In a previous article, When Blessings Become Curses, I wrote about one of the Old Testament words for “bless” and “blessing,” the Hebrew word, barak. This article focuses on another word for blessing, ashar, or asher, which originally meant “straight,” “level,” “right,” or, most often, simply “happy.” Most older versions of the English Bible translate ashar the same as barak – as “blessed” while many contemporary versions translate ashar as “happy.”
This word for “blessed” is first used in Genesis 30:13 where Jacob’s wife, Leah, was so happy for the birth of a son, she exclaims, “Happy [asher] am I! For the women will call me happy [ashar]”; so she named him Asher [Happy].” (NRSV) However, barak predominates in the rest of the Torah (or “Law,” the first five books of the Bible). The activity of blessing, whether by God or the people of God is what is most emphasized in the Torah.
By contrast, in Psalms and Proverbs, ashar is most often used. Here, the emphasis is on feelings or a state of being.
1 Happy are those / who do not follow the advice of the wicked, / or take the path that sinners tread, / or sit in the seat of scoffers… Psalms 1:1 (NRSV)
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. Psalm 32:1-2 (NRSV)
4 Happy are those who live in your house, / ever singing your praise. 5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, / in whose heart are the highways to Zion. Psalms 84:4-5 (NRSV)
13 Happy are those who find wisdom, / and those who get understanding… 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; / those who hold her fast are called happy. Proverbs 3:13, 18 (NRSV)
It is likely that this “Blessed are…” pattern in the Psalms and Proverbs is the background for the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5. From Matthew 5:3-11, each sentence starts out “Blessed are…” Here, the Greek work is makarios, which essentially means “very happy” or “very fortunate” and is thus equivalent to the Hebrew, ashar.
Yet, in the Beatitudes, what is so different and, indeed, so astonishing, is who is called blessed. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the persecuted…” None of that sounds very happy! Those of us who have heard these Beatitudes for many years may have become immune to how jarring they really are. To try to grasp the true impact of what Jesus is saying, I re-wrote the Beatitudes according to the way that the world usually thinks of happiness and blessing. You can find the chart here.
Jesus proclaims these blessings in a context that is very different than the world as a whole. Jesus’ context is the “Kingdom of Heaven” or, as someone I recently read put it in more contemporary terms, the “Empire of Heaven.” Jesus is constantly inviting people to join this empire in which our allegiance is to the Creator God, the true ruler of heaven and earth, instead of a human ruler. Our tendency is to latch onto an earthly empire and then live according to its values of prestige and power and glory. But the blessings of the Empire come to those who are loyal to the Empire.
That means, if we are loyal and conform to the values of an earthly empire, we will get along for a while with others who are like us and who subscribe to the same earthly values. Such an empire can be built up and even look very successful for a time. However, inevitably, our individual selfish egos get in the way. Our empire-building comes at the expense of others who are different from us. Our power-grabbing results in violence toward those who are not in power.
God’s Empire (the Kingdom of Heaven) is different. Jesus shows us clearly that God is always in the business of blessing and lifting up those who lack earthly power. Thus Jesus’ blessings are all about turning the tables. True blessings from God and the Empire of Heaven come not to the proud and the strong and the self-sufficient. The blessings of God come to those who admit their weakness, who turn (repent) from their pride and power-grabbing, to those who become instruments of God’s love to others who are weak and needy.
The happiness of this world is fleeting. It is based on our loyalty and allegiance to this or that worldly power or empire. The Empire of Heaven brings true blessings as we reach out to those who are least in this world and bring them into this realm of blessing.
The Hebrew word barak speaks of the action of God to make this happen. It speaks of the action expected of God’s people to extend God’s Empire by extending the blessings to others and thereby returning the blessings to God. The end result of this action is ashar, a state of being, of true happiness and blessing that describes how God wants all people to live. It is true that our loyalty to the Empire of Heaven will sometimes bring us into conflict with the empires of this world. It is true that such a conflict does not feel like happiness or blessing. Yet, the greater truth is that God’s empire of peace and justice, of love and blessing, will win out in the end. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself demonstrates that most clearly. Blessed are those who receive God’s blessings and bless God in return as they pass on those blessings to others!