Let me state this as clearly as I can…
(I’ve picked up something of Scot McKnight’s combative tone of voice here.)
The sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 was not preached to or for the benefit of the post-Christendom, modern-going-on-postmodern, global church.
It was preached to beleaguered first century Israel. It was a call to a section of first century Israel to pursue a particular course of action, to think in a particular fashion, to embark on a particular journey at a time of extreme national crisis, when a storm and a flood were about to sweep away the house that Israel had built on the sand.
Well, that probably could have been said a bit more clearly, but hopefully you get the gist.
If we read the passage as teaching for the church today on the grounds that this is the eternal Word of God and so must make good sense at all times and in all places, we will struggle to understand it—and struggle even more to apply it.
But if we do what McKnight urges and “transport ourselves back to Roman Galilee, under Herod Antipas, with Israel’s history centered in Jerusalem, and then use our imagination for ordinary folks and for Jesus himself” (Kingdom Conspiracy, 65), then it’s not too difficult to place this body of teaching in a meaningful story about kingdom and the land.
McKnight highlights Psalm 37 and the frequent references to the “land” of Israel, including the words “the meek will inherit the land” (Ps. 37:11). He then draws the connection with the beatitude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
Both the Hebrew ʾeretz and the Greek gē can mean either “earth” or “land”, but in Psalm 37 the meek, those blessed by the Lord, the righteous, those who wait on the Lord, will inherit the land of Israel when YHWH finally cuts off the wicked. We have no reason to think that Jesus understood the Psalm any differently.
The standard English translation is wrong. It reflects the much wider perspective of the church as it tries to read the Bible as a flat text, a compressed narrative, with all the historical stuffing taken out of it. Jesus’ perspective was quite different, much more limited, as McKnight explains:
Not only did Jews like Jesus not give a fig about the land as the cosmic earth, but Jesus spoke in Aramaic, in which the term he would have used was “land.”1 But these points aside, the fundamental orientation of kingdom language for Jesus emerged from the story of Israel in which the land and dwelling in the land in peace, justice, love, and wisdom were absolutely central. It is, then, well nigh certain that when Jesus blesses the meek, the promise he gives them is that they will inherit the land (not the earth). (68)
But of course, the meek did not inherit the land—in the end, Rome inherited the land and trampled it under foot.
McKnight argues that we should see local churches “as the land promise taking root in gentile territory, or as the land promise expanding into the Roman Empire” (90).
I think that may be an oversimplification, but it’s certainly part of the story. More to come…
- 1. I’m not sure about this. The Aramaic ʾaraʿ appears always to mean “earth” in Daniel, and this is the only meaning that BDB gives for it. However, Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature has “land” for ʾaraʿ, probably in the sense of “that which is beneath”, and “land, earth, ground, field” for ʾaraq. I’m out of my depth here anyway.