In an earlier post, I quoted from Tana d’Vey Eliyahu Rabah a story about Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet) visiting a widow and instructing her to separate a portion of bread for him first as a sign that he (Eliyahu) would first come to the exile, followed by the redeemer. (Please read that story to understand my comments here.)
One interesting point in that midrash was that it identified the widow’s son as “Mashiach ben Yoseph” (see there), the title for a quasi-redeemer in Jewish oral tradition. We remarked there, amid our confusion, that there was no indication in the text as to the identity of this child.
However, upon perusal of another text, Yalkut Shimoni (Yonah, Ch. 1), we do find an interesting opinion regarding the identity of the widow’s son:
Yonah (Jonah) ben Amitay was from Asher, as it is written: ‘Asher did not remove the inhabitants of Ako and the inhabitants of Tzidon’ (Judges 1:31), and it is written (regarding Eliyahu): ‘Get up, go to Tzorphath which is of Tzidon… Behold, I have commanded there a widow to sustain you’ (I Kings 17:9), and Rabbi Eliezer taught: Yonah ben Amitay was the son of the widow of Tzorphath.
A second opinion there has it that Yonah is from the tribe of Zevulun (Zebulun), and the conclusion appears to be that his father was from Zevulun and mother (the widow) was from Asher.
Be that as it may, this midrash indicates the identity of the widow’s son as none other than the prophet Yonah (of the book of Yonah, or “Jonah”). Is this midrash at odds with Tana d’Vey Eliyahu?
Was this boy Yonah or Mashiach ben Yoseph? If he was from either Asher or Zevulun, then he was from neither of the tribes of Yoseph (Menasheh or Ephrayim). And in what way did he fulfill the role of Mashiach ben Yoseph?
While I admit ignorance regarding the full extent of the role of Mashiach ben Yoseph, I understand that he may be a redeemer for the nations of the world (as opposed to a redeemer for Israel particularly), as was Yoseph, who saved Egypt from a bitter end by famine, and rather, was able to sustain the entire world during the years of famine with the stores of food he had saved. “Son of Yoseph” could mean not a biological heir but a spiritual one, one who carries the mantle of Yoseph by also being a redeemer of the nations.
Yonah very much fulfilled this role as one who came to the people of Nineveh, a gentile city, to warn them of their impending doom. They repented and were saved. In this way there need not be seen any conflict between the two midrashim.
Perhaps now we understand the relevance of Eliyahu’s “sign to the world.” Since this child would become a harbinger to the nations of the world, it would be appropriate for him to carry Eliyahu’s message to them.
And what of Eliyahu’s message? Why should the nations of the world know that Eliyahu will come first and then the Son of David?
I don’t know, but my offhand guess is that just as Yonah came first to Nineveh to warn them, allowing them to repent and be saved, so too will the nations have a similar opportunity in the future, to return to the One True G-d before the arrival of Mashiach ben David, by which time it may be too late for repentance.
Dunno, just a thought.