Blessing (in the Bible)

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The Old Testament contains only a few traces of a primitive belief in the magical efficacy of the spoken word, either to bless or to curse. Some older narratives contain vestiges of superstition, but in their final editing they always make it clear that blessings come ultimately from the Lord. Thus, the yahwist indicated that Isaac's blessing of Jacob, which according to the primitive belief could not be annulled, was due ultimately to God's choice of Jacob (Gn 25.23; 27.3338). The actual formula of blessing is a prayer to the Lord without any suggestion of magical efficacy (Gn 27.28). The narrative about Jacob's struggle with God (Gn 32.2430) was based upon older material that probably suggested that a blessing had been wrested from a numinous being. In the reshaping of the material, the Yahwist made clear that God imparted His blessing freely (Gn 32.29).

The loyal Israelite had a profound sense of dependence upon the Lord as the source of all blessings. A customary greeting was a prayer to the Lord for blessing (Gn 24.31; Ruth 2.4), so that the common verb for "to bless," bērak, often meant "to greet" (Gn 47:7, 10; 1 Sm 13.10). God blessed living things with the special power of generation (Gn 1.22, 28). His blessing of Abraham was also connected with generation (Gn 12.23). Certain individuals possessed special authority to call down God's blessings upon men: a father, upon his children (Gn 9.26;27.28; 49.2526, 28); a king, upon his subjects (2 Sm6.18; 1 Kgs 8.14, 5561); and priests, upon the people (Nm 6.2227).

The conception that one could strengthen one's God by blessing Him did not exist in Israel. By blessing Yahweh the Israelite solemnly acknowledged Him as Lord and King and the source of all blessings. In such a context, the verb bērak meant to praise or thank [Gn 24.48; Dt 8.10; Ps 65(66).8; 102(103).12] and is the antonym of qillēl (to curse), the verb predicated of a man who in his bitterness repudiated his parents, king, or God.

The place of blessing in the New Testament is typified in St. Luke's Gospel, where Christ ascends to the Father while blessing His disciples and the disciples return to Jerusalem "praising and blessing God" (Lk 24.5153). These two aspects of the Old Testament blessing, namely, the calling down of God's bounty upon men and thanksgiving returned to God, found their perfect realization in the Eucharist. Christ's blessing at the Last Supper was both a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father and a calling of His sanctifying power (Mt 26.26; Lk 24.30). The New Testament term ελογέω is most often meant to invoke God's blessing, but it sometimes signified to give thanks (e.g., Luke 1.64; 1 Cor 14.16). The word εχαριστέω corresponded less perfectly to bērak since it meant only to give thanks. The words of the Roman Canon, Gratias agens benedixit (giving thanks, He blessed), the result of a conflation of Mark 14.22 and 1 Corinthians 11.24, accurately describe the double aspect of the perfect Christian blessing.

Bibliography: j. scharbert, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, eds., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 9:590592. f. horst and h. kÖster, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:164952. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 253254. s. h. blank, "Some Observations concerning Biblical Prayer," Hebrew Union College Annual, 32 (1961) 7590. a. murtonen, "The Use and Meaning of the Words l ebarek and b erakah in the O.T.," Vetus Testamentum, 9 (1959) 158177.

[j. v. morris]