« Blessig, Johann Lorenz Blessing and Cursing Bliss, Daniel »

Blessing and Cursing


Ethnic Conceptions (§ 1).

In the Old Testament (§ 2).

Higher and Lower View (§ 3).

1. Ethnic Conceptions.

The conception of blessing and cursing has a large part in every religion. It refers to the supernatural or divine promotion or hindrance to human action and welfare. Sometimes it is predicated of man himself as possessing through his connection with deity the ability to exercise over another the power originally possessed only by deity (cf. Gen. xii, 3; Num. vi, 24, 27). In this latter case, the power is often exercised by means of verbal expression, though it is not confined to that means. It is apparent that in the religion of the peoples who were neighbors of the Hebrews as well as elsewhere the conception of blessing and cursing belonged in the sphere of magic. Wizards commanded the blessing and furthering force of deity, which they could exercise at a given point for good and still more often the power resident in a host of evil spirits, to damage or to cause damage at the desired place and time. While often power to bless comes not from an equipment gained for a special occasion and then lost, continuance of power and conditions for evil are especially frequent. The curse lurks in the background of earthly existence, enshrined in the form of harmful and malicious demons, into whose power a careless word or heedless step may instantly cast the unfortunate. According to ethnic belief, only the most painstaking care, the most punctilious caution, observance of a host of rules and practises can enable one to escape danger. Frequently without any overt act, by merely mentioning these spirits or by entering their domain without adequate protection, the spirits are summoned and their power let loose on man, animal, and possessions.

2. In the Old Testament

Within the Old Testament there are many traces of the contact of Israel with such conceptions. The prophetic religion was especially emphatic in its opposition to witchcraft, necromancy, and the like, and, especially in the Babylonian age, was not successful in combating them. Earlier examples are found in Saul's resort to the witch of Endor and the cases suggested by Deut. xviii, 10–14, and Isa. ii, 6. It is, then, not surprising that the conceptions of blessing and cursing are found together among the Hebrews, though they come to have a more spiritual content. It is noticeable that the tendency of the development was toward a narrowing of the region in which the idea was operative, and it was thrust more and more into the background.

In examining the cases presented in the Old Testament, it becomes evident that use was made both of the word of power and of an instrument. The staff was used frequently, its use being attributed to Moses and Aaron and to the Egyptian magicians (Ex. iv, 2; vii, 8 sqq.), while in Hos. iv, 12, it seems to have been used to obtain oracles, and possibly it was a magical staff which Balaam carried (Num. xxii, 27). It is possible that the origin of the staff is to be connected with the idea of the tree as the seat of deity (cf. the Asherah and the stake customary at the grave). A branch from a tree was either the seat of deity or the symbol of his power. A farther means of operating, especially for evil, was the glance of the eye (cf. the common notion of the "evil eye"). Cases of this in the Old Testament are suggested by Prov. xxiii, 6; xxviii, 22 (cf. Ecclus. xiv, 3; Pirḳe Abot v, 13). The laying on of hands seems to have had close connection with the operation of blessing (Gen. xxvii, xlviii, 14 sqq.), the idea being that in this way the person bestowing the blessing caused to pass to the recipient some of the power which was his, especially if he were a man of God.

Blessing and cursing were often connected with things holy, particularly with sacrifice. By means of these a blessing or a curse were often bespoken. So in Judges ix, 27 the cursing of Abimelech was evidently closely bound up with the feast in the temple of the deity. The episode of Balaam also makes evident the connection between sacrifice and curse (or blessing, Num. xxiii, 1 sqq.), and the same fact has been noted among Arabs of ancient and modern times. A special case is that of the ordeal by water, narrated in Num. v, 11 sqq. Blessing and curse operate also through the spoken word, which may take either the phase of a magical formula or of a prayer of which the content is spiritually pure. The latter is of very frequent occurrence in the Old Testament, where the blessing, or equally the curse, is besought of God.

This practise of seeking blessing or curse had continuing vogue in the common religious ideas of Israel, remaining in evidence down to prophetic times. As elsewhere, so among the Hebrews, superstition and the practise of magic never completely died out, and not only deity but the spirits of the dead (I Sam. xxviii) and of ancestors were invoked to give effect to the invocation or the imprecation. The deity is in mind in Samuel's blessing of the meal (I Sam. ix, 13), in Eli's blessing of Hannah (I Sam. i, 17), in the blessing of Rebecca by her brothers (Gen. xxiv, 60), and in Solomon's blessing (I Kings viii, 15 sqq.). There is every reason to assume that on occasions of gatherings such as sacrifices and feasts the priests besought a blessing for the people. While such invocations did not always take a fixed form, there must have been a tendency in that direction, as is proved by the priestly blessing in, Num. vi, 24–26. And there is a suggestion of a fixed formula for the curse in I Kings viii and in the alternate words of blessing and cursing in Deut. xxviii.

If it be asked who are the persons who may bless or curse, it is always found that they are those in especially close relation to deity, either seer or priest or man of God. Of these Moses, Balaam, Joshua (Josh. vi, 26), Elisha (II Kings ii, 24–25) are examples. And like persons are among the Arabs conceived as possessing the power. Special power in this matter is also ascribed to the dying, who are already on the border between the human and the divine. Thus Moses when dying blesses his people (Deut. xxxiii), and the dying patriarchs Isaac and Jacob distribute both blessing and its opposite when on the eve of dissolution (Gen. xxvii, 10 sqq., xlviii, 8 sqq., xlix, 2 sqq.). Under special stress the power to bless or curse, especially the latter, is attributed to almost any one, as when the Arabs assert that one influenced by anger may effectively pronounce a curse. Such a case is presented in II Sam. xvi, 5 (cf. verse 10); and another in the narrative of II Sam. xxi, 1 sqq. Prov. xxvii, 14 presents a peculiar case, in which the early and loud call may be thought of as arousing the spirits of malice and letting them loose on the object of the call. A similar conception is involved in Amos vi, 10. The name of Yahweh, who lingers near occupied in the work of the plague, is not to be spoken lest by the mere utterance he be summoned to the spot and slay the only surviving member of the household.

3. Higher and Lower View.

Investigation into the way in which blessing and cursing operate in the Old Testament shows a lower and a higher view. Not infrequently the mere vocal expression of the wish works out the fulfilment in a kind of blind compulsion such as takes place in ethnic magic (cf. Gen. xxvii, 33 sqq.—the blessing has been uttered over Jacob and can not be recalled—and Num. xxii sqq., especially xxii, 6, "I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed," the words of Balak to Balsam). An illuminating case is given in the connection of Josh. vi, 26 with I Kings xvi, 34, in which the ancient curse pronounced upon him who should rebuild Jericho works itself out in the death of the youngest and the eldest sons of Hiel the Bethelite. And a similar instance is Saul's breach of the treaty with the Gibeonites in which the curse operates after his death until reparation is made with blood (II Sam. xxi). David's charge to Solomon (I Kings ii, 5 sqq.; cf. II Sam. xvi, 13) furnishes other examples. Solomon is to take vengeance on Shimei and on Joab. The former had pronounced a heavy curse on David. Since it was yet operative but had not fallen on David himself, it must work itself out on his house. But it can be so diverted as to fall on the head of its formulator and become changed into a blessing for David's family. On the other hand, Joab's deeds of blood laid David, Joab's lord, under a curse which could be relieved only by expiation exacted from the perpetrator of the deeds [cf. on this EB, i, 1034, note 1].

While this inevitability is to be recognized in the Old Testament as inherent by the mere formulation of blessing and cursing or curse, the act takes on more and more the character of the expression of a wish to be fulfilled by Yahweh, and so it becomes distinguished in form and character from magic and witchcraft. And while the method of operation is thus transferred, the character of the blessing sought changes from the material to the spiritual. Thus in the priestly blessing of Num. vi, 24–26 there is doubtless in mind the highest good of God's grace and peace, and in this light is to be construed verse 27. A similar content is to be recognized in Gen. xii, 3 and parallel passages: "In thee shall all families of the earth bless them selves," i.e., shall wish for themselves the very blessing which Abraham had obtained.

As oracles were quoted among the heathen, so sayings attributed to Yahweh or spoken in his name were cited among the Hebrews, and blessings and curses appear almost in profusion in the Old Testament, derived from prophetic or ancestral authority. These take on often a cryptic character and anticipate the more extended apocalyptic writings of later times (cf. the sayings ascribed to Moses and to Jacob in Gen. xlix and Deut. xxxiii).

The uncertainty of the original significance of the practise is disclosed by an examination of the etymology of the words used. The technical Hebrew term for cursing is arar, the meaning of which was evidently to press heavily upon one. Alongside this was used for the curse a word derived from alah, connected with the word el, "God." This last implies a calling upon deity or a reference to him as agent, a meaning which recalls the idea in the German segnen, "to (make the) sign (of the cross over one)." But another root also used, ḳalal, had no inherent reference to the deity, meaning simply "to vilify." So the original sense of the word obscure meaning "to curse," is uncertain. Not less obscure is the original meaning of the word for blessing, berakhah. It has been referred to berekh, "knee," suggesting the meaning "to bow the knee." But that the idea of worship was originally connected with the word or that it meant "to pray" does not appear probable. It is possible to relate it to berēkhah, meaning an accumulation of the growth and fruitfulness attributed to water and, then the attainment of prosperity.

A noteworthy expression is that which appears quite frequently (e.g., Gen. ix, 26), " Blessed be Yahweh." Is this only a manner of speech equivalent to "Yahweh be praised"? While this may be the sense in later ages, it was hardly so in early times. It has doubtless come down as a survival of the conception that even deity might be blessed by the utterance of some highly endowed individual.

(R. Kittel.)

Bibliography: P. Scholz, Götzendienst und Zauberwesen bei den Hebräern, Regensburg, 1877; C. F. Keil, Biblical Archæology, ii, 457, Edinburgh, 1888; R. Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionsgeschichte, § 334, Freiburg, 1893; DB, i, 307, 534–535; EB, i, 591–592; JE, iii, 242–247. For ethnic parallels consult: E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, pp. 112–132, New York, 1877; I. Goldziher, Muhammidanische Studien, 2 vols., Halle, 1889–90; Wellhausen, Heidentum; F. T. Elworthy, The Evil Eye, London, 1895; F. B. Jevons, Introduction to Hist. of Religion, chaps. iii-iv, ib. 1896; G. B. Frazer, Golden Bough, i, 97, ib. 1900; S. I. Curtiss, Primitive Semitic Religion, New York, 1902.

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