The Poor in Spirit

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Who are those who are the poor in spirit, and how do they possess the kingdom of heaven? It helps a lot to know the idioms of Jesus’ time and his references to the scriptures. The phrase “poor in spirit” is an allusion to Isaiah 66:2:

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble (poor, ani) and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2

Pilgrim ReadingThe word “poor” is ani in Hebrew, and is also often translated “afflicted,” and often used to refer to groups of people like widows and orphans who were dependent on charity to survive. A person who is “poor in spirit” sees himself as needy and helpless without God, and yearns desperately for God’s presence in his life. Like a recovering addict, he can only survive each day by leaning on God. The opposite type of person is someone who is “great of spirit” who is bold and self-reliant, who has no need of anyone’s help, especially not God’s. He is one who feels that he is “the captain of his fate, the master of his soul.”

The overall picture of Isaiah 66:2 is that God looks with favor on those who know they are inadequate to run their own lives, but show reverence for God, and are sorry for their sins. When we bring this picture of a person who is “poor in spirit” into Jesus’ saying in the beatitudes, it fits with the Kingdom of Heaven as we understand it hebraically.

The “kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “kingdom of God” — it is not being used to refer to heaven after we die. Rather, it describes God’s reign over the lives of people here on earth. Not all people are in God’s kingdom, but a person enters the kingdom by enthroning God as his king, committing himself to doing God’s will. (1)

So we see now that a person who is poor in spirit is one who sees his need for God’s reign over his life, and submits to his rules. God’s kingdom consists of exactly this kind of people — those who are humble and needy enough to yearn after him.


(1) For a more complete understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven, see the following articles: What is the Kingdom of Heaven? and The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News

Photo: William Blake

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

by Lois Tverberg

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:3

All of the beatitude sayings are very Hebraic, and somewhat difficult for Western Christians to grasp. The saying above, that the “meek shall inherit the earth” is widely quoted, but barely understood.

Lebanon

It is very helpful to know that this line, like almost all of the beatitudes, is a quote from the scriptures, specifically Psalm 37:11. In that verse the Hebrew word for “meek” is anav. It is also translated humble, afflicted or poor. Moses was called the most “anav” (humble) man on earth. It is often used to describe the people who called out to God for help in their difficulty, instead of being aggressive in fighting for their own way.

The theme of Psalm 37 is to remind us that when we are wronged, we shouldn’t try to get revenge, but to trust in the fact that God will someday set the world straight. It says,

… Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek (anavim) will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. (Psalm 37:7-11)

Six places in Psalm 37 it talks about those who would “inherit the land” (yirshu aretz, to inherit or possess the land/earth). That phrase is very significant, having first come up when God made the great promise to Abraham that he would “give him this land to possess/inherit” (Genesis 15:7). Then, later in Deuteronomy, more than a dozen times, Moses tells the people that only by being obedient would they be able to remain in the land:

Deuteronomy 8:1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your forefathers.”

Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

It seems that in Psalm 37, David was using this idea from Deuteronomy that God would see to it that the faithful would remain in the land God gave them, and the evil-doers would be removed from it. The psalmist was using the phrase “inheriting the land” in a wider way to speak of God’s full blessing. The wicked may seem to be winning now, but the righteous will ultimately possess God’s gifts for eternity.

In quoting this verse in the beatitudes, Jesus seems to be saying that if we are humble and rely on God rather than striving to punish those who have done us wrong, that we can trust that God will win the day. No matter how much the world demands that we should fight evil with evil, eventually God will reward his followers who trust him to set things right.


Photo: Bontenbal

An Eye for an Eye?

by Lois Tverberg

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Exodus 21:23-25

Many people quote this line in the the Hebrew Bible about “eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” as showing the barbaric nature of the laws of in the Bible. Grasping its context is important and sheds light.

The laws of the Torah were far more humane than in other ancient cultures, and even this law, in its context, actually was an effort at reasonable punishment at an offense rather than cruel vengeance. Without any laws, the typical response to a crime where one had injured another would be revenge by the victim’s clan, escalating into feuds. This law of “like for like” was actually intended to limit the punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself.

No Littering SignIn fact, most scholars think that in ancient Israel this law wasn’t followed literally, but was interpreted as allowing for monetary fines for injuries (1). Evidence for that is in Numbers 35:31 which says, “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” The existence of this law shoes that usually a monetary fine was the penalty for a crime. Yet it was not allowed for murder.

Surprisingly, this seemingly harsh law is actually evidence of an ethical difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding nations. The reason for not allowing a life to be paid off by money was because of the precious nature of life itself — that a human life was so valuable, the only fitting punishment for taking a life was death to the offender.

This emphasis on the sacredness of life was a key difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding peoples. In other nations, minor crimes like stealing might be punished by death. In Israel, however, no property crime ever demanded the life of the offender.

KnooseOn the other hand, in Israel, murder always called for capital punishment rather than monetary fines, as in other cultures. Other nations also demanded brutal punishments for people of lower classes for minor offenses against the rich. Israel, in contrast, treated all criminals alike. Their punishment was far more humane, usually demanding restitution to the victim rather than bodily damage to the offender.

When seen in the light of the Ancient Near Eastern world, you see God teaching his people the need to be fair and just to all levels of humanity, and we see the preciousness of life itself.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 11, “Touching the Rabbi’s Fringe” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 145-162.

(1) N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, Shocken Books, pp 182-189

Photo: Pbalson8204 and Patrick Feller

If Your Eye…

by Lois Tverberg

eyeIf your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. Matthew 18:9

Some of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye, as this saying above says? Should we cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin? Is is really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ overstatements can make us uncomfortable when we aren’t sure how we should take them.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that the practice of exaggeration and giving commands that go far beyond expectations was very much a part of Jesus’ rabbinic culture. In order to underline the importance of what they taught, the rabbis often spoke this way. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there, it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead… But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of God, blessed be He! (Mishnah, Avot 3.2-3)1

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Torah study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement that is intended for emphasis. Or, here is another example:

Let no one stand for prayer without bowing his head… Even if the king greets you, do not answer him. And even if a snake is coiled at your heel, do not break it off. (Mishnah, Berakot 5.1)

Once again this the importance of concentration in prayer is taught by saying that even in the most extreme circumstances, you should have single-minded attention on God. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how Jesus’ words were heard by his audience when he said things like, “Unless you hate your mother and father… you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching.

We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we gain wisdom for how to understand Jesus’ words when we have a better idea of how they would have been heard in his time.


(1) The Mishnah is a compilation of sayings of rabbis from before Jesus’ time until about 200 AD, and often is very useful in seeing Jesus’ words in context.

Photo: Normann Copenhagen

The Bride and the Lamb

by Lois Tverberg

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write,`Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'” Revelation 19:7-9

Certainly there are many puzzling images in the book of Revelation. One that seems striking is the marriage of the Bride and the Lamb. Where is this image coming from?

MarriageIt appears to come from an ancient understanding of a redeemer, and how that describes Christ’s relationship to his church. A redeemer was a relative who would “buy” a person or property that had been sold, usually because of debt. If a person became enslaved because of debt, the redeemer would “purchase” the person to obtain their freedom. As a result, the redeemer would “own” the person, but as a close family member, not as a slave. An example of this is when Boaz acted as kinsman-redeemer for Ruth. It says he “bought” her and she became his wife (Ruth 4:5, 13). God was using this image when he said to Israel,

`I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. `Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God. “ (Exodus 6:6–7)

God was saying that he would be their redeemer and take them as his people, as a man takes a woman as his wife, as Boaz did for Ruth. God did not just want to release to them from slavery, but he wanted an intimate relationship with this people, like that of a husband and wife. He redeemed them out of love for them and wanted them to be close to him forever. Often the Scriptures speak of God as the husband/redeemer of Israel:

For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54:5)

Christ, who was our redeemer from sin, also “purchased us” as his people with his blood that was shed on the cross. As Peter says,

It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18 – 19)

the Lamb

Peter points out that Jesus was the true lamb of Passover. The lamb’s blood protected the Israelites in Egypt and led to their redemption from slavery. In the same way, Jesus’ blood redeemed us from our debt of sin, and the death we deserve because of it. Through his death, Christ “bought” us as his people, but not just to set us free. Instead, like a husband taking a wife, he redeemed us out of his great love, so that we could have an intimate relationship with him. The scene in Revelation is the vision of the Lamb, Christ who had died and rose again, finally taking the bride, the people he loved, as his own to live together forever.


Photo: DaviPeixoto and  Jan Van Eyck

Give to Him Who Asks

by Lois Tverberg

Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:42

Figures Sharing

This saying of Jesus’ (above) can sound as if we should give without discernment. Is it saying that we should blindly donate to every charity, and we should lend to others indiscriminately too?

One scholar (1) suggests that it is helpful to see this saying as a Hebraic parallelism, where the second phrase is almost synonymous with the first. In Hebrew, the word “ask” is one of two alternative terms that is used when a person wants to borrow something. Sha’al, (ask) is used when a person wants to borrow something that will itself be returned, like a hoe or a donkey; and lavah (borrow) is used when the item is consumed and then replaced later, like a cup of flour or a quantity of money. So this saying of Jesus’ may be a parallelism that reinforces the need to loan to those who need things.

But why is loaning so important? In the Bible’s Eastern way of thinking, people were community-oriented and they depended on borrowing and lending between neighbors for survival. In fact, our wealthy, individualistic way of life is quite unusual in the world, where we always buy everything for ourselves and do not depend on borrowing from friends. In Eastern cultures, to not loan something is to not fulfill an expected kindness, and to show a callous disconcern for the needs of others.

More than that, in biblical times, loans were sought out of poverty and crisis, and not out of a desire to buy a luxury. Interest was not allowed because the poor who received loans could hardly pay back the principle, much less interest. Many times God tells people to be generous to the poor and lend to them:

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Deuteronomy 15:7-8

A person who loaned to a poor man knew that he may actually be giving charity, because often the poor could not repay. In that case, lending to someone becomes a type of giving. Then the “giving” in the first phrase is also a parallel with the lending of the second phrase of Matthew 5:42, because the loan may become a gift. This teaching is similar to Jesus’ instructions to hold a banquet and invite the poor rather than one’s rich friends, because they were the ones who never could repay (Luke 14:12-14).

Jesus was once again reminding of us of our responsibility to love our neighbor and to share with others. We need to be especially sensitive to those who may look to us for help, whether we will be repaid now, or will have to wait for heaven.


(1) David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Pub, 2001, pp 72 – 75.)

Photo: A. David Holloway

Keep Us From Evil

by Lois Tverberg

And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil … (NASB) or – the evil one. (NIV) Matthew 6:13

This is a line from the Lord’s prayer that is confusing to many. Some translations say “deliver us from evil,” others say “deliver us from the evil one.” Does it mean evil in general, or Satan in particular? And why would we ask God not to tempt us? Since Jesus told us to pray this way, certainly it would benefit us to clarify his words.

A key to understanding is to look at how the phrase “deliver us from evil” is used in both the Bible and in other Jewish prayers. In Psalm 121 it says,

The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. (Psalm 121:5-7)

Here, protection from evil means protection from harm in general. And indeed the Hebrew word “ra” (evil or bad) is broad, and can include injury and misfortune as well as moral evil. In Psalm 141, the prayer asks for protection against doing evil:

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil, to take part in wicked deeds with men who are evildoers; let me not eat of their delicacies. (Psalm 141:3-4)

Other Jewish prayers include the words “protect us from evil,” and can give us some insight. In the Talmud* a prayer expands on the meanings of the Hebrew word ra, “evil,” by saying, “Deliver me…from a bad person, a bad companion, a bad injury, an evil inclination, and from Satan, the destroyer.” Four times the word for “evil” is used, and here it is a petition to ask God to deliver the person from harm, but also from sin and the company of those who would cause a person to sin as well, and even Satan.

What about the line before “keep us from evil,” which is “lead us not into temptation”? This phrase is a Jewish way of saying “Do not let us succumb to the temptation of sin.” It is a parallelism to the next line, meaning, “Do not let us succumb to the evil inside us, do not let us sin.” Once again it is asking God to protect us from the evil we ourselves can do.

We would not go wrong in understanding these two lines as meaning, “Oh Lord, help us to keep doing your will, and don’t let us be led away from your path. Keep us from the evil within us and from spiritual forces of evil, and keep us from all harm and calamity too.” It is an all-encompassing plea for God to protect us from what is outside us, but what is inside as well.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 5, “Get Yourself Some Haverim” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 66-77.

*The Talmud is a compendium of Jewish commentary written about 300 AD, containing oral traditions from Jesus’ time and before. This quote is from Berachot 16b.
A major source for this article is Deliver Us From Evil, by Dr. Randall Buth, in the online jounal www.JerusalemPerspective.com.

Jesus, God’s Firstborn

by Lois Tverberg

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… And he is the head of the body, the church;he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:15-18

Since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, to speak of him as firstborn suggests that he is a created thing, not fully God. This may make us scratch our heads, until hear the passage with Hebraic ears, and see that the word “firstborn” could be used metaphorically to mean something else than just the oldest child in a family.

The firstborn son of a family had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son would be given that honor. Then another would have the “firstborn” status and rights, no matter what order in which they were born. The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. Because of this special favor that was given, the term “firstborn” could mean “most exalted” or “closest in relationship” or “preeminent in status” even if it wasn’t literally speaking about something that actually came first. For instance, in Psalm 98 God says,

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him… He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. Psalm 89:20,26-27

David Anointed

David was youngest of his family, and God passed his other brothers by to choose him as king. When God said the he would appoint him firstborn, he didn’t mean that he would be first before anything else in sequence, but that David would be preeminent in favor and status. Another instance of this is in Exodus when God spoke metaphorically of Israel as his “firstborn son.” God told Moses,

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” Exodus 4:22-23

Once again, the term “firstborn” means “closest in relationship.” Israel is God’s “treasured possession,” his nation especially set apart for relationship with him.

So now, when we read of Jesus as firstborn, we should think in terms of being of greatest honor and closest to God. But yet, he is firstborn from among the dead, a promise that all who are a part of his kingdom will rise too. And not only is he representative of all of his kingdom, he is also highly exalted of all of creation, worthy of honor and glory and praise.

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reading the bibleTo explore this topic more, see chapter 6, “Why Jesus Needs Those Boring ‘Begats’” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018, p 113-130.

(1) See also Tverberg, L. A. & Okkema, B. M. Listening to the Language of the Bible: Hearing it Through Jesus’ Ears (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) pp 73-74.

Photo: Dura Europos synagogue painting : Yale Gilman collection

Why Carrying Wood?

by Lois Tverberg

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” Numbers 15:32-35

Carrying WoodSome scenes in the Old Testament leave us scratching our heads about why God was so harsh and the regulations so arbitrary. The case of the man who was caught carrying wood on the Sabbath is one of them. It seems like an innocuous thing, but it seems to be especially serious. How can this be?

Several cultural things may be helpful in understanding this. The prohibition that the man was clearly intending to break was to light a fire on the Sabbath, as it says in Exodus 35:3. Lighting a fire was not a minor task – a person searched far outside the camp until he or she had a large load of wood, and then carried the heavy bundle back home, and then took some time to get a flame going. It would be likely that he was planning to cook or do other work that required a fire, and that gathering the wood was just the first step toward having a day full of activity that would willfully ignore the commandment to honor the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath itself was an especially important commandment to the Israelites when the covenant was given. It was the sign of the covenant that God had made with them:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, `You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Exodus 31:12-14

Wedding RingA sign of a covenant was a symbolic remembrance of the whole covenant. To break it was like breaking the whole thing. A modern analogy is the wedding ring, which is a kind of “sign,” a remembrance of the covenant of marriage. If a woman got rid of another piece of jewelry her husband gave her, it would not be very important. But if she threw away or sold her wedding ring, it would say something about her feelings about the marriage as a whole. Similarly, the man who was willfully ignoring the Sabbath was spurning the entire covenant, which he and all of Israel were accountable to keep as a people. If one person broke it, it affected all of them.

Even though our situation is much different than this, we can see that in its time, this sin was very serious, and indicated an attitude of rebellion that impacted all of Israel. Having its cultural setting helps us have the right lenses to grasp it the way was understood in its time, and why it resulted in such a strong reaction from Moses and from God.


Photo: WambuiMwangi and Eivind Barstad Waaler

Did Jesus Hide His Message?

by Lois Tverberg

He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Luke 8:10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure. Many parables of Jesus’ that sound odd to us have very similar motifs than others of his time, and were probably less strange-sounding to his original listeners.

Still, we wonder why it sounds in the passage above like Jesus was deliberately trying to hide his message. A clue comes from the fact that Jesus seems to be alluding to Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissioned Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says with great irony to Isaiah at his commission,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.

Tree Knot

The idea that it is hard-heartedness that keeps people from understanding his teaching is supported by the context of this saying – it is in the middle of the parable of the four soils and its explanation. The parable of the soils seems to actually be the explanation of why Jesus’ words are not having an impact on people. It is not because the words are deliberately confusing, but because they are falling on deaf ears.

The parable shows that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be receptive. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything, but is a problem with the hearer. The difficulty is in their ability to receive his teaching in order to obey it.


Photo: Chitrapa