Far As the Curse Is Found
- Thursday, December 24, 2009
How often did our Lord exercise the function of the prophet and make oracular pronouncements such as he did on the Sermon on the Mount? There he looked to his disciples and said, "Blessed are the poor. . . . Blessed are those who mourn. . . . Blessed are the meek. . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. . . . Blessed are the pure in heart. . . . Blessed are the peacemakers. . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Matt. 5:3-10). We call that section of the sermon "the Beatitudes" because Jesus pronounces the blessing of God upon certain people.
The oracle of doom, in contrast, was normally prefaced by the word woe. When Amos pronounced the judgments of God on the nations he said, "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! . . . Woe to those who are at ease in Zion. . . . Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory" (Amos 5:18; 6:1, 4). When Isaiah beheld the unveiled holiness of God, he pronounced an oracle of doom upon himself because he understood God (Isa. 6:5).
We love to hear the story of blessedness, but we never want to hear the woe. Besides ours, I don't think there has been a culture in the history of the world that has experienced more discontinuity at that level. Everywhere in America we see automobiles with bumper stickers that read God Bless America. After 9/11 Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell suggested that perhaps the events of that day were God's judgments upon America, and the outrage of the press was so severe they had to recant their musings on that point. We believe in a God who is infinitely capable of blessing people but is utterly incapable of cursing them. When I was a young Christian, I heard a sermon from Billy Graham in which he said, "If God does not judge America, he's going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah." But the idea of God bringing judgment and wrath and curse upon a nation has been expurgated from our Bibles and from our theologies.
The Hebrew Benediction
If you really want to understand what it meant to a Jew to be cursed, I think the simplest way is to look at the famous Hebrew benediction in the Old Testament, one which clergy often use as the concluding benediction in a church service:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
The structure of that famous benediction follows a common Hebrew poetic form known as parallelism. There are various types of parallelism in Hebrew literature. There's antithetical parallelism in which ideas are set in contrast one to another. There is synthetic parallelism, which contains a building crescendo of ideas. But one of the most common forms of parallelism is synonymous parallelism, and, as the words suggest, this type restates something with different words. There is no clearer example of synonymous parallelism anywhere in Scripture than in the benediction in Numbers 6, where exactly the same thing is said in three different ways. If you don't understand one line of it, then look to the next one, and maybe it will reveal to you the meaning.
We see in the benediction three stanzas with two elements in each one: "bless" and "keep"; "face shine" and "be gracious"; and "lift up the light of his countenance" and "give you peace." For the Jew, to be blessed by God was to be bathed in the refulgent glory that emanates from his face. "The Lord bless you" means "the Lord make his face to shine upon you." Is this not what Moses begged for on the mountain when he asked to see God? Yet God told him that no man can see him and live. So God carved out a niche in the rock and placed Moses in the cleft of it, and God allowed Moses to see a glimpse of his backward parts but not of his face. After Moses had gotten that brief glance of the back side of God, his face shone for an extended period of time. But what the Jew longed for was to see God's face, just once.
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