Saturday 26 November 2011

Elmer Martens on Numbers 6:24-26

Elmer Martens, ‘Intertext Messaging: Echoes of the Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26)’, Direction 38, 2 (2009), 163-78.

Understanding intertextuality as ‘the process of invoking a text, either through direct quotation or through allusion, as a way of adding color and depth to the topic under discussion’, Elmer Martens here explores how the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 is echoed by other biblical writers.

The Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-27)

He begins with some reflections on the blessing itself, a three-line prayer followed by a concluding explanation:

‘The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

The benediction, he notes, is to be spoken by ‘Aaron and his sons’ (Num. 6:22; cf. Deut. 10:8; 21:5). The Lord is the subject of each line, and it is best to think of it as three petitions rather than six – with each line containing a call on God to act, followed by an outcome of his action. The first petition is for blessing, the second is about guarding and protecting, while the third – make his face shine – ‘expresses contentment and joy and points to favorable acceptance’.

‘In sum, the Aaronic benediction is a petition to God for beneficence to be shown to a people, a beneficence couched in six verbs: bless, keep, make a face to shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace.

Old Testament Echoes

Martens goes on to explore some Old Testament echoes of the priestly benediction, notably in Psalms 67 and 121.

Psalm 67 begins: ‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us’ (67:1). Here, however, the intended blessing ‘is desired, not in the interests of individuals or even of Israel, but in the interests of God’s salvation becoming known to peoples everywhere’, as seen in the next line of the Psalm: ‘so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’ (67:2). The prayer for blessing functions ‘as a channel for God’s revelation and salvation to nations’. And Psalm 67 goes on to describe what is entailed in this ‘blessing’. As Martens summarises:

‘God’s favor on a people is sought for the ultimate benefit of the peoples of the world. The ancient benediction, Israel-focused, has become globally-focused. Its dimensions are distant both in geography and in chronology In short, the Psalm in its reuse of the priestly blessing tweaks it in three ways. “Blessing” is about physical productivity. Blessing also has a decidedly spiritual dimension, one having to do with knowing God’s salvation. And thirdly, the benediction is given a missional thrust.’

While Psalm 67 reflects on the ‘blessing’ part of the priestly benediction, Psalm 121 echoes the ‘keeping’ part, with forms of that word appearing six times in this Psalm of Ascent. The Lord watches over his people not just on their occasional journeys but ‘now and forevermore’ (121:8). As Martens notes, ‘the ancient ritual is “tweaked” to encompass the image of a journey, be that the physical ascent to Jerusalem, or symbolically, the journey of life’.

New Testament Echoes

Martens suggests that an echo of the priestly benediction might be seen not at the end of Paul’s letters so much as at their start, in the regular greeting – with the ‘grace and peace to you’ reminiscent of the final sentence of the priestly prayer, ‘And be gracious to you... and give you peace’.

This isn’t as straightforward as it might appear, as Martens himself notes, since the Greek translation of Numbers 6 uses eleeo (normally rendered with ‘show mercy’, ‘be merciful’, etc.), whereas Paul uses a form of charis in his greetings. Of course, charis and eleos are closely related (cf. Ps. 86:15; Exod. 34:6), and Paul’s frequently-added words ‘from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ in his greetings are odd if they are ‘little more than a conventional form of “hello”’. Martens summarises:

‘Granted, it may still be something of a reach to regard Paul’s salutation in his letters as a re-use of the priestly blessing. But, while speculative, it is not an unreasoned reach. If the echo of Paul’s salutation of “grace and peace” is less than sharp, but distant... there is an echo nevertheless. The exercise of intertextuality is more than matching some words; it is realizing the power of ancient texts now hinted at, now expounded. More than repetition or echo is involved.’

Martens concludes his article by noting, among other things, the benefit to preachers of attending to intertexts – by paying attention to how Scripture itself elaborates on ‘blessing’ and ‘keeping’, by seeing how other passages show ‘what it means to live under divine benediction’.

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