13. Did the Prophets Foretell the End of the World?
If you hear someone speaking a language you've never heard before, you would still recognize the sounds coming out of his mouth as speech. In the stranger's language, you may perceive a word here and there that sound like words in your own language. Not only might these words mean different things to the two of you, that particular set of syllables might mean the exact opposite to each of you! For example, to table a discussion in American English means to put it aside, while in British English, it means to deal with it. Or perhaps you are familiar with the "he means she" phenomenon in which Hebrew pronouns pronounced "me," "who" and "he" translate into English as "who," "he" and "she," respectively.
This, the Rambam tells us, is what many people experience when reading the words of the prophets. [II, 29] They either don't understand their words at all or they completely misconstrue them. Regarding the former, Isaiah refers to it as being "like the words of a book that is sealed" (Is. 29:11). Regarding the latter, Jeremiah says, "You have perverted the words of the living God" (Jer. 23:36). Every prophet was an individual. They lived in different times and places so, as would be expected, each had his own unique style. The prophets each communicated their messages using their own manner of speech, a fact that must be taken into account in order to understand their words.
For example, to describe the downfall of a kingdom, Isaiah employs such metaphors as "the stars have fallen," "the heavens have been overthrown," "the sun has gone dark," etc. Sometimes, the prophets refer to "mankind" even though they are speaking only of the inhabitants of a particular land, as in "God will remove man to far away" (Isaiah 6:12) and "I will cut off man from upon the Earth" (Zephaniah 1:3), even though these verses are speaking only of the kingdom of Judah.
When Isaiah foretells the downfall of Nebuchadnezzar, he says such things as, "the stars of Heaven and the constellations will not give their light, the sun will be darkened in its going forth and the moon will not let her light shine" (Is. 13:10). He also says, "I will shake the heavens and Earth will be moved from its place" (13:13). The Rambam asks: is anyone so foolish, so willfully ignorant, or so enamored of literalism that they would take such verses to mean that when Babylonia fell, the nature of the sun, moon and stars changed, or that the Earth changed orbits? Clearly these are metaphors! These phrases speak to the bitterness of the conquered nation, not to a fundamental change in the fabric of the universe.
Similar imagery is used when describing the conquest of Sennacherib of Assyria. There, Isaiah says that "the Earth is utterly broken, the Earth crumbles away..." (Is. 24:19) and that "the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed..." (24:23). Again, these are clearly intended as allegory. The Targum Yonason, an Aramaic paraphrase, shows that he understands the metaphor when he translates the latter prophecy as "those who worship the moon will be ashamed and those who bow down to the sun will be humbled."
If the metaphor of darkening is used for the conquered, the opposite is used for the victorious. A prophecy of good things for Jerusalem includes the idea that "the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will increase sevenfold, like the light of seven days" (Isaiah 30:26). (The number seven is used as a figure of speech to indicate "very much." This is a common Biblical usage.)
There are many such examples and Isaiah is not the only prophet to have uttered such symbolic words. (See, for example, Jeremiah 4:23, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Amos 8:9, et al.) The important thing is to understand the metaphor that the prophet is employing. For example, when describing how God would save the Jews from Sennacherib, Isaiah says, "See how the heavens decay and the Earth withers away; all beings on the Earth die and you alone are saved." (This appears to be a paraphrase of Isaiah 51:6. The translation is not exactly the same as we have it but all of the same elements are there.) The Rambam explains this metaphor to mean that those who were considered indestrucible have in fact been destroyed.
This brings us to Isaiah 65:17. There, the prophet tells us that God "will create new heavens and a new Earth; the first will be forgotten and their memory blotted out." Is this a literal forecast of the fate of the universe? The Rambam explains it to mean that God will give the Jews perpetual joy in place of the sorrow they currently experience. In fact, the very next verse clarifies that point: "I create rejoicing for Jerusalem and joy for her people" (65:19).
The Rambam provides many further examples but we'll limit ourselves to one more. Joel 3:3-4 says, "I will show wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: blood, fire and pillars of smoke. The sun will turn to darkness and the moon to blood before the arrival of the great and terrible day of God." This, the Rambam tells us, refers to the defeat of Sennacherib. (Some feel that it refers to the war of Gog and Magog but the Rambam says that nothing in the verses at hand makes that interpretation particularly compelling.) Using an excerpt from Joel 2:11, which describes a horrific locust swarm, the Rambam demonstrates that the phrase "great and terrible day of God" can refer to any day of particularly great salvation or devastation; it need not refer to a literal end-of-days scenario.
Through his analysis of these and many other verses, the Rambam concludes that no prophet ever predicted the destruction of the universe, or a fundamental change in its laws or its structure. Therefore, the end of the world is not what the Sages were talking about when they said, "The world will exist for 6,000 years, then for 1,000 years it will be a wasteland" (Sanhedrin 97a). Quite the opposite: from the fact that the second part of that dictum says that "for 1,000 years it will be a wasteland," we can easily infer that time, the universe and the planet must all still exist.