God’s Promises to the Poor & Oppressed:
The Beatitudes from its Original Jewish Perspective
Many Christians down the ages have said that the most beautiful, the most profound, and the most moving of all Yeshua`’s words are the Beatitudes. In the New Testament, they are to be found in Matthew 5:3-12, and a slightly different, abbreviated version is found in Luke 6:20b-23. They form the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, and almost constitute Yeshua`’s manifesto.
Most people think that Yeshua` himself made up these words. The truth is that Yeshua` simply put together various verses from the bible – the Torah and the Prophets – that most of his listeners already knew, and were familiar with. To a Christian, because they think that Yeshua` made these verses up himself, they see only the surface of the words, only their face value. However, to a Jew, the words associate to a whole set of vibrant images that enliven and expand the emotion of the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are not merely about Yeshua` comforting the poor; they are about a prophet reminding the poor and down-trodden of Israel of what Israel’s God has already promised for them – promises that have never been forgotten by God.
In this article, I hope to open you to the intense Jewish imagery of the Beatitudes, so that whenever you read them in the future, your sense of warmth and appreciation for these words will be heightened.
A note on the reconstructed passage in the Sefer Yeshua`
For the purposes of this article, I am using the reconstructed Jewish version of the Beatitudes in the Sefer Yeshua`. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic poetry uses the format of line couplets – that is, lines come in two’s, and the ideas in those two lines are connected. The Sefer Yeshua` version takes this into account; it combines the verses from Matthew and Luke, and then rearranges them into a poetical order. Finally it retranslates the style and metaphor of each line using Jewish rather than Greek forms of expression and language.
The Term “Blessed”
The word normally translated as ‘Blessed’ in most English language bibles, is the Aramaic ‘tobey’. A better and more accurate translation would be “How happy!” or “How fortunate!” or “How favoured!” All of these are appropriate.
For example, the first line in Jewish Aramaic is “tobeyhon `enwanin beruha, arey . . .” This literally translates as “fortunate-they humble in-spirit, for . . .” One could therefore translate the phrase as “How fortunate are the humble in spirit, for…”
Parallels found in ‘the Torah and the Prophets’
As I have previously said, most of these verses were taken by the prophet Yeshua` directly from the bible that he and his listeners knew, to remind them of what God had promised.
Passage 3 Verse 2a
Blessed are the humble in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of God.
In standard bibles, this is translated as “poor in spirit”. This has brought confusion to countless generations, through an error in Matthew’s translating from Aramaic to Greek. The Aramaic `enwan can mean ‘poor’, but in this instance the likeliest meaning is ‘humble’.
The origin of this line is Proverbs 16:19
“It is better to be humble in spirit with the lowly than to divide the spoil with the proud”.
The proverb throws light on the meaning of the verse. Yeshua` probably felt that, since the humble in spirit will not be after wealth (they won’t want to ‘divide the spoil’), they will therefore have no difficulty finding the kingdom of God. Any number of times, Yeshua` expresses his belief that rich people’s faith in their money rather than in God, prevents them from understanding or finding the kingdom of God.
Passage 3 Verse 2b
Blessed are the meek, because they shall inherit the land.
The line, which follows the opening line, forms a couplet with it. In most modern translations of this verse it says, “they shall inherit the earth”. This has led most people to think the line refers to the meek inheriting the whole planet!
The Aramaic for ‘earth’ is ar‘a. It can mean ‘earth’, but it also means ‘land’. To the Jewish mind – to Yeshua`’s Jewish listeners – this would have had a very specific connotation: the land = the land of Israel. The line says that the meek of Israel will inherit the land of Israel.
The basis of the line comes from Psalms 37:11
“The meek will inherit the land, and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity”.
Now, in Joshua 1:8, God says to Joshua son of Nun, “Do not let this Book of Teaching depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you will be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
The ancients taught that study of God’s law would bring prosperity. The haughty and the proud would be too full of themselves to learn from Torah; haughtiness and pride only led to destruction, but the meek had honour: “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, but before honour is humility”. The meek were therefore the rightful inheritors of Israel, since they had the humility before God to heed God’s teaching – a fillip to the poor who were normally downtrodden by the high and the proud.
Passage 3 Verse 3a
Blessed are they who mourn, because they shall be comforted;
In Isaiah 61:2, the prophet says that the good news that he brought from God would ‘comfort all those who mourn’; a just vengeance would be meted on those who caused the broken-hearted and the poor to suffer.
And in Job 5:11, Eliphaz consoles Job by saying that, “those who mourn will be lifted to safety, and the afflicted will be exalted to prosperous heights”.
Yeshua` is not giving groundless promises that God will comfort the afflicted; those who had gone before him had given the same eternal assurance, and this line would remind his Jewish listeners of this.
Passage 3 Verse 3b
Blessed are they who weep, because they shall laugh.
In Jewish poetry, mourning and weeping are often mentioned together, almost as a set phrase (e.g. “My harp is tuned to mourning, my pipe to the voice of those who weep” Job 30:31). This line, which in the New Testament is found only in Luke, has its appropriate place after the line referring to those who mourn.
In Ecclesiastes 3:4 it says that there is “a time to weep, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, a time to dance”. In his words, Yeshua` holds firm to the proverbial belief, that weeping would not be forever; those who weep have God’s assurance that there will be a time for them to laugh.
Passage 3 Verse 4a
Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy
In Proverbs 11:17 it says,
“the merciful person is requited with good, but the wicked only do harm to themselves”
Throughout the history of Judaism, there has always been a strong sense of justice, and of doing God’s will by acting justly. Even though books such as Ecclesiastes may be cynical about life, they still recognise that just as the evil we do eventually comes back to us, we are consoled by the belief that equally so will a merciful person attract mercy in their wake.
Passage 3 Verse 4b
Blessed are the unselfish, because they shall see God.
This verse is an interesting one, especially when you consider its language. In most bibles, this is translated enigmatically from the Greek as, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Some commentators, without any knowledge of Aramaic idioms, try to explain this as the pure being rewarded by some kind of beatific vision. However, someone who understands Aramaic will instantly see an Aramaic original that used word play.
The beautifully profound imagery of the original Aramaic is lost in English. Now, someone who is pure in heart is unselfish. In Aramaic, there is no actual word for ‘unselfish’. Instead, the equivalent phrase literally means ‘to have a good eye’. The line literally reads in Aramaic, “How fortunate are they who have a good eye, for they shall see God”.
The line does not mean that the unselfish person shall literally ‘see’ God, who is after all invisible, without form and unseen; it means that the unselfish shall truly experience God in their heart, mind and soul.
Passage 3 Verse 5a
Blessed are they who hunger, because they shall be filled
In Psalm 107:9 it says of God,
“He has fed the hungry to their hearts’ content, and filled the starving with good things”
Galilee was a paradox – a land of bountiful plenty where the hungry still outnumbered the sated, and the poor rarely had enough to eat, even though their own labour produced more than enough to feed themselves. Yeshua` holds out the promised hope that the hungry would have their fill, and that the day would come when God would give to them what was rightfully theirs.
In those days, the rich exploited the poor, and had little concern for their welfare. The land was farmed, not with the purpose of feeding the populace in mind, but with the sole aim and purpose of filling the coffers of landowners. If people happened to get fed, then that was pure coincidence, and not any concern of the wealthy. Such was the attitude of the rich in those days, that one can understand the scorn Yeshua` had for them. This line reminds his listeners that God is on their side.
Passage 3 Verse 5b
Blessed are they who thirst, because they shall be satisfied
In Isaiah 41:7 it says,
“When the oppressed and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongues are parched with thirst, I YHVH will hear them, I the God of Israel will not abandon them”.
This line reminds Yeshua`’s listeners of God’s promise to the downtrodden, that God’s might will not abandon them; that in their need, the power of God will be evident for all to see.
Passage 3 Verse 6a
Blessed are they who create peace, because they shall be called the children of God
This line is traditionally translated as, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, but this fails to bring out the full meaning of what the original Aramaic would have been. In Aramaic, one would not have simply ‘made’ peace; to be called children of God – to imitate their Creator – they would have to have ‘created’ peace.
Those who create good are imitating their Creator. A child of God does what God does. We the created are therefore all children of God, and should aspire to be like our Father in heaven.
In addition in Aramaic, the word ‘peace’ (shlama) doesn’t just mean an absence of conflict. It implies health, wholeness, soundness, safety and most of all, security. The creators of peace – the ‘peacemakers’ – do more than just end conflict; they imitate God by promoting welfare, health and security.
Passage 3 Verse 6b
Blessed are they who pursue virtue simply for what it is, because theirs is the kingdom of God
The traditional translation of this is, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”. In Aramaic, this would be, “How fortunate are they who pursue righteousness for its own sake”.
This means, that they who try to act with virtue and righteousness, without expecting fame or reward, theirs is truly the kingdom of God – to do out of kindness and compassion for its own sake. They who help others with the expectation of reward, still have the search for God’s kingdom before them.
Passage 3 Verse 7a
Blessed are you when people reject you and malign you, because our ancestors did no less to the prophets
It was the unfortunate lot of the prophet to be rejected, scoffed and maligned for the message they bore. Followers of prophets knew that they would bear a similar fate. Not just Yeshua`’s followers, but the followers of most prophets were persecuted and held in contempt by authority. Small consolation, but Yeshua` was reminding his followers that they were not to doubt the message simply because of the ill-fortune they were being dealt, because even prophets who carried God’s message received the same treatment.
Passage 3 Verse 7b
Rejoice! Dance for joy! Because remember, your reward in heaven is great.
The ultimate thing that matters, is what God can give us. This cannot be taken away by any earthly power. Even if the end seems desolate, it is not truly the end, because our final hope is in God, and God has the final say in rewarding faithfulness and righteousness.
The whole of this passage is about promises, and about reminding God’s people of them. In all the verses of the Beatitudes, we can see Yeshua` reminding his audience of the promises of Israel’s God to the poor, the oppressed, and the needy – this is the theme of the whole passage. By voicing sayings that clearly refer back to the inspirational writings of the Prophets – prophets who gave hope to Israel in their darkest hour of need – Yeshua` gave the Jews of his day that same hope.
Even though this was originally addressed to Jews, the message is universal. These words are there to remind us that the most afflicted can still hope for God to rescue and save them; even the most abandoned soul can still count on God to remember them; and even the most sorrowful can still reach out to God to give them hope for the future.