Messiah #1: Military Leader

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.

The Messiah as a military leader

Modern scholars discern four kinds of messianology in the years between 170 BCE and 140 CE.

  1. The Messiah as military leader
  2. The Messiah as sage
  3. The Messiah as high-priest
  4. The "prophet like Moses"

In this part of this article, we will concentrate on the first kind of messianology, the military leader.

Scholars have always suspected that there were military connotations to the ancient Messiah-concept. The word "anointed" is used some thirty times in the Jewish Bible, and nearly always refers to the king, almost by definition a warrior. One of the texts that confirmed the ideas of these scholars is the Florilegium from Qumran, one of the scrolls in the library that was discovered near the Dead Sea. This text, which is also known as the Eschatological midrash, was written in the second half of the first century BCE and explains several ancient prophecies in a messianic sense, among them the prophecy of Nathan quoted above and Psalm 2, also quoted above.

And concerning that which He said to David: I will give you rest from all your enemies [2 Samuel 7.11b], this means that He will give them rest from all the sons of Belial, who will seek to cause them to stumble that they may destroy them and swallow them up, just as they came with a plot of Belial to cause the sons of light to stumble and to devise wicked plots against them, delivering his soul to Belial in their wicked straying.
And YHWH declares to you that He will build you a house; and I will raise up your seed after you, and I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him and he shall be My son. [2 Samuel 7.11c-14a] This is "the branch of David" who will stand with the interpreter of the Law, who will sit on the throne in Zion at the end of days; as it is written, I will raise up the tent of David which is fallen [Amos 9.11]. This is the fallen tent of David who will stand to save Israel. [.....]
Why do all the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his Messiah. [Psalm 2.1-2] The interpretation of the passage concerns the kings of the nations who will rage against the elected ones of Israel at the end of days.note

Here we encounter a Messiah who will struggle against the "sons of Belial", who are identified with the kings of the pagan nations. The text is also interesting because it links the Messiah with the end of times, i.e., connects messianism and apocalypticism. More or less the same is said in another, slightly older fragment full of lacunas.

And he will destroy him and his army. [...] And you will swallow up all the uncircumcised, and you will [...] And they will be righteous, and he will ascend to the height [...] one anointed with the oil of the kingdom of the [...]note

The fragment is too short and damaged to give a convincing interpretation, but it is clear that someone destroys a pagan army and will be recognized as Messiah after the battle. A similar event seems to be described in 4Q285, a commentary on Isaiah 10-11, although the Messiah is not mentioned.

As is is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet, And felled will be the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon by a mighty one will fall. A shoot will arise from the roots of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. Its interpretation is [...] the branch of David. And they will judge the [...]. And the prince (nasi) of the Community, the branch of David, will put him to death [...] with tambourine and with dancing. And the priest will command [...] the slain of the Kittim.note

This text has provoked much debate, because it is possible to read the penultimate line as The branch of David will be put to death. These words of Isaiah, however, are always interpreted as a description of a victory, and the interpretation that this time, they are a reference to a defeated Messiah would be most unusual.

The idea that the Messiah was to be a great warrior is not only present in the Dead Sea scrolls. It can also be found in several Aramaic translations (targums) of the Bible, such as the following rendering of the Song of Hannah.

The Lord shall shatter the adversaries who arose to do evil to His people; He shall blast them with a loud noise issuing from heaven. The Lord shall exact punishment from [the proverbial northern enemy] Gog and from the marauding armies of the nations who come with him from the ends of the earth. He shall give strength to His king and shall make great the kingdom of His Messiah.note

The Neofiti targum is even more explicit about messianic violence:

How beautiful is king Messiah who is to arise from among those of the house of Judah. He girds his loins and goes forth to battle against those that hate him; and he kills kings with rulers, and makes the mountains red from the blood of their slain and makes the valleys white from the fat of their warriors. His garments are rolled in blood; he is like a presser of grapes.note

These two targums are relatively late, and it is possible that the extremely violent imagery reflects the traumas of the Jewish population after the disastrous wars against the Romans (66-70, 115-117 and 130-136). But the military type of messianology is certainly much older (4Q458 dates from the first half of the first century BCE).

Among those who were inspired by this messianology, were Simon bar Giora and Simon ben Kosiba.