Hebrew Corner 9: Curse and Bless
by John H. Walton
Blessing and curse are common terms in Genesis from the initial blessing in Genesis 1 to the curses of Genesis 3, 4 and 9, and then to the juxtaposition of curse and blessing in Genesis 12:1-3. It is therefore important for us to know the nuances of each one. It is especially intriguing that in Genesis 12:3, there are two different Hebrew terms for curse.
The word most frequently translated "bless" is the Hebrew root brk. It can be used in a very general way to mean "say or wish good things about someone or something." More specifically in formal contexts it places someone in God’s favor or under his protection. One of the verbal roots used for curse (‘arr) is recognized as the opposite of bless. If blessing someone means to invoke God’s protection on them that they may enjoy God’s favor, cursing is to remove them from God’s protection and favor. God is almost always the grammatical subject of this verb, and he cannot be the grammatical object of it. It does not mean to put a hex on something or to change its character or nature by magical or mystical means. It does not mean to bewitch or put a spell on something. One of the clearest examples of this is found in David’s speech to Saul in 1 Sam 26:19. If men have incited Saul against David, David declares them "cursed" (i.e., to be deprived of God’s favor, blessing and protection) because they have deprived him of God’s favor (share in the Lord’s inheritance) and God’s protection (his Presence), thereby sending him to other gods to find protection and favor. In English, the best equivalent is the word "damn," which expresses a wish for a person to be eternally removed from God’s protection, favor and presence.
In Genesis 3 the word ‘arr is used with the result that the ground is removed from God’s favor, protection and blessing -- it will yield its produce only through hard labor. In Genesis 4, Cain himself is put under the same sort of curse. As an aside, notice that this is the first instance of a human being cursed. Adam and Eve are NOT cursed in Genesis 3:16ff., and it is therefore inaccurate to refer to that pronouncement as the curse. The curse on Cain is likewise therefore not a hex or a spell. Actually the wording of this curse is more reminiscent of the curse on the serpent because it is modified by a min (= "from") clause (These are the only two contexts in which this verb is modified by a min clause). The serpent is cursed min the other animals, while Cain is cursed min the ground. Based on what appears to be a clarifying statement in 4:12, I would be inclined to translate, "cursed are you relative to the ground." Becoming a restless wanderer is a consequence of the land not providing for his food. He will be forced to wander to get food. It should be noted that this root, ’arr, is used not only in Gen 3:14, 17 and 4:11 but also in 5:29; and 9:25.
In Genesis 12:3 ‘arr is used alongside a second root. The second root, qll, had previously been used in Genesis 8:21. There, even though the curse (‘arr) on the ground from Genesis 3 is not revoked, God commits to withhold his curse (qll) from the ground. Only here is God the subject of this verb and from the context we infer that it involves taking punitive action against someone or something. When used with human beings as subject, it refers to invoking words of power (e.g., Ex 22:28) and can be associated with hexing. When the object is God, it is usually translated "blaspheme" (Lev 24:11).
Both words for curse are now used in Yahweh’s statement in 12:3: "The one who curses (qll) you, I will curse (’arr)." Armed with our word study, we can now decipher the nuances of this statement: the one who invokes words of power against Abram’s seed, God will remove from his protection and favor. For a final example of the differences, consider Deut 28:15-28. Verse 15 introduces the series of curses (qll). In vv. 16-19 each phrase is introduced by ‘arr designating those things which will not enjoy the Lord’s blessing and favor. Then 20-28 speaks of negative actions of the Lord that would technically be in the qll category. These are different sorts of things.
Information 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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