Nazarene Space

The Deity of Messiah in the Targums

The Deity of Messiah in the Targums
By
James Scott Trimm



The Targums were authoritative Aramaic paraphrases of the books of the Tanak which were read in the synagogues in ancient times, along with the Hebrew of the Torah and Haftorah readings.  We read in the Targum to Isaiah:

1 Behold, my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring,
my chosen in whom one delights:
as for my Word [MEMRA], I will put my Holy Spirit upon Him;
He shall reveal my judgment unto the nations.
2 He shall not cry aloud, nor raise a clamor,
 and He shall not lift up His voice in the street.
3 The meek who are like a bruised reed He shall not break,
and the poor who are as a glimmering wick with Him, He will not quench:
He shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
4 He shall not faint nor be weary,
till He have established judgment in the earth;
and the isles shall wait for His Torah.
(Targum Jonathan to Isaiah 42:1-4)

Notice that were the Masoretic Text says:

Behold My servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen, in whom My soul delights;
I have put My spirit upon him,
he shall make the right to go forth to the nations.
(Is. 42:1)

The Targum reads:

1 Behold, my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring,
my chosen in whom one delights:
as for my Word [MEMRA], I will put my Holy Spirit upon Him;
He shall reveal my judgment unto the nations.
(Targum Jonathan to Isaiah 42:1)

It is clear in Isaiah 42:1 that the chosen one in whom YHWH has delight in this verse is the same as the one whom has YHWH’s Spirit upon Him.  In the Targum it is the Messiah who is identified as this chosen one in whom YHWH delights, and it is the MEMRA (“Word”) who has YHWH’s Spirit upon Him.  Therefore the Targum identifies the Messiah as one and the same with the MEMRA.

The eminent Kabbalah Scholar Gershom Scholem writes of the Memra:

…the memra– the paraphrase used in the Targumim, the Aramaic Bible translations, to refer to God’s word.  The memra is not merely a linguistic device for overcoming the problem of biblical anthropomorphisms; it has theological significance in its own right. The memra… is… a world-permeating force, a reality in the world of matter or mind, the immanent aspect of Elohim, holding all things under its omnipresent sway.
(On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem pg 181-182)

Whenever the Targums come to passages where YHWH is anthropomorphisised or seen, or where two or more YHWHs are indicated by the text, the Targums will often substitute “The Word [Memra] of YHWH” for YHWH. For example in Gen. 19:4 the Tanak has:

And YHWH rained brimstone and fire
upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah,
from YHWH, from the heavens.

The Hebrew grammar here indicates that one YHWH rains fire from another YHWH) But Targum Jonathan substitutes “The Word of YHWH/the LORD” for the first of the two YHWHs as follows:

And the Word of the YHWH caused to descend
upon the peoples of Sodom and Gommorah,
brimstone and fire from the YHWH in heaven.

In another example the Torah has in Ex. 24:1a (YHWH is the speaker, see Ex. 20:1-2)

Now He [YHWH] said to Moses, “come up to YHWH…”

But Targum Jonathan paraphrases the speaker in Ex. 20:1 with the substitution “the Word [Memra] of YHWH” in place of “YHWH.”

And the Word of YHWH spoke all these glorious words…

So it would seem that one of these entities called “YHWH” in these Torah passages was actually understood by the Targumists as being the “Word of YHWH.” It was, according to Targum Onkelos, this Word of YHWH that Abraham trusted in:

And Abraham trusted in the Word [Memra] of YHWH,
and He counted it to him for righteousness.
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 15:6)

Moreover Abraham prayed in the name of the Word of YHWH:

And Abraham worshipped and prayed
in the name of the Word [Memra] of YHWH,
and said, “You are YHWH who does see, but You cannot be seen.”
(Jerusalem Targum Gen. 22:14)

Note that here Abraham prays “in the name of the Word of YHWH” to the YHWH who “cannot be seen.” Here two YHWHs are very apparent. Abraham is praying in the name of the Word of YHWH but is praying to the YHWH who cannot be seen. This idea is reinforced elsewhere as follows:

And Hagar praised and prayed

in the name of the Word [Memra] Of YHWH
who had revealed Himself to her…
(Jerusalem Targum Gen. 16:3)

It was this Word of YHWH that Jacob also trusted in:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying,
“If the Word [Memra] of YHWH will be my support,
and will keep me in the way that I go,
and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
so that I come again to my father’s house in peace;
then shall the Word [Memra] of YHWH be my God.
(Targum Onkelos on Gen. 28:20-21)

King David also urged Israel to trust in the Word of Yah as the Targum of Psalm 62 reads:

Trust in the Word of Yah at all times,
O people of the house of Israel!
Pour out before Him the sighings of your heart;
Say, God is our trust forever.
(Targum on Psalm 62:9)

This “Word of YHWH” was, according to Targum Jonathan, the Creator:

And the Word [Memra] of YHWH
created man in his likeness,
in the likeness of YHWH, YHWH created,
male and female created He them.
(Targ. Jonathan Gen. 1:27)

This idea is also put forward in the Jerusalem Targum:

And the Word [Memra] of YHWH said to Moses:
“I am He who said unto the world ‘Be!’ and it was:
and who in the future shall say to it ‘Be!’ and it shall be.”
And He said: “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel:
‘I Am’ has sent me to you.”
(Jerusalem Targum Ex. 3:14)

The Fragmentary Targum of the Torah also expresses that the Word of YHWH was the Creator:

The first night, when the “Word of YHWH”
was revealed to the world in order to create it,
the world was desolate and void,
and darkness spread over the face of the abyss
and the “Word of the Lord” was bright and illuminating
and He called it the first night.
(Fragmentary Targum Ex. 12:42)

That the Word of YHWH was the Creator can also be seen in the Tanak itself:

By the Word of YHWH were the heavens made,
And all the hosts of them by the Spirit of His mouth.
(Ps. 33:6)

The Word was also the covenant maker. For example the Noachdic covenant was between the Word and all mankind:

And YHWH said to Noah,
“This is the token of the covenant
which I have established between My Word [Memra]
and between all flesh that is upon the earth.
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 9:17)

The Word also made the Abrahamic covenant as Targum Onkelos also paraphrases:

And I will establish my covenant
between My Word [Memra] and between you…
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 17:7)

The Word of YHWH was also the giver of the Mosaic Covenant and the Torah as the Jerusalem Targum (as quoted above) makes the Torah giver “the Word of YHWH” in Ex. 20:1. It was to th e Word that Jacob turned to for salvation:

Our father Jacob said: “My soul does not wait for salvation
such as that wrought by Gideon, the son of Joash,
for that was but temporal; neither for a salvation
like that of Samson, which was only transitory;
but for that salvation which You have promised to come,
through Your Word unto Your people, the children of Israel;
for your salvation my soul hopes.”
(Targum Jonathan Gen. 49:18)

That the Word of YHWH is the savior is expressed elsewhere:

But Israel shall be saved by the Word of YHWH
with an everlasting salvation…
By the Word of YHWH shall all the seed of Israel be justified…
(Targum Jonathan Is. 45:17, 25)

But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah,
and I will save them by the Word of YHWH, their God.
(Targum Jonathan Hosea 1:7)

There is no doubt that the Targums identify the MEMRA as a manifestation of YHWH Himself, often substituting the word MEMRA or the phrase “MEMRA of YHWH” for  YHWH.  

Since the Targums identify the Messiah as the MEMRA and the MEMRA as YHWH and as the Creator, it is very clear that the Targums teach the deity of Messiah!

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