Monday, June 17, 2019

Curses in Genesis

Bowls like this 5000 year Egyptian incantation bowl
were used by priests to bless or curse.

Alice C. Linsley

The word "curse" appears in biblical passages that involve imprecatory prayers, banishment, belittling, diminishment, and disparagement of a clan such as the Hamites or a general population such as the Canaanites (Genesis 9). Numerous curses are listed in Deuteronomy 28 as a consequence of violating the terms of the covenant. These include being scattered, slavery, poverty, and disease.

Jeremiah cursed the day of his birth (Jeremiah 20:14). Job refused to curse God, though he was urged to do so by his wife (Job 2:9). Balak sent for Balaam to come and curse "this people” (Numbers 22:6). Jesus Messiah cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:14). The word "curse" appears in Genesis 12:3 where Abraham is told: "I will bless them that bless you and I will curse them that curse you."

Blessing and curse are often intertwined so that our perception depends on our perspective. This is true of the Crucifixion of Jesus Messiah. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says that anyone hanged upon a tree or pole is cursed. This is how the Apostle Paul expresses this paradox: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (I Corinthians 1:18)

Wheaton College Professor John H. Walton has noted, "Blessing and curse are common terms in Genesis from the initial blessing in Genesis 1 to the curses of Genesis 3, 4 and 9, and then to the juxtaposition of curse and blessing in Genesis 12:1-3."

In Genesis 27:1-13, Rebekah is willing to be cursed for plotting to deceive her husband. Jacob said to his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”

Jacob is banished to the territory of his maternal uncle from which he returns a rich man. Esau, as Isaac's rightful heir, becomes a ruler of Edom. In the end, Rebekah's sons are both blessed and a blessing to her. It appears to be true that "where sin abounded, grace abounded much more." (Romans 5:20b)

In the ancient world, official curses and blessing were primarily the work of priests. They sometimes used bowls to bless and to curse. To be blessed was to be under divine protection and to be cursed was to be removed from divine protection. The curse was inscribed inside the bowl and the priest pronouncing the curse would pour water from that bowl on the cursed person or on their property. Presumably the worst curse would involve seven bowls or the pouring of water seven times.

Hebrew verbs that are transliterated "curse" include 'âlâh, ’arar, and qlal. These are also found in variant forms in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Assyrian, and Arabic.

According to Strong's #423, 'âlâh (אָלָה) refers to the execution of an oath. As a noun, 'âlâh refers to the oath itself.

According to Strong's #779'ârar (אָרַר) means "to curse" and is found in Genesis 3:14 and Genesis 3:17. In Genesis 3:14, the serpent is cursed. In Genesis 3:17, the ground is cursed. These two curses parallel two blessings. The Seed of the Woman will crush the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15), and the Promised Land which the people would enter by faith is described as flowing with milk and honey.

Qâlal (קָלַל) appears the first time in Genesis 8:8 in reference to the diminishing flood waters. According to Strong's #7043qlal carries the sense of being diminished or belittled. The word appears in Genesis 24:41 in reference to release from the oath sworn to Abraham by his servant.

In Genesis 3, the ground is cursed as a consequence of human disobedience. This appears to refer a reduction in the land's productivity. This is not difficult to understand, given how humans pollute and abuse the earth by deforestation, slash and burn techniques, depletion of the soil, and over grazing. Paul links the redemption of humans to the restoration of Paradise in Romans 8:19-23.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

In Genesis 4:12, Cain is cursed and banished from the land where Abel's blood was shed. There is a tendency to forget that Cain was shown mercy and granted blessing. He went on to be a ruler who built a city which he named for his son Enoch. His descendants intermarried with the clan of Shem (see diagram) and are included in the ancestry of Jesus Messiah. This means that Cain's line was not wiped out in the flood.

A great deal of divine grace was shown to Cain the murderer, just as it was to the murderers Moses and David. Cain murdered his brother and tried to hide his crime from God. He deserved death, yet God showed him mercy by sparing his life. Cain was sent away and marked by God with a protecting sign.

St. John Chrysostom commented on the unfathomable grace expressed in the story of the Lamech the Elder (Genesis 4). He wrote: “By confessing his sins to his wives, Lamech brings to light what Cain tried to hide from God and by comparing what he has done to the crimes committed by Cain he limited the punishment coming to Him.” (St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, Vol. 74, p.39. The Catholic University Press of America, 1999.)

Reflecting on this great mercy shown to his ancestor Cain, Lamech challenges God to show him greater mercy (Genesis 4:24). If grace was shown to Cain (7), then Lamech by confessing his sin, claims a double measure of grace (77). He claims to be avenged by God "seventy and sevenfold." His grandson Lamech the Younger is assigned a triple measure of grace because he is said to have lived 777 years (Genesis 5:31). By tracing the increase from the number 7 assigned to Cain to the number 777 assigned to Lamech the Younger, we see a pattern of blessing. This pattern speaks of God's mercy shown to sinners.

Likewise, though a belittling curse is spoken by Noah against his son Ham, Ham's descendants are counted in the ancestry of Jesus Messiah. As this diagram reveals, the lines of Ham and Shem intermarried.

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