I have recently been doing some research on the topic of how Christ offered to establish the kingdom during His earthly ministry, but postponed the kingdom to a later date upon His rejection. This research took me to an interesting place in the Talmud that I thought would be of interest to our readers, but before any discourse on the Talmud, I feel obligated to begin with a disclaimer.
The Talmud is a body of literature that should only be approached with extreme caution. We must remember that it was compiled by unbelieving Pharisees who lived a few centuries after Christ. I have a friend whose son was educated at a well-known dispensational institute, but even he was confused by some rabbis who held to Talmudic authority. Unfortunately, he abandoned his ministry and Christianity as a whole, and has since then relocated to Jerusalem, where he lives as a religious Jew, and serves as a reservist with the Israeli Defense Forces. I applaud his service with the IDF. I have no doubt of his salvation, because as soon as anyone believes in Christ for eternal life, he has eternal life, which, by definition, is eternal and therefore cannot be lost; see John 5:24. But it still grieves me to hear of a brother in Christ who has become blind to the One to whom so much prophecy points. I bring this unfortunate story up to demonstrate the severity of what we are dealing with here. If Christianity can lose some of its finest to the false teachings of the Talmud, then we should all guard our hearts as we consider this dangerous document.
By the way, another dispensationalist buddy, Cory Marsh of Southern California Seminary, has recently written an article on the authority of the New Testament over rabbinic sources which I would encourage everyone to read here.
With that disclaimer behind us, let’s discuss the context of the Talmudic passage under consideration. The Babylonian Talmud records a dispute that took place between two rabbis: Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. They were prominent in the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem and were discussing the conditions under which the Messiah would come and establish His kingdom on earth. It is as if they are trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with the biggest piece, the Messiah Himself, being left in the box. Rabbi Eliezer sees the Scriptures that say Israel must repent for the Kingdom to come and Rabbi Yehoshua sees the Scriptures that it will take an act of God to establish the Kingdom.
The text we’ll be using is from the William Davidson Talmud, which is an online project available at Sefaria. The translation uses boldface to represent translation from the original and regular text to show additional clarification (much like some Bible translations add italicized text to clarify what isn’t in the original text). With no further ado, here is what’s written in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 97b-98a:
Rabbi Eliezer says: If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed at all? Rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will establish a king for them whose decrees are as harsh as those issued by Haman, and the Jewish people will have no choice but to repent, and this will restore them to the right path.
It is taught in another baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, as it is stated: “Return, wayward children, I will heal your iniquities” (Jeremiah 3:22). Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “So says the Lord: You were sold for naught, and without money you shall be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3)? Rabbi Yehoshua explains: “You were sold for naught” means you were sold for idol worship, which is a sin with no basis. “And without money you shall be redeemed” means you will be redeemed not through repentance and good deeds, but through the will of God.
Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua: But isn’t it already stated: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7)? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “For I have taken you to Myself; and I will take you one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion” (Jeremiah 3:14), unconditionally? Rabbi Eliezer said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “In ease [beshuva] and rest shall you be saved” (Isaiah 30:15), indicating that redemption is dependent upon repentance [teshuva]? Rabbi Yehoshua said to Rabbi Eliezer: But isn’t it already stated: “So says the Lord, Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him who is despised of man, to him who is abhorred of the nation, to a servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, Who is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, Who has chosen you” (Isaiah 49:7), indicating that redemption will come independent of repentance?
Rabbi Eliezer said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “If you will return, Israel, says the Lord, return to Me” (Jeremiah 4:1), indicating that redemption is contingent upon repentance? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he lifted up his right hand and his left hand to heaven and swore by the One Who lives forever that it shall be for a period, periods, and a half; when the crushing of the power of the holy people shall have been completed, all these things shall be finished” (Daniel 12:7), indicating that the time for redemption is set and unrelated to repentance? And Rabbi Eliezer was silent, unable to refute the proof from that verse.1
Dispensational Gleanings from Eliezer’s Perspective
Here’s a chart that summarizes the views and Scriptural support from the two Rabbis:
|Rabbi Eliezer||Rabbi Yehoshua|
|If the Jewish people repent, they are redeemed||When the Jewish people repent, they are redeemed|
|If the Jewish people do not repent, then they are not redeemed||If the Jewish people do not repent, then Messiah will establish a king as harsh as Haman|
|Jeremiah 3:22||Isaiah 52:3|
|Malachi 3:7||Jeremiah 3:14|
|Isaiah 30:15||Isaiah 49:7|
|Jeremiah 4:1||Daniel 12:7|
The dispensational perspective comfortably recognizes the truth from both positions while still being able to correct their shortcomings with the simple concept of kingdom postponement. Let’s begin with the first claim:
Rabbi Eliezer says: If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed.
ר’ אליעזר אומר אם ישראל עושין תשובה נגאלין ואם לאו אין נגאלין
The Rabbis use the term, “redeem” (gâ’al, גָּאַל), in reference to the event in which the Messiah establishes His holy kingdom and rescues Israel from the oppression she has faced ever since the days Isaac and Ishmael were young (Gen 21:9). The New Testament talks about redemption (apolutrōsis, ἀπολύτρωσις – carries the connotation of being loosed from something), often in the same context of the Messiah making good on His kingdom promise to Israel (e.g. Luke 21:28; Eph 2:40), similar to how “redeeming” a coupon code makes it effective as well. There are a few biblical references to “redemption” that occur in a soteriological context (e.g. Rom 3:24) and for some reason, this minority of occurrences is what people often bring to mind when they hear “redeem,” but that’s a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to remember that when the Rabbis here talk about “redeeming Israel,” they had in mind the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom.
The condition for this redemption, the establishment of the kingdom on earth, is that Israel “repents,” or more literally, “does teshuva” (עושין תשובה). The word for “repentance” is teshuva (təshûbâh, תּשׁוּבה), which itself comes from the word, shûb (שׁוּב), meaning “to turn.” This is what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). Once John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus took the same message to Israel, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:12-17). This was a call for Israel to do teshuva, so that He would redeem them, that is, so that He would make good on His promise to rule the earth in righteousness.
Of course, several years before Rabbi Eliezer said this, Israel had the opportunity to repent and accept the Messiah and His kingdom, but she failed to do so. As a result, the kingdom was not established and Jerusalem lay Messiahless and therefore effectively defenseless from Titus’ invasion in 70 A.D. This, of course, is in accordance with the timeline of the Seventy Weeks Prophecy recorded in Daniel 9:24-27, but one can see why in the context of Eliezer’s day, one might think that scattered Israel was rather hopeless (indeed, many Christians unfortunately believe that God has forsaken Israel). Thankfully, we dispensationalists still hold on to Messianic hope, because we know that God will make good on all of His promises.
Here are the passages that Rabbi Eliezer cites to prove that repentance is the condition for the Messianic Kingdom to be established:
Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the Lord our God. (Jere 3:22)
Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return? (Mal 3:7)
For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not. (Isa 30:15)
If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove. (Jere 4:1)
It is interesting that Rabbi Eliezer fell silent and the Talmud moves on without addressing any of the points he raised…
From a dispensational perspective, Rabbi Eliezer is speaking some truth. Repentance was the message that John the Baptist preached (Matt 3:1-3 in fulfillment of Isa 40:3) and after he was arrested, the Messiah Himself commanded Israel to repent (Matt 4:12-17). They were not teaching repentance just for the sake of repentance, but they taught, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In other words, if Israel would repent, then the Messiah would put the kingdom into effect. Clearly, Israel did not repent and clearly, the Messiah did not establish the kingdom on earth. Since then, Israel still has not repented and the Messiah still has not established the kingdom.
Dispensational Gleanings from Rabbi Yehoshua’s Perspective
Rabbi Eliezer was correct that the Messiah demands repentance from Israel. It is also true that Israel rejected the Messiah when he offered her the kingdom (though, Eliezer did not recognize this), but this does not mean that God will forsake His promise to bring in the kingdom. Let’s take another look at Rabbi Yehoshua’s response:
Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed at all? Rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will establish a king for them whose decrees are as harsh as those issued by Haman, and the Jewish people will have no choice but to repent, and this will restore them to the right path.
רבי יהושע אם אין עושין תשובה אין נגאלין אלא הקב”ה מעמיד להן מלך שגזרותיו קשות כהמן וישראל עושין תשובה ומחזירן למוטב
Perhaps you remember Haman from the Esther story. He attempted to inflict a genocide on Israel, but his plans were ultimately thwarted and the holiday of Purim was established in remembrance. It happens that Rabbi Yehoshua is correct about this new Haman figure who will force Israel into repentance. Daniel 11:36-45 describes this future figure, who is often called “the Antichrist” in Christian circles. Paul and John describe him in more detail as the figure in Daniel’s 70th week who will persecute the world, but especially Israel (2 Thess 2:1-12; Rev 11:7 ff.). The first Rabbi mentioned in literature (yes, that’s right, the New Testament is the first document to use the word, “rabbi”) said about this tribulation period, “But he that shall endure [to the end of the Great Tribulation], the same shall be saved [from death]” (Matt 24:13). The tribulation ends when every Jew alive on earth is a believer doing teshuva.
The coming time of persecution under the future Haman is a gift from God. We know that the Messiah was rejected even when He came directly to Israel and confirmed His authenticity through miracles, so this coming persecutor is necessary, as Rabbi Yehoshua agrees, to purify Israel to repentance.
Here are the passages that Rabbi Yehoshua uses to defend the view that it will be an act of God that establishes the Messianic Kingdom:
For thus saith the Lord, Ye have sold yourselves for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money. (Isa 52:3)
Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion: (Jere 3:14)
Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee. (Isa 49:7)
And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished. (Dan 12:7)
Rabbi Yehoshua’s doctrine is based on truth but is in need of clarification. Repentance is indeed necessary for the kingdom to come, but when Israel eventually repents, the kingdom will come through divine intervention. Zechariah describes the Second Coming as a supernatural event in which the Mount of Olives will be split in two (Zech 14:4); this is not the work of Israel, but of God Himself. God will establish the kingdom on earth, but He will only do it once Israel repents at the end of Daniel’s 70th Week, the Time of Jacob’s trouble, the Tribulation.
While the Talmud has confused many people about clear biblical teaching, it is still interesting to read what Jews talked about after they rejected the Messiah. They should have recognized the Messiah when He came, but even after rejecting Him, they still knew that the kingdom required repentance and that God would cleanse Israel with a harsh apocalyptic leadership figure. As believers, we do not need to fear this future Haman-like oppressor, because we will be raptured to safety. It is dreadful to think about what our Jewish loved ones will experience in the tribulation (if the rapture comes soon), but there is still encouragement in knowing that God loves them and will give them far better evidence of who Christ is than we ever could.
In the meantime, let’s keep loving and reaching Israel.
- The William Davidson Talmud, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, trans., Tractate Sanhedrin,
Folios 97b-98a, available online at https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.98a?lang=bi
(accessed November 27, 2018).