September 19, 2009

Blessed are the Pitiful?

When Brian said he was curious about my sandbox rendering "Blessed are the pitiful, because they will receive pity." I realized, hey, I'm still curious about that one too. Liddell & Scott's Lexicon glosses 'elehmwn' as pitiful, merciful. Related forms are glossed slightly more often with the idea of pity than mercy; the central idea (whatever it actually was) seems to include compassion, feeling pity, and the sense of giving charitable alms. A larger study is not within my reach at the moment, unfortunately, but here are some thoughts.

First, I'd definitely imagine pity was more common in the ancient world than mercy. The connotation of mercy seems to imply power, in that mercy is something we can choose to give or withhold. Kings and judges deal in mercy, but any beggar can pity a fellow beggar. At least, so it goes in practice. But no matter how seldom alms were given, beggars asked for them daily, constantly. A common hope could have as much influence on word usage as a common experience, so these thoughts might be a wash.

The Oxford English Dictionary references both Pitiful and Pitiable going as far back as about 1450, and the double meaning of pitiful goes back exactly that far as well. Technically, pitiable is still in usage today as but I think we can agree the sense of "pitiful" as "merciful" has pretty much faded away. Liddell & Scott worked from lexicons going back to 1797 but the L&S itself has been revised as recently as 1996. Assuming nobody slipped up at Oxford, there's probably a reason L&S continues to list pitiful and merciful as separate glosses.

Since the OED emphasizes the double meaning of pitiful and the L&S offers a complex meaning for 'elehmwn', I think we should probably expect that Matthew intended us to read Jesus' Beatitude with a double meaning as well. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pitiful.

You need mercy. You receive mercy. You learn, God hopes, to show mercy.

There's a natural progression in that sequence that is not always universal, but it is common. Sometimes in life, a person is challenged to show mercy and then they find God. I definitely think Jesus meant to challenge his disciples and the crowd on that mountain to show mercy, but I absolutely know they could already relate to needing mercy, because their lives were indeed somewhat, if not extremely, pitiful.


Brian said...

"but I think we can agree the sense of "pitiful" as "merciful" has pretty much faded away."

this was my thought too so that is why I was curious about your use of pity/pitiful - my understanding of the term has more negative connotations - sometimes we all agree someone is pitiful but that doesn't mean we always have pity or mercy on them. But perhaps that is the challenge? Are we to show mercy on the pitiful anyway?

ps, we named out daughter "Mercy."

Bill Heroman said...

Blessed are the pitiful, for they will be shown mercy.

Howabout that?

Congratulations on the baby girl. :-)

Brian said...

baby boy. Samuel. He's about 6 wks. Our daughter is 2 1/2 now.

Peter Kirk said...

I'm afraid I don't share your confidence that this gloss has been updated or reconsidered since the original edition of L&S. So I strongly suspect that Alice's father and his colleague intended "pitiful" in the now obsolete sense of "full of pity". Indeed I can confirm that the definition "pitiful, merciful" is in my 1871 abridged edition of L&S. The comma (rather than a semicolon) implies that these are two descriptions of one sense of the word, rather than separate senses.

Yes, the double meaning is in the Beatitude, but in the whole thing: those who SHOW pity also RECEIVE pity.

The definition in Louw and Nida's more recent dictionary of NT Greek is simply "pertaining to showing mercy - ‘merciful.’"

Bill Heroman said...

Well, Oxford's a great place but I guess the L&S is an awful big book. The comma (not semicolon) doesn't necessarily make them perfect synonmys, but that's an excellent point. And thanks very much, as always.

More importantly, Peter, if you don't feel the double meaning is justified in the lexicon, how is it justified in the verse? If you say spiritual intuition, I won't necessarily balk. Just asking. ;-)

I remain mostly curious, by the way. I'd meant to put a question mark on the post title originally. I'll go back and do that now.

Peter Kirk said...

What I meant about the double meaning is that it is the point of the beatitude: happy are those who are pitiful = full of pity because they are also pitiful = recipients of pity.

Bill Heroman said...

Ah. Thanks, Peter.

This is why I want Steve Jobs to make a digital greek concordance for, say, the entire Loeb Classical Library. Or is there some such program online I don't know about?

Peter Kirk said...

Well, Bill, there is Perseus which more or less offers an online concordance to the large number of classical Greek (and other) works in its database. Just do a search in Greek of the Greek and Roman materials for all forms of "e)leh/mwn" (there is a key "How to enter text in Greek"), wait for quite a long time, and you will probably get the same 10 results I found, from Aristophanes, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Homer, Isocrates, Josephus, Lysias and Epictetus, as well as the NT. There is also a link to the LSJ entry.

They seem to have missed the LXX reference quoted by LSJ, Exodus 34:6, which is significant because this describes an important attribute of God. If Jesus was "pitiful, merciful" he was reflecting the character of his Father.

Bill Heroman said...

I've never been able to navigate Perseus very well. I'll have to give it another go. Thanks again, Peter.

I'm not sure how to put this, about God being pitiful, but he's been jilted, rejected, despised, ignored, insulted, defied... and it may very well be that these aspects of his are offered in scripture partly to encourage our greater compassion for Him.

Does God 'need' our compassion? I don't know, but I suppose he's been willing to start there. :-)

Peter Kirk said...

Now I didn't mean to suggest that God was "pitiful" in that sense! That is clearly not what Exodus 34:6 means in the Hebrew, and almost certainly not in the LXX Greek either. The Hebrew hannun (a word only used as an attribute of God) means what English versions translate it as, "gracious" or "compassionate", cf Exodus 22:27.

Yes, navigating Perseus can be a nightmare. And it is so slow! But the new version looks better than the old one when it works.

Bill Heroman said...

No, I see that you're right again, Peter. I spun off of your last statement, separated from the one before it. (Didn't look at Exodus.)

Imagination absolutely should not fly alone. Oops. ;-)

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