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Hebrew Corner 10: The Blessing of Abraham on the Nations
by John H. Walton
This week we are going to be dealing with some Hebrew verbal forms rather than a specific word study. Hebrew verbal roots may occur in a variety of "stems." These stems offer perspective about the relationship between the subject and the object. A qal stem is often active (someone ate something). A niphal of the same root is often passive (something was eaten by someone). A hiphil often indicates a causative element (someone fed something to someone, i.e., caused them to eat it). A hithpael is often reflexive—an action one does to oneself. There are others, but hopefully this gives the general idea to readers who may not know Hebrew.
An important principle of study is that when a verb that is to be studied occurs in the target passage in a particular stem, the initial study should be of the verb when it occurs in that stem (rather than its occurrences across all stems). In like manner, the root in one stem should be seen as offering a different nuance than the same root in another stem, because the stems have their individual roles to play. This becomes very important in the study of the occurrences of the verb "bless" (brk) in the covenant statements in Genesis.
Here we return to Genesis 12:3, a passage that we discussed just last week. We need to focus our attention on the last clause in the verse. The verb "bless" is a niphal form, which is usually passive, and has therefore traditionally been translated, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." This construes Abram’s family as a channel through which God’s blessing flows. Several interpreters, however, have noted that other statements of the blessing in Genesis (22:18; 26:4) use the hithpael form (usually reflexive) instead of the niphal (which is used also in Genesis 18:18 and 28:14). Many interpreters inexplicably assume that these variations in verb form do not change the meaning and seek to translate them all the same way. They then argue that it is easier to see both niphal and hithpael as reflexive than to see both as simple passives. They therefore translate, "By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (NRSV margin). This translation construes Abram’s family as an example of what happens when God blesses someone. In contrast, interpretations represented by the NIV treat all five passages the same and render them all passive (i.e., "be blessed"). The difference between the renderings of these two verbal forms is highly significant in the implications that it has for exactly what the covenant is accomplishing through Abram’s family. It is therefore one of those cases that is extremely technical but of fundamental importance.
The fact that all five of the Genesis passages are covenant formulations does not necessitate that they should all be identically nuanced. Elements specific to each context may call for varying declarations to be made. I am therefore inclined to believe that the niphal and hithpael were intentionally used with different nuances in mind. It is more logical to assume a careful and informed author rather than one who uses the language haphazardly. In the two contexts that use the hithpael forms, the blessing declaration is immediately preceded by clauses of domination over land/cities of their enemies (22:17; 26:4), and immediately followed by an acknowledgement that this condition will come about because of an act of obedience (22:18; 26:5). Those features make these two passages recognizably distinct from the three that used the niphal.
When God blesses someone, he puts them under his care and protection and in his favor. If someone seeks out a blessing for themselves (logically expressed by the hithpael) they seek to put themselves under the care and protection of God and gain his favor (Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2; alternatively a person could seek the care, protection and favor of a king [Ps 72:17] or even of themselves [Dt 29:18]). In these uses of the hithpael, the preposition (be) following the verb "bless" indicates the one whose care, protection and favor is desired and relied on. In Gen 22:18 and 26:4, the hithpael form is used and the preposition is on "your seed." This would suggest that in these two passages the nations are going to seek the protection and favor of Abram’s seed. If we were trying to express this concept in modern English we would probably say that the hithpael is used to express people’s attempts or desire to ingratiate themselves to God/king/Abram’s seed. Since Abram’s seed will be in a politically dominating position, nations will seek to ingratiate themselves to them. Israel’s position of dominance and the subsequent ingratiation of the nations come as a result of Abram’s obedience in the two Genesis passages. In this sense, the hithpael usage does not represent Abram’s family as simply an example of God’s blessing, but as those whose favor is sought out just as God’s favor would be sought out. This in turn could provide an additional means by which God’s blessing can flow to the nations through Abraham and his family.
In contrast, the blessing (expressed by the niphal) that will come through the channel of Abram and his family without people’s attempts to ingratiate themselves is not conditioned on obedience and does not come as a result of domination. I would therefore conclude that the author is very careful in his choice between the niphal and hithpael forms and that each carries its own nuance. Furthermore, the hithpael is used consistent with the occurrences outside of Genesis.
Adapted from J. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC)
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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