Messiahs Can Have Flawed Ancestors – OpEd


Prophethood is a concept common to all three Abrahamic religions. Significant portions of the Qur’an, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible are dedicated to the words and actions of the Jewish Prophets. Prophets who are given a divine book with a separate Shariah for Muslims, or Halakah for Jews, are called “messengers”. So, every messenger is a prophet, but the great majority of prophets are not messengers.

God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all the world’s nations and peoples, sends prophets to every nation without making any discrimination in race, language or nationality. As is clearly stated in the Quran: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and your (skin) colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. (30:22) Also “There never was a people, without a warner having lived among them” (35:24); and “To every people (was sent) an apostle.” (10:47)

All prophets are special and devoted servants of God, but each prophet has a different personality and was chosen by God for a diversity of purposes, to fulfill a specific duty and to convey to their people the divine decrees revealed to them. The prophets also differ in character traits, appearance and gender. Miriam, the sister of Prophets Moses and Aaron also was a Prophet (Torah Exodus 15:20), and Deborah (Judges 4:4) Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14).

There is a long line of Biblical stories of God working through the flawed, the social “underdog” and the powerless. Talmud Megillah 14b lists 8 male prophets as Rahab the harlot’s descendants, and a 9th—Huldah the prophetess, who was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings 22:14–20 and again 2 Chronicles 34:22–28.

All prophets are special and devoted servants of God, but each prophet has a different personality and was chosen by God for a diversity of purposes to fulfill a specific duty and to convey to their people the divine decrees revealed to them. The prophets also differ in character traits, gender and appearance. Miriam, the sister of Prophets Moses and Aaron was a Prophet (Torah Exodus 15:20), and Deborah (Judges 4:4) Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and  Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14).

However, all God’s prophets are the same in one specific way: they all have made a covenant with the One and Only God who created the universe. “When We took from (all) the Prophets their covenant, and from you (Muhammad), and from Noah, Ibrahim, Musa, and `Isa son of Maryam. We took from (the five of) them a (very) strong covenant. (33:7)

In Genesis 19, Lot and his family flee Sodom after being warned by agents of God of the impending destruction of Sodom and the neighboring city Gomorrah. Although God’s agents warned them not to look back, Lot’s wife turns back to gaze upon the destruction and is turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). Now left with only his two daughters and terribly frightened by the two cities’ destructive experience, Lot flees with his daughters from the city of Zoar, to which they had escaped, to live in a cave in the hills far away from any civilization.

Some time later, Lot’s daughters become concerned about the possibility that all other humans have died; and only they are left to preserve humanity from extinction. So they decide to get their father drunk and have intercourse with him with the goal of getting pregnant. (Genesis 19:31–33)

The fact that the daughters must inebriate their father in order to carry out their plan emphasizes Lot’s passive role in the seduction. Given the daughters initiative, it is not surprising that they proudly name the sons born from these illicit unions. The eldest daughter names her son Moab which means “from my father.” explicitly pointing to her willingness to do whatever is needed to save humanity from extinction. The younger daughter names her son Ben-Ammi יwhich means “son of my clan or people,” a more veiled reference to the situation.

One could blame Lot for greatly exaggerating the post destruction situation in general, as well as what happened to his own wife; the way that some people today exaggerate the coming Armageddon of climate change. The rabbinic text Genesis Rabbah portrays Lot’s daughters and their choices in a decidedly positive light.

One of its main justifications for the daughters’ actions is the eventual arrival of the king-messiah, who will be a descendant through the line of Lot via Moab. Thus the midrash links the story of Lot’s daughters and the book of Ruth, in which the Moabite Ruth marries the Israelite man, Boaz, and conceives a child, Obed, who becomes the grandfather to King David.

The rabbis’ concern with the importance of hope for Israel’s, and all of humanity’s survival, after terrible catastrophes, (like the Holocaust), and the messianic lineage that provides for God’s future human saviors, prompts the rabbis to reinterpret this incest narrative in a more positive light. 

It is justified because of the lineage it provides—leading to Ruth and through Ruth to King David and the future messiah. The other half of David’s lineage is similarly problematic. Tamar secures offspring by surreptitiously seducing her father-in-law, and their son Peretz becomes the ancestor to Boaz and thus David. 

Both narratives teach us that while incest is strongly prohibited, the offspring of incest should never be stained since they and their descendants can produce saviors. 

The positive reimagining of Lot’s daughters is in line with the treatment of the larger biblical narrative in Genesis Rabbah: its concern is to idealize the narrative past of Israel in order to highlight the messianic trajectory of God’s people, all of which is in line with God’s will. 

As part of this tendency, Genesis Rabbah redeems the story of Lot’s daughters because they will lead to the eventual messianic redemption of the Jewish nation and all humanity, and because the often flawed Jewish and Non-Jewish ancestors illustrate that the various messiahs to come will be humans like Theodore Herzl and Mahatma Gandhi, and not Divine beings like Prophet Jesus.

Several generations of oppression in a country whose King was considered Divine, requires a prior example of a Prophets like Abraham who begs to negotiate even with the One God of Space and Time in order to save the people of Sodom.

It requires prophets like King David who when publicly denounced as a murder and an adulterer by Prophet Nathan; does not kill Prophet Nathan, as would be done by 99% of kings in the past; but shows he is contrite, and starts singing the songs of the Zubar-Psalms. For many centuries Israel needed Prophets who would challenge powerful kings and priests.

And most important it demands self-critical prophets like Prophet Moses (Quran 28:15): “He (Moses) entered the city, unnoticed by its people (the Egyptians), and found two men fighting: one from his own people (Banu Israel), the other an enemy (Egyptian). The one from his own people cried out to him for help against the enemy. Moses struck him with his fist and killed him. He said, ‘This must be Satan’s work: clearly he is a misleading enemy.”

Finally, the Arab tribes of Arabia had lived for very many centuries in a state of anarchy and ongoing tribal warfare. They needed an unblemished ideal leader like Prophet Muhammad to unite them and to inspire them to set an example for people throughout the world. 

As the Qur’an states: “Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.” (3:64) and “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you. (5:48) and “If your Lord had pleased, He would have made all people a single community, but they continue to have their differences. (11:118–19)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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