Lag b'Omer is a Jewish holiday that many of us may not be familiar with. It isn't a biblical holiday and, while celebrated for over a thousand years, the actual origin of the holiday isn't well documented. This very scarcity of information, however, has allowed the holiday to morph, to mean different things to different groups of people, in time, in location, and in beliefs. Orthodox Jews in Israel may take the day to remember Rashbi, visiting his grave on Mt Meron; however, the holiday has taken a new meaning in the modern state of Israel.
Today, the holiday is largely celebrated in relation to the defense of the country. The holiday marks the remembrance of the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 C.E., the last of the three Jewish-Roman Wars. Israeli’s celebrate the initial victory that Bar Kokhba had over the Roman Empire. Even though, eventually, the Bar Kokhba revolt was shattered by the Romans and Jewish people suffered catastrophically, the very concept that they fought against oppression is celebrated. In many ways, Lag b’Omer has taken on a strong tone of Messianic expectations–the religious look towards their scholars and rabbis while the more secular and zionist communities look towards military leaders and heroes.
Messianic expectation, unsurprisingly, is both varied and a point of division. Biblically, Aaron and his sons were the first to be anointed (the word Messiah/Mashach comes from the Hebrew word to anoint someone, generally with oil). Despite Aaron and all four of his sons being anointed, two were later slain due to their disobedience. God expected them to act in a certain way. But we also see certain expectations from the people on earth. When Saul was anointed as King, the people expected a certain nobility, strength, and leadership. But they were sorely disappointed–at least, at first. Saul hid. When his relatives were threatened he eventually did take leadership, conscripted an army, and saved his people.
David was anointed along with many kings, but so was Hazael, a bitter enemy to Israel. Nonetheless, the role of a messiah took on a very strong expectation throughout the kings, prophets and people in exile. By the time of Jesus, there was a very specific example of a messiah: the Maccabees. Many of Jesus’ disciples had very popular names–John, Simeon (Simon), Judas, Eleazar (Lazarus)–the names of the Maccabees. The very names gave the Jewish people under the Romans memory of a recent time when they were able to defeat an empire. It was in this light, the light of Hanukkah–a holiday that remembered the salvation of God and military victory of Israel over the Seleucid empire–that Jesus was approached by the Jews.
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24)
The Jews wanted to know if Jesus would meet their expectations. In many ways, Simon Bar Kochba was the very picture of the expectation of this generation a century later. A military leader come to overthrow the oppression of the Roman Empire. He became the messiah the people expected, and it ended in disaster. Nonetheless, today he is celebrated as a hero who at least stood up and showed how much love he had for the people and the land.
Instead of arguing what expectation was, or is, the correct one, think on this. Were Aaron and his sons anointed? Was King David anointed? Was King Hazael anointed? Was Cyrus called a messiah? Which of these is the best example of God’s messiah? What expectation do we have of Jesus as the Messiah? When we cry out for a Messiah to save us, are we looking for the Messiah we want, or the Messiah we need? If Jesus were to tell us what expectation we should have, would we recognize it for the truth?