Leading up to Easter, I thought I’d trace the long-unknown concept found within ancient Judaism of a dying Messiah. In Messiah ben Joseph (review here), David Mitchell seeks to establish that the prominent and ancient Jewish tradition of a suffering, dying and rising Messiah was not a response to the life of Jesus, and certainly not that of Bar Kochba or Josephus. Rather, he is found within the Pentateuch itself. Mitchell’s two-pillar argument is found in deciphering the eschatological blessings of Jacob and Moses on Joseph’s seed in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33. In this post, we will consider the second (see first post).

Deuteronomy 33:13-17

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
and the rich yield of the months,

15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
and the abundance of the everlasting hills,

16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.

17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
and they are the thousands of Manasseh.”

Moses’ words about Joseph apply two images to him: a “firstborn bull” [shor] and a “wild ox” [rem]. These images branded Joseph’s descendants (1 Kings 22:11; Jer 13:18; Hos 4:16; Amos 6:13; Ps 44:5), and yet, in Moses’ blessing the labels are applied to an individual who shall rule “the peoples”. What is the significance of these two oxen?

Mitchell points out that the Shor and Rem are very different.

The Shor is the domestic ox, and the firstborn ox in particular was exempt from hard labour (Deut 15:19) because it was dedicated to sacrifice (Num 18:17; Lev 22:27). When an Israelite hears Shor, they think sacrifice.

The Rem is entirely different. It referred to the aurochs, a massive ox that has been extinct since 1627. The aurochs stood two meters tall at the shoulder and its great black horns added another meter to its height. Julius Caesar said they are “only a little smaller than elephants” (Mitchell, p21). Even Yahweh considered it epic and untamable (Job 39:9-12). What’s more, it was excluded from Levitical sacrifice.

So one beast is lowly and given to slaughter, while the other is glorious and victorious. Mitchell believes these contrary images cannot be simultaneously applied to this individual, but must be consecutive. That is, the individual is sacrificially killed, but then raised to glory! He cites 1 Enoch 90:37-38’s symbolic Messianic text as support:

And I saw that a white bull was born, with large horns, and all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air feared him and made petition to him all the time. And I saw till all their generations were transformed, and they all became white bulls; and the first among them became an aurochs; and the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over them and over all the oxen

It is unsurprising that these images are applied to Joseph’s seed, as he himself was a righteous individual betrayed by his brothers and cast into the pit, and yet he was also raised to the right hand of the king and brought repentance and salvation to his brothers. According to Jacob and Moses, one from Joseph will repeat this journey of humiliation to glory.

This is an inadequate summary of Mitchell’s chapter, so go get the book! It is a fascinating and illuminating read.

BUY MESSIAH BEN JOSEPH