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…
- 1I’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.
I think it likely that the meek did inherit the land when the Romans won the war. They had certainly inherited it the previous time Jerusalem was sacked:
“Now the rest of the people that were left in the city, and the fugitives that fell away to the king of Babylon, with the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carry away. 12 But the captain of the guard left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen.” (2 Ki. 25:11-12)
Now that’s a very interesting consideration. It would make the beatitude more of a negative statement about judgment, less of a positive statement about inheritance. It suggests, too, that we might read Psalm 37 differently, as a more focused “prophecy” of exile: the Babylonians will destroy the wicked and leave the meek in the devastated land.
The problem with it, I think, is that the other beatitudes are positive statements about “salvation”: theirs is the kingdom of God, they shall be comforted, they shall be satisfied, they shall receive mercy, they shall see God, etc. There would be little consolation or satisfaction for any Jews left in the land after four years of war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
And Jesus instructs his disciples not to remain in the land but to flee to the hills.
Richard Hays has taught me to read metaleptically. So in favor of my suggestion, let me point out that the OT echo used by Jesus here is also from a Psalm about judgment. From an old blog post of mine:
“…, in 5:5, Jesus pronounces benediction on the meek (οἱ πραεῖς). This unusual word is taken directly from Psalm 37:9-11:
“For evildoers shall be cut off;
But those who wait on the Lord,
They shall inherit the earth.
For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more;
Indeed, you will look carefully for his place,
But it shall be no more.
But the meek (LXX: οἱ πραεῖς) shall inherit the earth,
And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
Psalm 37 is a Psalm of David about the reign of the wicked and the oppression of the weak. It assures us that this will be ended when YHWH acts and overthrows the wicked. Then the righteous will “dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness.” This clears up an uncertainty that has puzzled some interpreters: namely, how can one “inherit” the earth? From whom would one inherit it? Psalm 37 makes clear that the meek inherit it from the people who were previously oppressing them. That is what is meant by “evildoers shall be cut off”: they shall be left without descendant. Psalm 37 teaches the same thing as Proverbs 13:22: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.””
Here’s the rest of it:
I would probably change a few things now in light of what you say about την γην.
Yes, I follow that part of the argument, and clearly we have very similar views on the beatitudes. But I still feel that such a reading of Matthew 5:5 would leave it looking rather out of place amongst the other beatitudes. It would be different if Jesus talked in Isaianic terms about the restoration and renewal of Israel and Zion, but he doesn’t.
The argument would actually work better if Jesus was referring not to the land but to the earth: the wicked will be destroyed, but the meek, et al., will inherit the earth. That would be a much more positive prospect. But it would be at odds both with the historical scope of Psalm 37 and the general purview of Jesus’ teaching.
Which land did the meek inherit? Here it is. Déjà vu? Ecclesiastes 1:10. I’m still going for ‘the earth’, but I admire your consistent approach.