On The Beatitudes and The Commandments

Way too long, but old and lying around and I thought I’d repost it. The arguments get very confused at the end.

We have both Beatitudes and Commandments handed down to us in the Bible. Since Jesus proclaims in Matthew 5:17 that He has not “come to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill,” it might be instructive to compare the two (Augustine has done work on this topic, but I have not read it yet), and figure out how exactly that might be done. It does look like there are major differences between the Old Law and New Covenant on the surface, and there seem to be very good reasons for holding the Old and New Testaments as not reconcilable.

1. Listing the Beatitudes

The best way to start is to list the Beatitudes as they are given in Matthew 5: 3-11.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely on my account.

What these seem to be are not laws that prohibit, like the Commandments, so much as they seem to be statements of attributes. For you can be something (i.e. “merciful”) or be noted for doing something (“making peace”) or have something done to you (“be persecuted”).

The center of the list seems to be the key to the logic of the entire list: every other Beatitude could be said to be reducible to being merciful in some way. The first four Beatitudes are passive forms of being merciful. If we are merciful, we will be poor in spirit, we will mourn, we will be meek, and our desire will be for righteousness. The last four are more active, but it’s really funny, because “poor in spirit” also governs the whole: the only thing that is directly an “activity” is peacemaking. While being pure in heart is something one must work at, given the incredible amount of temptation and hardship we face, it is personal. The other “activities,” which are more public besides “peacemaking,” involve getting humiliated and tortured. It is not for nothing that Nietzsche criticizes Christianity as being weak.

But again, these Beatitudes are just part of a larger teaching. They may be a large part, maybe 75% of what one has to know. But that 25% which was the Law before cannot be neglected.

2. Listing the Commandments, and Genesis 1

Now the trouble with doing such a thing is that there are two lists of Commandments, just like there’s another list of these Beatitudes in Luke. Exodus 20 contains one list, with one order, and Deuteronomy 5 contains another. I am going to use the Deuteronomic account for comparison, because the parallels between commandments work better there. I had used the Exodus account before, because of its literary parallel with the Sermon on the Mount – both feature men literally standing on a mountain, telling the law. But that can only go so far, as we are interested in a teaching. The key to the Exodus teaching, it seems, is the centrality of “Honor your father and mother.” In that commandment alone, we are reminded that God has been with the Hebrews always, and that their traditions speak as much as Covenant and its preservation to the living God’s will.

Deuteronomy 5: 6-21 reads as follows:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Observe the sabbath day, and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

Neither shall you not commit adultery.

Neither shall you not steal.

Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.

Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

One of the things that is striking about this account is the constant invocation of Genesis in the first few commandments. The prohibition against idols – “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth – recalls Genesis 1. Genesis 1: 21-22, the fifth day of Creation, is probably what is echoed:

So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”

I always thought the point of bringing up the “great sea monsters” was to make it clear that God ruled over anything that could be conceived as a pagan god, or an influence on our lives deserving of respect. I assume “every winged bird of every kind” means the same thing when considered with the commandment from Exodus. The “water beneath the earth” is again a reference to Genesis 1, verses 1-2:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

God does separate the waters with a dome that is the Sky in verses 6-9, and all the waters under the Sky are gathered in one place to create dry land. But the point is that all there was in the beginning was “water,” an ocean of primordial chaos. Even if one says there are waters above the dome only and none beneath the earth (as verse 9 might tempt one to do), that does not negate the significance of saying that there is “water beneath the earth” – to say such a thing in the context of which sort of pagan gods might be worshipped is to posit the existence of entities that aren’t just gods with powers, but have the power of Creation.

I guess I should say something about misusing the name of the Lord: Is not the mark of Cain, one that had to be given because of the crime Cain committed, a misuse of the Lord’s power? It is forcing God to act where God need not act: Cain should have never killed, and thus not forced God to make the earth less fruitful, and for Cain to be marked, such a mark “naming” God as its Author.

The echoing of Genesis in the Exodus & Deuteronomic accounts of the Commandments works to reinforce the fact that God has acted consistently even as Man has fallen away. Man may need more particular laws and a comprehensive guide to life, but the concept of the Good was always there, as Creation was Good. It was not only visible, but it was what allowed the creation of visibility: the first thing God creates is Light, after all.

If the Beatitudes have anything to do with the Commandments, they will also hearken back to Genesis and the origins of all things. Many say John’s is the most philosophic Gospel. That may be so. But Matthew, from whom I’m working from, was no slouch as a writer, as we shall see.

3. The Commandments and their Internal Consistency

These commandments are in an order for a reason. The coveting of property and the idea of a jealous God teaches us who has the right to be jealous, and the power to make us tremble. Our jealousy might get us a woman or a mule; God’s jealousy will plague our descendants (again, a parallel with Genesis: What happens to Cain’s line, as opposed to Seth’s?). The worship of idols, of images, parallels what we do when we lust after beautiful women: we’re not interested in what God or the woman stand for, we’re only interested in the power they have over us. To take the name of the Lord in vain and to lie to others are both misuses of language, and point us in the direction of another idea from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 36-7, where it is said quite explicitly that our speaking should always be true, because of our lack of power. To steal from God is to not give him his due respect: hence, the importance of not doing any work on the Sabbath is both respect to God and respect for the place of work. The point of work is not to obtain property: if that were the point, then we should steal. The point of work is to do as the Lord did in Creating, just as to rest is to do as He did. Again, we find another echo of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6: 25-33 being the passage I have in mind this time. To honor one’s father and mother and to shy away from adultery is to recognize the importance of family in our lives. The central commandment turns out to be the prohibition against murder: to respect the Law is to understand and respect Creation, to return to the prelapsarian state in a critical sense. It was the Fall that allowed Cain to kill Abel.

The idea for analysis of this sort came from Leo Paul de Alvarez, who first informed me of how these commandments link together and of how to read the Bible thoroughly without use of garbage historicist criticism that says nonsense like “Moses never really went to Sinai” or “Jesus never existed” or any such rubbish. If you don’t want to believe, that’s fine. The idea that non-belief must embrace more than skepticism, but rather an active debunking of belief, sounds less like impartial inquiry to me and more like active hostility to faith and even literature. The Bible is a very intricate, very well put-together work, with thematic consistency and subtlety. Relentless attacks that refuse to take its theme seriously from the get-go make it difficult to read any book: Why should any book be read as if it had something to teach? One way to see just how much the Bible has to teach – whether one agrees with it or not, well, is to see how these Commandments and Beatitudes line up.

4. Comparison of Beatitudes and Commandments

The laws that only governed what one can’t do turned out to be surprisingly rich, yet, compared to the ground the Beatitudes seem to cover – they cover what one can do, what one can be, and what can be done to one – might be rather puny. How do the lists compare if we compare them directly?

One attempt at a comparison might ask which commandment goes with which Beatitude. I’m working with 11 (!) Commandments above, so somehow I have to get them to be 9, or see which ones drop away when I’ve lined up a few. I am not going to separate Deuteronomy 5:21 into two commandments, and I’m not quite sure what to do with God being a jealous God, who demands recognition as the sole God. OK, then: Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will not steal, as they are filled. I would also assume if one is busy being persecuted, one will have no time for murdering. The meek, as they will inherit the earth, have no need to covet anything. The pure in heart will see God, and thus never have to worry about idol worship, or worshipping a false God. Those who are blessed because they are being accused of false things probably have no inclination to lie themselves. Those who are peacemakers never have to worry about familial strife: they not only respect their parents and the ancestral, but they are children of God and are most blessed. Those who mourn will be comforted, so they cannot be beyond the bounds of acquittal, as those who misuse the name of the Lord in the Older Law seem to be. Finally (this is really a stretch, moreso than the other ones), the poor in spirit seem most likely to rest, and not work for anything unnecessary on the Sabbath.

All of that leaves me with showing mercy (the one Beatitude that is a reward in-and-of itself because of faith) being linked to the adultery prohibition. Assuming any of the above speculation is correct, what could possibly be the linkage between these two?

Well, if mercy is the hallmark of the New Dispensation, the key to fulfilling the Old Law, then it makes perfect sense that the one thing to survive Eden, the unity of man and woman, should be grouped together with that which defines charity. The love surrounding the old law was centered on tribe and family. That didn’t mean others couldn’t partake of the mercy of the Hebrews: take note of Ruth, the Moabite ancestor of David and Our Lord. But the key is just as I said, mercy. It is with mercy that the circle of those bounded by the law expands.

But mercy can only be truly shown when one adheres to the Law in one’s own life. The linkage between old and new is made most clear in the linkage between mercy and the sanctity of marriage: the personal piety the Old Law was designed to protect can only be protected when the spirit of that Law is cast over all. The New Covenant begins not with a rejection of the Old, then, but its expansion.

2 Comments

  1. Ashok! With this comment you are right on!–“The New Covenant begins not with a rejection of the Old, then, but its expansion.” This synergy is indispensible–although most adherants to both Christianity and Judaism ignore it. Isaiah 42:21 prophecies about this “expansion” or “magnification” of the Law. Many Christians toss out over half of Scripture (the OT) as irrelevant; but this Torah is foundational–it provides the object lessons which point specifically to the Messiah and show a clear continuity of PLAN. (Luke 24:26-27…44-45…) And Judaism ignores that Messiah who is vividly depicted in her own sacred writings by the very prophets she initially rejected nearly every time!

    If you read the portion after the Beatitudes where Jesus continues to teach, you will see this “magnification” clearly. He compares/contrasts the outward commandment with the inner emotion which feeds our actions.

    Jesus explains later that “Love” is really the essence of every command, and by reacting with love to G-d and others we are fulfilling all the commands.

    Your cyclical analysis which both begins and ends with “mercy” makes me think of John 1:16-17…here the similar word is “grace” which is like a water-fall constantly replenishing itself…grace for grace…”

    I really enjoyed reading this. Too bad more people don’t think about what they believe! If life on earth is a test for eternal life, we should consider our souls before anything else.

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