Biblical Hebrew and its New Testament application. Hebrew idioms buried in overly literal Greek. The beatitudes unlocked by Hebrew parallelism, Matthew 5:3-10




The beatitudes unlocked by Hebrew parallelism, Matthew 5:3-10

Hebraic poetic parallelism

Much of the Old Testament is poetry. In fact one third of it is written in Hebrew poetic form, equivalent to more than the entire New Testament. Isaiah 40-66, Job and Lamentations are arranged poetically, as are the Psalms and Proverbs. Many of the prophecies are also poetic.

Hebrew poetry does not use rhyming words but rhyming ideas. Complementary or duplicate descriptions are written in parallel, line by line. This adds helpful insights for translation through word equivalence, and interpretation of difficult phrases by comparison with an easier to understand parallel phrase. Additionally, it acts as an aide memoire in that the idea when spoken twice is doubly memorable and like poetry or song is easier to remember than mere prose or narrative. Most believers know more hymns and choruses than Bible verses because more of their senses are involved in singing and dancing than in mere silent reading. At the very least we should get back to reading Scripture aloud so that we hear it twice, once with the mind and once with the external ear.

A good example would be Proverbs 31.20, there is no difference between poor and needy:
"She stretches   /   out her hand   /   to the poor;"
"She reaches   /   forth her arms   /   to the needy"
Here, each phrase is paralleled by a similar phrase of different wording but of equal meaning in the corresponding second half of the verse.

Thus, "ask, seek and knock", in the gospels, are three ways of saying 'inquire of God' not suggesting that if your prayer was unanswered it was because you asked and sought but forgot to knock.

This phraseology is poetic, which you should read and get the flow and drift, the heart of the message, not be distracted by small print. Alternatively, if you were reading the Ten Commandments, you would read the small print, as they are a legal document. Different styles of writing require different methods of reading.

The beatitudes unlocked by parallelism

The use of Hebraic poetic parallelism can be seen carried into the New Testament in the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) are arranged in pairs which can help clarify the meaning of their corresponding phrase. Here the transposed order of verses 4 & 5 has been used as in many Greek NT and Latin Vulgate manuscripts , making a more obvious parallelism of the first four blessings:
Blessed [are] the poor in spirit:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed [are] the meek:
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed [are] they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed [are] those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed [are] the merciful:
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed [are] the pure in heart:
for they shall see God.
Blessed [are] the peacemakers:
for they shall be called the children of God.  
Blessed [are] those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake/pursue righteousness:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Hence, we can immediately see some aids to interpretation from the equivalent phrases outlined below:

v.3 = v.5 (v.4 in some MSS)   poor (humble) in spirit = meek
kingdom of heaven = inherit the earth
v.6 = v.4 (v.5 in some MSS) mourn = hunger and thirst for righteousness
comforted = filled/satisfied
v.7 = v.8 merciful = pure in heart
to obtain mercy = to see God
v.9 = v.10 peacemakers = pursue/persecute righteous
children of God = have the kingdom of God
Further justification of this exegesis will be found by an understanding that most of the language used in the Beatitudes is Old Testament references and phraseology.

Poor in spirit = meek

Therefore, using parallelistic equivalence of phrase and Old Testament language context we can see that 'poor in spirit' does not refer to material poverty as Luke 6:20 taken in isolation might suggest. Rather, it refers to being 'meek' or 'humble'. This is relevant because another passage used by Jesus to describe his ministry is Isaiah 61:1ff., this refers to the Spirit's anointing to preach the gospel to the poor, or so it is usually translated. However, the Hebrew word in Isaiah is again 'meek' and not 'poor'. Thus, it is not material poverty but spiritual humility which is most open to hear the gospel. God shows no partiality to rich or poor.

"poor", ptôchos (34x), refers to abject poverty, unable to even scrape a living and therefore reduced to begging, having come to an end in oneself. In Greek, more poor than penκs (also, 'poor'). The word is used in Luke 4:16 to translate Isaiah 61:1, 'ânâv 'poor'. Thus "poor in spirit" means having nothing to offer God, and thus meek and humble, the opposite of Pharisaic self-righteousness. It sometimes stand for 'the oppressed' of God's own people. The OT has 179 references to 'poor' and more than 8 words to describe it.

Significantly, Isaiah 61:1 and 66:2 are sometimes mistranslated as 'poor' creating a mandate of exclusivity to the poor, which is just as wrong in God's sight as partiality to the rich - God shows no partiality. The Isaiah references actually use 'βnβv and 'ânîy both from 'ânâh, 'to depress' or 'abase', and really mean humility or meekness. Numbers 12:3 uses the first of these to describe Moses as the meekest man on earth, i.e., there is no insinuation as to Moses' bank balance or state of poverty!

[Jesus nowhere sanctifies a state of poverty or describes it as a 'blessed' position to be in, as anyone who has been poor can agree with. In fact, Scripture's comment on blessed finances is that "the blessing of the Lord brings riches without sorrow [or grief]" (Proverbs 10:22).]

"Blessed are the meek", this by Hebrew parallelism may echo and explain 5:3, "blessed are the poor in the spirit". 'Meek' does not mean 'weak', but humility and gentleness, someone who acknowledges their need. It is taken straight from Psalm 37:11, "the meek shall inherit the earth", here 'meek' is the Hebrew 'ânâv again, from which Isaiah 61:1's "poor/humble/meek" and Matthew's "poor in spirit" are taken.

Isaiah 66:2 and a Dead Sea Scroll passage also pair up these synonymous phrases:
"But on this one will I look:
On the poor and of contrite spirit,
And who trembles at My Word" (Isaiah 66:2)
"to proclaim to the meek the multitude of Your mercies,
and to let them that are of contrite spirit he[ar salvation . . .]"
(DSS, 1QH, Thanksgiving Scroll, 18.14-15)
Hence it is the meek and humble who inherit, who are teachable (Psalm 25), who receive the good news (Isaiah 61:1).

Kingdom of heaven = inherit the earth

'Heaven' is a Jewish synonym for God Himself, hence the 'kingdom of heaven' in Matthew's Jewish language is identical with 'the kingdom of God' in the other gospels. Furthermore, Jewish kingdom expectation was not of an ethereal heavenly kingdom but of a messianic millennial earth where God dwelt with man. It is not that we ascend to be with God in the long run but that God descends, once sin and evil are banished, to once more dwell with man and walk with him, as He did with Adam in gan eden, the garden of Eden. Compare the picture of the earthly eternal reign of God in Revelation 21-22. One can see, then, that 'to inherit the earth' is the same as inheriting the kingdom of God, or experiencing His eternal rule. His kingdom is "not of this world", means that it is not of this 'worldly order' or of this 'age', but rather it 'of the age to come'.

To mourn = to hunger and thirst for righteousness

Again, another difficult blessing, "Blessed are those that mourn", but how can mourning for the dead be a 'blessed' or 'happy' state? It is a mistake and insensitive in the least to describe 'mourning' or 'bereavement' as such. Mourning in the Psalms (cf. Psalms 119:136; 42:9; 43:2; 38:6) was often associated with grieving over personal or national sin, over the oppression of an enemy, over injustice, or over lack of respect for God's Law. In this context the corresponding parallel in the Beatitudes explains it perfectly, the mourners are 'those who hunger and thirst for righteousness', the coming of the 'reign of God' (the kingdom) will comfort and satisfy ('fill') them.

'Mourn' occurs 10x in the NT. Isaiah 61:2-3 refers to the comforting of the mourners but is not included in Jesus' address to the synagogue in Luke 4:18-21, where he rolls up the scroll halfway through verse 2 indicating that only verses 1-2a were fulfilled in Him, verses 2b onward awaited a later time, that of the day of God's vengeance rather than the present year of acceptance (jubilee period when all debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, cf. Leviticus 25:8ff., Ezekiel 46:17). Isaiah 61:2-3 probably refers to mourning over the state and fate of Israel, i.e., over a nation and over their own sin, they will be 'comforted' or 'encouraged'.

In fact, Isaiah 40:1-2 speaks of true comfort for God's people since "her warfare is done, her iniquity is pardoned".

To "hunger and thirst for righteousness" is more than for personal holiness. As with Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel and Jeremiah, etc., it is those who mourn over a nation's sin and oppression and desire to see righteousness and justice in the land, for "righteousness exalts a nation" (Proverbs 14:34).

Comforted = filled/satisfied

These mourners and 'hungerers' will be 'filled'. Perhaps a better translation of chortazτ, 'filled', would be 'satisfied' as when justice is seen to be done, when the wicked no longer prosper and the righteous are not oppressed.

Merciful = pure in heart

"pure in heart" and "peacemakers" are both phrases that occur only here in the NT. The pure in heart according to Psalm 24:4 and Proverbs 20:9 are those without sin, i.e., the righteous. The actual phrase "pure in heart" occurs also in Psalm 73:1, cf. Psalm 34:19, but comes primarily from Psalm 24:3-4.

Peacemakers = persecute/pursue righteousness

The "peacemakers" shall be called "sons of God". Two meanings may, either instead of each other or together, be taken from this. A son of God, according to Romans, is someone who has been adopted by God, note in Jewish families it was the son who inherited, hence to degenderize (out of political correctness) and translate as "child of God" immediately strips the phrase of any connotations of inheritance. A second meaning may be taken from the Hebrew underlying "son of . . .", which may also mean someone who acts according to the character of the attribute or person of which he is a son. Thus, a "son of peace" is a 'peaceful one', and "son of God", may be a 'godly one'. Here God's character is that of a 'peacemaker' and the true disciple acts similarly and is called both a son of God and a son of peace. The only other place in the NT using a similar word to 'peacemaker' is Colossians 1:20 which refers to the making of peace between God and man, the reconciliation affected through God's mercy demonstrated on the cross.

Peacemaking was not only a NT concept, just prior to Jesus' ministry Rabbi Hillel had said, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace" (Abot., 1:12). Peace makers or peace pursuers would be rodphe shalom in Hebrew. To 'pursue peace' occurs in the NT at Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:11.

"Persecuted for righteousness sake" may also be translated from the Hebrew background as "those that pursue righteousness". This comes from nirdephe tsedeq in the Hebrew of similar sound to the rodphe shalom 'peace pursuers' above. To 'pursue righteousness' occurs in the NT at Romans 9:30; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.

Righteousness and peace are parallel terms in the following verses: Psalms 72:3; 85:10; Isaiah 32:17; 48:18; 60:17; Hebrews 7:2.

Conclusion: "and then there were four . ."

Given the parallelisms outlined above we can see that Jesus was saying not 7, 8 or 9 sayings but 4 principles each expounded in a pair of complementary phrases. Further, whilst Jesus' Beatitudes may appear spontaneous and original they are actually steeped in Old Testament allusions and quotations, and Hebrew poetic parallelism. As Professor David Flusser has written "these are not a spontaneous outbreak of prophecy, but a profound message founded on a complex network of biblical reminiscences and midrashic exegesis."

More material like this can be found in our bible course "Jewish-Hebraic Biblical Interpretation" and Hebrew Unit 4, Hebrew Unit 4 Poetry and Form.


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