The Intertestamental Period


The Torah portion for this Shabbat, December 18, 2021, is the last Torah reading from the book of Genesis, Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 – 50:26. From the prophets (the Haftarah) the reading is from 1 Kings 2:1 – 2:12, and from the New Testament it is from Hebrews 11:21-22, and 1 Peter 1:3-9.

This portion of the Torah was very popular and powerful in the intertestamental period, that is the period between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the establishment of the royal house of Herod, i.e., the beginning of the 1st Century A.D., or as it is counted by Jews and others, the 1st Century C.E.

The reason that this Torah reading was so popular and important is because Jews from the 3rd Century B.C. started to think that the blessings that Jacob gave his sons that are a major part of this Torah portion (Vayechi, “and he lived” in Hebrew) is prophetic and it has to do with the far future or the Messianic Period of the last days.

There are important books written during that period called “intertestamental,” books that are based on Jacob’s blessings to his sons. The major one that has some important “messianic” elements is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Here are some examples of the use of this book in the New Testament.

A quotation from the testament of Levi 6:10-11 is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:16:

“…forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; ‘but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.’” – 1 Thessalonians 2:16

A quotation from the Testament of Gad 6:10 is found in Romans 12:19:

“Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

A quotation from the Testament of Benjamin 4:3 is found in Romans 12:21:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21

A quotation from the Testament of Gad 5:7 is found in 2 Corinthians 7:10:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – 2 Corinthians 7:10

A quotation from the Testament of Naphtali 3:1 is found in Ephesians 5:6:

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” – Ephesians 5:6

I realize that this is not common knowledge in some Christian circles but for me it is important. This does not mean that the New Testament writers or the Holy Spirit is implying that this Pseudepigraphic Hellenistic Jewish literature is inspired, but, like Paul in Acts 17 used a quotation from a Greek poet, he also used literature that was very popular in his days among Pharisaic rabbis.

Fragments of similar writings were found at Qumran, but opinions are divided as to whether these are the same texts from this book.

What I am trying to share with you is that these last chapters of the book of Genesis were considered to be prophetic pointing to the last days, speaking about the eschatological events that will have an impact for the last days. The basis for these Jewish Hellenistic texts are the following words in Jacob’s blessings for the tribes:

“And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days.’” – Genesis 49:1

When the New Testament writers use quotations from this Jewish literature that was so popular in the time of the apostles it does not indicate that these outside books are all inspired by God, but it does indicate that they were popular and known in the days of the apostles.

Here are some of Jacob’s blessings that have messianic implications in the Jewish Pharisaic circles of the Jewish communities of the time and also among the apostolic leaders. Although many of them were Galilean fisherman and not great Torah scholars in Jerusalem. They too were familiar and could quote from this outside literature.

That is actually an indication that these Galilean fishermen were not ignorant from the spiritual literature that influenced the Jewish world in the land of Israel.

Here is the commentary of Ramban (this is commentary on Genesis 49:1, by one of the greatest rabbis who lived in Spain, and later Egypt, in the 14th Century A.D.):

“In the end of days. These are the days of the Messiah, for Jacob alludes to him in his words, even as he said, Until Shiloh come, and his be the obedience of peoples. Now our Rabbis have said that Jacob wished to reveal the end of Israel’s exile, but the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) departed from him. Thus, in the opinion of all scholars, the end of days is a reference to the days of the Messiah.”

Genesis 49:9 – 12:

“Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; And as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, He washed his garments in wine, And his clothes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, And his teeth whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:9-12 [NKJV]

This prophecy is one that is rather obscure, but it is interesting how rabbinical commentators stay with the tradition that there is a messianic promise and prediction in these words of Jacob that affirm that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah and the word “Shiloh” is interpreted in the following ways by some of the greatest medieval Jewish commentators:

“…rabbinical and later interpreters, as a Messianic allusion to David, who never had much to do with Shiloh. There is even less of an excuse to import for the same purpose the rare Akk. noun šēlu ‘counselor,’ when Hebrew (and Akkadian) had various direct terms for ‘ruler.’ Now is the situation improved if šylh/w is emended to mšlh/w ‘his ruler’…” – Taken from the Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis 49:9-10

The connection of Yeshua the Messiah with the tribe of Judah and the house of David is clearly confirmed in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and this stress that Yeshua is from the house of David is already made clear by Matthew in the very first verse of the Gospel:

“This is the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah son of David son of Abraham.” – Matthew 1:1

It is good for us to know that this revelation is in concert and based on this text of Genesis as the rabbis (Pharisees) of the days of Yeshua saw it from their point of view, and may be revelation.

There is one more curiosity in this Torah portion, and it comes from Genesis 48:16, where Jacob is speaking to Joseph and states the following:

“The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, Bless the lads; Let my name be named upon them, And the name of my fathers’ Abraham and Isaac; And let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:16

Jacob is telling Joseph and his sons that Abraham and Isaac his fathers were great evangelists and brought many souls to the faith in One God, “they fished for men among the inhabitants of the Earth.”

The translators of the Hebrew Bible in the 17th Century didn’t understand or connect these words of Jacob with the word that is translated as “grew into multitude in the midst of the earth” – and therefore didn’t understand the Hebrew word “dag”.

The root of the Hebrew word is “dag”, that means “fish” in Hebrew, and in this grammatical form it means “fished”. The basis on which Jacob says this to Joseph and his sons is Genesis 12:5:

“Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.” – Genesis 12:5 [NKJV]

The words translated into English, “The people (souls) whom they had acquired in Haran” ought to be translated based on the idiom of “acquiring souls” – is to evangelize – like in modern Hebrew today “la’asot nefashot” (“to make souls”).

We know from Genesis 14 that Abraham had 318 men who were also his soldiers that went with Abraham to chase the five kings from the North to recapture Lot and his family and bring them back. So, yes, Jacob says that Abraham and Isaac his father and grandfather were great evangelists among the inhabitants of the land.

There are endless treasures in the word of God from Genesis to Revelation. By diminishing the importance of the Torah and the “Old Testament” and for the most part ignoring it, our Christian brothers are cutting off the very branch that they are sitting upon.

It is tragic, but more than that, it needs to be fixed and understood that the New Testament is not a standalone book. It is a continuation of the same narrative and revelation of the Holy Spirit that starts in Genesis and ends in the book of John’s Revelation. Of course, the knowledge of the original languages helps to understand God’s revelation unfiltered.

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.