The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:9 (continued)

Matthew 5:9, continued

Maka/rioi oi( ei)rhnopoioi/, o%ti au)toi\ ui(oi\ qeou= klhqh/sontai
“Happy the (ones) making peace, (in) that they will be called sons of God”

The first part of the seventh Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:9), dealing specifically with the term ei)rhnopoio/$ (“peace-maker, [one] making peace”), was examined in the previous article. Today I will be looking at the second portion—the result-clause o%ti au)toi\ ui(oi\ qeou= klhqh/sontai (“that they will be called sons of God”). There are two elements which need to be explored: (a) the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), and (b) the future passive of the verb kale/w (“to call”, i.e., “will be called”).

“Sons of God”

The Greek expression ui(oi\ qeou= (huioí theoú) corresponds to the Hebrew <yh!ýa$[h*] yn}B= (b®nê [h¹]°§lœhîm), both rendered as “sons of God”. The Hebrew expression is used in Gen 6:2, 4 and Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7 in something like its original sense, referring to otherworldy (heavenly, “divine”) beings (trad. “angels” in English). It is tied to the ancient Near Eastern religious concept of the deities as sons/children of the high god—in Canaanite texts, the deities are the “sons of °E~l” (ban£ °ili[-ma]); the form of the Hebrew expression in Psalm 29:1; 89:7 (<yl!a@ yn}B= b®nê °¢lîm) is closer to that of the Canaanite [see below]. In ancient Semitic religious thought, the gods would assemble at the tent of their father °E~l and participate in the divine council. Within the developed monotheism of Israel, lesser heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”) take the place of “gods” in the divine council, but the language and imagery remains (surviving longer in poetry, see the references above). The phrase also appears in Deut 32:8 (the MT reads “sons of Israel”, but “sons of God” is almost certainly original), as well as an equivalent Aramaic phrase (in the singular, /yh!l*a$ rB^ bar °§l¹hîn) in Dan 3:25. A similar expression, /oyl=u# yn}B= (b®nê ±elyôn, “sons of the Highest”), is applied with irony and sarcasm to human rulers in Psalm 82:6 (quoted by Jesus in Jn 10:34).

°E~l (la@) is the ancient Semitic word for “God”, attested in both Northwest Semitic (Canaanite, Phoenician) and Eastern Semitic (Amorite, Akkadian, etc) languages. Literally, it would mean something like “Mighty [One]”, and is used frequently in the Old Testament (cf. the earlier article on this name). On the whole, the Israelite/Hebrew God, known by the tetragrammaton YHWH (perhaps originally “the [one who] causes to be…”), seems to have been identified with the Canaanite/Amorite high god °E~l. There is virtually no opposition between YHWH and °E~l recorded in the Old Testament, unlike the situation between YHWH and the storm deity Hadad/Haddu (“Baal”). The common Hebrew word for “God” (<yh!ýa$, °§lœhîm) is most likely derived from la@, but the precise relationship remains unclear. The plural <yh!ýa$ may be used as an intensive plural, i.e. “Mightiest”, in reference to YHWH/God. <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) in Psalm 29:1; 89:7; Job 41:17 could be a plural form, or a singular which preserves an enclitic particle (ma); originally it would have been the latter, though subsequently in Hebrew it seems to have been understood as a plural (as in Dan 11:36). For a good, readable discussion of these questions, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 44-75.

In the Old Testament, we also see the king (the anointed ruler, i.e. “messiah”) referred to as God’s “son” (see esp. Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14); and the people of Israel as a whole were, on occasion, called God’s “son” as well (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). Jesus as “son of God” is a complex issue which requires a separate study, but the association seems to derive primarily from the messianic sense of the ruler as God’s son. For the seminal references in Luke 1:32, 35 (with Aramaic precursors to the expressions in the Qumran text 4Q246), see my earlier articles. It would appear that two distinct messianic conceptions were brought together and applied to Jesus: (1) the Davidic ruler (redeemer figure) would oversee the restoration of Israel, and (2) the “Son of Man” (a pre-existent, heavenly/divine figure) who would oversee the eschatological Judgment. This conception of the divine/heavenly “Son of Man” is closer to the original sense of the “son[s] of God”. In subsequent Christian theology (as enshrined in the Nicene Creed), Jesus came to be understood as Son of God in a substantive, metaphysical sense (the idea of Divine generation); but we must be cautious about reading this back into the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the phrase ui(oi/ qeou= (“sons of God”) is used as a descriptive title for believers (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26), along with the parallel (and virtually equivalent) expression te/kna qeou= (“children of God”, Jn 1:12; 11:52; Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2). The term carries a strong sense of identity. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word /B# (ben, “son”) is frequently used to describe and identify members of a group or class (“sons of…”), without implying any biological relationship. In Pauline thought, especially, the theological concept of ui(oqesi/a (huiothesía, lit. “setting/placing [one] as son” but often translated “adoption”) was prominent (see Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5, and Eph 1:5). This is close to the idea expressed in John 1:12—believers are given the authority (the legal right) to become sons/children of God. The relationship is understood now, on the basis of the presence of the Holy Spirit (see esp. Gal 4:5-6), but will only be realized fully in the (eternal) life to come. There is thus also an important eschatological aspect: upon the Judgment, the righteous (believers) will take their place (with the angels/heavenly-beings) as “sons/children of God” (see already in Wisd 5:5; Lk 20:36; and esp. in Rom 8:19-21). This certainly represents the background and primary sense of Jesus’ Beatitude, as we shall see.

“Will Be Called”

 The passive (especially the future passive) of the verb kale/w (kaléœ, “to call”) is often used as a “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied agent of action. In other words, in relevant passages, “[will] be called” can be understood in the sense of “God will call…”. Greek kale/w typically translates the Hebrew verb ar*q* (q¹râ), such as it is used in the Creation account (Gen 1:1ff, cf. verse 5, etc)—this reflects the dynamic-magical dimension of ancient theology: God speaks (calls something into being) and it is. We also see this expressed in the ancient Semitic idiom “call someone/something X” or “call someone’s name X“, whereby, in giving the name, one confers (or confirms) a person’s substantive identity and destiny. This dynamic-magical aspect of speech has almost entirely disappeared from modern thinking, but an awareness of it is essential for understanding the thought-world of the Scriptures. An examination of the use of the future passive of kale/w is illuminating:

Let us briefly examine the most relevant of these passages:

  • Matt 2:23 is a composite citation/adaptation from Scripture (“he will be called a ‘Nazorean'”), as a prophecy regarding Jesus, whlich I have discussed in some detail in any earlier Christmas season article.
  • Matt 5:19, also from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, has a context similar to the Beatitude, referring to those who will (in the end) be called “little/least” and “great” in the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Mark 11:17 (and the parallel in Matt 21:13) occurs in the context of Jesus’ “cleansing” the Temple, where Isa 56:7 is quoted (“my house will be called a house of speaking out toward [God]”); the original Isaian passage is an eschatological vision, related to the restoration of Israel, whereby foreigners (Gentiles) come to be joined as part of the people of God.
  • Luke 1:32: this is part of the angelic message to Mary, regarding the identity and destiny of the child Jesus (“he will be great and will be called son of the Highest“)
  • Romans 9:7 and Heb 11:18 both quote Gen 21:12 (according to the LXX), “in Yiƒµaq {Isaac} your seed will be called”. According to Paul’s unique theological and soteriological interpretation, believers are identified as the (true) children of Abraham (i.e., the “children of promise”, see esp. the argument in Galatians 3-4).

This leaves Romans 9:26, which provides the nearest equivalent to the expression in Matt 5:9; it is a quotation (and adaptation) from Hosea 1:10:

And it shall be (as) in the place in which it was uttered to them “You are not My people”, there they will be called sons of the living God [klhqh/sontai ui(oi\ qeou= zw=nto$].

This follows a similar citation of Hos 2:23 (Rom 9:25). Paul has re-interpreted the sense of the original prophecy to refer to the Gentiles (those “not God’s people”) who have now, by faith in Christ, become the people of God. Yet the context of Rom 9-11 could still be said to retain, on the whole, the proper sense of Hosea, in that Paul’s lengthy argument has, at its heart, the eschatological salvation of Israel—in the end, “all of Israel” will come to faith in Christ and be(come) God’s people again (filling the prophetic motif of the “remnant”).

The original Beatitude formula, as I discussed in an earlier article, relates to the eschatological identity and destiny of the righteous—in the Judgment, the righteous (believer) is declared worthy to partake of (or share in) the blessedness of God (or the gods). This involves three aspects: (a) the ultimate fate of becoming like God in Heaven; (b) the ethical sense of becoming like God (imitating Him) in this life; and (c) a mystical or initiatory realization of this identity with God in the present (for the Christian this is realized through the Holy Spirit in Christ).

Here in the Beatitude of Matt 5:9 we see the importance of peace-making as a characteristic of being like God (see the previous note); Jesus’ summary statement in Matt 5:48 (“you shall be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”) follows immediately upon his teaching regarding love for one’s adversaries and enemies (the “antitheses” of Matt 5:38-47). In some ways, this might be considered the most difficult and challenging part of Jesus’ ethical teaching; and it is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that here faithful followers (believers) are judged worthy of being called “sons of God”.