Matthew 5:1-2 in detail,  the setting of the Sermon on the Mount

1. The audience

In these verses Jesus appears to retire from the crowds in order to address his disciples alone. However, Matt 7:28-29 suggests that the crowds were also aware of his teaching. There is an echo here of Moses trip up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, an ascent upon which Aaron accompanied him, whilst the crowds kept their distance (Ex 19:24).  

2. The setting

The use of ‘mountain’ rather than hill appears deliberate. It reinforces the events similarity to the Law giving on Mount Sinai (Deut 9:10-11) and therefore to emphasize this teaching’s relationship to the Ten Commandments. France notes that this could be intended to suggest that Jesus was a another prophet like Moses, although he personally considers this unlikely (France 1995, 107), for Jesus was giving God’s judgements, whereas Moses only received them. In his view, to fully equate Sinai and the ‘Mount’ of the Sermon, one must cast the disciples in the role of Moses whilst Jesus takes that of God.

Israel’s God was traditionally associated with mountains and hills, as is clear from 1 Kgs 20:23, where the men of Syria assume (to their detriment) that Israel’s God is a god of the hills. Thus, there was an association within the scriptures between mountains and the revelation of God’s righteous judgements. This can be seen at work in Psalm 36, where the psalmist claims ‘Your righteousness is like the mountains of God. Your judgments are like a great deep. Yahweh, you preserve man and animal’ (Ps 36:6b WEB). The same link is found in the Messianic Psalm 72, which predicts God’s judgements bringing prosperity (shalom) and righteousness from the mountains . . .

72:1 God, give the king your justice; your righteousness to the royal son.
72:2 He will judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
72:3 The mountains shall bring prosperity to the people. The hills bring the fruit of righteousness.
72:4 He will judge the poor of the people. He will save the children of the needy, and will break the oppressor in pieces.

(Ps 72:1b-5 WEB)

3. The open mouth

Jesus began to teach his disciples according to the traditional manner of a Jewish Rabbi. He ‘sat down’ to signal that his disciples should pay attention. He then ‘opened his mouth,’ a phrase that indicates that something worth hearing was being said.

As Matthew has already presented Jesus as a prophet, the description of him opening his mouth carried further implications. In Ps 78:2-3 when the Psalmist opens his mouth, it is to speak in ‘dark sayings’ (chiydah) that he and his audience have heard said and have been told by their fathers.

78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings of old,
78:3 Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.

(Ps 78:2-3 WEB)

In the Antitheses, Jesus will take such things that people have heard said or been told by their fathers, and he will comment on their application. However, he will do so whilst offering a few ‘dark sayings’ of his own, the meaning of which his audience is left to ponder.

Psalm 78’s poetic parallelism equates the psalmists ‘dark sayings’ with parables, for both are statements with hidden meanings that are only accessible to the wise.  Proverbs 1:5-6, confirms that the wise speak in riddles when it states that a man who gains wisdom will be better able to understand the riddles (chiydah) of the wise. Indeed, the wise would often use riddles to test one another’s wisdom, as when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon to test him (1 Kgs 10:1,3) or Sampson set a riddle for the 30 young men (Judg 14:12-13). The wise would also used riddles or parables as a kind of secret language, a means to pass messages between those who were party to the knowledge and wisdom required to understand them, but without those messages being generally seen. The ‘dark sayings’ that the psalmist opened his mouth to utter were akin to the words God gave through prophets, for Numb 12:6-8 contrasts the dreams and visions through which God spoke in riddles (chiydah) to most prophets with the way he spoke to Moses face to face.

12:6 ‘He said, “Hear now my words. If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known to him in a vision. I will speak with him in a dream.
12:7 My servant Moses is not so. He is faithful in all my house.
12:8 With him I will speak mouth to mouth, even plainly, and not in riddles; and he shall see the LORD’s form. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”’

(Num 12:6-8 HNV)

Moses received divine commandments in a readily intelligible form and simply passed them on, but the things God said through other prophets were riddles, designed so that only those with godly wisdom could properly understand them. 

When a prophet opened his mouth, it was often to proclaim the parables (chiydah) of God. As the Lord said through Hoseah, “I have also spoken to the prophets, and I have multiplied visions; and by the ministry of the prophets I have used parables” (Hos 12:10 WEB).  We get another example of this when God instructs Ezekiel to tell a parable (Ezek 17:2, 24:3).

Little wonder then that book of Proverbs opens with a plea for its reader to accept wisdom and instruction so that they can understand the riddles (chiydah) of the wise. Nor is it surprising to find that, when Jesus opened his mouth, it was so often to speak the parables of his Heavenly Father. As Matthew portrays Jesus opening his mouth, it is so that we might be prepared for wisely construed words that required Godly wisdom to understand them; teaching that will tax one’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible if its meaning is to be fully understood.

4. The inclusio

Byargeon (1998, 357) notes that Davies and Allison identify a bracketing structure, or inclusio, formed by the Greek  (ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς λέγων) in Matt 5:2 and (ἦν γὰρ διδάσκων αὐτούς) in Matt 7:29. This inclusio, they claim, places emphasis on the Sermon being a paramount example of Jesus’ teaching (Byargeon 1998, 357).