In today’s society, the words “bless” and “blessing” are sometimes used quite casually. When somebody sneezes, another person will respond, “Bless you!” When something happy or positive happens to someone whether it is a new baby, new job, or a lottery jackpot, those involved are called “blessed.” Sometimes, we say “Blessings on your project,” as a more spiritual way of saying “Good luck!” Sometimes we “bless” someone’s activity, meaning we approve. At other times, we communicate disapproval or annoyance, “She talked non-stop, and I couldn’t get in a blessed word!” But what is a blessing, anyway? And how do blessings come to us?
Let’s look at the most common Hebrew word for “bless” and “blessing” in the Old Testament. Most often, forms of the English word, “bless”, translate the Hebrew word, barak (sometimes written barach). The root meaning of barak is to “bend the knee” or, in other words, to kneel. There are two pictures of kneeling, depending on who it is that kneels.
In modern society, we don’t kneel much anymore. However, in the ancient world, the ordinary person was usually indebted to a nobleman or king for granting him land to farm and feed his family. So when one came into the presence of the king, kneeling was a sign that your very life was in the king’s hands. It was an action of profound gratitude, respect, and reverence, sometimes even worship. Yet, kneeling wasn’t simply symbolic of your life being in the king’s hands; it was also literal. Kneeling put a person into a vulnerable position where the king could respond with kind words, or by pulling out his sword and killing the person on the spot.
So barak or kneeling was the act of worship of human beings toward God as the absolute giver of all life. Psalms 103:1 (NRSV) says, 1 Bless the LORD, O my soul,/and all that is within me,/ bless his holy name. To bless God meant to worship and trust God in total submission and worship for all that God gave to sustain life itself.
However, in the Hebrew scriptures, it is not just human beings who bless God; most often, God blesses people. Now obviously, God does not kneel in worship of God’s people. So here, we see another picture of kneeling. The image here is of the Almighty God in the highest heaven, kneeling down to earth. God comes to us in a posture of kneeling to our level to give the benefits of life to human beings on earth. God stoops down to bless us, to give us the very life of God. This sense of blessing is expressed from creation itself: Genesis 1:27-28 (NRSV) says, 7 So God created humankind in his image…28 God blessed [ḇâraḵ] them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…”
So, barak is an active word. It is God’s activity of kneeling and blessing that provides the reason for people to bless God in return. God’s blessings are always for our benefit as human beings. However, sometimes our words of “blessing” get distorted because of sin. We may engage in worship by our words and our songs and our prayers, but in our hearts and in our actions, we are actually not submitting to God, not trusting in God, not truly thanking God. In effect, our “blessings” become curses, the very opposite of blessing.
There is a vivid illustration of this in Job chapter 1. Job had many young adult children and on the surface, it looked like they were all “good kids.” But they had lots of parties, and it wasn’t always clear to Job that their parties demonstrated a trust in God in their actions and attitudes. So after each party, Job would “sanctify” them and offer a burnt offering to God for each child at the party. His rationale for doing this is found in Job 1:5. Literally, the sentence reads, “Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and blessed [ḇâraḵ] God in their hearts.’” The sentence is confusing; if they are truly blessing God, they wouldn’t be sinning! But most translators recognize the word “blessed” here is sarcastic or ironic, a euphemism for cursed. So “blessing” while sinning at the same time is actually cursing. Thus translators generally render this sentence, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed [ḇâraḵ] God in their hearts.”
So while God’s barak is always a blessing for good, the barak-words of human beings can actually become the actions and attitudes of cursing. The meaning of barak depends on the context. God knows whether or not our words of blessing in return are actually backed up by a submissive and trusting spirit or whether, in effect, they are cursing or blasphemy, actually a back-handed way of speaking against God.
What is interesting in the book of Job is that a few verses later, “The Satan (Accuser)” thinks he can get Job to “bless” God in this cursing sense of the word, barak. He says to God, 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed [ḇâraḵ] the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse [ḇâraḵ] you to your face.” Job 1:10-11 (NRSV). God’s reply says, in effect, “I don’t stretch out my hand to ‘touch’ for evil; I bless, not curse. But there is enough human sin and enough consequences of that sin, that I’m sure you’ll find bad things to afflict Job. So I won’t stand in your way; only don’t take his life.” Thus, the curses or consequences of sin become the testing ground for the barak of Job.
We see this testing in Job, chapter 2, where Job’s wife says, “Give it up, Job.” “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse [ḇâraḵ] God, and die.” Job 2:9 (NRSV) Job doesn’t do it. He struggles with God; he talks with God; he even challenges God. Yet, through it all, he ultimately submits to God and trusts God. Job’s return blessings toward God are not dependent on whether he is currently feeling blessed or experiencing God’s blessings in the way he might like.
How about us today? When things are going well and we have everything we need and want, it is relatively easy to bless God in return. Often, we do this in a way that takes for granted God’s actions for our good. However, the forces of evil unleashed by human sin are still at work in the world. God intends to use even those events for our good, but much of the result remains up to us. By continuing to bless God in the sense of remaining steadfast in our trust of God and submission to God, we offer true blessings in return. Our hearts are ready to see even the unpleasant events in life for our ultimate good. Yet, if our barak (blessings) don’t come from a truly submissive heart, our barak takes on the ultimate meaning of cursing.
Cursing comes about because of human sin, our desire to control our own fate and trigger blessings automatically whenever we wish. True blessing begins and ends with the action of God who, in spite of human and spiritual forces acting against Him, continues to pour out the blessings of his own life upon us and uses even the evil for an ultimate good.