Preexistence and the Jewish Messiah

Jewish authors and sages had a very specific way of emphasizing the great importance they attached to certain central values in Jewish life and thought: they made statements to the effect that the features in question were preexistent in the sense that they were either actually created in the six days of Genesis or their idea came up before God at that seminal time. Among them they mentioned the Tora, Repentance, the Garden of Eden and Gehenna, God's Throne of Glory, the Fathers, Israel, the Temple - and the Messiah. Of these various entities to which preexistence was ascribed, the Messiah is mentioned in a much earlier literary source that the others. He first appears as preexistent in the apocryphal First Book of Enoch, which was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic about 150 B.C.E. From that period on, the concept of the Messiah who was created in the six days of Creation, or even prior to them, or who was born at variously stated subsequent dates and was then hidden to await his time, became a standard feature of Jewish Messianic eschatology. In one version it is the name of the Messiah which was created in the Beginning; in another, his spirit or his soul; in a third, he himself was actually born and even his celestial throne was fashioned.

The concept of the preexistence of the Messiah accords with the general Talmudic view which holds that "The Holy One, blessed be He, prepares the remedy before the wound" (Babylonian Talmud, Meg. 13b). By this token, of course, the preexistence of the Messiah means that the exile of Israel (the wound) was predetermined by God in the very six days of Creation. Only if this was so did the creation of the Messiah, the ultimate healer of the great national disaster of Israel, at that early date make sense, and more than that, become a mythical necessity.

The names by which the Messiah is called are revealing. In the First Book of Enoch he is called, first of all, "Head of Days," an epithet alluding to his preexistence, or to the emergence of his name before God prior to the creation of the world. In the same source he is also called "Son of Man," an old Biblical appellation heavy with theosophical symbolism. Ever since Ezekiel, "Son of Man" has been a designation signifying special nearness to God of the person so called. Some of the Messiah's names contain historical allusions (e.g. David), others are symbolic ("Shoot," Menahem [i.e. "Comforter"], Light, Peace). Some rabbis insisted that the Messiah's name was identical with, or similar to, the name of the sage whose students they were (R. Shelah - Shiloh; R. Hanina - Hanina; R. Yannai - Yinnon). Others applied to him the name of God, a daring procedure in the Jewish context.

In any case this multiplicity of names indicates one thing very clearly: The image of the Messiah was very much in the forefront of rabbinical - and undoubtedly also of popular - thought from the second century B.C.E. on.

Ancient texts:

And there I saw him who is the Head of Days,
And his head was white like wool,
And with him was another one whose countenance had the appearance of a man
And his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels.
And I asked the angel who went with me and showed me all the hidden things about that Son of Man: Who is he and whence is he, and why did he go with the Head of Days? And he answered and said to me:
This is the Son of Man who has righteousness,
With whom dwells righteousness,
And who reveals all the treasures of the crowns,
For the Lord of Spirits chose him...

1 Enoch 46:1-3

He shall be a staff for the righteous,
Whereon to lean, to stand and not to fall,
And he shall be a light unto the nations,
And hope for the troubled of heart.
And all the earth-dwellers before him shall fall down,
And worship and praise and bless.
And sing to the Lord of Spirits.
It is for this that he has been chosen
And hidden before Him, even before
The creation of the world and for evermore.

1 Enoch 48:4-6

From the beginning the Son of Man was hidden,
And the Most High has preserved him
In the presence of His might,
And revealed him to the elect.
And the congregation of the elect and the holy shall be sown,
And all the elect shall stand before him on that day.
And all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and the rulers of the earth.
Shall fall down before him on their faces,
And worship and set their hope upon the Son of Man,
And petition him and ask for mercy at his hands.

1 Enoch 62:7-9

It was taught: Seven things were created before the world was created, and these are they: the Tora, Repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah... The name of the Messiah, as it is said: May his name endure forever, may his name blossom before the sun (Psa. 72:17).

Babylonian Talmud, Pes. 54a; B. Ned. 39a

Six things preceded the creation of the world. Some of them were [actually] created, and some of them [merely] arose in the thought [of God] to be created. The Tora and the Throne of Glory were created... The Fathers, Israel, the Temple and the name of the Messiah arose in the thought to be created...

Genesis Rabba 1:4

R. Shim'on ben Laqish explained: "and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water (Gen. 1:2) - in this the spirit of King Messiah, as it is written, And the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him (Isa. 11:2). By what merit will it [the spirit of the Messiah] come?... By the merit of repentance."

Genesis Rabba 2:4

You find that at the beginning of the creation of the world King Messiah was born [and] that he emerged in the thought [of God] even before the world was created...

Pesiqta Rabbati (152a, Greater Chapter), edit. by M. Friedmann, p. 152b

In that hour [in the days of Creation] the Holy One, blessed be He, appointed four animals for him [the Messiah] to carry the Throne of Honor of the Messiah. In that hour his enemies and the [celestial] princes of the kingdoms said: "Come, let us bring charges against the generation of the Messiah, so that they may never be created." But the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: "How dare you accuse that generation which is beloved and dear, and in which I rejoice, and which I desire? I shall support it and want it... And how dare you accuse it? Behold, I shall destroy all of you..."

Pesiqta Rabbati, ch. 35

Source: "The Messiah Texts", by Raphael Patai (Avon Books, 1979)

See also: Midrash: Breisheet I: Creation