Wednesday, May 09, 2007

And the people shall answer....

Regarding, again, the Beatitudes, I really should know these things, but then I don't make any real claims to being a scriptural scholar; and New Testament studies have moved off toward historical criticism, leaving literary criticism behind as if it were a dirty step-sister deserving of no more attention than a scullery maid (yes, I'm an English major, and yes, that is a not very oblique reference to "Cinderella." At least I'm honest about it.)

All of which is to say, I should have known Luke was a good student of the Hebrew scriptures, and that Matthew's opening the Sermon on the Mount, with its clear reference to Sinai and Moses, the Law-Giver, with the Beatitudes, was not a coincidence or just the workings of "Q":

These shall stand upon mount Gerizim to bless the people, when ye are come over Jordan; Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin:

13 And these shall stand upon mount Ebal to curse; Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.

14 And the Levites shall speak, and say unto all the men of Israel with a loud voice,

15 Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.

16 Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.

17 Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen.

18 Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way. And all the people shall say, Amen.

19 Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.

20 Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife; because he uncovereth his father’s skirt. And all the people shall say, Amen.

21 Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. And all the people shall say, Amen.

22 Cursed be he that lieth with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.

23 Cursed be he that lieth with his mother in law. And all the people shall say, Amen.

24 Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly. And all the people shall say, Amen.

25 Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person. And all the people shall say, Amen.

26 Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen
That's actually Deuteronomy 27, which begins the litany. Not exactly kind stuff, but if the people are faithful, they get the blessings:

1 And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth:

2 And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.

3 Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.

4 Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.

5 Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store.

6 Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out.
Luke, of course, reversed the order; and Matthew dropped the "curses" altogether. I don't even mean to compare either version (Luke's or Matthew's) line by line, so much as to put the "Beatitudes" into their proper context. Once again, we don't hear what Jesus' original audience heard, because we hear in a different context, one in which Deuteronomy 27 and 28 are not part of our regular religious discourse, but the Ten Commandments are. What intrigues me, to begin with, is the ritual nature of these curses and blessings. This is actually part of the identification of Israel as a people; part of the covenant which makes them children of Abraham and subject to God. Verses 9 and 10 of chapter 27 precede all of this, and make the ritual apparent: "And Moses and the priests the Levites spake unto all Israel, saying, Take heed, and hearken, O Israel; this day thou art become the people of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt therefore obey the voice of the LORD thy God, and do his commandments and his statutes, which I command thee this day."

I mean no disrespect to point out the connection between the Levites and Leviticus, the book we commonly think of as the "laws" of Israel which most non-Jews generally disparage. That's the one with the dietary laws and the laws about "cleanness," the stuff that makes us uncomfortable or which we disparage as "legalistic." Many Christians and non-Christians associate it, without knowing much about it, with the Pharisees of the Gospels, and discard both as erroneous and misguided. But one of the purposes of Leviticus was to keep the people of Israel holy, to make them, in their quotidian lives, remember that they were subject to a covenant with God, and that covenant was the source of their blessings. As I said, it offends our modern sensibilities to consider curses at all, and certainly to consider them as preceding any blessings, but we can note how that marks the Beatitudes of Jesus as radical without turning and disparaging the source Jesus was drawing on.

So this was meant to be a ritual text, one the people would use to remember who they were and whose they were. Again, put it in context: look at the whole of chapter 26:

And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and possessest it, and dwellest therein;

2 That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name there.

3 And thou shalt go unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him, I profess this day unto the LORD thy God, that I am come unto the country which the LORD sware unto our fathers for to give us.

4 And the priest shall take the basket out of thine hand, and set it down before the altar of the LORD thy God.

5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous:

6 And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage:

7 And when we cried unto the LORD God of our fathers, the LORD heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression:

8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders:

9 And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey.

10 And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O LORD, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God:

11 And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you.

12 When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled;

13 Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of mine house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all thy commandments which thou hast commanded me: I have not transgressed thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them:

14 I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I taken away ought thereof for any unclean use, nor given ought thereof for the dead: but I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, and have done according to all that thou hast commanded me.

15 Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us, as thou swarest unto our fathers, a land that floweth with milk and honey.

16 This day the LORD thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments: thou shalt therefore keep and do them with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.

17 Thou hast avouched the LORD this day to be thy God, and to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and to hearken unto his voice:

18 And the LORD hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people, as he hath promised thee, and that thou shouldest keep all his commandments;

19 And to make thee high above all nations which he hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honour; and that thou mayest be an holy people unto the LORD thy God, as he hath spoken.
Rituals are not rote acts repeated mindlessly because the people are sheep and puppets; they are islands in the sea of time which connect us to the past and the future in an ever-changing present. Ritual is another way of forming identity. Which casts an interesting new light on the Beatitudes. When Jesus speaks these words, they resonate with the history of Israel; interestingly, too, they resonate more for Luke, the Gentile, than for Matthew, the Jew; but that's another issue.

The source of the Beatitudes is clearly performative language: the priest announces each one, and the people say "Amen" ("so be it"). Now Jesus replaces the priests (and, by inference, Moses) with new performative language. And that language is clearly meant to recall, and to reinterpret, this language. But notice where the emphasis falls in this chain of curse and blessings: it falls on everyday life. These are not the sweeping pronouncements of the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not kill." How many of us have to worry about violating that one in daily life?), but the day to day issues of living in community. "Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen."

"The stranger, fatherless, and widow," by the way, is a very concrete formulation for describing the poor, the powerless, the outcast, those who always live on the extreme margins of any society, for only the kingdom of God as envision by Jesus is a place with no margins and no boundaries. The Ten Commandments don't reach the issue of the orphan, the widow, and the alien; but this ritual curse-as-warning, does. And the blessings are tied directly to them: avoid the things abjured by the curses, and you will be blessed, not just as a member of the nation, but in your quotidian life. Begins to sound more and more like the Beatitudes all the time.

It has been noted before that Matthew generalizes, or "spiritualizes" the Beatitudes, while Luke makes them concrete. The "poor" in Luke are "poor in spirit" in Matthew. The ones who are hungry now in Luke are the ones who "hunger and thrist after righteousness" in Matthew. And Matthew leaves out any mention of curses, which Luke, like the original, links directly to to the blessings. But both versions serve their disparate purposes: to announce the presence of the kingdom of God, and to declare by declaring blessings on precisely those on the margins: not the stranger, fatherless, and widow this time, but the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the hungry, the peacemakers. These words originally re-announced the covenant of Israel: "Deuteronomy" is the title from the Septuagint for this fifth book of Moses, and it means roughly "restatement of the law." It was drafted after the Exile, as a restatement of the continuing covenant between the generation which never knew Jerusalem, and the God of their ancestors. It is a liturgy pronounced in the aftermath of Exile, hearkening back to a time when that Exile was unimaginable and unimagined. It is, in short, an act of healing. Which gives us an even better context for the pronouncement of the blessings and curses of the Beatitudes.

The words of Moses are for the people of Israel; the words of Jesus imply no such limitation. The meek, the poor, the peacemaker and pure in heart, the hungry and those who hunger for justice, can be found in any nation, among any people. As we have seen in America today, the assumption of power is that justice and righteousness and blessings flow from power and authority, that blessings only come to those who first claim privilege by dint of arms. 30 years ago we took to caling it the "thin blue line," the people who stood with authority and power between civilization and the "out=law," the one literally pushed to the margin of society because they threatened society so. That is the view of Caesar, to use a metaphor from Jesus' time. That is the perspective of a government which uses crucifixion to suppress opposition, and war to distract the people from the fact that there is no bread, and the circuses are just empty circles. The beatitudes and their originals in Deuteronomy teach a different lesson: the blessings of life flow from God, who offers them to those who practice justice and righteousness, who do not cheat the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who live their daily lives in consideration of others, who know that the true power is powerlessness.

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