Volume 42 - Issue 1

A Biblical Theology of Blessing in Genesis

By Matt Champlin


This article examines the meaning of blessing as expressed in the structure and narratives of Genesis. After highlighting the pattern of blessings offset by curses embedded within the “generational” structure of Genesis, the nature of blessing is explored in its varying contexts. Given the quantity of blessings in Genesis, it is natural to expect fulfillments, partial or complete, of the blessings; thus, the article considers the degree to which readers are shown fulfillments and the degree to which they are pointed on towards future fulfillments. Finally, the human role in blessing is considered, both the human blessing of other humans as well as the human blessing of the Lord.

From the first chapter of the Bible to the last, God blesses humanity.1 The blessing of God is a theme like few others in Scripture, encompassing the entirety of God’s goodness to humanity. Despite this, the blessing theme is not generally well understood in Christian usage.2 Believers frequently ask God to bless them or their work without considering whether they are in a position to receive God’s blessing or whether they want to be placed in such a position. Noah was blessed by God when his faithful obedience condemned the world. God blessed Abraham when he told him to leave everything he knew; and though he obeyed in faith, Abraham has yet to receive the promises fully. Joseph received God’s blessing as a slave and a prisoner long before he received it as a government official. Thus, the believer’s proper desire for God’s blessing needs to be enriched with a biblical understanding of the nature of divine blessing. Genesis is the necessary starting place for gaining such an understanding as it contains nearly one sixth of all Scriptural references to blessing, by some estimates.3

1. Blessing and Cursing in the Structure of Genesis

The motif of blessing has been masterfully woven through the narrative structure of Genesis. Structurally, Genesis can be broken down along the lines of the “generations” (תוֹלְדוֹת), which yields a striking pattern with regard to blessing and cursing. The introduction is followed by ten generations which can be divided into major generations (which include extended narrative) and minor generations (with little or no narrative). The introductory section of Genesis (1:1–2:3) speaks of God’s blessing three times (1:22, 28; 2:3), giving special attention to its beginning upon earth, with no mention of a curse. The second section, “the generations of heaven and earth,” speaks of God’s curse three times (3:14, 17; 4:11) without direct reference to God’s blessing, thus emphasizing the beginning of the curse on earth. After this, each major generation is marked by a single mention of cursing4 and a minimum of one mention of blessing. As shown in Table 1, this consistent configuration of blessing and cursing reinforces the understanding that Genesis’ structure is based on the “generations.”

Table 1 – The Pattern of Blessings and Curses in the Generations of Genesis
Section in Genesis Occurrences of Blessing Occurrences of Cursing
Introduction (1:1–2:3) 1:22, 28; 2:3
Generations of Heaven and Earth (2:4–4:26) 3:14, 17; 4:11
Generations of Adam (5:1–6:8) 5:2 5:29
Generations of Noah (6:9–9:29) 9:1, 26 9:255
Generations of the sons of Noah (10:1–11:9)
Generations of Shem (11:10–26)
Generations of Terah (11:27–25:11) 12:2 (2x), 3 (3x); 14:19 (2x), 20; 17:16 (2x), 20; 18:18; 22:17, 18; 24:1, 27, 31, 35, 48, 60; 25:11 12:3
Generations of Ishmael (25:12–18)
Generations of Isaac (25:19–35:29) 26:3, 4, 12, 24, 29; 27 (23x in this chapter); 28:1, 3, 4, 6 (2x), 14; 30:27, 30; 31:55; 32:26, 29; 33:11; 35:9 27:29 (2x)
Generations of Esau (36:1–8; 36:9–37:1)
Generations of Jacob (37:2–50:26) 39:5 (2x); 47:7, 10; 48–49 (15x in these chapters) 49:7

According to Hamilton, the pattern of generations in Genesis emphasizes “movement, a plan, something in progress and motion. What is in motion is nothing less than the initial stages of a divine plan.”6 Throughout Genesis, the narrative strikingly portrays the divine agenda of blessing and cursing, which endures throughout Scripture until the consummation of history when, finally, there will be “no more curse” (Rev 22:3).7 Even at the cataclysmic condemnation in the Garden of Eden, the Lord made it absolutely clear that he would never abandon his people under the curse and its results. From Genesis 3 onward, the blessing and the curse both are intricately woven into the very fabric of human existence. In the generations of Adam, this intertwining of the blessing and the curse is forcefully depicted through their respective effects: men multiply, and they die.8 In the generations of Noah, hope twinkles at the edge of God’s catastrophic judgment of humanity as the creation blessings are expanded after the flood. Two minor generations then compound the post-flood disaster while tracing the line which God has selected (10:1–11:9; 11:10–26). By the time the reader reaches the generations of Terah, hope is scarce. Blessing has only been mentioned three times since the completion of creation (2:4). Meanwhile, the curse has been more plentiful and seems poised to utterly overwhelm the battered blessing. Then, God speaks blessing to Abram five times in just two verses, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2–3; emphasis added). Blessing all around! In the final three major generations (Terah’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s), blessing will be mentioned eighty-one times, the curse only three.9 As James McKeown points out, “The blessing of Abraham is strategically positioned between the primeval narrative and the patriarchal narratives so that it marks a turning point in the book of Genesis – a turning point from an agenda dominated by cursing to one that is dominated by blessing.”10 The curse, however, is not forgotten in the Abrahamic blessing; it will rest on anyone who dishonors the blessed one.

One final structural area should be noted from Table 1. The four minor generations are shorter and primarily contain genealogies, with little or no narrative; they also have no direct mention of either blessing or cursing. These generations have a housekeeping role showing the narrowing pattern of selected and non-selected lines, which Ross calls, “a tidying up process of the line not chosen.”11 Thus, the generations of the sons of Noah, of Shem, of Ishmael, and of Esau show selection and non-selection, rather than directly referencing blessing or cursing like the generations upon which the author focuses. They clarify where God’s blessing has been given and where it has not. Beyond that, the minor generations have an additional critical function, which will be explored further later: they demonstrate the actualization of God’s blessings, showing the multiplication of humanity, the fulfillment of God’s blessings which overflowed to Ishmael and Esau, and a few of the kings who were descended from Abraham. This brief consideration of the structure of Genesis and its relationship to blessing and cursing lays a foundation for considering the nature of blessing in Genesis.

2. The Nature of Divine Blessing and Cursing

Before considering further the intertwining of the blessing and the curse in the Genesis accounts, the nature of blessing should be examined. Why is a blessing frequently given as a command? What does it mean to receive divine blessing? What does it mean to be a blessed one? How can the aquatic and avian creatures, mankind, and the seventh day all receive God’s favor in the same manner? While contexts vary, a basic definition of the nature of blessing, at least within Genesis, is possible. Blessing is the bestowing of privilege, right, responsibility, or favor upon some portion of the creation, by God or by one whom he has blessed.12 In relation to humanity, to be blessed is to be one of God’s own people with all the benefits that brings: in other words, the blessing of God is his relational presence in one’s life.13 Such a definition requires some defense since many theologians equate the blessing of God primarily with life power, inner strength, or fertility.14 Certainly, the blessing of God includes life, strength, and fertility; but these are largely the manifestations, not the substance, of blessing.15 Cain understood this. Thus, after God cursed him, Cain summarized the curse as a loss of both benefits (being driven away from the ground) and access to God—“from your face I shall be hidden” (4:14; cf. 1 John 3:12–15). The curse of God alienates one from God’s presence, while the essence of divine blessing is “I will be with you” (26:3).16

Significantly, at the beginning of the world, which Ross describes as “wrapped in divine blessing,”17 God came to walk with his people (3:8); after that, the godly are described as “walking with God” (5:22, 24; 6:9) Still later, God spoke to Abraham and promised his personal guidance on the journey “to the land that I will show you” (12:1). Additional confirmations to Abraham of God’s enduring relationship with him came later, including the command for Abraham to walk before God (in his presence!) and the covenant that the Lord would “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:1, 7–8; cf. 22:2; 24:40; 48:15).18 In the lives of Abraham’s descendants, this blessing presence continued. Twice, God said to Isaac, “I will be with you and will bless you” (26:3, 24; emphasis added); immediately after the second time, Abimelech of Gerar explicitly linked God’s presence with Isaac to Isaac’s being “the blessed of the Lord” (26:28–29). The Lord expressed the Abrahamic blessing to Jacob in this way: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15; cf. 31:3; 46:3–4). Over and over, the Lord proclaims to the reader of Genesis that blessing is preeminently about a right relationship with him. That is not simply a part of the blessing; it is the very core.

Blessing certainly has a broader meaning than “relationship with God” (though even if it did not, it would still be an incredible display of grace!), but blessing does not have a meaning outside of relationship with God. Whatever else it implies (fertility, life, riches, etc.), relationship with God is always the pivot point of blessing. However, each type of relationship may be distinct from the others. On the one hand, God blessed the seventh day and established an exceptional relationship with it (2:3). On the other hand, God gives externally similar blessings to the fish and birds on the fifth day and to the man and woman on the sixth day in Genesis 1.19 The distinction between these two blessings is beautifully crystallized by James McKeown:

These blessings are pronounced in a way that indicates two different levels of relationship. The blessing on the human beings was communicated “to them,” whereas the blessing on the fish and birds was simply pronounced and the words “to them” are missing. Although God blessed other creatures, it was the blessing on the humans that reflected the more intimate relations.20

In contrast to the blessing, God’s curse signifies the divine shattering of relationship. The example of Cain has already been given; the other curses in Genesis demonstrate the point further. In the first recorded curse, perpetual enmity destroyed the previously good relationship between the serpent and mankind (3:14).21 Next, God broke the relationship which he had established between mankind and the ground: no longer could man eat freely of the earth’s bounty; now, he would labor and eat only with difficulty (3:17; 5:29; cf. 1:29–30; 2:5, 16). Later, Canaan’s normal filial relationships were shattered as he was separated from the blessing of God (9:25–27). Anyone who cursed Abram or Jacob would be separated from God’s blessing (12:3; 27:29); and, finally, due to their cursed actions, Simeon and Levi lost some of the natural family privileges of older sons to their younger brother (49:7–12).

It is of critical importance that God did not curse “man” after the fall. Rather, in what seems like a strange turn of events, God cursed the ground. In Genesis, God’s curse and his blessing never both fall on the same person, even when that would seem most natural.22 God had blessed Adam and Eve, and they could not be cursed. Similarly, Canaan was cursed instead of Ham, who had been blessed upon leaving the ark; Ham could not be cursed.23 Finally, the curse of God (mediated through Jacob) was proclaimed upon the anger of Simeon and Levi, not on the blessed brothers themselves (49:7, 28). God never abandons the men and women whom he has chosen to bless with covenant relationship.

These observations are the first indicators that divine election and divine blessing are intertwined. As Friedrich Horst writes, “Who receives such blessing? God blesses human beings and, for their sake only, other beings. Election and blessing are closely related.”24 These types of statements are likely to conjure up a variety of theological feelings, but the point here is simple: God gives himself in blessing-relationship only to those whom he has chosen as his own.25 This might seem obvious when stated so baldly, but it must be said: God is the only source of blessing or cursing, and his actions are ultimately decisive.

3. Human Mediation of Blessing and Cursing

Many of the blessings in Genesis came directly from the mouth of God. In cases where a human spoke the blessing, Genesis only portrays it as effectual because God confirmed it either verbally or providentially through what followed. It is crucial to note these parameters of blessing because they fly directly in the face of the shamanistic interpretations often placed upon such passages.26 Any “magic” in Genesis is the effective power of God. Humans are effective agents of blessing or cursing only when they align with the will of God.27 This can be seen especially clearly in God’s first blessing to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (12:3). Not only would people be unable to curse Abram, but also if they set themselves against him, they would themselves be cursed since the Lord would be against them.28 The accounts of Melchizedek and Abimelech (chs. 14 and 20, respectively) illustrate these positive and negative aspects of the blessing in action.29 Noah was actually the first man recorded to have invoked blessing and cursing in God’s stead; and truly, Canaan was cursed (compare 10:15 to 15:16), and the Lord and Shem were bound in blessed relationship (compare 9:25–6 to 12:1–3). Years later, Abraham had no need to bless Isaac formally, since God had already made clear that he was blessed. Isaac, however, attempted to pass on the blessing; and through a rather convoluted series of events, he did bless God’s chosen son Jacob, phrasing his blessing in such a way that it acknowledged God’s role in actualization (27:27–30; 28:3–4). Jacob would eventually bless his sons as well, giving each son “the blessing suitable to him” (49:28). Thus, whether spoken directly by God or mediated by a human, only God’s blessing is effectual, and it is always effectual.

4. Blessing Fulfillment in Genesis

If it is true that God is the ultimate source of all true blessing and that God has never blessed a person who did not receive that blessing, then one would expect to see frequent actualization of God’s blessing in Genesis, since the book is littered with blessing statements. So, is the blessing of God realized in Genesis? If so, how? Is the blessing effective independent of human action, or must humans cooperate in order to receive blessing? The answer in Genesis may seem contradictory until it is illustrated by the lives of the patriarchs. God’s blessing is always effectual, but it often awaits human obedience to become active. Adam and Eve rejected God’s blessing and suffered under the curse. They themselves were not cursed, however, and received some blessings in chapters 3 and 4. Correspondingly, the major human characters in Genesis are consistently shown as flawed people with wrong desires, fears, ambitions, pride, and more. Each deserved the cursing which others received, but each also responded to God in faith. Noah walked with God; yet, through drunkenness, he initiated the events that revealed the twisted hearts of Canaan and his line. Abraham was blessed, and God protected his line even when Abraham wandered in fear.

Jacob may be the most interesting example as he inherited the Abrahamic blessing from his father (primarily in an incident separate from the deception of his father [28:1–5]). Shortly after that, the blessing was confirmed by God in a vision, before the God of Abraham was his God! Indeed, according to his own professions, Jacob may not have committed to the God of Abraham or claimed him as his own until as late as his return to Canaan, particularly Bethel (28:20–22; 31–32; 35). Nevertheless, God had blessed him, and he was blessed. The external evidences of blessing were present, even to observers (30:27), but the beauty of obedient, trusting relationship was not. Thus, Jacob’s life until Bethel could be summarized as, “The Lord was with Jacob, but Jacob was not yet with the Lord.”

In the next generation, however, Joseph’s circumstances looked just the opposite. The Lord was with Joseph through many difficulties (39:2, 21, 23), and Joseph was with the Lord, seeking to walk rightly before him (39:9–10; 40:8). Furthermore, the Lord made him successful within the difficult situations of slavery and prison before placing him in an exalted and obviously blessed position.

At this critical point, Genesis climaxes with a series of initial fulfillments of the blessing-promises, indicating that neither the divine blesser nor Moses, the human designer of the book, have forgotten that the immense blessings still appear essentially meaningless as the book nears its end. Although some blessing promises have been fulfilled along the way, the closing chapters of Genesis seem particularly designed to show that the blessing promises were not forgotten even where they had not been fully realized.30 The fulfilling of the Lord’s sweeping blessings had been initiated: he was giving Abraham’s seed the land (48:21–22; 50:24) and multitudes of descendants (47:27; 48:15–20)! Conversely, these blessings were still far in the future, visible primarily to the eye of faith. A few patches of land had been acquired by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but these were simply pledges against the coming complete realization of God’s blessing.31 Abraham’s family had grown to dozens (46:5–27), but offspring “as the stars” were still far in the future. Most promising of all, the whole earth had begun to be blessed and the effect of the curse to be mitigated through Abraham, in the person of Joseph, as “all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (41:57; cf. 12:2–3).

Thus, the deathbeds of Jacob and Joseph give the final message of Genesis, as these aged patriarchs look forward with undimmed spiritual eyes to the full reception of the blessings. Most of all, they anticipated the guiding presence of God continuing to be with his people, blessing them as he had promised (48:15–16; 49:25; 50:24, 25). The closing chapters and verses of Genesis are like arrows pointing the reader onwards beyond “the beginning” to complete blessedness.

While the most far-reaching blessings are not, and in fact cannot be, fully realized within the Genesis narratives, many less complex blessings are either largely or completely fulfilled, as seen in Table 2.32 For example, the multiplication of Adam and Noah’s descendants on the earth in “the generations of Adam” and “the generations of the sons of Noah” has already been mentioned as realizations of God’s creation and post-flood blessings. In fact, each of the four “minor generations” can now be understood to be blessing-fulfillment records. Other blessings are fulfilled in the minor generations of Ishmael and Esau as Abraham is shown to be the father of a multitude of nations, and kings are listed as descending from Sarah. Meanwhile, the fulfillment of the blessing to Ishmael is also seen in his “generation.” Beyond these fulfillments in the minor generations, Sarah did have the son of her blessing in her old age; and Pharaoh was blessed by Jacob, with immediate effect. Moreover, in one instance, Rebekah’s offspring quite literally possessed the gates of their enemies, quite beyond whatever deeper meanings the blessing she received might have carried. Thus, the reliability of the Lord’s blessings, large or small, is demonstrated throughout Genesis.

Table 2 – Selected Blessings and Their Fulfillments in Genesis
Blessing Bestowal Fulfillment: initial or complete
Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth (Adam, Noah, Jacob) 1:28; 9:1, 7; 35:11 5:1–6:8; 10:1–11:9;33 47:27
Subdue the earth and have dominion over the creatures 1:28 4:2, 17–2234
Every plant and fruit to be food 1:29 4:2; 6:21
Every moving thing to be food 9:3 18:8; 43:16, 31–34
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem 9:26 11:10–12:3
Abram to be a great nation 12:2; 22:17 14:13–17;35 46:8–27; 47:27
Abram blessed by God 12:2 14:13–24; 24:1, 35–36
Abram to be a blessing 12:2 14:19; (cf. 20:7; 48:20)
Blessing on Abram’s blessers; curses on whoever dishonored Abram 12:3 12:15–20; 14:19–20; 20; (cf. 39:5; 47:13–26)
All families of the earth blessed in Abram,36 Isaac, and Jacob 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14 33:11; 41:57
Sarah blessed with a son 17:16 21:1–7
Sarah to have nations come from her 17:16 36:1–43
Sarah to have kings come from her 17:16; (cf. 49:10) 36:31–39; 45:8
Ishmael to be fruitful, multiply, have 12 princes and a great nation 17:20 25:12–18; (cf. 28:9; 36:3–4)
Abraham’s and Rebekah’s offspring to possess the gate of their enemies 22:17; 24:60 30:43–31:16; 34:27–29; 45:8
Rebekah to become thousands of ten thousands 24:60 36; 46:8–27
Isaac blessed by God 26:3 26:12, 28–29
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants to receive the land37 26:3–4; 28:4; 35:12; 48:4 33:19; 35:29; 48:22; 49:29–32;38 50:13
Isaac and Jacob to be multiplied 26:4, 24; 28:3; 48:4; (35:11; 48:15–19) 46:8–27; 47:27
Esau to be away from the good land 27:39 36:6–8
Esau to live by the sword but not serve his brother forever 27:40 33:1–17
Jacob to father kings 35:11; (cf. 49:10) 36:31; 45:8
Pharaoh blessed (by Jacob) 47:7, 10 47:13–2639

The very nature of God’s major blessing-promises required a protracted timeframe beyond the range of the narrative for complete fulfillment; thus, the reader gets only glimpses of their fulfillments (especially in 41:57 and 47:27). These main blessing themes, however, will be continued throughout the Pentateuch, into the book of Joshua, and throughout the Old Testament, often explicitly referencing the blessings given in Genesis to the patriarchs. To take things a step further, the fulfillments of the patriarchal blessings themselves are ultimately fulfillments of the original creation blessings. This is what Clines means when he connects the patriarchal blessings to “the primal divine intentions for man.”40 Amazingly, as Genesis 35:11–12 makes clear, the purpose of this embryonic nation is indistinguishable from the seminal purpose of the entire creation: that purpose is to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the land with a particular type of people for God Almighty.41

5. Blessing the LORD

One particular subset of blessing in Genesis should be examined briefly, people blessing the Lord. Three times in Genesis, people bless the Lord with one account being repeated twice within the same narrative (9:26; 14:20; 24:27, 48). All three accounts can be seen as an expression of both thanksgiving and relationship, with the relational aspect being more central in the first example, while grateful praise shines through the other examples more strongly.

To illustrate, immediately after pronouncing the curse of God upon Canaan, Noah pronounced the blessing of God upon Shem (9:24–27). Instead of making Shem the object of the blessing, however, Noah blessed the Lord recognizing the Lord as the source and substance of Shem’s blessedness and reflecting the Lord’s blessing back to him in praise. The sense of Noah’s blessing seems to be “blessed is the Lord, who will be the God of Shem,” thus indicating God’s covenant devotion to the line of Shem as well as the Shemites’ devotion to the Lord.42 Candlish brings out the import of this blessing, saying:

The prophetic father, beholding afar off the highly-favoured descendants of his highly-honoured son, fixes his devout eye, not on their prosperous and happy state, but on the glory of that great and holy name, with whose honour their welfare is to be inseparably blended.… Jehovah, the God of Shem, is the blessed One; how blessed, then, he whose God Jehovah is!43

Thus, this benediction by Noah was a proclamation of both praise and of relationship.44

Later, both Melchizedek and Abraham’s servant blessed the Lord in response to his faithfulness to Abraham (14:20; 24:27). They were expressing gratitude for the Lord’s externally demonstrated faithfulness to Abraham, but they also recognized that the actions sprang from the covenanted relationship between the Lord and Abraham. In fact, Abraham’s servant phrased his blessing in explicitly relational terms, blessing the Lord who had not “forsaken his steadfast love and faithfulness” towards Abraham. Thus, Towner is absolutely correct when he clarifies that “the blessing of YHWH is a cry of thanksgiving to him arising from manifestations past and present of his faithfulness toward his people.”45

6. Conclusion

If we are to come to any practical conclusion regarding the nature of God’s blessing and people’s blessing of God, Job 1:21, which Murtonen calls (with 1 Sam 3:18) “the summit of the whole Old Testament,” may guide us: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”46 Job, having lost every external token of his blessedness, had arisen and worshiped. Because the gift of God himself was enough for Job, Job could still bless God in gratitude! For all who are blessed with divine relationship, ancient or modern, the loss of the tokens of blessing should pale beside the confidence of being the blessed of the LordThe message of Genesis is not simply a message about blessed people who are prosperous like Abraham and Isaac were, nor is it primarily a message about blessed people who were oppressed, like Jacob and Joseph were. Rather, Genesis speaks to all those who would walk with God; it recognizes the promise of the blessing and the devastation of the curse to each person, calling each person to live based on those realities. Along with displaying a vast array of blessing-promises touching every family on earth through Abraham’s seed, Genesis shows that God mediates his blessing to humanity through humanity itself. Genesis does not give the final results, but it points the way forward, giving numerous assurances through fulfilled blessings that the divine blesser will fulfill all the blessings that he has spoken. Finally, Genesis hints that the reader’s worshipful response is to bless the Lord in reverent and intimate thanks.

[1] Genesis 1:28; Revelation 22:14–15.

[2] Even many conservative scholars have slighted this key component of Genesis, often relegating blessing to the sidelines of studies on the covenants. Meanwhile, it is difficult to find a thorough treatment of the blessing of God in Genesis which is not filled with references to “Israel’s older views of magic,” “superstitions,” “the inherent power of someone’s ‘blessing word,’” or other such shamanistic references.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 275. On average, blessing occurs in 5.68% of the verses in Genesis (87) compared to 4.69% in Deuteronomy (45), 4.51% in Psalms (111) or 2.61% in Luke (30). Alternatively, A. Murtonen counts 45 “passages” of blessing in Genesis, compared to 37 in Deuteronomy and 58 in the Psalms (“The Use and Meaning of the Words Lebårek and Beråkåh in the Old Testament,” VT 9 [1959]: 159).

[4] Gen 27:29 contains the word curse twice in a single mention of cursing.

[5] Gen 8:21; 27:12, 13 contain a different Hebrew word which is also translated “curse.” These are not included in the generational pattern (cf. 12:3).

[6] Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 18.

[7] Scriptural quotations follow the ESV.

[8] As Claus Westermann says, “Despite man’s disobedience and punishment, the blessing given with the act of creation remains intact…. Man who is now far from God is always man blessed by God, and man’s life remains open to the future just because of the power of God’s blessing” (Creation, trans. John J. Scullion [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974], 104).

[9] During the first three major generations (heaven and earth’s, Adam’s, and Noah’s), the blessing was mentioned three times, the curse five times.

[10] James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 222.

[11] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 73.

[12] The normal OT Hebrew words for “bless” are all cognate to the word ברך; though other words are sometimes translated “bless,” ברך is by far the most prevalent in Scripture. This writer has often heard it said rather generically that the “blessed man” is a “happy man,” which suggests that “to bless” is approximately the same as “to make happy.” (The alternate words אשׁר or אַשְׁרֵי found in Job 29:11; Ps 1:1; 33:12, etc., do mean something similar to “happy” and are sometimes translated that way.) Samuel Horn has pointed out that this association of blessing with happiness is insufficient, instead commending the association of “blessed” with the word “approved.” (“Partakers of the Divine Nature,” sermon delivered at Northland International University, 5 May 2009). This helpfully points towards the relational nature of blessing, though it still may not go far enough, at least in the context of Genesis.

[13] People’s blessing of God will be dealt with later, but it clearly cannot fit exactly under this definition.

[14] Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, repr. ed., 2 vols. (Atlanta: Scholars, 1991), 1:182, 190; John N. Oswalt, “(barak) to kneel, bless, praise, salute, curse.” in TWOT 1:132.

[15] James McKeown makes this clear in “Blessings and Curses,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 84–85.

[16] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., writes, “Throughout the patriarchal narratives one more theme rang out as another part of the blessing of the promise. It was simply God’s pledge: “I will be with you”” (Toward an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], 94). Cf. Rolf Rendtorff, The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, trans. John J. Scullion, JSOTSup 89 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1977), 66–67.

[17] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 74.

[18] “To walk before God means to orient one’s entire life to his presence, promises and demands,” according to Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 259.

[19] These command-blessings are given to creatures in proper relationship with the Creator (1:22, 28; 9:1, 7). In a later case, God blesses Jacob by renaming him Israel, then identifying himself as “El Shaddai,” and commanding Jacob to “be fruitful and multiply” (35:9–11). In this way, command-blessings distinctly illuminate the relational nature of blessing. (In the paragraph immediately following the incident with Jacob, Benjamin is born in obedient, short-term fulfillment to this command.)

[20] James McKeown, Genesis, 222.

[21] Henry Brichto supports this interpretation quite strongly, noting that in some places curse has the force of “banishment” (“The Problem of Curse in the Hebrew Bible,” SBLMS 1 [Philadelphia, Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1963]: 83–85).

[22] This theme cannot be pursued here, but the only person whom God both blesses and curses in Scripture is Jesus. This emphasizes the depth of the redemptive theme seen here. (Interestingly, the land animals were not explicitly blessed in Genesis 1; thus, even the serpent that was cursed in Genesis 3 is not portrayed as receiving both blessing and cursing.)

[23] A number of scholars have seen the blessedness or righteousness of Ham as at least part of the reason that he was not cursed, minimally dating back to Justin Martyr, Dial. 139; cf. Gordon Wenham, “Family in the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 201. Furthermore, the cursing of Canaan in Ham’s place should be regarded as a God-ordained invocation, what George Bush calls “inspired foresight” and “denunciatory prophecy” (Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Genesis, 2 vols. [New York: E. French, 1839], 1:162).

[24] Friederich Horst, “Segen und Segenshandlungen in der Bibel,” EvTh 7 (1947/48): 23–27, quoted in Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, trans. Keith Crim (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 27.

[25]In a number of instances, blessings appear to overflow from one person to another without the second person being fully blessed in the deeper, relational sense of the word. Thus, Ishmael and Esau appear to be blessed because of their fathers’ relationship to the divine blesser (17:18, 20; 27:38–41; 33:11; cf. Heb 12:16–17); more obviously, Laban and Potiphar are blessed due to those who work for them (30:27–30; 39:5–6). As Kaiser describes Jacob and Joseph, “So blessed were these men that their benefits overflowed to their neighbors” (Toward and Old Testament Theology, 98). In two further incidents, patriarchs bless kings: Jacob explicitly blesses Pharaoh (47:7, 10), while Abimelech of Gerar seeks out a relationship with the blessed Isaac after Abraham’s death and God’s confirmation of Isaac as blessed (26:3, 4, 12, 24, 29). These overflowing blessings do not seem to require the same level of relationship from the blessed as is required for the blesser. As Kenneth A. Mathews points out, to some extent all nations are beneficiaries of the blessing as they are fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1–11:26, NAC 1 [Nashville: B&H, 1996], 298, 429). In other words, because of God’s blessed people, it is possible for others to receive the benefits of the blessing without necessarily implying that they are in chosen relationship with the Lord.

[26]Accordingly, W. Sibley Towner disagrees with “the familiar contention that, when a blessing is pronounced, a beneficent power or dynamis is released by the blesser upon the thing blessed. Perhaps ‘primitive psychology’ did apprehend the meaning of the act of blessing in some such way; however, it is not clear that the mentality of the biblical writers and traditionists was ‘primitive’ to this degree” (“‘Blessed be YHWH’ and ‘Blessed art Thou, YHWH’: The Modulation of a Biblical Formula,” CBQ 30 [1968]: 387).

[27] This is poignantly illustrated throughout Judges 17–18 and neatly encapsulated within 17:2 where Micah’s mother ineffectively attempts both to curse and to bless her son.

[28] None of this is meant to imply that blessing could not have been viewed as “magic,” rather it is to say that Genesis does not present an effective “magical” blessing outside of the power of God. In this vein, Ferguson comments, “A curse directed against the elect could be turned into a blessing or even come back against the one who sent it.” Paul Ferguson, “Cursed, Accursed,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 139. In Genesis, God is always the primary blesser.

[29]A not dissimilar incident happens when Laban catches up to blessed Jacob but is warned by God not to say anything good or evil to Jacob (31:24; cf. 27:29).

[30] In fact, Moses stretches these themes throughout the Pentateuch, always urging the reader to look beyond. As Clines wrote, “The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment—which implies also the partial non-fulfilment—of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and are an affirmation of the primal divine intentions for humanity” (The Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed., JSOTSup 10 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 30, emphasis original.

[31] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, NSBT 11 (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 32.

[32] Although the set of curses is much smaller, the fulfillment of the curses in Genesis could be mapped in a similar fashion with the exception of the one in 49:7, which occurs very near the end of the book.

[33] Westermann, Creation, 24, 120.

[34] Westermann, Creation, 25.

[35] Here Abram is seen with allies, an army, and in numerical might. Consider Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York: Free Press, 2003), 303.

[36] Paul declared that this promise contained the essence of the gospel, tying this promise to the Gentiles’ reception by faith of the indwelling, empowering Holy Spirit (Gal 3:7–14). Thus, intimate relationship with God is again found to be central to blessing. In fact, this section of Galatians is an exquisite extension of the blessing theology of Genesis (cf. Eph 1:3–6; 1 Pet 4:14).

[37] Esau was given territory as well, but in a different land (Gen 36:1–37:1).

[38] Wenham, “Family in the Pentateuch,” 29.

[39] Waltke, Genesis, 592.

[40] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 30.

[41] Nor is that seminal purpose different than the charge Jesus gave to his followers before his ascension to go throughout the whole world and make more followers, teaching them how to be like he had said to be.

[42] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch write, “Moreover it is true of the blessing and curse of Noah, as of all prophetic utterances, that they are fulfilled with regard to the nations and families in question as a whole, but do not predict, like an irresistible fate, the unalterable destiny of every individual; on the contrary, they leave room for freedom of personal decision, and no more cut off the individuals in the accursed race from the possibility of conversion, or close the way of salvation against the penitent, than they secure the individuals of the family blessed against the possibility of falling from a state of grace, and actually losing the blessing” (Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin, repr. ed., 10 vols. [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson], 1:101).

[43] Robert S. Candlish, The Book of Genesis (Edinburgh: Black, 1868), 163–64.

[44] This is the first divine announcement narrowing the lineage of the Messiah: Canaan was cursed, but Shem would be blessed. What a comfort that the next time the Lord narrowed the line of blessing, he also guaranteed blessing for all nations without exclusion (Gen 12:2–3)!

[45] Towner, “Blessed be YHWH,” 390. Also, “When an Israelite blesses with a formulary benediction, the intention is not to turn YHWH’s ‘power’ upon himself, but rather to express joy in God’s gracious acts and to proclaim those acts to the world.” Ibid., 387.

[46] Murtonen, “Lebårek and Beråkåh,” 169.

Matt Champlin

Matt Champlin studied Bible and theology at Northland International University; he is currently an instructor in English in Istanbul, Turkey.

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