Inheriting the Land

26 12 2010

While wandering the bushland of Blackheath in silence, an interesting thought occurred to me. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 10:1) states that all Jews have a portion in the world to come (“כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא”), which is then supported by recourse to a quotation from Isaiah 60:21:

ועמך כלם צדיקים לעולם יירשו ארץ
Your people are all righteous: they will forever inherit the land.

Of course, the author of this passage is speaking prosaically. A word of comfort to those who are presently living in exile, the phrase constitutes an assurance that their imminent return to the land of Israel is destined to happen, together with a guarantee that their settlement will be in perpetuity. But by the time that the Mishna is redacted into its final form (indeed, by the time that the individual texts of the Mishna achieve written expression), the promise of Isaiah has rung false. Little more than half a millennium after the resettlement of the land of Israel, the Romans have eradicated all traces of Jewish life within Jerusalem, and have forced the surviving Jews to either live abroad or to inhabit the countryside. In order that Isaiah’s prophecy not appear to be a false prophecy, Jews at the time appear to have reinterpreted it figuratively.

“Your people are all righteous: they will forever inherit the land” is no longer a reference to the settlement of the land of Israel, but to an eternal inheritance in the world to come. This is why the Mishna utilises this quote in order to substantiate the idea that all Jews have a portion in the world to come, and understanding this might enable us to also understand another second century Jewish composition.

In Matthew 5:5, the evangelist records Jesus as having stated that the meek are blessed, “for they shall inherit the earth”. Surely Matthew was familiar with the textual exegesis that is also employed by the Mishna. Surely Jesus is implying (or is portrayed to be implying) that the meek have a portion in the world to come. Does this not make more sense than the literal interpretation, which has the meek given dominion over all of creation?

This was my thought while meandering through bushland and pretending to focus on my respiration, but I was most gratified on my return to find that it is also stated by Samuel Tobias Lachs, in his A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 1987). In fact, Lachs goes even further by noting that this interpretation makes Matthew 5:5 identical with 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). Suggesting that the fifth verse was originally a marginal note to the third (with the noun in the third being עני and the noun in the fifth being ענו – cf: Psalms 37:11), a later copyist mistook it for a separate verse altogether and placed it after the fourth.

I don’t know if I would necessarily go so far myself (how the last few years have taken me further and further from source criticism…), but the semantic relationship between those two verses is definitely interesting. As is the passage in the Mishna, which concludes its sentiment by enumerating those exceptional Jews who don’t get a portion in the world to come. Sucks to be me. And I was even working on my meekness.

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8 responses

26 12 2010
Michael

I’d say that the list of “exceptions” from your last paragraph covers about 90% of Jews I know and probably more than 60% of all Jews and is hence very unexceptional these days!

26 12 2010
Simon Holloway

You mean that you don’t think that all Jews believe in those things, even if they think that they don’t?

27 12 2010
Michael

I’m a bit tired so I’m afraid my sarcasm detector’s confused — I meant very few Jews overall would believe all of them. I’m not sure how Chassidim fit into this?

27 12 2010
Simon Holloway

No no, just me being sarcastic. An old bug-bear of mine.

27 12 2010
Michael

I gathered — but on the specific Chabad link, did you mean that they don’t believe all the things in that Mishna?

28 12 2010
Simon Holloway

Oh, I think that a lot of Lubavitchers will believe precisely what they’re told to believe. My point was only in reference to this notion that we are all of us believers, only some of us (hello) don’t think that we are. Just being snarky: your original point is quite correct, although I don’t think that things have necessarily changed all that much from the time at which the text was written.

To presuppose that the majority of Jews in the third century adopted the principles in the Mishna is untenable; already by the time of the amoraim, lengths had to be gone to in order to justify what the Mishna was there saying. No resurrection (expressly stated) in the Torah? But there is no resurrection expressly stated in the Torah! If anything, it would seem as though the anonymous part of that mishna were simply a polemic against particular groups of non-rabbinic Jews.

30 12 2010
Michael

Actually I think it’s reasonable to think most Jews in the Mishna’s time (OF those who were part of what was then rabbinic Judaism) would have believed it. These seem to be polemics against Sadducees, possibly Karaites or similar groups but probably not against “insiders”. However I would guess that centuries later when rabbinic Judaism was by far the predominant strand, most people may have believed all 4-5 things listed in this Mishna.

30 12 2010
Michael

I guess a lot of the uneducated wouldn’t have even been aware of or understood several of them, but for what it’s worth, etc etc :)

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