“god bless you!”: what is blessing?

When something becomes customary in a culture, such as the recitation of the phrase “(God) bless you!” following a sneeze, it often happens that the meaning of that custom is lost in habit.

So what does it mean to be “blessed” in a biblical sense?

Some people understand it to mean something like good fortune.

Others see blessing as referring to material wealth, as in some strands of contemporary Christianity.

Some Christians think blessing refers to God’s favour, and this can be understood in a great number of ways (including material wealth as above).

For others blessing is almost a physical thing to be passed on (as with some understandings of the story of Isaac, Jacob and Esau).

I have constantly wondered what blessing is. Often I have heard blessing being likened to receiving material wants (and not needs), though I suspect that this is not an ancient Hebrew view. Nor does such a view fit, in my view, with the Beatitudes.

(…surely “Blessed are the poor” means more than “The poor will get all the material wealth they want!”)

If you were to look for blessing in the Bible one of the most obvious places to look would be Genesis – it seems as if blessing is a constant feature in the first book of the Bible.

Blessing (the barak word family in Hebrew) occurs in chapter 1:

And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” (v.22)

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (v.28)

Here is seems that blessing by God results in life as intended by God in his creative act, such as in Eden. If so, we might take cursing as being the opposite of blessing. Genesis 3 results in such an opposite; the serpent is cursed, as is the ground, and in being cursed they do not exhibit the life God intended.

Could cursing, perhaps the opposite of blessing, be simply life lived outside of the purposes of God, the opposite of abundant life?

Abraham, in Genesis 12, is called to by God to:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Is God calling Abraham to live life within the purposes of God, and to manifest this life amongst all the families of the earth? In other words, God calls Abraham to begin the mission of bringing the life experienced in Eden to all people.

This conclusion requires more work to confirm of course.

The Abraham story also raises all sorts of other questions in addition to what “blessing” might be.

What does it mean for God to “bless” someone or some people? Or to curse them? Is this such blessing/cursing:

  • Active (God’s action of blessing/cursing affects an actual change), or
  • Declarative (God’s blessing declares something that already exists)?

I have a lot of questions, though it seems to at least make sense that blessing in the Abrahamic context could refer to life to the full, the opposite of life experienced as a result of the dislocation experienced in Genesis 3.

Such a view would make sense in the context of the Beatitudes – Jesus promising life to the full for the poor and marginalised is very much consistent with his overall ministry.

In any case I would be the first to point out that the present article is a vastly deficient look at the subject of blessing.

So… I wonder what you think about this. Is blessing (and cursing) active or declarative? What do different biblical traditions have to say on the subject?

I look forward to your thoughts.


Posted on December 12, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Old Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I think that to understand blessing and cursing, you first need to understand the ancient near east covenant/treaty form from whence it comes. I would highly recommend Dr. Sandra Richter’s “Epic of Eden,” which goes through the covenants of the Old Testament (including the curses and blessings).

    • Thanks MJ (that’s what I’m calling you for now…)!

      Question – does that imply a so-called “creation covenant” since God blesses humans at the beginning of the Genesis narrative?


      • You can call me Matthew, if you like.

        Richter argues for a Covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, which all point to the covenant through the new Adam, Christ.

        Personally, the nitty gritty of it gets a bit more complicated, but her book is a good layman’s overview. Here is a link to a site that seems to have reproduced George Mendenhall’s 1954 article that was one of the first to identify covenant forms in the Old Testament: http://home.earthlink.net/~cadman777/Law_Cov_Mendenhall_TITLE.htm

        Mendenhall’s article does not focus on blessings, but I, personally, feel that it is very important to know the context of blessings. Even if we have an isolated account of a blessing or a cursing in the text, the meaning of it is enhanced when we know the original context of blessings and curses.

  2. The first scripture that came to mind was the prayer of Jabez…
    1 Chron 4:9 says that Jabez was honoured more than his brothers and that he was named because he was born In pain.
    In 4:10 he prays that God will bless him and give him more land, and that God’s hand will protect him.
    I wonder whether this is about someone born in difficult circumstances asking God to make things as they should be, or about someone who is already affluent asking God for more?
    (Perhaps it depends which story the reader needs to hear?)

    • Great question Christop, and I agree that the story could be read in those two ways.

      I think from memory you mentioned “Come Out, My People!” I think Wes would argue that the prayer for blessing in such a form is somewhat imperial in nature, given that land was the primary form of retained wealth. Interesting thought. I wonder how this might reflect on blessing, and also on our (false?) visions of blessing.

  3. I end most of my conversations and have done deliberately so for almost the last three years with the words “bless you”. I chose to do so because of several reasons, some of which you have spoken of in your post Matt.

    1) I want others to get, enjoy and receive the fullness of life that God offers each of us. When I say to someone “bless you”, I want them to receive like I have.

    2) In my mind at least, it is a way of praying or asking for enrichment (not necessarily material) for both my enemies and my friends and all for that matter I come into contact with.

    For example, I may have a discussion with one of my superiors at work who may deny my request for whatever reason, I still end my phone call with “bless you”. I guess I want them to question in their own mind or at least ponder what on earth I could be blessing them for.

    Matthew 5:44 NKJV “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”.

  4. It would seem that in Genesis 1-3 the blessing and cursing is declarative. God creates and it is already “good” before God blessed it. While it is perhaps less obvious, I think that the fall of creation had already occured before God cursed the serpent etc. What I mean to say is, I think God’s curse there was more declarative and the fallenness of creation would have still remained even if God had not spoken the curse.

    I am not sure whether or not the other blessings and curses work in this similar manner or not. At first glance I would say that they don’t necessarily work in the same way but I would have to do some reading on it…

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