Sunday, September 24, 2006

Be an attitude...or something

The Beatitudes start out rather interestingly. They repay word study more than most texts.

The word for blessed is specific and peculiar. In general, the (vain male) Greeks thought you were blessed if people spoke well of you in public, and the two main words mean that (to "speak well" of someone and to "talk them up"). The Hebrew term is from a root meaning to kneel, which is part literal, part metaphorical, part euphemistic. It means, euphemistically, to 'give someone the knee' as a sexual phrase, implying fertility and (re)productivity, from an ignorant and sexist era when the man's implantation of his "seed" was deemed to be the effective reproductive action. From this is the idea that to bless is to give material increase to. But it also literally means taking a child on your knee, or accepting the kneeling of a subordinate (a "child" to you), and giving them something of benefit. As a leftover of the sexual imagery, the idea was that once a blessing went out from you, it was gone, that was it, and we see this in the story of Esau and Isaac. Metaphorically (and, I would say likely at an early point, magically) to bless thus means to transfer some of one's fertility (of mind, heart, body, fortune, future, whatever) to another. That's the Hebrew. In English, the word bless is a nominalization of a third person singular verb, "he bloods," as in, the priest or whoever is making a sacrifice puts some of the animal's blood on a stick or branch or something and flings it on everybody standing around to include them in the efficacy of the sacrifice. To bless, in English, meant to throw (sacrificial) blood on someone. Which obviously worked nicely when Christians were first evangelizing the English and explaining what Jesus had done for us.

But the word in the beatitudes for blessed is entirely different. It's a word, makarios, meaning "got it good like the gods." It means, characteristic of the gods' life. So blessed here means, "You've got it good like God does when..." And of course since the beatitudes are a reversal teaching (blessed are the poor, the sad, etc., all those that people don't think are blessed), they're to be understood as telling us what God is like, and to be seen ultimately christologically, i.e., in terms of how what Jesus's life was like tells us what God is like.

The word for poor, as in blessed are the poor in spirit, is ptochoi, which comes from a root meaning to cringe, to act in a way that invites the contempt of others, to have no self-respect. It's the root of the word for rabbit, which was not thought of as cute but as a pest, and as worthless one at that. Not "scaredy-cat" but "scaredy-rabbit" was the idiom. I wonder if there is an onomatopoetic reference to spitting in this word as well.

So blessed are the poor in spirit is something like, you've got it good like God does when you are and are treated as being contemptible, especially spiritually.

In blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted, both mourn and comfort are interesting. Comfort here is just the verb form of "the Comforter," as in John's term for the Holy Spirit. So it doesn't mean "for they shall receive comfy pillows," it means for they will be accompanied by those (the one) who sympathize with them. The word for "mourn" comes from a root meaning to be the passive recipient of something, to have something done to you. In macho male Greek culture, this was offensive, bad, pathetic, depending on your stance towards whatever was being done to you--it had connotations from military to sexual to religious. In fact as far as the religious implications go, the word for "passover" in Greek also comes from this. Our term would be "victim." So blessed are those who are sad because they have been forced to passively receive the active intentions of others, who have had misfortune happen to them, who have been victimized. So blessed...for...comes to: you've got it good like God does when you're sad because of what has been done to you, especially unjustly and religiously.

So I find that there stuff sehr interessantlich.

And you?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

that has always seemed to be to be poor comfort, and I don't know that the etymology helps (though it is pretty cool - I was always pretty pleased with the fact that blesse in french is to wound and the terms are fairly related...)it seems more like the translation ought to be " you're in the same lousy spot as good when _______" - you know?

hope all's well - katerli

7:09 PM  
Blogger Lorenloo said...

mark-you know when i was wandering around after lgbc wondering if there was a word that was like bless that meant to hit or some such? it was the french, which katerli pointed out to me in ny, and here helpfully too. so, that's what i meant :)

do you have tips for how to find cool churches in a new land? went to an episcopal one today with nice people and good talk (exigesis!), but holy high church batman. genuflecting, kneeling, 25 readings, and those funny (lovely) song-speaking things. and eucharist every week. SO totally not baptist. :) or the guitar/overhead projector/community center kind of lutheran danny grew up.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Mark said...


abigail willie is the go-to person for episcopal stuff, because they've got all sorts of insider code words as to which kind of episcopal they are. connecting via the ooze or justin nygren's blog (or, more laboriously, tallskinnykiwi), i.e, through the emerging underworld, is interesting but maybe lengthy. Calvary Chapels tend to be overhead projectory, but earnest and solid; the Disciples of Christ *tend* to be evangelical in doctrine and justice-oriented in ethics, but there may not be any of them around.
you might also see about connecting through church locators that might be attached to the sites of Fuller or Mars Hill seminaries, Regent's College in British Columbia or Beeson Divinity in Alabama, or of Eastern (Baptist) College in Philadelphia (which is the headquarters of leftwing evangelicaldom).

9:31 AM  
Anonymous margaret said...

Just thought I'd leave a comment and say hello, since I mentioned that I'd found your blog today. I've been thinking about switching my main page to blogger but somehow I just don't feel like drumming up the html skills to finish up a nice polished webpage. Maybe someday..

10:45 PM  

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