Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Sermon on the Mount and the Psalms

Notes - there are many connections between Matthew 5 and Luke 6 and the Psalms, far more than might first appear if you are reading in Greek or English.

First the raw data. Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26. Pick an English version - any version. You are a reader, listening to a voice coming from far away (or near) and long ago (or present).

We are in the presence of blessing or a statement of happiness. These are the Beatitudes, blessings, happinesses (yes it is plural in Hebrew). The Greek is μακάριος so some name them makarisms. These are very compact. They fit a Hebrew mind. If we are translating into Hebrew there are choices to be made as there would be in any translation exercise. I looked at two translations. Salkinson-Ginsberg  and this alternative translation, and later, the Rabbinic reasoning and the occasional gloss from Herbert Basser's book: The MIND behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1 – 14, Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2009.

Since I immersed myself in the Writings, I have found it difficult to enter the NT especially with my former assumptions. I am not a literalist, nor do I subscribe to any particular confessional stance, yet I rejoice in every word and letter because of the one who had these things written for my (our) learning. Words work to life in the conversation where listening leads to learning. Learning happens with a teacher. This is Torah. The Psalms are Torah. Will I find Torah in the NT?  Yes - but not if I go there with all the answers already in my head. A critical bit of teaching in the NT is to read the OT. What is in us by dogmatic assertion or even affliction often stops the ear from hearing and learning. I only say this out of the experience of growing and eventually learning a certain faithfulness. As the wry poet of Psalm 73 comments: and I am touched all the day long with my own correction in the morning. There's ambiguity in that word 'touch'. (See Psalm 39:11: put aside from me your touch // from the stroke of your hand // I, I am finished. And compare the use of the word in Job 1:11, 19:21. Correction also resonates with Job).

I was surprised that my Jerusalem Bible had a differing sequence of the beatitudes. A question on the FaceBook NT textual criticism page got me an answer: It is a MS variation from the old Latin: The Roman Catholic Bibles follow the order of the Western text (D and the Old Latin version and Jerome's Vulgate). This order of vs 5, then 4 is also followed by one Syriac version and one Coptic version, as well as being mentioned by Origen (commentary on Matthew) and Eusebius.

It is not a really important variant. By the time we are finished this exercise, we will see more than we expected - or so I hoped when I began and I was not disappointed. But you, dear reader, don't expect the 5 minute sound bite - do your homework and read the texts slowly and if you are new to it, also in large chunks. Reading the texts is not a matter of speeding through the countryside. Stop awhile and say hello to the Most High.

Here are my notes from my first meandering into this topic in session 4 of the first draft of my course on the Psalms (pilot session beginning Nov 12, 2013 in Victoria BC in the Church of St Barnabas, Belmont and Begbie - all welcome).
This is not an easy exercise – I want you to help me with it – search deep for the allusions – some are very clear: like verse 5 'inherit the earth', Psalm 25:13, 37:11 etc. Begin at Matthew 5:3 – the poor in spirit – what character in the psalms is he referring to? Is there language that lets us hear an allusion?
3 happy the poor of the spirit for to them is the kingdom of heaven … אַשְׁרֵי עֲנִיֵּי הָרוּחַ כִּי לָהֶם מַלְכוּת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃
4 happy those who lament, for they - they will be consoled ... :אַשְׁרֵי הַמִּתְאַבְּלִים כִּי־הֵם יְנֻחָמוּ
5 happy the afflicted, for they - they will inherit the land ... :אַשְׁרֵי הָעֲנָוִים כִּי־הֵם יִירְשׁוּ־אָרֶץ
6 happy those hungering and those thirsting for righteousness, 
for they - they will be saturated (or satisfied / sated as in the alternative translation).
:אַשְׁרֵי הָרְעֵבִים וְהַצְּמֵאִים לִצְדָקָה כִּי־הֵם יִרְוָיֻן
7 happy those who are with compassion, (or the compassionate as in the alternative).
for they - they will be shown compassion ... אַשְׁרֵי בַּעֲלֵי־רַחֲמִים כִּי־הֵם יְרֻחָמוּ׃
8 happy the pure of heart, for they - they will gaze on God ... אַשְׁרֵי בָּרֵי לֵבָב כִּי־הֵם יֶחֱזוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהִים׃
9 happy those who make peace, (or who pursue peace as in the alternative above).
for they - they will be called the children of God ... אַשְׁרֵי עֹשֵׂי שָׁלוֹם כִּי־הֵם יִקָּרְאוּ בְּנֵי־אֱלֹהִים׃
10 happy those who are pursued for the sake of righteousness,
for to them is the kingdom of heaven ...  אַשְׁרֵי הַנִּרְדָּפִים עֵקֶב צִדְקָתָם כִּי לָהֶם מַלְכוּת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

The repetition of the reward 'the kingdom of heaven' seems to close this first part of the sermon. The section is followed by a crescendo in the use of pursue, hound, persecute. In the alternate translation, this root rdp רדפ recurs 4 times once each in verses 9, 10, 11, and 12. This is the same root as 'follow' in the traditional translation of Psalm 23.

Basser eventually connects each group of people addressed in verses 3 to 10 with the afflicted (traditional meek) of verse 5. This, by the way, almost becomes a code word in the NT especially as used by Paul for the collection from the Gentiles. The poor העניים and the afflicted הענוים are nearly the same word. They differ by one letter, a vav or a yod and these letters are frequently confused. So these two groups of people are difficult to distinguish in the Psalms and the words are very frequent. Inherit the earth (or the land - same word) is a phrase in Psalm 37 - the 'wicked' acrostic. Psalm 37 uses this phrase possess or inherit the earth 5 times. And those who will possess it are those waiting for יהוה, the afflicted. In the psalm. these righteous ones are blessed by one who is righteous and are exalted by יהוה. Psalm 37 is one of 8 outer pillars in the tent that is the Psalter. The 8 pillars are the acrostics and the poems that immediately precede them. Inner pillars include 14-53, 40-70, 57-60-108.

Those who lament, הַמִּתְאַבְּלִים. This phrase (traditionally those who mourn) draws in the laments in Book 2 and 3 of the Psalter. The word though is used only once in Psalm 35 where the individual poet speaks of betrayal and his own mourning as one lamenting (אבל) a mother.

Consolation - comfort - is the loaded word of the book of the consolation (Isaiah 40 ff). In the psalms, we have it in Psalms 23 and 90 - significant enough in themselves.

Luke has weep here. This word recalls the sometimes untranslated part of Psalm 84, the valley of Baca, the 'vale of tears'. Psalm 84 has three beatitudes. The central verse 7 is introduced with the second one:

Happy the human whose strength is in you
with a highway in their heart
passing through the valley of weeping
they mark it a spring
even with blessings wrapped from instruction

This weeping is the word used in Luke. These shall laugh - joining in God's laughter at the birth of Isaac. And we can go on:
  • Hungry and thirsty – think of the hart in Psalm 42 – filled – saturated. See also 107, 22:27, 23:5, 36:9, 65:11, 66:12 saturated.
  • The merciful – this is translated back into raxam – that womb-like compassion expressed in Psalm 18:2 and Psalms 145:8-9 (citing Exodus 34:6 – these are the ones who are likest God).
  • The pure in heart – Psalm 73:1 is a direct quotation – that heart is used here first as a frame is perhaps significant. See also 18:21, 25, 27.
  • The peace-maker – We might think of perhaps the psalms of ascent – the peace of Jerusalem for which we are commanded to pray, but as I noted, the alternate translation suggests the one who pursues peace (34:15, all psalm references use Hebrew verse numbering.) 
  • And the persecuted, those who are reproached, draws in all psalms of reproach like Psalm 69.
These considerations suggest to me, that even though we may be depending on one word, the substance of the compact poem that is the beatitudes draws in the entire Psalter and God's clear preferential option on behalf of the poor. I looked into the Psalms to see the mind of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews - 7 years later I am back into the NT having seen the mind of the redactors and poets of the Psalms. There are several questions that occur to me.
  1. How should I reread the teaching of the NT?
  2. Can I see the mind of Jesus as poet? How does this mind reflect the mind of the Psalter?
  3. Must I learn the Torah and Prophets with as great care as I have approached the Psalms? This is more than the average bear can bear. 
  4. Does my limited knowledge let me in to the assumptions of the various theologies of the past 2000 years?
  5. Does this - to me proven - 'care for the poor'  tell me something about politics, prayer, and action today? Clearly God does not necessarily protect those who protect their own interests. Billionaires complaining about universal health care maybe should pay their back taxes.