First Reading: Numbers 6:22-27
The Blessing of Blessings
22 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is how you shall bless the children of Israel.’ You shall tell them,
24 ‘YHWH bless you, and keep you.
25 YHWH make his face to shine on you,
and be gracious to you.
26 YHWH lift up his face toward you,
and give you peace.’
27 “So they shall put my name on the children of Israel; and I will bless them.”
World English Bible
What does the word “blessing” mean to you? How do you know you have been blessed?
The Vulcan hand greeting was one of the more memorable images from the 1960's iconic television series, Star Trek. According to Leonard Nimoy who played the Vulcan “Mr. Spock,” the idea for the hand greeting came from memories of his youth as an Orthodox Jew. Once a year, the men of the congregation who were known as “Kohen” (i.e., descendants of Aaron) would place their prayer shawls over their heads, raise their hands in the way made famous by the Vulcan hand greeting, and repeat the Aaronic blessing from Numbers. Nimoy said the sight of the blessing left an overwhelming impression on him as a child.
As Nimoy’s story above tells us, this famous verse of blessing from Numbers actually has two components: those giving the blessing and the blessing itself. God instructed the priests to give the blessing on the people (and, by extension, on the nation). In medieval Jewish commentary known as Midrash, some writers noticed a contradiction; how could God command the priests to bless the people, when God himself promised to bless the people directly (Deuteronomy 26:15)? In typical rabbinic fashion, the writers used Scripture to explain Scripture:
My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices. (Song of Songs 2:9, NAB)
In this interpretation, God is the lover peering behind the wall. When the priests raised up their hands and spread their middle and ring fingers to form a triangle image, the fingers symbolized the lattice of the window through which God could see and be seen. (For more information, see the commentary of Rabbi Ismar Schorsch from an article in Belief.net)
While this interpretation might not date back to the time of Jesus, it is insightful. The person blessing was one who mediated the presence and power of God.
The blessing itself was highly stylized. It consisted of three verses (Numbers 6:24-26) with two clauses each. In Hebrew, 6:24 had three words, 6:25 had five words, 6:26 had seven words. The progression to seven words indicated the complete blessing of God, since the number seven symbolized fullness. To make that point clear, in 6:27 God stated “I will bless them;” the “I” in Hebrew made the verse emphatic.
In 6:24, the blessing called upon God to bless and keep the people. By blessing, the writer meant fulfillment of the covenant. God promised Abraham numerous descendants and land; the blessing called on God to make the population numerous and to enrich the land for an abundant harvest. By keeping, the writer meant saving the people from evil, any force that would weaken the covenant promises.
In 6:25, the blessing called upon God to show his face and his graciousness. Showing his “face” meant his presence; his graciousness meant his loving activity. Again, notice the connection to the covenant. When God made his covenants, he showed his face (revealed his presence) and his graciousness, choosing these people over any other; keeping the covenants would renew his presence and activity.
In 6:26, first part of the blessing in this verse repeated the blessing in 6:25 (turning face toward people and showing graciousness) but also intensified the blessing. “To look upon” had an active intent; it meant “to give favor to.” The last part of the blessing in 6;26 was the end game of this and all Hebrew blessings: peace or “shalom,” that sense of God’s presence and peaceful dominion over the cosmos. (In his greetings, Paul wished his audience “grace and peace;” both words were interchangeable since both referred to the presence and activity of God for the faithful).
The last verse stated that when the name of God was invoked, he would bless the people (invocation of YHWH’s “name” was the same as calling upon the power of God).
For Jews, this blessing and the ones giving the blessing were bridges back to the covenants God made to his people. For Christians, God blessed his people through one mediator, Jesus Christ. He was the presence of God who gave his followers God’s power. In this sense, the blessing became a prophecy God fulfilled. Christ was this one blessing; his life (grace) is our blessing.
Reflect on your blessings. How many are spiritual? How many reveal the face of God to you?