Foiled Again! Blessings and Curses in the Hebrew Bible

Foiled Again! Blessings and Curses in the Hebrew Bible October 18, 2023

Do we have the power to bless and curse others? The Hebrew Bible suggests that we do—but how will we use our words that can hurt or heal?

Kid in a mummy costume
Photo by Daisy Anderson on Pexels

With two new movies coming out, this Halloween will see a renewed interest in curses. With Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny recently released, we’ve reacquainted ourselves with the archaeologist who was always good at unwrapping the secrets of ancient curses. The animated movie Mummies likewise recalls all those other films where people suffer from paranormal plagues and curses. This begs the question—are curses real, or are they only imagined?

Jacob and Esau

The Hebrew scriptures view blessings and curses as very real things. In Genesis 27 Esau, who has already bartered away his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, now loses his blessing as well. His younger brother Jacob tricks their father into bestowing blessings on the wrong son. As a result, Isaac blesses Jacob not by physical gifts and inheritance (these have already been designated for Jacob) but by granting a supernatural blessing of wealth and leadership. In the mindset of the biblical author, these spiritual commodities seem to be limited. Verses 38-40 say:

Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

Then his father Isaac answered him:

“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home beIn

    and away from the dew of heaven on high.

By your sword you shall live,

    and you shall serve your brother,

but when you break loose,

    you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

 

This passage tells us a lot about the Hebrew concept of blessings and curses. Here are three observations from this scripture:

  1. Blessings and curses are up to the individual to speak—they are not divine pronouncements. We can tell this because Isaac’s blessing and curse come as a result of trickery. While people can be tricked, God cannot. Thus, the blessing and curse here have gone to the wrong recipients, just as the birthright that was bartered away.
  2. Our words can have profound unintended effects. Isaac’s words spoken in error had enduring consequences for his sons. In the same way, the words that we speak as a result of our own misunderstandings can have an impact for generations.
  3. There can be an element of prophecy to blessings and curses. Whether they are self-fulfilling prophecies is debatable. (I think that generally, they are.)

Blessings and Curses

This is but one of many stories in Hebrew scripture that communicate blessings and curses as spiritual realities. They are different from beneficial prayers in which a person might ask for God’s boon. With prayers, the individual makes a request and God responds. With blessings (aka benedictions), the individual simply says, “May this be so.”

By the same token, curses are unlike imprecatory prayers in which one person asks God to bring about calamity on another. Instead, they are seen as the generation and direction of spiritual energy by the person pronouncing the blessing or curse. In other words, Isaac isn’t praying for God to bless Jacob and for God to curse Esau. Instead, Isaac himself supernaturally blesses one son and curses the other. As with blessings, the individual simply says, “May this be so.”

 

Balaam’s Curse

Numbers 22-24 narrates another story about blessings and curses. Moabite king Balak hires Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, to curse the Israelites so he can defeat them in battle. On the way to do Balak’s bidding, Balaam meets an angel who is sent by heaven to turn him from his mission. As a result of this encounter, he changes his mind and blesses Israel instead of cursing them. Balak is horrified at this, but Balaam insists that he has only spoken what God has placed in his mouth. Here are four observations from this narrative:

  1. The narrator sees blessings and curses as real supernatural powers and not mere concepts. This is why Balak sees a curse as a potential weapon to be used against his enemies.
  2. The ability to bless and curse is not restricted to those who believe in the Hebrew God. All human beings, created in God’s image, have the ability to bless and curse. (Perhaps, Balak thinks, prophets can do it better than anyone else.)
  3. In the story, the angel takes Balaam’s ability to curse Israel seriously. Otherwise, the angel would not have appeared to foil Balaam’s curses. Heaven would not care about a man uttering curses against Israel’s armies if they were just words in the wind.
  4. Balaam is unwilling to curse Israel when all he hears from God are blessings.

In the logic of this narrative, it’s not that Balaam couldn’t have cursed Israel—he just didn’t want to. In the mindset of the narrator, curses and blessings are spiritual energy generated by the speaker. They are not prayers asking God to do anything, whether for or against someone. The reason Balaam didn’t curse Israel was that he didn’t want to make an enemy out of Israel’s God—especially after an angel threatened his life.

Image by Jack Moreh on Stockvault

What You Need to Know About Breaking Curses

Let me be clear–I don’t think there is anything magical about blessings and curses. While the mindset of the ancient narrators seems to be magical in thinking, I do not believe that blessings and curses possess magical virtue. However, there is a spiritual power to them–I’ll tease out this difference in the next article.

In Deuteronomy 27-30, Moses calls the people to renew their commitment to God. He marches them between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, which represent curses on the one hand and blessings on the other. He declares twelve curses for those who do not keep the covenant. Likewise, he declares blessings for obedience. In 30:19, God says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

There is a way to break a curse. There is a way to choose life. In my next article, we’ll see what the New Testament has to say about choosing life. We’ll talk about generational curses, and how to break them. I hope you’ll join me.

 

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About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book "Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths." I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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