Blessing: A Scriptural and Theological Reflection (Part II)

BLESSING: A Scriptural and Theological Reflection (Part II)

by Ephraim Radner, Wycliffe College

part II of V (read part I)

3. Blessing God

Now: this is the blessing of God, from God to us. What does it mean for a human being to “bless” in his or her turn?

The first thing to be said is that generally a human being, in the Old Testament and its following tradition, offers a “blessing” primarily to and of God! “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Psalm 103:1). “O House of Israel, bless the Lord! O house of Aaron, bless the Lord!” (Psalm 135:19).

What could it mean to bless God, if God is the one who gives life and founds what a blessing is in its very nature? This specific question has exercised Jewish tradition. And the clear explanation given is a simple one: to “bless” God is a kind of extended act of the original divine blessing, it is to live the life given in the proper relationship of dependent recipient – to receive life, that is, faithfully. Hence, the use of the term barak for the act of a human agent is generally synonymous with just these elements: thanksgiving and obedience. Indeed, the word barak as a verb of human agency is interchangeable with the word “thanksgiving.”

We can observe how this is the case in English with respect to the prayers said at meals: we will say, “Who will give the thanksgiving (or ‘grace’)?” or “Who will give the blessing?” They mean the same thing, bless or thank. To utter a blessing of God is to define our relationship to God rightly – to thank, to adore, to obey.

It is from this that all the “blessings” flow that human beings in fact give. And so the common phrase, including in Psalm 96:8: Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!” To bless is to acknowledge and praise God.

Hence the first and central place of blessing God comes with respect to God’s provision for life – food. Deuteronomy 8:10: “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” The blessings over meals (cf., Berakoth, 20b) become the foundational area of prayers of blessing within Judaism and Christianity. And on it devolves the moral character of obedience to the Law of God that sustains and extends such divine care and provision. Hence, Berakoth cites foundationally Deuteronomy 10:17ff.: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

To bless God is to display who God is and what God has done and how we stand before God – to lay this out before the eyes of others and of the world. So, for instance, Aidan Steinsaltz explains the Law blessings in the Talmud: The whole world belongs to God; and a blessing is an act seeking “permission” to enjoy it. Blessings are given mainly over food and other “pleasures.” “O Lord of the Universe,” many Jewish blessings begin – that is, I proclaim that all belongs to you! All is received from you! “What do you have that you did not receive?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7, referring first of all to the primary reality that founds the Jewish consciousness of God in the world.

But blessings over evil as we experience it are also enjoined, because of the exclusive character (versus dualistic outlook) of God’s sovereignty: So, for example, Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil, I the Lord do all these things”—a verse that is always said in regular Jewish prayer service.

Hence, in the Midrash on the Psalms writes: “To thee, O Lord, will I sing” (Psalm 101:1): “Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Aha said: ‘David said to God, ‘If thou showest me grace, I will sing to thee; and if thou dealest me out judgment, I will sing to thee; whether this way or that, to thee, O Lord, will I sing.’ Rabbi Judah ben Palia said: ‘So too said Job, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord took; may the Lord’s name be blessed; if he gave it was he alone; if he took, it was he and his tribunal; blessed be he when he gave, and blessed be he when he took; whether this way or that, the Lord’s name be blessed.’”

Let me lay out how the Mishnah – the original legal material upon which the Talmud provides commentary – lists the experiential realm in which one blesses God (or gives a blessing!).

  • 54a: MISHNAH. If one sees a place where miracles have been wrought for Israel, he should say, “Blessed be he who wrought miracles for our ancestors in this place.”
  • On seeing a place from which idolatry has been extirpated, he should say, “Blessed be he who extirpated idolatry from our land.”
  • [On witnessing] shooting stars, earthquakes, thunderclaps, storms and lightnings one should say, “Blessed be he whose strength and might fill the world.”
  • On seeing mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts he should say, “Blessed be he who wrought creation. Rabbi Judah says: “If one sees the great sea one should say, ‘Blessed be he who made the great sea,’ [that is] if he sees it at [considerable] intervals.”
  • For rain and for good tidings one says, “Blessed be he that is good and bestows good.” For evil tidings one says, “Blessed be the true judge.”
  • One who has built a new house or bought new vessels says, “Blessed be he who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.”
  • Over evil a blessing is said similar to that over good and over good a blessing is said similar to that over evil. But to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer. [From the translation by Maurice Simon, Soncino Press edition]

4. Blessing Others or Things

We bless God for what he does and is. We bless “things” only in relationship to this. Indeed, as the previous examples show, Jewish “blessings” are actually spoken of with God as their object. On a more primary level I have argued that, in the case of food and so on, to say that we give a “blessing” over it, or “bless it,” is really a shorthand form of saying “we bless – or thank or acknowledge – God for it.”

This point needs to be stressed: when we “bless” a meal, we are not invoking a divine power to make it taste good, or to make sure that we don’t choke on it or that it doesn’t have bacterial infection. We are certainly not thanking the food, or its biological source, as certain Amerindian cultures do.

But that is not quite the case when we “bless” other things, including people. What is going on in that case? Well, precisely an invocation of God’s power, and a power that is understood as operating in a certain direction. The Rabbis were clear about this: a human blessing is a petition. As the Magelnitzer Rabbi said, when I bless, “I implore the Lord to have compassion upon the supplicant, and to grant his or her desire.” But this is only in the sense of praying that God’s will be done for this person, much as Jesus’ prayer points out: “Thy will be done, on earth as on heaven.” There are many stories of Rabbis whose blessings are sought on enterprises of ill-will or dishonesty, as if asking a holy person could somehow provide better access to God’s manipulation of events in one’s favor. [See Louis Newman’s Hasidic Anthology, New York: Schocken, 1963, pp. 20-21]

But, as the Magelnitzer Rabbi also said: “My blessing on behalf of an undeserving person or for an illegal purpose must necessarily prove futile, since the Lord will refuse my petition.” Refuse it – and if knowingly requested, treat it as blasphemy. The image is that of false prophecy, when a prophet says that “God is doing this or that” when in fact God is not, a topic much discussed in Jeremiah (Chapters 14, 23, 28, etc.): “I did not send these prophets, yet they ran” (Jeremiah 23:21), and as a result they trade in “lies,” speaking “peace where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11, etc.) – peace or shalom being very much an aspect of “blessing.” Such lying about blessing, as it were, is labeled by Jeremiah as “rebellion” (28:16), or karah, a term applied specifically to those who teach others wrongly about the will of God (cf. Deuteronomy 13:5; 19:16).

In short, when one “blesses” someone or something, one is praying for the Lord to bless. Hence the famous Aaronic “blessing” over the people, still used in Christian churches and viewed – from Luther on – as an equivalent to the Trinitarian blessing: (Numbers 6:24-27) “Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Aaron blesses by asking the Lord to bless. And it is interesting, the explanation God gives to Moses about this: “So shall they [that is, the priests] put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Carrying the “name” of God has to do with assuming the life of God, God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s character.

It is probably not always possible to distinguish clearly the difference between blessing as giving thanks for some created being or event and blessing as praying for God’s will to be gratefully assumed by a creature. After all, the second depends on the reality of the first being the case. That is, we can thank God for the mountains and hills, in all their beauty; but we can also bless these hills, in the sense of having that beauty and created grace display itself fully as God wills. Which points to a reality even more fundamental: the things we “bless” are capable of receiving it in part because they are already capable of blessing God as we do – giving thanks, praising, obeying.

Hence, the Psalmist calls on the things of this world to “bless” God, their maker and Lord: (Psalm 103:22): Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!” And he can call upon them to do so, because, in a sense, they are made already to do so (Psalm 145:10): “All thy works shall give thanks to thee, O Lord, and all thy saints shall bless thee!”

There is sense, then, that we bless what is already blessed by God, and what already thereby blesses God from its own lips – from the rocks and trees to the birds and beasts to the children and infants: each stands already within the great stream of God’s creative and life-giving purpose; and each is called forth into it according to this orientation of being.

In a fallen world, of course, this appears mixed up, and really is, I suppose. What we are made to be is somehow dislocated and perverted; the blessing that is our root of being is derailed, and instead of life, sin and death lie crouching at the door, as God says to Cain (Genesis 4:7). Crouching, and even sprung. In this context, a prayer of blessing is a prayer for redemption, not only for thanks: “thy will be done,” but done in the face of all that rebels against it. To bless is to “ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name” in this or that particular case and place and person; but also to cry out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make thy name known to thy adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at thy presence” (Isaiah 64:1-2). Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name and the honor stolen or withheld from him.

To this degree, we can see how our blessing did become a kind of apotropaic – a prayer to ward off evil, holding power in itself, it was thought, like an amulet, depending upon who gave it, an incantation of power, a “spell” even, as in Harry Potter. But to the degree that a blessing moves in this direction, it becomes itself mired in the very thing it is raised against, that is, the forgetfulness of God’s sovereignty, will, and goodness, already long established, and in which one is called to trust and find life beyond all else. When Jacob blesses his grandsons, as we mentioned earlier, he does so not to provide them with a new ring of protection in a dangerous world, but to bring on them, in Moses’ words, the “name of the Lord” in all of its full purpose, that they might receive with grace what is done by the One who will do what he will do in any case; that they might be God’s, wholly and utterly, even in the face of evil. That they might be redeemed and made pure in faith. To bless is to pray for the transformation and redemption of matter and spirit form the bondage of sin.

By extension, the blessing of objects is bound to this prayer indirectly. Scripture does not, to my knowledge, have examples of blessing objects other than those bound to the giving of human life: children, crops, flocks, food, oil, wine (see, for example, Deuteronomy 7:13). And in continuity with that, objects that were later blessed, as Talmudic commentary evolved, moved out from this basic category of that which holds a person in life and in the extension of life over time according to the Law of God. Blessing homes derives from this; blessing the objects of a family’s sustenance, and so forth.

It should be noted, however, that such “blessing” is quite different from what later, especially in Christian circles, came to be loosely called “blessing” with respect to objects used in worship – blessing a cross, for instance, or blessing new liturgical appointments, chalices, and so on. In the Old Testament, the word used for liturgical objects like this is translated as “consecrate” (in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) – quadash – and refers to “setting aside” for a specific use for God. We consecreate the vessels of the Temple, we do not “bless” them. The blessing of homes has nothing to do with this consecration: it has, in fact, the opposite goal – not to set aside, but to open up to the purposes of God in the world to bring life out of nothing. When we bless, we are not consecrating at all; we are making common, as it were, making visible the actual purposes of God’s life. And, of course, when the Bible speaks of “blessing houses” (as, for example, in 2 Samuel 7:29), it refers to households or lineages and procreative lines of descent, not buildings.

In part III we will consider the meaning of blessing in the New Testament and in the Christian Church.

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