The meek shall inherit the world: an exercise in historical restraint

The sermon on the mount is addressed to first century Jews in Israel. The Beatitudes define that small community of first century Jews in Israel through which and for the sake of which YHWH would restore his people at a time of severe political-religious crisis. It is a community of the helpless, of those who suffered and mourned because of Israel’s wretched condition. They would be persecuted. But they would be the beneficiaries of the impending intervention of YHWH as king to judge his people. They would inherit—so I argued recently—not the earth but the “land” of Israel. It has nothing to do directly with the church today.

When and how would this come about? Presumably when the owner of the vineyard came and put the wicked tenants to a miserable death and gave the vineyard to others who would produce fruit for him (Matt. 21:41); and when the king in anger “sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” and then ordered his servants to gather for the wedding feast whomever they could find in the streets, “both good and bad” (Matt. 22:7-10).

Not the scribes and Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the elders and rulers of Israel, but the poor and the poor in spirit, those who mourned in Zion, the meek, those who longed for YHWH to do what was right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted—these would constitute the nucleus of the renewed people of God after the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

This is probably also the scope of the question that James asks in his very Jewish letter: “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). We can read this as setting out some sort of universal ethical ideal, but that would be to miss the point. The narrative is not incidental, it’s not mere husk to the teaching. It’s what matters. The ethical component is the means to the fulfilment of the narrative.

Paul also uses the language of inheritance but in a context in which the Gentiles or nations (ta ethnē) have become a critical part of the story. On the one hand, inheritance is no longer restricted to Jews: Gentiles have become “fellow heirs (synklēronoma), members of the same body, and partakers of the promise” (Eph. 3:6). On the other, these incorporated Gentiles are a clear sign that the God of Israel intends to demonstrate that he is also sovereign over the nations:

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Rom. 3:29–30)

Paul goes on to argue from the fact that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” that it would not be the circumcised, those under the Law, who would inherit the world but those who had faith (4:13), who believed that the death of Jesus had been an atonement for the sins of rebellious Israel (3:24-25), that God had raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him Son of God—the king who would inherit the nations (1:4; cf. Ps. 2:7-9).

This is what justification by faith is all about, as I argue in [amazon:978-1606087879:inline]. It’s not a general theory of personal salvation. It’s about history. Jews and Gentiles alike would be justified or not justified for believing or not believing that YHWH had redeemed his people and made Jesus judge and ruler of the nations.

Reformation Protestantism in its dogmatic preoccupation with justification by faith has kept the baby, but it has thrown out not only the bathwater but the bath, the bathroom, the house, the family, the street, the town—the whole historical narrative that made bathing the baby meaningful.

When would this become apparent? In the course of history. In much the same way that the foreseen judgment of Israel became apparent in the course of history. In much the same way that the meek inherited the “land”. [pullquote]The God of the Bible is not a God of theological abstractions. He is a God of history.[/pullquote] He reveals himself in historical events. He acts historically. He works within the necessary constraints of history.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius note that the Jewish revolt against Rome was inspired by a prophecy in the scriptures which said that men coming from Judea would possess and rule the world. They thought it obvious—as did Josephus—that the Jews were mistaken in thinking it referred to them. They took it that the prophecy actually referred to Vespasian (Tac. Hist. 5.13.1-2; Suet. Vesp. 4.5; Jos. War 6.313). There is some good discussion of this in Craig Evans’ book [amazon:978-0664239053:inline].

Vespasian became emperor of the Greek-Roman world in AD 69, while he was engaged in the war against the Jews, following the suicide of Nero. Vespasian and his son Titus demonstrated very clearly that no men coming from Judea could get the better of Rome. No king from Judea would ever rule the empire.

Now there’s a nice piece of historical irony for you!

The “Christian” argument would be precisely that a man coming from Judea eventually dethroned the god Caesar and became supreme ruler of the empire, and that accordingly the family of Abraham inherited the world that for so long had been in the possession of Rome.

This is how the New Testament reads when we set aside our various post-biblical theological agendas and start to think historically. When I talk with Christian historians, they appear to have little trouble with the contention that a major part of New Testament eschatology found its fulfilment in the conversion of Rome and the establishment of a Christian empire. It’s what you’d expect from the God of history. It’s pastors and theologians who have a hard time getting their head around the idea.

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peter wilkinson | Wed, 04/02/2014 - 19:29 | Permalink

This is great stuff, Andrew. I loved your opener. I couldn’t help noticing though that “earth”,  as in “The meek shall inherit the earth”, has become “world”, while in Matthew 24:30, I’m sure you have argued that the same word, gē, means “land” (as in the borders of Israel the nation), to fit with the idea of a limited interpretation of the prophecy. I’ve probably got it wrong, and in any case, stretching it, you could argue that the “tribes” that mourn (could also be “peoples”) are the scattered tribes of Israel throughout the earth.

Thank you. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ “the meek shall inherit the land” becomes for Paul something like “the weak (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31) shall inherit the world”—but “world” understood as Tacitus and Suetonius understood it, the world or oikoumenē, empire, ruled by Vespasian, rather than the whole globe as we think of it.

I think it more likely that Jesus means “tribes of the land”, as in Zechariah 12:12. The house of David, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the families of Israel will mourn over “him whom they have pierced… as one weeps over a firstborn”.

He expected the meek to inherit the “vineyard”—the right to bear fruit for the creator God following judgment? Perhaps Jesus imagined that they would continue to live in geographical Israel after the war against Rome. It’s hard to know.

The ethical component is the means to the fulfilment of the narrative.

Can you unpack this? What should the church take from this narrative? What impact should this history have on our daily lives? 

The church can take two things from the narrative.

First, it understands the biblical story better, for what it actually is, not as something always to be exploited for its own modern purposes. I would argue that the simple act of telling, retelling, learning, clarifying, reimagining the story without always having to draw lessons from it, is a good and necessary thing.

Secondly, if we must draw lessons from it, the challenge would be to identify  and understand our own “escatological” narrative. What is our crisis? What is our future? What is the creator God doing now to safeguard the future viability of his people? Then we ask what sort of spiritual, intellectual, ethical, practical, etc., characteristics are required in order to fulfil that purpose.