Shavuot: The seed and hope

How can we understand the fact that our Messiah- to-come, scion of King David of the tribe of Judah, can lay claim to what is at best a sullied and problematic lineage?

May 21, 2015 21:27
4 minute read.
Pepe Fainberg

Rav Yehuda considers the annual return of the rains as significant as the giving of the Torah.. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

How can we understand the fact that our Messiah- to-come, scion of King David of the tribe of Judah, can lay claim to what is at best a sullied and problematic lineage? His paternal ancestors, including his noble great-grandfather Boaz, were the result of an act of incest between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, who posed as a harlot in order to have a child. Yet Judah is father of the tribe from whom the Prince of Peace will one day emerge (Genesis 38-39:10, Ruth 4:18-22).

On David’s maternal side was a disputed convert to Judaism, Ruth. She was a Moabite princess, and although the Bible forbade Moabite converts into the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 23:4), the religious court of Boaz ruled, nevertheless, that the prohibition applied only to male Moabites, not to females.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.

Moreover, Moab, Ruth’s direct ancestor, was the result of incest between Lot and his elder daughter.

(Genesis 19:30-38). Apparently, Ruth, great-grandmother of the progenitor of the Messiah, stemmed from a very questionable past. What is Judaism expressing by having the Messiah emanate from incestuous acts? The rabbinical sages of the midrash maintained that this messianic ancestry was purposely designed, their proof-text being the strange usage of the word zera (seed), rather than ben (child or son), in reference to Boaz and Lot.

See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page

When Boaz marries Ruth in the Book of Ruth, the Israelites bless the couple at the gates of the city of Efrat, saying, “May your house become like the House of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Judah, from the seed [zera] which the Lord gave you from this young woman [na’ara]” (Ruth 4:12).

It is uncharacteristic for text to refer to Ruth – a widow for at least a decade – as a young woman, and the reference to Lot’s act of incest with his daughter seems like a strange blessing. Based on the verse in Ruth, the rabbis interpret the verse in Genesis 19:31 that reads: “And the elder daughter said to the younger...

‘Come let us give wine to our father to drink, and let us lie with him, so that we may enable our father to give life to [his] seed [zera].’” The rabbis said, “This [zera in the Book of Ruth] is part of the same zera that came from a strange other place [i.e. from Lot]. From these seeds came King Messiah” (Midrash Ruth Zuta).

I understand this Jewish tradition to be teaching that despite the appearance that the belief in human perfectibility appears to belong in the realm of the absurd, the notion that good may emerge from evil, that exalted and majestic sanctity can grow from the dregs of sexual immorality, is built into the Jewish concept of the Messiah. Just as the daughter of the cruel and flagrantly inhospitable Moab could be the loving, kind and gracious Ruth, a generation of despair and disrepair can rehabilitate itself and bring a redeeming Messiah.

My spiritual teacher, the most important Orthodox Talmudist and philosopher of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, read this very message and more into the midrash, insisting that this is precisely the lesson that Lot’s daughter attempted to impress upon her younger sister in Genesis 19:31: “The elder sister said to the younger, ‘Our father is old and there is no man throughout the land to come upon us [impregnate us] in the manner of all societies.’” Another midrash (Genesis Raba) suggests that “these sisters believed the entire world had been destroyed as in the days of the great flood,” since the earthquake that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah seemed to them to have consumed the entire world.

Hence, taught Rabbi Soloveitchik, the elder sister suggested that each in turn seduce their father so that they could begin to repopulate the universe.

The younger sister demurs, expressing disgust at the act of incest; but more important, she sees no point in attempting to restart the universe. After all, God had attempted to establish a more perfect world, first in Eden with Adam and Eve, then again with Noah and the Covenant of the Rainbow (Genesis 9), and for a third time with Abraham. Each experiment ended in failure for a humanity that sank repeatedly into depravity. It would be absurd – and in this case of proposed incest, immoral – to start humanity once more.

At this point, the elder sister would not be silenced, contended Rabbi Soloveitchik. She argued that God would never have created the human being in the Divine image if evil were to be destined to emerge triumphant and if human civilization would destroy itself. No, she insisted, we must have faith in the possibility of repentance, of change, of human perfectibility.

Because belief in the Messiah is predicated fundamentally upon faith in the possibility of human change throughout the world, upon an era in which all “spears will be turned into plowshares and humanity will not learn war anymore,” it is appropriate that the seed of the sexual relationship between Lot and his elder daughter was the sacred seed that ultimately led to messianic lineage.

Shabbat shalom and Hag Shavuot sameah.

The writer is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions, and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

Related Content

Israel police carry a haredi protestor during an anti-conscription demonstration in Jerusalem, March
March 15, 2018
To draft or not to draft - the underlying haredi politics


Israel Weather
  • 10 - 25
    Beer Sheva
    11 - 20
    Tel Aviv - Yafo
  • 12 - 18
    13 - 20
  • 19 - 28
    12 - 25