August seems an odd time for a story about an infant Messiah born in Bethlehem. But the recent occurrence of Tisha be’Av–literally, “the Ninth of the month Av” in the Jewish calendar, which fell on August 1 this year–brought the story to mind. It’s a good story, although in some respects a bit perplexing. I first read it nearly 44 years ago, in a dark time when I was hungry for a Messiah and eager to find out where this one had gone.
More on that presently.
Tisha be’Av has been called the most “ominous and unhappy” day of the Jewish year. In traditional Judaism it’s a day of fasting, mourning, and grief, commemoration of not one but two historical traumas that supposedly happened on that day: the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The ancient rabbinic text called the “Palestinian Talmud” has the following story to tell about the second of these events:
It once happened that a certain Jew was plowing his fields when his ox gave out a lowing sound. An Arab passed by and heard it. “Son of a Jew, son of a Jew,” he said, “unyoke your ox. Untie your plow. Your Temple is destroyed.”
The ox lowed a second time. “Son of a Jew, son of a Jew,” said the Arab. “Yoke your ox; tie your plow. King Messiah is born.”
“What is his name?”
“His father’s name?”
“What place is he from?”
“The royal city, Bethlehem-judah.”
The man sold his oxen and his plows, and became a peddler of swaddling clothes for babies. He wandered from one town to another and finally entered that town. All the women came to buy from him, but Menachem’s mother did not. “Menachem’s mother! Menachem’s mother!” he heard the women calling out. “Come and buy for your son!”
She said: “I would like to strangle him—enemies of Israel!—on the day he was born the Temple was destroyed.”
The man said: “We may trust that on his account it was destroyed, and on his account it will be rebuilt.”
“I don’t have any money,” she said.
“What do I care? Buy for him; if you can’t pay, I’ll come back some other day to collect.”
Some days later he was back. “What is the baby doing?” he said.
“From the very hour that you saw me, winds and a whirlwind came and snatched him out of my hands.” (Palestinian Talmud, tractate Berakhot, chapter 2:4)
The story is written in the Aramaic language, in the dialect spoken by Palestinian Jews in the early centuries of the Christian Era. There’s a slightly fuller version in another text from ancient Jewish Palestine, “Midrash to Lamentations” (attached to the Biblical verse Lamentations 1:16). Here the anonymous wanderer asks Menachem’s mother, “Why aren’t you buying swaddling clothes?” She replies something like–the meaning of the Aramaic isn’t quite clear–“That baby of mine is bad luck!”
And at the end of the story she says to the wanderer: “Didn’t I tell you he was bad luck, and the luck comes on his account? At that very hour, winds and whirlwinds came and carried him off.”
Jesus of Nazareth, if we’re to believe the Gospels, wasn’t always on the best terms with his mother. See Mark 3:31-35 and its parallels, John 2:4. Still, it’s a little hard to imagine Mary calling Jesus “bad luck,” or announcing to all and sundry that she wants to strangle him. (The interjection “enemies of Israel!” may mean, may our enemies have luck as bad as him; or possibly, he’s himself an enemy of Israel.) The bitter hostility that the Messiah’s mother has for him is the most remarkable part of the story. Yet she’s named him “Menachem,” “comforter,” which appears in other rabbinic passages as a name for the Messiah, apparently on the basis of Lamentations 1:16: “Comforter, the restorer of my soul, is distant from me.”
The story was written down long after the New Testament. The Palestinian Talmud seems to have been put in its present form sometime around 425 CE, the Midrash to Lamentations sometime in the fifth century. Both sources (though with a copyist’s error in the Talmud) attribute its authorship to “Rabbi Judan in the name of Rabbi Aibo,” both of these being Palestinian scholars of the early fourth century. Yet it may enshrine a tradition going back hundreds of years. There’s a parallel, imprecise but still intriguing, with a messianic vision of John of Patmos, reported in Revelation 12:1-6:
“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun … she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold a great red dragon. … And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne ….”
Of course my ellipses mask details that correspond to nothing in the rabbinic story, so the parallel is even less exact than it appears. But both tell of an infant Messiah who’s carried up to the sky shortly (or immediately) after his birth, thereby rescued from mortal danger. In the Book of Revelation the threat comes from “a great red dragon.” In the rabbinic story it’s from … the mother herself.
I can’t recall who it was who first noticed the resemblance to Revelation. (It wasn’t me.) But I remember vividly reading the story from the Midrash to Lamentations in Jerusalem, where I’d gone to write my dissertation and found myself caught up in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
As it turned out this was the last of the great Arab-Israeli wars, but we didn’t know that at the time. Most people expected, in the war’s dismal aftermath (which included a world energy crisis), that a new war would soon erupt, fought with doomsday weapons that made your hair stand on end to hear about them on the TV news. Messianic intervention seemed an attractive prospect.
Not that I really thought it would happen. But “by night an atheist half believes a God,” as an otherwise forgotten 18th-century poet named Edward Young tells us; and in the bleak and chilly night that seemed in 1973 to have fallen over the world, even a rational grad student half wanted a Messiah. (I didn’t stop to think what life under a messianic administration might be like for people who didn’t see eye to eye with its priorities.) It intrigued me that some of my ancestors had believed he’d been born, put in a brief appearance on this planet, and then was snatched away in his infancy by a whirlwind.
Presumably to more hospitable regions. Presumably awaiting his moment to return. Or–this might be the nicest of the imaginary outcomes–never to return, but somewhere in the celestial heights applying his benevolent influence when his besotted human protégés stumble to the edge of disaster.
Which is where I hope he is right about now.
by David Halperin
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