#Blessed: What Is a Blessing in Scripture, Actually?
What is a blessing? In Western culture, the colloquial use of the word bless—”I feel blessed,” “God bless you,” “What a blessing!”—often morphs a sacred concept into a platitude. We do this with other essential concepts, like “love,” which is often far-removed from a genuinely intimate context. The depth of intimacy described by the word love is restored when the word is used prudently and saved for those who deserve it most. Similarly, the initial scriptural contexts of blessing can help inform the use of this phrase, restoring its sanctity and emboldening its sentiment.
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Blessings appear in various shapes and sizes in Scripture, both in their content and in the relational context in which they appear. Though several words can be associated with blessing, the root B-R-K (ב.ר.כ.), to bless, is most prevalent. Blessings are accorded from:
- God to man
- Man to God
- Man to man
All three blessing forms appear with nearly equal frequency in the Bible, with blessings from man to God appearing more frequently in books such as Psalms and Proverbs.
What is a blessing according to the biblical authors? What spiritual act are we performing when we bless others? Let’s consider what each of the three types of blessings look like in the Bible to answer these important questions.
Blessings from God to Man
The first blessing from God to man appears in the first chapter of Genesis (1:28):
“God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.”1All translations are taken from the JPS Tanakh translation, 1999.
God blesses (not commands!) man and woman to procreate, powerfully conveying that what looks like a standard function of humans and creatures is nothing less than a kindness bestowed upon them by God.2The thrust of the blessing in Gen. 1:28 is that procreation is a natural and necessary act of creation. It both emulates God and enables the world’s continued existence. The sons of Noah are again blessed to procreate in Gen. 9:1. The first child born to Adam and Eve is named Cain, in Hebrew Kayin, presented as a word play on kaniti, meaning to acquire or create. “She conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten (kaniti) a male child with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1). The naming utterance that accompanies the first child born in the world underscores the idea that children are a gift from God transmitted through human channels.
This idea is affirmed by a plethora of narratives wherein a child is born to a previously barren woman, implicit in phrases such as “God saw that Leah was hated and He opened her womb” (Gen. 29:31). When the barren Rachel approaches Jacob and demands children in a fit of struggle, he harshly responds, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:2) Fertility features time and again as a blessing from God and not a facet of nature.
God also bestows blessings on man as a reward for obedience to His commandments. For example, Deut. 28 illustrates this correlation:
“Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.
All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God.” (Deut. 28:1–2)
Timely rainfall, abundant produce, health, and success against enemies are all listed among the blessings Israel receives in return for loyalty to God’s commandments. Ex. 23:20–33 and Lev. 26 express similar ideas. The flip side of these blessings are the curses, written in even greater detail than the blessings, that befall those who do not adhere to the covenant. The broader ancient world viewed “blessings and curses” as forms of magic inherent in the spoken word. In contrast, the biblical concept of blessing presents these rewards and punishments as emanating from God alone.3M.D. Cassuto, Biblical Encyclopedia, pp. 355–358 (Hebrew). Vol. ב. All middlemen or external sources, though perhaps powerful and at times effective, are forbidden under biblical law. Israelites are not to consult spiritual sources that blur God’s supremacy in the eyes of man.4This idea is best observed in Deut. 18:14–22 in a passage dealing with Hebrew prophets. Other forms of prophecy are outlawed, not because they are false, but because God desires unmediated communication.
These passages of blessing/curse raise the timeless questions of theodicy. Do loyal adherents receive all these blessings? Are those who suffer implicitly sinners? This question deserves its own article, but it should be noted that the answer offered by the book of Job is rather simple although its theological ramifications are not. God basically tells Job, Don’t try to make sense of My world. Human intellect is too limited (Job. 39). Job’s life trajectory of blessing, loss, suffering, and blessing enforces the non-linear nature of God’s providence, despite the seeming thrust of blessing and curse sections such as Deut. 28.5Another interpretation understands these passages as promising national blessing or curse and not as a reward/punishment correlation with individual adherence. For an early proponent of this idea see, Maimonides, Iggerot Ha-Rambam I, Shilat edition, p. 262. Though this idea has its theological merits, it stands at odds with the plain sense of several key biblical passages. Other biblical texts present a middle ground between the absolute categories of blessing and curse in Deuteronomy and Job’s almost anarchic depiction of God’s providence. In the absence of prophecy, this middle ground often involves a degree of human perspective to interpret the events as divinely blessed or not.
Blessings from Man to God
Praising God and His world is a form of blessing, though we don’t often think of praise through this prism. When the psalmist says, “May God be blessed,” he is praising God for His providence and in writing the prayer as a psalm, he invites others to do the same. The reciter of the psalm is encouraged to view related events in his/her life to God’s handiwork. God is not praised to elicit further blessing, but rather to thank Him for the blessing He has already bestowed.6C. Mitchell, The Meaning of BRK “to bless” in the Old Testament, SBL:1987, pp. 170–171.
The Hebrew Bible suggests that people should praise God regardless of whether they have received any immediate gift. This language of gratitude should be found on the believer’s lips, regardless of the current reality. Of course, this is often a difficult ethic to uphold, especially when one faces trying times.
Blessings from Man to Man
Blessing can also be found in communication between people. Sometimes, as part of a salutation, like in Boaz’s greeting to his reapers (Ruth 2:4): “The LORD be with you!” And they responded, “The LORD bless you!” In Gen. 47:7, Jacob and Pharaoh meet one another. The meeting begins and ends with a blessing. These blessings are wishes or prayers for God to bless the other, and not an effort to transfer human power to one another. By blessing another in the name of God, one implicitly acknowledges the merits of another person and that God generally blesses others like them.7C.W. Mitchell, p. 168. Another more dramatic blessing type illustrates the same idea.
The book of Genesis includes several tense scenes wherein an aging father blesses his son. Isaac blesses Jacob dressed as Esau (Gen. 27), Jacob blesses his two grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh (Gen. 48), and Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed (Gen. 49). Each scene reflects a blessing transferred between two people, but the struggle to receive the blessings and the importance placed on blessing the correct son has created confusion surrounding the nature of such blessings. After all, if these are simply expressions of patriarchal wishes, why wreck families for them?
This type of blessing was actually a common practice in the ancient Near East. Deathbed blessings functioned as binding wills. Therefore, though the eldest son normally received a double portion of wealth or land, a father could easily overturn this by uttering a different command and blessing a younger son with this wealth. Rebekah pushes Isaac to steal Esau’s blessing so that he becomes the legal heir of Isaac’s spiritual and material wealth.8C.W. Mitchell, p. 80. These blessings contain a legal element and, at times, a prophetic element as well.
Also significant in the context of blessings between men is the priestly blessing in Num. 6:22–27. Among the responsibilities of the priests, they bless the community of Israel and individuals:
The LORD spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!·
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
This passage presents the priests as a conduit for God’s blessing. Each of the three parts is longer than the preceding one, reflecting the prayer for continued divine overflow. The exact passageway of this overflow depends on one’s reading of the final phrase “and I will bless them.” The priests bless the people and God blesses the priests or the priests bless the people and that blessing essentially comes from God.9The former explanation is offered by A. Ibn Ezra, a Rabbinic commentator living in 12th-century Spain. The priestly blessing presents as a unique combination of a blessing from God and a blessing from another human.
What Is a Blessing?
Some have viewed blessings in the Bible as a transferral of soul power from one source to another.10See the work of J. Pederson, as in Israel, Its Life, and Its Culture. London: Oxford, 1926. Originally published in Danish in 1920. In this view, when God blesses a person, He increases their soul-power. Man can then promote his own wealth and fertility using this expanded soul-power. In this worldview, blessing is a self-fulfilling power. When one man blesses another, human soul-power is transferred to another.
Though this theology may have its lures, it is not well-based in biblical writing, which make little to no use of such spiritual terms. When biblical heroes are endowed with “spirit” or superhuman strength—such as the Judges—the text makes it clear that these humans act as agents of God and that they are still supremely limited in their capacity to bring salvation to the nation.
Blessings in the Bible suggest an intimate relationship between the blesser and the blessed. A blessing from God marks an intimate relationship between God and man, serving as proof that he finds himself in God’s favor. When I bless my daughters at Friday night dinner with the priestly benediction—Jewish tradition for many centuries—I am essentially imitating the priests and intentionally trying to bring God’s abundance into my children’s lives. When I perceive my new job or loving marriage as a “blessing,” it affirms my faith-orientation: I believe that without God’s help, my talents and hard work would not suffice to bring me to this place. This is the belief we underscore when replying, “Thank God,” when someone compliments us on our new home or exquisitely baked bread. It does not undervalue our efforts but acknowledges than many make similar efforts that bear little fruit. What enables us to combine our efforts with success is the grace of God’s blessing.
1. All translations are taken from the JPS Tanakh translation, 1999.
2. The thrust of the blessing in Gen. 1:28 is that procreation is a natural and necessary act of creation. It both emulates God and enables the world’s continued existence. The sons of Noah are again blessed to procreate in Gen. 9:1.
3. M.D. Cassuto, Biblical Encyclopedia, pp. 355–358 (Hebrew). Vol. ב.
4. This idea is best observed in Deut. 18:14–22 in a passage dealing with Hebrew prophets. Other forms of prophecy are outlawed, not because they are false, but because God desires unmediated communication.
5. Another interpretation understands these passages as promising national blessing or curse and not as a reward/punishment correlation with individual adherence. For an early proponent of this idea see, Maimonides, Iggerot Ha-Rambam I, Shilat edition, p. 262. While this idea has its theological merits, it stands at odds with the plain sense of several key biblical passages.
6. C. Mitchell, The Meaning of BRK “to bless” in the Old Testament, SBL:1987, pp. 170–171.
7. C.W. Mitchell, p. 168.
8. C.W. Mitchell, p. 80.
9. The former explanation is offered by A. Ibn Ezra, a Rabbinic commentator living in 12th-century Spain.
10. See the work of J. Pederson, as in Israel, Its Life, and Its Culture. London: Oxford, 1926. Originally published in Danish in 1920.