lineage being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is either: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Levi quite clearly state that Mary conceived Yeshua while she was a virgin.  And Levi ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BCE) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel(i.e. ‘God with us’)

Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh

Virgin or Young Woman

Here some plausible natural explanations come to mind.  The Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which was translated ‘virgin’ above could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BCE.  Given some pious ‘need’ by Levi and Luke to venerate Yeshua they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  Given the untimely (yet convenient for ‘prophecy’) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in Yeshua’s birth story.

Witness of the Septuagint

Many have recounted some such explanation over the years, and on the one hand one can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh published by Jewish scholars long before Yeshua was born (more on Septuagint here), provides a window into Jewish understanding of Isaiah 7:14

How did these Jewish rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’? 

The Septuagint (The Jewish scholarly translation from 250 – 150 BCE) has ‘virgin’

The Septuagint renders it unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος (transliterated parthenos), meaning ‘virgin’.  In other words, leading Jewish rabbis around 250 BCE understood Isaiah’s prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Yeshua came on the scene.  The Gospel writers or early Christians did not invent this concept.  It was Jewish long before Yeshua’s birth.

So why did the leading Jewish scholars back then side with such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after menopause kicked in childbearing was impossible.  Scholars in 250 BCE did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they knew how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was naturalistically impossible to have a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No, they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

Mary’s Context

Now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could still remain an open question.  The simple fact of Yeshua having an older sibling would disprove the virgin birth. This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Yeshua would be the oldest child? Around a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, a 90% probability existed that the ‘fulfillment’ could have been dismissed by the simple fact of Yeshua having an older sibling. But against the odds he didn’t.

And if Mary had become pregnant before her engagement she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live. It is a striking coincidence that this birth happens while betrothed but still unmarried.

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ which make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strike me.  These coincidences exhibit a sense of balance and timing as if a Mind were arranging events with plan and intent.

Rabbinical witnesses again

If Mary had married or had children before Yeshua’s birth then hostile witnesses would surely have pointed that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how the rabbinical writings refer to Yeshua:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin

Ibid p 57-58

As hostile witnesses they did not disprove the virgin claim, they resorted to mocking it, playing on Mary’s status as unmarried but pregnant.

Today, as in Yeshua’s time, there exists hostility to Yeshua and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was animosity to him.  But, back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute some basic points that they should have easily been able to, had these points been made up or been in error.

Maybe there is something to the Brit Chadasha’s claim that Yeshua was a Virgin’s son from David’s line.

Jewish Roots of Christmas

Christmas has distinction as the premier global festival, celebrated by nations around the world, except by the people who birthed the tradition – the Jews.  Nations celebrate Christmas in diverse ways across the globe but music and song always form the core of its celebration.  And Jews have been among those who have richly contributed to Christmas music.  From Jewish composers Irving Berlin’sA White Christmas’, Mel Torme’s ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ or Walter Kent’s “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Jewish musical genius has made its contribution to Christmas celebrations the world over.

The Jewish Birth Story – better than Santa

Beyond the music, the food, the decorations, and festivities, Christmas celebrates the birth of a boy – a Jewish boy.  In fact, almost all the characters making up the drama of this boy’s birth are Jewish.  One of the two writers who recorded the story was also Jewish – a Levite even.

Jesus Birth Story is Rich with Imagery

And the intrigue, suspense and celebration surrounding the birth of this Jewish baby, recorded by a Jewish Levite, make the subordinate Christmas add-ons like Santa Claus, the North Pole, and elves in Santa’s workshop pale in comparison.

Levi, also known as Matthew, wanted us to know for certain that the baby boy he wrote about was Jewish.  So he opened his narrative with this sentence, the first sentence in the Brit Chadasha.

This is an account of the origin of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham

Matthew 1:1

Not only a son of Abraham as are all Jews, but also a descendant of the legendary King David!  What other theme could evoke greater expectancy?  Certainly not Santa.

Jesus’ Birth Recounted

What were the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth?  Matthew tells us in striking detail.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. 

Matthew 1:18-25

Luke’s Details of Jesus’ Birth

Humble Shepherds come to see the King

Luke, another Gospel writer, elaborates on the events of Jesus’ birth with this account:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 

Luke 2:1-20

The Visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem

Usually included in the Nativity story is the visit of the Wise Men, which Matthew picks up for us:

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1-18
The Magi from afar come to see the King

Herod in the Christmas Plot

This Herod who ruthlessly tried to take the life of the baby Jesus is Herod the Great. He leaves his imprint in Israel still today, visible in the ruins at the Temple Mount, Masada and Caesarea.  Christmas tells a tale of a tyrannical ruler determined to stamp out any challengers. It is a story of a desperate flight to save one’s life, a merciless killing of innocents. This parallels what so many Jews around the world today and through history have similarly experienced.   

Messiah Controversies steal Christmas

But it is not so much the perils in the Christmas story that evoke Jewish resonance, but also the controversies.  After all, the themes used by Matthew in recounting the Christmas Nativity Story are decidedly Jewish.  Matthew reaches back to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to give meaning to the events he records.  He uses the Jewish title ‘Messiah’ to describe the birth of the baby Jesus. 

This brings us to the nub of the issue.  Though Christmas has decidedly Jewish roots, the prevailing Jewish view is that the controversy surrounding the status of this Jew has been settled by his brethren to the negative.  That is, Jews have decided that Jesus was not the Messiah – case closed.  Perhaps Gentiles came to the opposite conclusion but Jews universally rejected the idea of Jesus as Messiah. Thus Jews also had to discard Christmas.  As the Grinch stole Christmas the force of this logic has stolen Christmas from many.

But what if …?

But perhaps one can reverse the order of investigation.  Leave aside Jesus’ Messiahship to simply explore questions arising from the Christmas story. Does Jewish tradition say anything about the Christmas themes of virgin birth and David’s line?  In fact, accepted Jewish writings provide valuable insight to these Christmas story questions.  As the (Jewish) shepherds decided to check for themselves when they heard the unbelievable angelic message of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem, so we too can examine for ourselves a Jewish perspective on these Jewish questions.  If nothing else, perhaps with this understanding we can, like Mary, ‘ponder these things in our hearts’ and greet one another with a ‘Merry Christmas’.

We look at these sources, what they say, and what it means here.   

The Branch: Named hundreds of years before his birth

We saw how Isaiah began the prophetic theme of The Branch.  A ‘he’ from the fallen dynasty of David, possessing wisdom and power was coming.  Jeremiah followed up by stating that this Branch would be known as Adonai (the Lord) himself.

Zechariah continues The Branch

Zechariah returned after the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple
Zechariah returned after the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple

Zechariah lived 520 BC, just after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from their first exile.  At that time, they were rebuilding their destroyed temple.  The High Priest then was a man named Joshua, and he was re-starting the work of the priests. Zechariah, the prophet, was partnering with his colleague Joshua, the High Priest, (and Zerubbabel the political leader) in leading the Jewish people. Here is what G-d – through Zechariah- said about this Joshua:

‘”Listen O High Priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch.” …, says the LORD Almighty, “and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day”.’

(Zechariah 3:8-9)

The Branch!  Started by Isaiah 200 years beforehand, continued by Jeremiah 60 years earlier, Zechariah develops ‘The Branch’ further.  The Branch is now also called ‘my servant’ (the Servant of Adonai).  In some way Zechariah’s colleague, the High Priest Joshua in Jerusalem at 520BCE, was symbolic of this coming Branch.  But how? It says that in ‘a single day’ the sins will be removed by the LORD. How would that happen?

The Branch: Uniting Priest & King

To understand we need to know that the roles of Priest and King were strictly separated in the First Temple Period. None of the Davidic Kings could be priests, and the priests could not be kings. The priest’s role was to mediate between G-d and man by offering animal sacrifices to G-d for atonement of sins, and the King’s job was to rule with justice. Both were crucial; both were distinct. This separation of role was cemented in that priests could only be Levites descended from Aaron, while the kings were from David’s line within the tribe of Judah. Yet Zechariah wrote that in the future:

‘The word of the LORD came to me: “…Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua. Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says, ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD… and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two’’

(Zechariah 6:9-13)

Here, against all previous rules, the high priest Joshua in 520 BCE was to put on the kingly crown symbolically as the Branch. (Remember that Joshua was ‘symbolic of things to come’). Joshua the High Priest, in putting on the kingly crown, foresaw a future uniting of King and Priest into one person – a priest on the King’s throne.  Furthermore, Zechariah prophesied that ‘Joshua’ was the name of the Branch. What did that mean?

The name ‘Joshua’ is the name ‘Jesus’

To understand we need to review the history of the Tanakh’s translation. The original Hebrew Tanakh was translated into Greek in 250 BCE by Jewish rabbis and is today known as the Septuagint or LXX.  Still widely used, we saw how ‘Christ’ was first used in the LXX and we now follow that same analysis through the Masoretic Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint for ‘Joshua’

Hebrew & Greek roots of 'Joshua' and 'Jesus' in the Bible
Hebrew & Greek roots of ‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’ in the Bible. Both come from the Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ

You can see that Joshua is an English transliteration of the original Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ).  Quadrant #1 shows the Hebrew ‘Joshua’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) as it was first written.  It is transliterated to ‘Joshua’ in English (#1=> #3). ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew is the same as Joshua in English.  

יְהוֹשֻׁ֥עַ = Joshua (= Branch) in Hebrew-English Interlinear Masoretic Text

When the LXX was translated Hebrew to Greek in 250 BCE (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) was transliterated to Iesous (#1 => #2). ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew is the same as Iesous (Ἰησοῦ) in Greek.

LXX Greek-English Interlinear of Zechariah 6:11-12: Ιησού=Joshua

When the Greek is translated to English, Iesous is transliterated to ‘Jesus’ (#2 => #3).  Iesous (Ἰησοῦ) in Greek is the same as Jesus in English.

Brit Chadasha Greek-English Interlinear: Ιησού = Jesus

Jesus was called Yhowshuwa (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew, but in the Greek Brit Chadasha his name was written as ‘Iesous’ – identical to how the Greek Tanakh LXX wrote that name. When the Brit Chadasha is translated from Greek to English (#2 => #3) ‘Iesous’ is transliterated to the familiar ‘Jesus’.  So the name ‘Jesus’ = ‘Joshua’, with ‘Jesus’ going through an intermediate Greek step, and ‘Joshua’ coming directly from the Hebrew.  Both Jesus of Nazareth, and Joshua the High Priest of 520BCE had the same name, יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ in their native Hebrew. In Greek, both were called ‘Iesous’

Is Jesus of Nazareth the Branch?

Is this a prediction, made in 520 BCE, that the name of the coming Branch would be, in English terms, ‘Jesus’, pointing directly to Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus of Nazareth is well-known outside the gospels.  The Jewish Talmud, Josephus and all other historical writers about Jesus, both friendly and hostile, always referred to him as ‘Jesus’ (Iesous) or ‘Christ’, so his name was not invented in the Gospels.  But Zechariah predicted this name 500 years before he lived.

Jesus of Nazareth is ‘from the stump of Jesse’ since Jesse and David were his ancestors. Jesus possessed wisdom and understanding to a degree that sets him apart from others.  His shrewdness, poise and insight portrayed in the Brit Chadasha continue to impress both critics and followers.  His power through miracles in the gospels is undeniable. One may choose not to believe them; but one cannot ignore them.  Jesus fits the quality of possessing exceptional wisdom and power that Isaiah predicted would one day come from this Branch.

Now think of the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels. He claimed to be a king – The King in fact. This is what ‘Christ‘ means.  But what he did while on earth was actually priestly. The priest’s job was to offer acceptable sacrifices to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people.  The death of Jesus in the Brit Chadasha was significant in that, it also, was an offering to God, on our behalf. The sins of the land were thus literally removed ‘in a single day’ as Zechariah had predicted – the day Jesus died and paid for all sins. In his death he fulfilled the requirements as Priest, even while he is mostly known as ‘The Christ’ or The King.  Thus, as Zechariah prophesied, he did bring the two roles together.

But this is the view of Jesus’ death taken in the Brit Chadasha. Does the Tanakh support the same point-of-view?  We explore this by following up on the related theme that Zechariah above equated with the Branch – that of the Servant.

The Sign of the Branch: The Dead Stump reborn – in Messiah

We learned that both the terms ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ originate in the Tanakh and that they are equivalent titles.  The use of this title ’Messiah’ to signify a coming ruler, a ‘Son of God’, in Psalm 2 opened the door for related themes that later books in the Tanakh developed.  Isaiah (750 BCE) initiated this with the Branch of the Lord.

Isaiah and the Branch

Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh

Isaiah wrote in the First Temple Period during the Davidic dynasty. In his day (ca 750 BCE) the dynasty and the kingdom was corrupt. Isaiah pleaded that the Kings return back to G-d with the practice and spirit of the Mosaic Law.  But Isaiah knew that Israel would not repent, and so he also prophesied that she would be destroyed and the royal dynasty would end.  Isaiah chapter 3 details this coming judgment.  But then the book changes its tone and foresees:

In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. (Isaiah 4:2)

He does not give much detail about this coming Branch, but a little further on, he explains what he foresaw with a specific metaphor, or image, of the royal dynasty – picturing it like a great tree. This tree had at its root Jesse, the father of King David. On Jesse the Dynasty was started with David, and from his successor, Solomon, the tree continued to grow and develop.

David’s Royal Dynasty pictured as a Tree from Jesse (father of David)

First a Tree … then a Stump … then a Branch

Isaiah wrote that this ‘tree’ would soon be cut down, reducing it to a stump. Here is how he pictured this ‘tree’, which then he turned into the riddle of a stump and Branch:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

Dynasty pictured as a Stump of Jesse
David’s Dynasty pictured as a Stump of Jesse

The cutting down of this ‘tree’ happened about 150 years after Isaiah, in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and dragged its people and king to Babylon (the red period in the timeline above). Jesse was the father of King David, and so was the root of David’s Dynasty. The ‘stump of Jesse’ was therefore a metaphor to the coming shattering of David’s dynasty.

The Branch: A coming ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

A 'him' pictured as a shoot from the stump
A ‘him’ pictured as a shoot from the dead stump of Jesse

But this prophecy also looked further into the future than just the cutting down of the kings. Isaiah predicted that though the ‘stump’ would look dead (as stumps do), one day in the further future a shoot, known as the Branch, would emerge from that stump, just like shoots can sprout from tree stumps. This Branch is referred to as a ‘him’ so Isaiah is talking about a specific man, coming from the line of David after the dynasty would be cut down. This man would have such qualities of wisdom, power, and knowledge it would be as if the very Spirit of G-d would be resting on him.  This was a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, using the theme of ‘Branch’.

Jeremiah and The Branch

Jeremiah in Historical Timeline with other writers of Tanakh
Jeremiah in Historical Timeline with other writers of Tanakh

Like a signpost laid down by Isaiah in history, it was only the first in a series of signposts that developed this theme of the coming ‘Branch’.  Jeremiah, living about 150 years after Isaiah, when David’s dynasty was being cut down before his very eyes wrote:

“The days are coming,” says Adonai
when I will raise a righteous Branch for David.
He will reign as king and succeed,
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Y’hudah will be saved,
Isra’el will live in safety,
and the name given to him will be
Adonai Tzidkenu [Adonai our righteousness] (Jeremiah23:5-6)

The Branch: ADONAI our Righteousness

What will this Branch be called? He would be called the ADONAI who will also be ‘our’ (that is – us humans) Righteousness. As we saw with Abraham, the problem for humans is that we are ‘corrupt’, and so we need ‘righteousness’.  In naming the Branch Adonai our Righteousness, Jeremiah hints that people in his future would get needed ‘righteousness’ from the LORD – ADONAI himself.  But how would this be done?  Zechariah provides the answer as he develops this theme of the Coming Branch further, prophesying even the name of the Messiah – which we look at here.