In the Levant, blessings and curses took the form of intentional, future-oriented, performative speech acts spoken by deities and humans to promote good or evil, flourishing or injury for individuals and nations. Although some argue that the words themselves carried a semimagical, automatic power, deity was seen as the ultimate source and executor. When human agents offered public acknowledgment of the deity’s favor, often accompanied by song, dance, and feasting, blessing became an act of praise. Curses were inscribed on monuments as protective threats and in inscriptions, such as the epilogue of the Code of Hammurabi, in order to ensure compliance. Curses were also used in unconditional form to exorcise demons, hostile powers, sin, and disease.

In the Hebrew Bible.

Verb and noun forms (“bless,” “blessed,” “blessing”) of the Hebrew root brk occur nearly 400 times in the Hebrew Bible, most often in Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Psalms. Blessing formed part of daily greetings and leave-takings (Ruth 2:4; Pss 118:26; 121:8; Deut 28:6). Because blessing and curse come from God (see Isa 45:6; Num 22:6–8, 12, 20), they are relational terms. Neither inevitable nor automatic, God can change God’s mind about them (Jer 18:7–10; Gen 6:6–7). A favorable relationship with God can result in blessing, and a broken relationship can lead to curse. Obedience to the covenant that frames the relationship with God can produce concrete rewards (Deut 28:1–14) such as wealth (Prov 10:22; Ezek 34:26–27; Ps 65:9–13), offspring (Gen 12:2; 15:5; 22:17; 28:3, 14; Deut 1:11; Ps 128:3–4), and land (Gen 12:7; 26:3–4; Ps 37:3, 9, 11, 22, 29, 34; Deut 1:21; 6:18–19).

Blessing as God’s gift could falsely suggest that whatever is in one’s possession comes from God. However, wealth can result from oppressive acts (1 Kgs 21; Mic 2:1–2; 6:10) and not promote well-being for all as God intends. King Solomon’s so-called enlightenment resulted in social stratification and well-being for a few at the expense of the peasants, who suffered from oppressive social policies (1 Kgs 5:1–8; 9:10–22). Blessing does not restrict itself to the material; it is rooted in creation theology (Gen 1:31). Progeny, land, and wealth may be given as blessing; but the future of life with these remains open and subject to risk. Jacob is blessed after wrestling with God (Gen 32:24–32), but he comes away limping. In his vulnerability, he embraces his estranged brother, Esau (Gen 33:4). Blessings can become an invitation to trust and partnership with God and others; they “draw people further into God’s work” (Johnson, 2011, p. 86).

Most importantly, God’s blessing includes the gift of God’s presence in relationship (Gen 28:15; Ps 73:1, 27–28). Aaronic priests bless the people in Numbers 6:22–27; their blessing puts God’s name on the Israelites (v. 27) in the same way that the pillar of fire and cloud hovered over them in the wilderness (Exod 40:34–38) to protect the camp from defilement (Num 5–6). The liturgical style points to worship as a place of blessing, and this understanding is taken up not only in the Psalms (129:8; cf. 67:1, 6B; 128:5; 134:3) but also in twenty-first-century worship with the benediction at the end of the service. How congregations receive that blessing can vary from a simple wish to magic to a sign of God’s grace to trivial dismissal and to manipulative declaration. At Qumran, Berakhot (4Q286) offers a series of liturgical blessings. The family can also be a locus of blessing. The patriarchs give deathbed blessings to their progeny (Gen 27; 47:7; 48:8–20) to transfer blessing to the next generation (cf. Ruth 4:11).

Individuals and the community can bless God, especially in worship (Pss 16:7; 34:1; 63:4; 103:1, 2, 20–22; 104:1, 35; 115:18; 124:1; 145:1, 21). Can God receive benefit from human blessing, or do humans simply return God’s gift (1 Chr 29:10, 14)? Often the words “bless” (brk) and “praise” (hll) are used together in the Psalms (104:35, 135:21, 145:2). However, psalm laments imply that God values human praise. Rhetorical questions that provide motivation for God to grant the psalmist’s petition declare indirectly that God needs human praise: “in Sheol, who can give you praise?” (Ps 6:5B; cf. 88:10B). In this sense, human blessing of God means more than God is worthy of blessing. Blessing benefits God; God’s reputation is enhanced and God’s name becomes known by others. Such references suggest a divine vulnerability.

God blesses a particular people in Genesis 12:1–3, with the use of “bless” five times. Many see this election of Abraham as divine favoritism that promotes exclusivism, triumphalism, and violence (i.e., holy war; Deut 20; Josh 6). Election conflicts with the Enlightenment worldview of universalism that permeates culture in the twenty-first century. The Niphal of brk in Genesis 12:3 (“and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”) suggests that Abraham will be the conduit of blessing for the world. Abraham as intercessor for others offers a corollary of this view (Gen 18:7–9; 20:7, 17). Some criticize “the Christian tendency to reduce Israel’s election to her service to the larger world” (Kaminsky, 2007, p. 84) and suggest instead an acknowledgment of God’s “mysterious act of divine love” in its election (Deut 7:7–8). Christians also make exclusivist claims as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9–10, drawing on Exod 19:6). God’s choice of the Davidic line is expressed in the unconditional royal covenant of 2 Samuel 7: “your throne will be established forever” (v. 16). God’s choice of David is tied to blessing of a place, Zion (Ps 132:13–18). This blessing fed the view of Jerusalem as inviolable. Jeremiah and Micah prophesied its destruction, to their peril (Jer 7:14; Mic 3:9–12). Blessings have been used politically to claim God on one’s own side and to legitimate foreign policy, for example, holy war traditions, manifest destiny, the War on Terror.

“Blessing” and “curse” are often paired as antonyms (Gen 12:3; Deut 11:29; Josh 8:34) or contrasted in lists (Deut 30:15, 19; Lev 26:3–13; 26:14–39). Curses reflect a break in the relationship with God or with fellow humans. Three Hebrew roots express cursing. The most frequent is ʾrr (“to curse”), in the form of the Qal passive participle describing someone as “cursed,” for example, the serpent, the ground, and Cain (Gen 3:14, 17; 4:11). The second is qll (“to be slight, swift, trifling”), which in the Piel means “to despise” or “to blaspheme” when directed against God (Lev 24:10–23) or “to disrespect” or “insult” when directed against the king (2 Sam 16:5–13). The third, ʾlh, and its noun, ʾālâ, are linked to both “oath” (šĕbûʿâ) and “covenant” (bĕrît). Cursing was not automatic and could be called off by conventional means (Judg 17:2; 21:18–23; 1 Sam 14:45). Earlier research connected curse in ancient Near Eastern suzerainty or vassal treaties with the covenant form in the Hebrew Bible. Subsequent scholarship argued that there was no fixed treaty form in the Levant from which Israel would have borrowed. The motivating themes of gratitude and fear in treaties depended upon what kind of sociopolitical order was in place.

Curses were used in oaths as a guarantee of one’s word (1 Sam 14:44; 1 Kgs 2:23; 2 Kgs 6:31). Similarly, Peter curses to deny his connection to Jesus (Mark 14:71; Matt 26:72, 74). Focus on the social function of curses, drawing upon speech act theory, suggests that curses functioned as tools of social control, identity, and exclusion, for example, the curse of Ham/Canaan by a drunken Noah in Genesis 9:20–27. This curse was later applied to chattel slavery in order to justify it and uphold the worldview of the antebellum South with its stereotyping, sense of honor, and contemporary social realities. The sectarians at Qumran offered curses against “the men of the lot of Belial (1QS 2, 4b–9) and blessings for the “elect” (4Q285; 1QS 2, 1b–4a).

Violation of the covenant results in curses (Deut 27:15–26) that outline the consequences for violation. Dominance is characteristic of curse; when Israel violates covenant, it is subdued by its enemies. Curses in Deuteronomy 28 are echoed in the prophets and may be connected to Assyrian siege warfare and its horrors, including exile and damage to subsistence systems. To declare someone “cursed” is to exclude them from community; although a passive participle, the agent of the curse is clearly God. This notion of act/consequence, prominent in the wisdom literature, raises the question of theodicy (e.g., Job; cf. imprecatory psalm laments such as Pss 13, 44, 88). Curse can function as a positive corollary to blessing because it involves God even when blessings are rejected. Oracles of disaster among the prophets ended with an announcement of a negative future that functioned as a curse. This raises the question of the purpose of prophecy—to bring about repentance or to explain an inevitable future. Prophets transform/negate curse by promises of return.

Curses can function as veiled pleas for help to God to reverse a situation of suffering, as when Job (3:3) and Jeremiah (20:15–17) curse the day of their birth and wish for death. Similarly, petitions in the imprecatory psalms that call for God to crush enemies function as curses aimed to change the situation (Pss 17:13–14; 35:4–6; 58:6–9; 137:7–9). Such violent language raises questions about the use of these psalms as prayer. According to trauma studies, such language can help a traumatized people (Israel in Exile) give vent to their despair and anger, as well as to name their experience.

In the New Testament.

Although the terms for blessing appear less frequently in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible, healings, miracles, and exorcisms performed by Jesus convey the meaning and effects of blessing. The New Testament follows the Septuagint translation of brk by using the Greek verb eulogeo and its cognates. Matthew uses the adjective makarios in the Beatitudes (5:3–11), which means “fortunate,” “happy.” Since these words have prophetic force, they are best translated as “blessed.” Blessing terms are found most frequently in Luke; blessing rarely appears in John or in Acts. For Paul, blessing is thanksgiving (1 Cor 11:24–25). Revelation uses blessing as human praise of God and the Lamb (5:12; 7:12). Jesus’s embodiment of the in-breaking of God’s realm is announced/accompanied by a list of blessings and woes in Luke 6:20–26. Jesus blesses his disciples (Luke 24:50–51) and children (Mark 10:16; Matt 19:15; Luke 18:17); his blessing was used to authorize infant baptism. Jesus also blessed food (Mark 6:41; cf. Matt 14:19; 26:26; Luke 9:16; 24:30). Blessing of food was central at Qumran (1Q28, 4Q258) and in rabbinic tradition.

Curses are expressed by ʿara (Rom 3:14) and katarasthai (Matt 25:41; Mark 11:21). In 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18:15–18, curses function to exclude negative influences on the Christian community. Some interpret the curse of the law in Galatians 3:6–14 as an expression of the human inability to obey Jewish law perfectly, although this stereotypes Judaism (cf. Ps 19:7–11). Deuteronomy’s curses for those who fail to do all that the law requires frames Paul’s argument that those who insist upon observing Jewish law (circumcision) as the way to take part in Abraham’s blessing for the nations are preaching a different, unacceptable gospel (Gal 1:6–9). Faith in Jesus includes Gentiles in Abraham’s promise; Jesus takes the curse of the law upon himself (Deut 21:23; cf. 11QT 64:6–12). The curse functions protectively for the Christian community. As such, Paul’s intra-Christian argument need not drive a wedge between the two parts of the Christian canon.

James 3:9–10 censures the personified, evil tongue that both blesses God and curses humans in a perverse double-mindedness. He connects speech to creation (Gen 1:27–28; 2:19; 3:9), reminding his readers that theological language must not obscure the transcendence of God. Perhaps James is reflecting on an environment in which some Jews began to use the Birkat ha-minim (the twelfth blessing of the 18 benedictions in the synagogue) against Jewish Christians. James 5:1–6 echoes the Hebrew Bible in its recognition of Zaccheus’s misused blessings that lead to his repentance (cf. Luke 19 and the parable of the pounds, where the king does not represent God but rather those who defraud others and reject justice). These texts challenge contemporary forms of prosperity theology.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims used curses against each other for centuries to demarcate identity and boundaries. After the Reformation, cursing became secularized and was directed against governments and sexuality; it increased in vulgarity and was linked with superstition. “Hate speech” in the twenty-first century seems to be part of this development.

[See also COVENANT; DECALOGUE; DEUTERONOMY; GOOD AND EVIL; and SICKNESS, DISEASE, AND HEALING.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Britt, Brian. “Curse: Christianity” and “Curse: Literature.” In The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, edited by Dale C. Allison Jr., Christine Helmer, Choon-Leong Seow, et al., Vol. 5, pp. 1178–1180, 1180–1183. Berlin and Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2012.
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  • Mueller, Christoph. “Curse: New Testament.” In The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, edited by Dale C. Allison Jr., Christine Helmer, Choon-Leong Seow, et al., Vol. 5, pp. 1174–1176. Berlin and Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2012.
  • Smoak, Jeremy. “Building Houses and Planting Vineyards: The Early Inner-Biblical Discourse of an Ancient Israelite Wartime Curse.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008): 19–35.
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Denise Dombkowski Hopkins