Abstract: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.”
|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.
|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
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.