Monday 2 January 2012

Blessing (3)

PrayerWorks, a new venture from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity starting in early January 2012, seeks to encourage prayer for the workplace by providing creative ways of praying and developing pathways of prayer for Christians together. From 1 February, this will include a 40-day journey of prayer for work using the prayer pathway of blessing. As part of this, I have been asked to write a supportive piece on what the Bible says about ‘blessing’ – what it tells us about God and the way he works, and its implications for our response in praise to God and in praying for others.

Earlier posts:

Blessing (1) – Introduction

Blessing (2) – Blessing comes from God – the creator God

(b) The covenantal God

To be blessed is not only to benefit from God’s ongoing gifts in creation but to enjoy special relationship with God. God’s desire and intention to bless his people is bound up with the covenant relationship he establishes with them, beginning with Abraham.

The promise to Abraham

The promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, given against the backdrop of the curses announced in the previous chapters (3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25), mark a new turning point in God’s dealings with the world. Judgment is not the last word: God does not reject the nations, but chooses one family to bring blessing to the nations. Thus begins the first episode in a long story in which God progressively works out his plan of restoration – a plan which includes creation itself. In this way, God’s promises to Abraham may be read in conjunction with Genesis 1 – as a reaffirmation of his original blessing on men and women. It is Abraham and his descendants who will become God’s instruments to bless the world. From this one man and his family, God’s blessing (‘bless’ words appear five times in Genesis 12:2-3) will flow to all nations.

It’s not clear in 12:2 whether Abraham is commanded to be a blessing or told that he will be a blessing; either way involves the transmission of blessing to others. There is also ongoing debate as to whether 12:3 should read ‘all families will be blessed through you’ (passive) or ‘all families shall bless themselves by you’ (reflexive). As it happens, similar phraseology elsewhere in Genesis (in 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14) suggests both will be case, and the upshot is the same in any case – God’s blessing will be extended to the nations through Abraham.

The link with worship

The deliverance of God’s people from Egypt and the establishment of his covenant relationship with them at Sinai leads into the building of a sanctuary to facilitate preservation of that relationship. Through the sacrificial cult, Israel was able to dwell in harmony with God and enjoy his ongoing blessing – mediated through the priests. So it is that at the conclusion of the first service of worship, Aaron blesses the people (Lev. 9:22-23), and the levites are set apart for this as an ongoing task (Deut. 10:8; 21:5; 2 Chron. 30:27). God’s blessing is thus bound up with appropriate worship and sacrificial offering. With the priest’s blessing comes the guarantee that atonement has been successful, making the final blessing an essential component of the worship, confirming God’s favourable attitude to his people, serving as a reminder that his presence is with them, to bless them.

The priestly blessing is specified in Numbers 6:22-27:

‘The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

“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 source of the blessing is clear: it is the Lord himself – seen in the threefold repetition of his name in the blessing itself, and confirmed in the final phrase (‘So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them’). This strong link between God’s covenant name and the blessing of his people is also promised in Exodus 20:24, where it is connected with appropriate means of atonement. Although the blessing comes only through the Lord God, it is the priests – in a functional and representative role – who mediate it to the people. It may be seen as a prayer for God’s blessing and protection, his approval and grace, his attention and peace – a prayer which is promised to be effective – ‘I will bless them’ (6:27).

The priestly blessing is alluded to in several psalms (e.g., 29:11; 115:12-15; 134:3). Psalm 67, for example, begins: ‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us’ (67:1). But the blessing, in this case, is sought not for its own sake or for the sake of Israel, but for all peoples, 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) – with the Psalm expressing the hope that God’s blessing will become a global reality. 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, or even on the physical ascent to the temple in Jerusalem, but ‘now and forevermore’ (121:8).

The blessing promised in Numbers 6 is reinforced by the account of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. The king of Moab hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel (22:4-6); but each time Balaam opened his mouth, he blessed them instead of cursed them (Num. 23:8, 20; 24:9-10). Balaam, in spite of his skills and renown as a prophet, was powerless to bless or curse Israel without the Lord’s direction (cf. Deut 23:4-5; Josh. 24:9-10; Neh. 13:1-2). It’s a strong indication that no magic or rituals will make a difference; the authority to bless belongs to the Lord who cannot be coerced.

The way of obedience

According to Exodus 23:25-26 and Deuteronomy 7:11-15, God promises to bless his people if they are obedient to him and provide them with everything necessary for their well-being in the land. The blessings are articulated more fully in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (cf. Lev. 26:1-13), providing a picture of the blessed life as bound up with the provision of food and water, children and crops, farming and fertility, defeat of enemies and long life in the land. The establishment of the covenant flows out of God’s undeserved love for the people (Deut. 7:7-8), but the promise of blessing seems conditional on ongoing obedience to the covenant stipulations (7:11-15; 11:8-15; 28:2), while disobedience causes a breakdown of the covenant, with curses replacing blessings (27:26; 28:15-68). At the very least, this shows that the old covenant people of God were not simply passive recipients of blessing, but were called on to follow God’s standards in everyday life.

Even so, this is not a mechanistic system of reward and punishment so much as an expression of the consequences of staying within and straying from the covenant stipulations which ordered their relationship with God and each other. Keeping or breaking God’s requirements does not set in motion a series of blessings or punishments applied by fate, but from the hand of God with whom they were in covenant relationship.

The invocation of blessing

So far, we have focused on God’s blessing of the created world and his covenant people, but we also see in Scripture examples of people praying for God’s blessing on other people. We have already noted that priests were called to pronounce blessings in the Lord’s name, but others were also able to do so, effectively invoking God’s blessing on someone else – ‘May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful’ (Gen. 28:3).

In some cases, a blessing could be as simple as a greeting (Gen. 47:7; 1 Sam. 13:10; 15:13; 2 Kings 4:29) or a parting (Gen. 31:55; 47:10; 2 Kings 19:39), or it could be as significant as a father invoking God for the continuation of blessing from one generation to another (Gen. 27:27-29; 48:15-16; 49:25-26). There are examples of leaders blessing their people (Deut. 33:1; 2 Sam. 6:18; 1 Kings 8:14, 55), of family members blessing a woman about to be married (Gen. 24:60), of a mother blessing her son (Judges 17:2), of a blessing for fertility (1 Sam. 2:20-21). In each case, blessing appears to involve praying for, even invoking, wellbeing, health, and prosperity from one party to another. Such blessings are different from regular prayers in that they are addressed to fellow men and women rather than God, but they still function as requests or desires for God to bless, and he is still understood to be the ultimate source of the blessing.

It should come as no surprise that many of the blessings occur in the context of family life, expressing hopes for the safe birth of children, fertility of crops, increase of herds, defeat of enemies, and length of days. Even so, within the context of the biblical story as a whole, such blessings were significant for the ongoing survival of God’s covenant people precisely so that God’s plan to bless the nations could be brought to its completion.

A number of these themes are combined nicely in the book of Ruth, which shows the significance of blessing at the heart of the ongoing life of the covenant community. The story begins with a parting, with Naomi urging her widowed daughters-in-law to return to their homes in Moab and effectively praying a blessing on them (1:8-9). In doing so, she commits their future to God, seeking his kindness for them, and praying that God will grant them the security that comes from being married rather than the vulnerability that would come with widowhood. The next blessing occurs in 2:4, as Boaz greets his harvesters with ‘The Lord be with you’, and they reply with ‘The Lord bless you!’ Although this may be no more than a greeting (but what a greeting!), it’s a lovely reminder of God’s presence in the everyday, with the use of God’s name to invoke his blessing in daily life and work, in the meeting and leaving of friends. In his first encounter with Ruth, Boaz prays a blessing for Ruth’s wellbeing because of her faithfulness to Naomi (2:11-12), words which are picked up again in his blessing of her in 3:10 as she dares to seek Boaz, as her next of kin, to take responsibility for her wellbeing. 2:19-20 then records Naomi’s reaction to Ruth when she returns from the fields with a supply of grain – ‘Blessed be the man’ – with a prayer seeking God’s blessing on Boaz. Then, after Boaz and Ruth are married, those who witness the occasion seek God for the provision of children and the building up of their household (4:11-12). When a child is born, the women bless God in thanksgiving for dealing kindly with Naomi (4:14-15). Naomi’s desire for Ruth to find security in a husband’s house (1:9) has come true. In a story shot through with covenant faithfulness, the blessing she sought has come about in the blessing from God of a family from whom will come king David (4:18-22), from whom will come Christ himself (Matt. 1:5). Here is one snapshot of the Old Testament story which traces the transmission of God’s promise of blessing from Abraham through the generations to all nations.

That we are blessed by God means we acknowledge that God is Lord of creation and covenant, the one who freely gives us all good things. That we bless others is an expression that they too might enjoy what we have received. In relationship with God, we are blessed by him, a blessing which overflows from us to others which is then offered back to God in thanksgiving and praise.

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