Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Beatitudes and the Sons of Eli

Ben Shahn. Beatitudes. 1952. Himeji, Japan.
Jesus' first sermon began:
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him. And opening his mouth, he taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you. — Matthew v. 1-12.
This painting visually appears to allude to :
At that time Jesus went through the corn on the sabbath: and his disciples being hungry, began to pluck the ears, and to eat. And the Pharisees seeing them, said to him: Behold thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath days. But he said to them: Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and they that were with him: How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the loaves of proposition, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for them that were with him, but for the priests only? Or have ye not read in the law, that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple break the sabbath, and are without blame? But I tell you that there is here a greater than the temple. And if you knew what this meaneth: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath. — Matthew xii. 1-8.
Now, in the first of the four Books of Kings, in the greater English world the first Book of Samuel, the story of (H)Eli of S(h)ilo(h)'s sons is told in the first few chapters. Eli was the high priest, and his two sons [(H)Ophni and Phinees or Phinehas] were priests; yet they were wicked. They demanded the finest of foods, by force, from the people (ii. 13-16). They made whores of the women before the tabernacle (ii. 22). Eli knew of their behaviour, once rebuked them, but permitted their continuance.

Just before it was written:
The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich, he humbleth and he exalteth. He raiseth up the needy from the dust, and lifteth up the poor from the dunghill: that he may sit with princes, and hold the throne of glory. For the poles of the earth are the Lord's, and upon them he hath set the world. — I Kings (I Samuel) ii. 7-8.
Just after it was written:
And the ark of God was taken: and the two sons of Heli, Ophni and Phinees, were slain. — iv. 11.
Ben Shahn *1898, 1969† was a Lithuanian Jew who migrated to America as a child, and as a young man became an union lithographer. Later he became a New Deal painter and photographer. He had gone to Europe as a young artist. He saw the paintings of Cimabue, Giotto and others, and attended Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. He went to other churches. So how did it come that Shahn painted the Beatitudes? He had a Jewish biblical education. The study of Jesus is not part of the curriculum, but Shahn was interested in social justice and humanitarianism. He also had Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, Gandhi, and Edward Murrow as subjects. In the years after the Second World War, religious imagery, and continued philosophical concerns entered his work.

In Jesus' initial oratory, He gives a programme of heroic virtue in contrast to worldly misbehaviour, and crass selfishness. Beatitudes are blessings, Jesus lists eight. They go beyond the Ten Commandments. They are a positive course of action, as opposed to a negation of bad action.

The painting is a man going through a grain field (wheat, corn is a generic term for grain). It is the plucking of grain spikes we see in the tempera.

Now, in the Old Testament we have the priests, the sons of Eli, not giving food but taking by force the best of meat. They also act immorally in promiscuous hedonism. They are legitimate priests by office, but acting as wicked agents as if they were worshipping a false god. Before that is told, that, God is creator of both rich and poor. God raises the poor and the needy, the same that are addressed in the Beatitudes. The Hebrews are defeated by the Philistines, the Ark of the Covenant [which contains the tablets of the Commandments] is taken, the Sons of Eli perish, as does Eli when the news reach him. Behaviour that was socially just, and socially unjust had consequences in the eyes of God, and those in the socially, economically, politically, and religiously elevated position were not immune from judgment. All men are responsible, and those who act beneficially towards others are those that please God. Rank and office are not above it all.

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