Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Genesis Blessings

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The Blessings of Genesis

“Have a blessed day,” said the receptionist as I exited the medical building.

“You are so blessed!” exclaimed my mother as she kissed her grandsons.

“What a blessing it is!” my friend rejoiced over her husband’s promotion.

“Please bless this family!” read the letter calling for donations to a needy family.

“God bless you!” chimed a lady in response to a sneeze.

Our modern usage of the word “bless” in its various forms extends from the mundane to the sublime. Much like I “love” my family, classic rock and a tall latte, the word “blessing” is also difficult to lock down. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that the word has entirely fallen victim to the mutations of culture and time. While there is clearly marginalization of the word today (e.g., the sneeze response), there was also diverse deployment of the word in ancient times, depending upon its subject, object and context.

Introduction: To “Bless”: A Rich and Varied Proposition

Barak (Heb.):[1]

1. To bless, kneel[2]
2. Praise, salute, curse[3]

Initially, I thought this assignment would focus one-dimensionally on the blessings we find in Genesis that extend from God to man. But as I examined the word, itself, I found considerable nuance. After visiting the Hebrew Key Word Study Bible[4] and learning about the transliterated verb “barak,” I consulted an English language dictionary:[5]

Bless, blessed or blest:

1. To make holy by religious rite; sanctify.
2. To make the sign of the cross over so as to sanctify.
3. To invoke divine favor upon.
4. To honor as holy; glorify.
5. To confer well being or prosperity upon.
6. To endow, as with talent.

With the exception of the second definition which applies to Catholic ritual, I found within Genesis good illustrations of the five different modes and purposes of blessings illustrated above. My findings fall into two general areas: Explicit and Implicit.

I. Explicit Blessings

A. Variety of Venues

The verb “bless” or a derivative of this word (e.g., blessing, blessed) occurs 76 times in Genesis.[6] There are at least four modes of exchange with respect to subject and object.

The word “bless” is most commonly used within Genesis to describe God’s blessings upon man. When God blesses His human creatures, He extends rich, varied, and sometimes situation-specific endowments. To certain individuals—Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and their descendents—the blessings have far-reaching implications both for God’s chosen people and the human race as a whole.

God blessed them; and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."”[7] GN 1:28

But blessings are not limited to the divine-human arena. God also blesses non-human entities:

God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” GN 1:22

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. GN 2:3[9]

So he came close and kissed him; and when he smelled the smell of his garments, he blessed him and said, "See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed; GN 27:27

Blessings in Genesis extend from man to God. The context of this type of blessing reflects our fourth English dictionary definition: to honor as holy; glorify. This is the way in which a subordinate and imperfect creature blesses the Creator. Our gift to God is the way in which our hearts and behaviors and acts of worship honor and glorify Him.

And he said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His lovingkindness and His truth toward my master…” GN 4:27[11]

There are blessings that extend from man to man. For example, there are cases in which a person of earthly authority confers blessings upon one lesser. A father, for example, can bless his children.

So he said, "Bring it to me, and I will eat of my son's game, that I may bless you." And he brought it to him, and he ate; he also brought him wine and he drank. GN 27:25[12]

Some of the blessings extended by humans show man as “agent” for the execution of God’s plan. When Jacob lay on his deathbed detailing the inheritance of his 12 sons, we must assume that it is the Spirit of God working in Him which moved humanity ever closer to the fulfillment of divine promise. As such, the most solemn blessings from man to man are made on behalf of God by specially chosen earthly conduits.

B. The Nature of Blessings

1. God’s blessings are utterly reliable.

When God extends blessing, it amounts to a promise. When God blessed the first humans, he gave them the ability to procreate—to build family and community (GN 1:28). He also gave them a superior custodial role over other living entities. These blessings, though threatened in Noah’s time, were and continue to stand despite the failings of a rebellious and backslidden human race. As a creation, we have been permitted to go on. God reaffirmed this first blessing in formal covenants with both Noah and Abraham. To Noah, he avowed to never again flood the habitat of humanity (GN 8:21-22). To Abraham, he extended blessings from the realm of protection and viability to include great purpose and stature:

And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; GN 12:2[13]

2. God’s blessings are both near and distant.

To Abraham, an imperfect man of great faith,[14] God has extended a great and far-reaching blessing. Some aspects of the harvest will be distant; Abraham’s great nation will come about through his descendents. Yet, within Abraham’s life, we are privy to elements of blessing brought to fruition. His barren wife conceives (GN 18:10). Seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including heavily stacked enemy opposition, are overcome (GN 14:15). So, God’s blessings to Abraham will be fulfilled, both within his lifetime and, most significantly, beyond.

3. God blesses the faithful.

Blessings were conferred upon Adam and Eve before the fall when the first man and woman enjoyed an unstained relationship with God. Their sin wrought certain curses (GN 3). Yet the primary blessing of God—that they would fill the earth and subdue it—was retained. There would be trouble, hardship and heartache, but the blessing of life and legacy and certain dominion was withstanding because, we may theorize, Adam and Eve maintained their faith in the one, true God.[15]

In the case of Noah, we are told of his blamelessness (GN 6:9). But it could be argued that, though he was exceedingly righteous, he was blessed because of his faithfulness. Contemporary movies, like Evan Almighty, have tried to imagine the community response to Noah’s peculiar mission. The movies show that he was met with ridicule and contempt. I don’t see this in the text. But it’s likely, I would assume, that Noah was, indeed, good fodder for the scoffers. Yet he followed to the letter God’s exacting specifications for the ark, building a mammoth seaworthy vessel on days, no doubt, that presented without so much as a cloud in the sky! On the other end of Noah’s obedience, he was afforded the blessing also extended to Adam & Eve:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Every living creature of the earth and every bird of the sky will be terrified of you.” (GN 9:1-2) [16]

What about Abraham? Within our course, we gained insights into to some of Abraham’s missteps. Yet he could be counted on to go where God told him to go. He could be counted on to do what God told him to do. He was a flawed but faithful man (GN 15:6). As we saw in Genesis 12:2, he, too, received the blessing of offspring.

4. God’s blessings are irrevocable.

The no-turning-back momentum of God’s blessings is vividly illustrated for us, as we’ve seen, in the account of Abraham. The promise will be fulfilled despite all obstacles, impediments and mortal threats. A fallible human agent will be supernaturally empowered to get the job done. God’s plan is unstoppable.

The iron-clad nature of ancient blessings is also illustrated for us in the account of Isaac’s “misappropriated” blessing to the son, Jacob, who held a lesser home in his heart. Under the clever manipulation of his mother, Rebekah, Jacob successfully duped his elderly father into endowing him with the all-important birthright blessing that belonged to Esau, who was technically first born. With the blessings now pronounced and the scheme brought to light, we are privy to an emotional exchange between Isaac and his most beloved son:

Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, {even} me also, O my father." So Esau lifted his voice and wept. GN 27: 38[17]

Isaac’s response in vv. 39-40 reveals there is no possibility of revision or reversal. Esau’s plight, to the utter heartbreak of father and one son, is to serve his younger brother without the benefit of God’s special favor.

So, God’s blessings are unchallengeable. It’s important to note, however, that within covenant, God has expectations for His people. Though the promise is guaranteed, it’s not a strictly one-way street. Blessings warrant certain response on the part of the recipient. When God tells Noah that he may now liberally eat from the earth, he is strongly advised to avoid meat containing blood (GN 9:4). Within the Abrahamic Covenant, it is God’s expectation that all males will be circumcised (GN 17:10). (We will see more exacting conditional requirements to God's covenant with Moses in Deuteronomy 28.) So, within the covenant relationships of Genesis, God's blessings are promissory... but man has a responsive role to play.

5. Blessings are creative and merciful.

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them. He blessed them, every one with the blessing appropriate to him. GN 49:28[18]

From the ranks of God’s chosen people, there are those who are distinctly set apart for greater responsibility and reward. Amongst the 12 tribes of Israel, we see diverse endowments. We even see rebuke (e.g., GN 49: 3-7).[19] Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, for example, is shamed for having sexual relations with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (GN 35:22). Simeon and Levi are called out for flying off the handle and slaughtering the people of Shechem to avenge the rape of their sister (GN 34).

As we consider the apportionments of the 12 tribes, it’s worth noting that even those who egregiously fail are graciously and mercifully afforded life. As part of the blessed family, they, too, go on. They have, for a time, a place, albeit lesser and dispersed, among the ranks of the living (GN 49: 7b).

Despite the tragically consequential act of rebellion in the Garden, Adam and Eve are blessed with fertility (GN 4:1). In the account of the Flood, we see mercy in the blessings extended to one righteous man and his family, and, by extension, a future made possible for other creatures and forms of nature (GN 9). The blessing of Ishmael in Genesis 17:20 reflects tender mercies as God looks after the welfare of one who will ultimately be been cast off by his earthly father.

6. Man’s blessings: A mixed bag?

When man blesses man, there are times in which the act has great significance. Isaac’s blessings upon Jacob set in motion critical movement toward God’s plan to redeem mankind. When Jacob blessed the 12 tribes (GN 49), there was continued progress toward fulfillment of God’s promise. We must assume that it was the Spirit of God at work and conveyed by men.

Other times, however, when man blesses man, there is a common aspect. In GN 29, we encounter Laban, who will become Jacob’s future father-in-law. We learn in subsequent text that the two men have a complex and fractious relationship. So long as Jacob is near, Laban enjoys blessings by association (GN 30:27). But the dynamics over time become untenable. As the relationship degenerates toward a bitter severance, we are told that Laban kissed and “blessed” his grandchildren and daughters (GN 31:55). Was this a customary gesture? A ritual associated with saying good-bye? What kind of “blessings” could one who presents as an earthly needle-in-the-side of a future patriarch realistically convey? Much like we say “God bless you!” when someone sneezes, there were certain superficial circumstances in which people blessed one another in ancient times.

D. The Content of Blessings

o Fertility

As we’ve seen throughout Genesis, God blesses individuals with progeny. Interestingly, the very first time the word “blessed” occurs (GN 1:22), the beneficiaries are sea creatures and birds and the blessing is the directive to reproduce.[20]

The next time we see this word, it is applied to the first people:

God blessed them; and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."”[21] GN 1:28

There are other fertility blessings directed, for example, to Noah and Abraham:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. GN 9:1[22]

I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." GN 17:16

"I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; GN 26:4

Then from the seed of Isaac, then Jacob, we see the purposeful 12-way apportioning of inheritance that will bring to fruition God’s promise for Israel.

o Power

And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; GN 12:2[25]

When the name “Abraham” is invoked today, thousands of years removed from the living theater of his life, it continues to evoke awe and respect. Thanks to the gift of Scripture which recounts for us precious glimmers into the history of our faith, we can see that God, indeed, made the name of Abraham great! His greatness is reflected in the crucial role he played in God’s plan and his torpedo-like dive into a life of committed service to the LORD. His name stands today as a “word association” with “man of faith.”

o Protection/Life

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." GN 12: 3 [26]

Egypt’s Pharoah (GN 12) and King Abimilech (GN 20) had the experience of being on the “cursed” end of the Abrahamic Covenant! Drawn to Sarah’s beauty and unwittingly licensed by Abraham’s half-truth to act upon their lusts, the penalty for Pharoah and Abimilech was disease (GN 12:17) and infertility (GN 12:18), respectively. God extends blessings to His people, in some cases, by defeating or punishing enemies that would otherwise threaten them.

o Material Endowment

The LORD has greatly blessed my master, so that he has become rich; and He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and servants and maids, and camels and donkeys. GN 24:35[27]

God blessed people with “things” in ancient times that would provide comfort, pleasure and security.

o Wisdom

And I bowed low and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had guided me in the right way to take the daughter of my master's kinsman for his son. GN 24:48[28]

In this verse, the word “blessed” is used within the primary clause to illustrate how Abraham’s chief servant offered praise to God. Within the subordinate clause, we are told the reason for this occasion of praise. The servant has been dispatched to Abraham’s homeland, Aram Naharaim, to find a suitable wife for his son, Isaac. The servant asked God to give him very clear signals with respect to this critical mission (GN 24: 12-14). God obliges, giving the servant important clues, as well as a dose of wise restraint and patience (GN 24: 21).

II. Implicit Blessings

Let’s consider the concept of “built-in” blessings from God: the gifts conferred upon man that are, perhaps, so available to us they are easily overlooked, but essential to both mortal and eternal existence. There are certain key “givens” that represent, perhaps, the greatest blessings of all. We don’t see the word “barak” used in Genesis with respect to these blessings. Yet they are of immense importance. So obvious, perhaps, that we have failed, from the first “murmurings”[29] of ancient brothers and sisters to our less-than-grateful hearts today, to properly acknowledge.

1. The goodness of God.

I haven’t found an example in Genesis of a time in which the text says that God’s holiness is a “blessing.” Yet His abhorrence of evil, and His grace and mercies begin to paint the picture for us of a God who is indescribably precious, merciful and loving. As I contemplate the alternative—a god, perhaps, who more closely resembles Baal—I am moved to rejoice in the implicit blessing of God’s goodness.

2. The beauty and life-sustaining bounty of nature.

God’s creation, beautifully described for us in Genesis 1, is both aesthetically wondrous and practical in its ability to sustain life. Yet, how often do we look at a beautiful sunset and thank God for the blessing of a diverse and beautiful habitat? How often to we take a deep breath and thank God for the provision of air? How often do we fill our stomachs with food and really, authentically thank God for keeping our bodies nourished and alive? These were blessings to an ancient people, and they continue to bless us today!

3. The privilege of being in “real-time” community with God.

I couldn’t find the word “blessing” specifically used to describe the accessibility of God, though the words “…for I am with you.” preceded the blessing described in Genesis 26:24.[30] But God revealed himself quite personally to certain people. We have an account of God’s words revealed to Adam and Eve, Noah and his sons, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob . God appeared to Joseph in vivid, instructive dreams. The mighty, transcendent God was also immanent, graciously making His presence known to ancient loved ones. And today, it is the Spirit of God living within that graciously affords us unfettered access to the Almighty.

4. The ultimate blessing of eternal life.

We meet Enoch in Genesis 5 and we’re told that he “walked with God.” (GN 5: 24a). Then he was “…no more, because God took him away.” (GN 5: 24b). In Dr. Ronald B. Allen’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, he writes: “What Enoch experienced in a remarkable, dramatic fashion is what each person who ‘walks with God’ will experience—everlasting life with the Savior.” In the end, this is without a doubt, our most blessed gift from God.


From the God of your father who helps you, And by the Almighty who blesses you with blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that lies beneath, Blessings of the breasts and of the womb. GN 49:25[31]

This is a crucial verse in Genesis that serves, perhaps, as a summation of the scope, as we understand it, of God’s blessings to man. I consulted Matthew Henry’s classic commentary for help and inside of this verse, he interpreted the “blessings of heaven above” to mean “rain in its season, and fair weather in its season, and the benign influences of the heavenly bodies.” Here the focus is not only on God’s help with the elements, but on the all-important spiritual aspect of God’s blessed oversight of man.

Contrast this with the “blessings of the deep…” Henry writes, this deep is “… but a great deep, with subterraneous mines and springs.” From the blessings of heaven above, we also are granted temporal blessings of the earth.

Taken together… from “above” to the “deep”… we see that God’s provision for mankind extends from body to soul… from that which is palpable and knowable to that which nourishes our eternal hope.

What of the “… blessings of the breasts and of the womb.”? Henry explains these blessings are conferred “when children are safely born and comfortably nursed.” This relates, once again, to the life-perpetuating blessing of fertility; arguably, one of God’s greatest gifts to mortal man, extending the human race and building legacy.

[1]The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, Study Light Organization, http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/frequency.cgi?number=1288&book=ge&translation=nsn.
[2] Ibid., Genesis uses the word “barak” only once (GN 24:11) to confer the meaning “kneel”
[3] Ibid. Use of the word “barak” as a curse is a Hebrew euphemism appearing not in Genesis but in a limited venue elsewhere in Scripture.
[4] Zodhiates, Spiros (Editor), Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, New American Standard Bible, AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN, 1984.
[5] The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1982.
[6] Mounce, William D., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006.
[7] NASB Bible, Crosswalk.com, http://bible1.crosswalk.com/OnlineStudyBible/bible.cgi?word=Genesis+1%3A28&section=1&version=nas&new=1&oq=GN+1%3A28
[8] The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, Study Light Organization, http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/frequency.cgi?number=1288&book=ge&translation=nsn.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Allman, James, BE 102 OL, OT History I, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) Academic Materials, Fall 2007. We learned from Dr. Allman that faith, not righteousness, is what distinguishes the fathers of our Christian faith. OT heroes were flawed human beings, yet they maintained a single-minded focus on God and pursuit of His will. In Abraham, we see duplicity (GN 20:2… “she is my sister…”) and what would appear to be a callous lack of concern for others (e.g., twice he exposed his wife to the threat of sexual exploitation.). Despite this “humanness,” however, we see in Abraham, the “sojourner,” one who will simply not be moved off mission for God.
[15] Ibid. Genesis 4:1 gives us indication that Eve retained her faith in the LORD.
[16] The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, Study Light Organization, http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/frequency.cgi?number=1288&book=ge&translation=nsn.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Douglas, J.D., Tenney, Merrill, C., NIV Compact Dictionary of the Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.
[20] Allen, Ronald B., House, Wayne H., Radmacher, Earl, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, 1999.
[21] NASB Bible, Crosswalk.com, http://bible1.crosswalk.com/OnlineStudyBible/bible.cgi?word=Genesis+1%3A28&section=1&version=nas&new=1&oq=GN+1%3A28
[22] The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, Study Light Organization, http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/frequency.cgi?number=1288&book=ge&translation=nsn.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Hamilton, Victor P., Handbook on the Pentateuch, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982. Nicely defined by Hamilton on page 178: “Murmuring is a frame of mind in which one believes that in difficulties God is insufficient.”
[30] Mounce, William D., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006.
[31] The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, Study Light Organization, http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/frequency.cgi?number=1288&book=ge&translation=nsn

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