A new Moses

sermon-on-the-mountThe gospel for this Monday in the 10th week of Ordinary Time is the familiar Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. If you would like to read a commentary on the Sermon, you can find it here. But in this post I would like to place these passages in a larger flow of the Matthean narrative. If you could only choose one word to describe the Sacred Writer’s “project” the word “fulfillment” would be a good choice.

The intended audience for Matthew’s narrative/gospel are Jewish. Matthew has no need to explain religious terms such as “korban” or the deeper meaning and history of the Jerusalem Temple. His audience knows these things. You will often see the other gospel writers inserting short explanations. Not Matthew. He takes advantage of their core understanding. Leading up to and including the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew is pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of the long-awaited “great prophet like Moses” (Dt 18:15-18). We modern-day people tend to jump right into the “blessed are the….” But there is more going on in this passage that Jesus words – and they are great words – but the context is important.

In Jewish imagination, authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT) is ascribed to Moses. There are scholars who suggest that the five “Great Discourses” of Matthew’s gospel are intentionally organized to present Jesus as the author of the New Covenant. Scholarly opinion is divided on that idea, but all agree the Matthew’s narrative is positioning Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of God for deliverance. Matthew will use his narrative skills to position Jesus as “the new Moses.” And just as Moses delivered the people from bondage to the promised land, this new Moses will deliver the people to the Kingdom of Heaven. The narrative appeal is this: what God has done in the past, is but prologue to the future.

First, Matthew puts the sermon in the larger context of the coming of a new prophet. In Matthew 4:12–17, just prior to the sermon, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been thrown into prison. The significance of John’s imprisonment is key. Matthew 3 portrays John as an Old Testament prophet, yet John himself prophecies one greater than he is about to come (Matt 3:11–12). Matthew immediately identifies Jesus, through the account of his baptism, as the one who is greater than John (Matt 3:13–17).

Readers should then be attuned to the flow of Matthew 4 into Matthew 5: John, the Old Testament prophet, is arrested, and his ministry ends. It is only at that point does Jesus begin his own ministry. Something very important has ended, and something even more important has begun. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets (Matt 11:13–14), and when he passes from the scene, an eschatologically new era commences. Now the prophet has come, and he is about to give his first teaching.

Second, the first words of Matthew’s prologue to the sermon also recall Mosaic imagery. The words “he went up on the mountain” are a verbatim quotation of Exodus 19:3. In Exodus 19, the description is of Moses ascending Sinai to receive the law. As others have noted, this particular phrase occurs only three times in the Greek Old Testament. Each of the three times it is in reference to Moses’ ascent to Sinai (Ex 19:3, 24:18, 34:4). 

Third, Matthew describes the mountain as “the mountain.” Matthew usually does not use a definite article when referring to a mountain unless a mountain is mentioned in the preceding context (Matt 8:1, 17:9). But in Matthew 5:1, there is no immediately preceding mountain mentioned. This indicates it might point to a par excellence use of the article. Matthew is inviting a comparison with the most prominent mount in the Old Testament: Sinai. 

Finally, Matthew describes Jesus as sitting down to teach. This recalls Moses’ stance when he received God’s law on Mount Sinai. Although the verb in the Hebrew is debated, references in the Talmud show that Jewish interpreters regarded Deuteronomy 9:9 as meaning Moses sat down on the mountain. All three of these details place the sermon under the lens of Sinai. Unfortunately, many note these opening Mosaic parallels and then stop. But the parallels continue throughout the sermon. Matthew’s point seems to be to connect the law of the Torah with the law of the new covenant. Jesus delivers the new covenant teaching as the new Moses. 

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