Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Who can prove they are Descended from David?
"These sought their genealogical record but it could not be found, so they were disqualified from the priesthood. Hattirshatha [Nehemiah] told them that they should not eat of the most holy offerings until there would arise a Kohen to [inquire of] the Urim and the Tumim" Nehemiah 7:64-65.
One peculiar argument in favor of the Nazarene being the Messiah is the termination of the genealogical records (generally placed at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.).1 It is argued that after that point it was no longer possible for a "candidate" for Messiahship to prove their Davidic lineage. Fortunately, they say, the genealogy of the Nazarene was preserved in the "New Testament" for the world to see. Clearly then, he is only possible candidate for being Messiah they conclude.
Momentarily setting aside the issue of how reliable these records in the "New Testament" are, which later we’ll see that they are highly questionable, there are several other problems with this conclusion. The most obvious problem is on what basis to they make furnishing these genealogical records a requisite for being Mashiach (Messiah)? All the T'nakh demands is that he be a descendant of David, and certainly it is possible to be a descendant of David without having documentation! Perhaps this lack of an authoritative source is why I have encountered this argument more often in informal discussion than in published works.
Nevertheless I found a verse which such an argument might seem to rest, and later saw it used as such.2 The verse was from Nehemiah, cited above, where he is trying to determine who is fit to serve as Kohanim (Priests). Certain Kohanim where unable to provide records and where therefore excluded form service. By extension one might argue that one might not allow one to occupy the throne of David without providing documents to prove their lineage.
The comparison is faulty however. For a non-Kohen to serve as a Kohen would be a serious transgression forbidden by Torah. And while kingship is associated with the tribe of Judah and later with David haMelech, it is not exclusively theirs. The first king of Israel, Saul, was not from the tribe of Judah (1 Samuel 9:1-2). And after the reign of King Solomon, when the kingdom was divided, Hashem Himself appointed Yaravam the king of the northern kingdom who was neither a descendant of David nor from the tribe of Judah (1 Kings 11:28-31). Accordingly there is reason to be much stricter regarding priesthood than there is kingship regarding lineage, so one cannot infer laws of kingship from laws of priesthood in this manner.
But, this passage is not altogether useless. It shows that the very argument is a faulty dilemma. The only options presented are either a) Mashiach came by 70 C.E. when the record existed or b) Mashiach will never come, with b being an impossible option if we start with the premise that the T'nakh is true. There is another option presented to us in our passage. When Nehemiah excluded the kohanim without proper documentation it was not indefinite. Although they lacked the proper records their status could yet be clarified when a Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would arise who could inquire of the Urim and Tumim. The Urim and Tumim where part of the garments of the Kohen Gadol that could be used to prophetically obtain guidance from God. So though they could not provide records their status could be clarified miraculously.
Likewise we see the case of Abraham's servant when he was sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac. The wife was to be from Abraham's own family. When he arrived at his destination he prayed that God help him identify the correct women for Isaac and asked that she perform certain actions that would identify her. Immediately Rebekah appeared and did accordingly. At that point Abraham's servant gave her the gifts he had brought for the women who would be Isaac’s wife. Only afterwards did he ask her who her family was. The fact that Hashem had miraculously fulfilled his request assured that she was of the right family to be Isaac's wife.
As such we clearly see the third option is that Mashiach's lineage will be proven miraculously. And this is certainly what Orthodox Jews of today anticipate. Records are meaningless without fulfilling the role of Mashiach. No doubt there are many descendants of David today and throughout history, but only one "Mashiach". Conversely when someone accomplishes those once-in-history achievements the T'nakh attributed to Mashiach there is not need for such records, God Himself will have testified that he is Mashiach and therefore a descendant of David.
Throughout history Jews have awaited the Mashiach predicted in the T'nakh. We have not waited eagerly merely to see a descendant of David attain an exalted position. David haMelech was a great tzadik (righteous person) and Hashem promised that Mashiach will come through him, but our interest is what the Mashiach will accomplish and not his ancestors. Mashiach is not like a purebred whose value lies in his pedigree. Mashiach will guide Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) into complete and correct service of Hashem and deliverance from our enemies. That achievement will be worth more than any paperwork or documentation one could produce to prove is Davidic lineage.
1I do not recall any instance in which this argument is made which cites any source whatsoever for the claim that there was a central library of genealogical records destroyed in the first century. I have, however seen such an account cited by Africanus by way of Euesebius, "So Herod, who had no drop of Israelitish blood in his veins and was stung by the consciousness of his bas origin, burnt the registers of their families, thinking that he would appear nobly born if no one else was able by reference to public documents to trace his line back to the patriarchs or proselytes, or to the ‘sojourners’ of mixed blood." ( The History of the Church, 1:7, Penguin edition page 55).
2Yirmeyahu Ben-David, "However, even for valid Kohanim Scripture makes it explicitly clear that the required documentation by public genealogical registries cannot be circumvented (Nәkhemyah 7.63) (Kohanim today are ceremonial; honored as having traditional descent; but none would qualify for service in the Beit ha-Miqdash.)" netzarim.co.il/Shared/MessPro.htm#Topic-Genealogy retrieved 8/20/09. Yirmeyahu Ben-David likewise cites Hosea 3:5 and Jeremiah 30:9 but neither of these suggest anything regarding documentation being required to establish Davidic decent.