Blessing: A Scriptural and Theological Reflection

BLESSING: A Scriptural and Theological Reflection

by Ephraim Radner, Wycliffe College

The following paper was presented to the clergy conference of the Diocese of Ontario on June 16, 2009

In May, 2007 the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a Pastoral Statement on same-sex blessings. At the end of the statement, the bishops made the following request:

“Looking ahead, we ask the Primate and General Synod for a report on:

  1. The theological question whether the blessing of same-sex unions is a faithful, Spirit-led development of Christian doctrine (St. Michael Report)
  2. The implications of the blessing of same-sex unions and /or marriage for our church and the Communion (The Windsor Report)
  3. Scripture’s witness to the integrity of every human person and the question of the sanctity of human relationshiPsalm”

The reflections that follow are a contribution to the discussion that this requested report has engendered. Rather than look broadly at the question of same-sex blessings, my remarks concentrate on the Scriptural meaning of blessing as it has been taken up by the Church, and provides some preliminary evaluations of how this meaning applies to the question of same-sex blessings.

1. Blessing in the Old Testament

Blessing in the Old Testament is designated pretty much exclusively by the Hebrew verb barak – as in the U.S. President’s first name. A “blessing,” in the singular, is berakah. The Talmudic tractate devoted to blessings is called Berakoth – blessings – and provides a profound elaboration of the theology of blessing in Jewish terms. (There is nothing comparable in Christian writing.) We shall turn to this tractate a little later.

What does the verb barak actually mean? There are various theories: Break down [into pieces]; kneel; hence, “adore.” If associated with the bent knee, does the word derive somehow from the knee viewed as “seat of fertility” or erotic encounter (according to some older views; cf. Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee)? Etymologically, the question as a whole is shrouded in mystery.

In passing one might note that the notion of God “kneeling” to us in the world is amazingly Christological! That God should “bless” us is odd, in a sense, and represents a profound and almost disturbing paradox of love. But the paradox itself is at the base of the Scriptural understanding of creation and, of course, of redemption. (We will return to this briefly at our conclusion.)

Before going further, though, let us just flag a linguistic issue: the Hebrew notion of blessing, barak, is bound to a very rich theological set of semantic contruals. But the New Testament notion of blessing seems on the surface to be much thinner. We’ll come back to this point, but now only to say that the New Testament Greek is almost exclusively bound to the word eulogeo, or “speaking well” of something – praise, flattery, compliments, and so on. This is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to translate barak, however, and it is the word used in the New Testament everywhere, virtually, that the English word, “blessing” is found as a translation. If we want to know how the New Testament construes blessing – and hence the Christian faith – we must look into the Hebrew, for it fills out what is otherwise a rather hollow Greek term.

So let us begin with the Old Testament’s central understanding of blessing.

In the first place, and fundamentally, blessing is God’s to give. It is a divine action or character.

This appears for the first time in the creation narrative, at the end of the description of the 5th day, in which God creates swarms of sea animals, and birds, and sea monsters. And we read: Genesis 1:21-23: “And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.”

We will see this pattern repeated then, on the 6th day, and then the 7th, and then in what follows in the first history of humankind. God creates human beings in his own image, male and female “he created them”: Genesis 1:28: “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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

Again, Genesis 2:3 says: So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”

When Genesis provides an early summary of human creation, in Genesis 5:1-2, we read, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” Or, after the flood, Genesis 9:1, “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth..” Finally, in the initial calling of Abram, in Genesis 12:2, we read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘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.’” And for the first time, a human being, a creature, becomes “a blessing” for others, mediating God’s own work of blessing.

Now there are a number of clear constants here that uphold the notion of blessing: God creates purposefully; that creating and creation is “good,” in the sense that the purpose is fulfilled, and it gives rise especially to “fruitfulness” and “multiplication.” Blessing is life created by and from God, a life that gives life and extends life. Hence the traditional Jewish blessing, la-chaim!, which we know from the Fiddler on the Roof. And to the degree that a creature is a blessing, like Abram, it is so according to the same mode – as an instrument of God’s creative life-giving extension in the world, in this case, to the “nations.”

Take, for example, Genesis 48, wherein the aging Jacob blesses his two grandsons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Despite the fact that Manasseh is the older of the two boys, and over Joseph’s objections, he gives the younger of the two – Ephraim – the primary blessing. Why? Often viewed in terms of retrospective political outcome of the tribes involved; but Jewish tradition made clear the issue lay in the name: fruitfulness, which is intrinsically tied to blessing (vs. Manasseh, or “forgetfulness”). Blessing is primarily the act of God in creating life, sustaining it, and extending or propagating it. By contrast, the notion of “curseing” (qalal) seems to imply “thinning out” reality, making it light and superfluous, and finally lifeless.

2. Blessing and the Law

I believe that this sets up, in a very comprehensive fashion, a complete Scriptural theology for the Old Testament, one that sustains itself in its relation to the New Testament and Gospel as well. This is so particularly in the Old Testament’s understanding of the Law. When God sees that the light is “good” (Genesis. 1:4) and all the rest of his creation is “good,” the word used (towb), is the same word used of the law (cf. Psalm 119:39; Neh. 9:13 etc.). It is the word Paul evidently translates when he says that the “law and commandment is holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). It is good; it is the Law. And, as you may know, Judaism traditionally considered the Torah, the Law, to hold all of creation within the particular ordering of its letters and words. The Law is life-creating.

Furthermore, it is this goodness of creative life that stands behind the “blessing” that is given in the Law’s fulfillment, as shown in the crucial texts of, for example, Deuteronomy chapters 27-28, where Moses commands the people to “keep all the commandments which I command you this day” (27:1), in order that they may be “blessed” and not “cursed.” And note the character of this blessing: “All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” Life, fruitfulness, plenty and abundance.

Properly speaking, then, the Law gives life, and is, in a real sense, itself life. The entire Levitical legal framework is based on this reality, from the laws of sexual relation, the laws of leprosy, the laws of distinction and difference, the laws of planting, the laws of family life, to the laws of the land and so on: all are based on the character of life given, received, and reiterated. Fruitfulness is the purpose of the Law; by the same token, the shape of fruitfulness is given through the forms of the Law. It is not fruitfulness in general, but the fruitfulness that comes in the form that the Law provides.

This is a key point to bear in mind, and one in the face of which, I believe, many contemporary discussions of “blessing” go wrong. For instance, “Claiming the Blessing” – a movement in the U.S. Episcopal Church that advocates for same-sex blessings – gets right an essential aspect of blessing: “‘blessing,’ barak, means at its core the awesome power of life itself,” the group writes. It also rightly speaks of this life as being properly lived in relationship with God, in terms of “covenant”: “[Blessing] describes the results of the hallowed, right, just relationship between God and humankind. Blessing is what happens when God and humankind live in covenant.” But the statement avoids all mention of the Law itself, instead preferring to speak in terms of an abstracted principle, “justice” (see But that is just what the Old Testament does not do: the particularities of the Law are given for the sake of life.

Keeping the law is a blessing, is blessing itself – bound to God’s life and will and fullness of character. Hence, the explanation given for the rather offensive-seeming benediction every Jewish male was asked to give on arising each day, “Blessed art Thou, Who hast not made me a woman!” Which reminds me of a related anecdote: “A bishop once asked a rabbi: ‘Why does the Jew bless God for not making him a Gentile? Does this not show hatred?’ ‘Not at all,’ answered the rabbi. ‘We love our womenfolk, and yet we recite a similar blessing concerning them. The reason for the blessings is that a woman and a non-Jew have fewer Mitzwoth to perform’” – that is fewer laws of goodness to fulfill, and therefore less means of entry into the fullness of God’s character. The more the law is fulfilled, in its almost quantifiable breadth, the greater the blessing.

We can look at the whole perspective of the Psalter set out in Psalm 1. This opening Psalm lays before us the fullness of the subsequent hymns (and of human life in the process): “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The word translated as “blessed” here is not in fact barak, but esher, which is sometimes translated as “happy” (as in the equivalent of the Beatitudes – “happy” are the poor in spirit, etc..). But the point regarding the Law is laid out clearly, for “happiness” is a mark of blessing, and it is given in the keeping of the Law itself, as not only the Old Testament shows us (see also the opening verse of Psalm 119; 94:12; 112:1), but even the New Testament (cf. James 1:15, where the doer of the Law is makarios, blessed as in the Beatitudes). And the result is, of course, fruitfulness: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” And we should note here as well that “fruitfulness,” rather than simply “life,” is spoken of, because “life” is understood in Biblical terms as “multiplying,” that is, as “procreative” – another key point to be made within the discussion of same-sex blessings in particular. God “blessed” because God “gives me his statutes” (Psalm 119:12), and thereby deals “bountifully” or “fruitfully” with his servants (Psalm 119:17). Moses’ blessing of the people before his death brings all of this together, beginning with a berakah (Deuteronomy 33:1), that derives from the acts of God’s salvation, is embodied in the Law, and shown in fruitfulness to the tribes of Israel, and finally is dubbed “happiness” itself (the esher of 33:29).

with this Old Testament perspective in mind, we turn in part II to what it means to 'bless God'.

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church, USA (Diocese of Colorado) and Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. He holds a doctorate in Systematic Theology from Yale University. Following work in Burundi (East Africa), Radner served congregations in Brooklyn, Cleveland, New Haven, Stamford, and Pueblo. He has taught at Yale University and Iliff Seminary, and is the author and editor of several books, including The End of the Church, Spirit and Nature, Hope Among the Fragments, and a recent theological commentary on Leviticus. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife, the Rev. Annette Brownlee, and their two children.

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