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B'Midbar/Numbers 6:23 Speak to Aharon and to his sons to say, "Thus you shall bless the Children of Israel, to say to them ..."
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Our text comes almost at the end of the fourth aliyah in Parashat Naso and forms the command to the priests - Aharon and his descendants - to bless the people of Israel inHaShem's name, invoking His blessing upon them by reciting the blessing formula: "So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them" (B'Midbar 6:27, ESV). Although the blessing itself follows (vv. 24-26) and is a fascinating piece of carefully and tightly crafted biblical Hebrew about which much has been written, we can learn some important lessons by taking a look at the command itself.
The ancient Sages of Israel provide our first two insights. The Mishnah tells us that "the blessing of the priests is neither to be read nor translated" (m. Megillah 4:10), referring to the public Torah readings in the synagogue. This is because it is the function of the priests to pronounce the blessing, not whoever - from whichever tribe or family - happens to be reading the Torah in synagogue.Targum Onkelos observes this by transcribing the blessing in Hebrew text rather than providing an Aramaic translation. Don Abravanel points out that "the priestly benediction is so profound that only 'thus', in these exact Hebrew words, can the blessing be offered."
Chazal, the Sages of the Talmud then adds: "Our Rabbis taught: 'Thus you shall bless - that is, in the holy tongue ... standing ... with raising of the hands ... with the use of the Shem Hameforash [the divine name] ... face to face ... in a loud voice" (b. Sotah 38a). These characteristics of ritual for the priestly blessing are still in use today within Judaism. That text also goes on to ask who to be included in the blessing - is it only the menfolk? "This says only 'children of Israel'; how is it that proselytes, women and enfranchised slaves [are included]? Because it says 'to say to them' - that is, to all of them" (ibid.). This is echoed byIbn Ezra who writes: "the truth is the tradition passed down to us by the sages, that this blessing, though couched in the singular, was for all the people of Israel. This is proved by the verse that says, 'Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them' (Vayikra 9:22, NJPS)." Yeshua too blesses the disciples this way as He leaves them: "Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven" (Luke 24:50-51, ESV).
All the people are to be blessed by hearing the priests pronounce the blessing and we should notice, asChizkuni points out, that "this blessing may be pronounced by regular priests and not only the high priest." This is because, Jacob Milgrom explains, "although the priest is holy (Vayikra 8:30, 22:9), indeed, one of G-d's intimates (10:3), he possesses no divine powers of his own. He is the invested technician of the cult, but whether his purpose is blessing or forgiveness, consent and implementation reside solely with G-d." The Bekhor Shor adds, "this is one of the priestly task as it says: 'the l-rd set apart the tribe of levi to carry the ark of the l-rd's covenant, to stand in attendance upon the l-rd, and to bless in his name' (D'varim 10:8, NJPS)."
But what about the priest himself? What happens if he is having a bad day and is feeling grumpy or in a bad mood? RabbiHirsch explains that "it is not the authority to bless the Children of Israel which is here conferred, but a duty which is given to be performed." Although Rashi points out that "say to them" means "so that all of them will hear - not in haste and distraction, but rather with concentration and with a whole heart", the priest's state of mind is immaterial provided he is there and does the right thing. Hirsch continues: "The blessing of the priests does not flow from their well-wishing or their benevolence, but it is part and parcel of their service to the Sanctuary. The priest stands in service before G-d and pronounces the blessing in His name and at His bidding. The ministering priest who pronounces it is nothing but the appointed instrument through which, in the Sanctuary the act, here the word, receives its significant expression."
This setsNechama Leibowitz thinking. "The question arises why do we need the priest at all?" she asks. Her answer is that both G-d and man are involved; there is a working partnership: "This principle of enlisting human cooperation in the work of G-d is to be found in many places. The human assistance that G-d requires is implied in the order to the priests to bless the Children of Israel and prepare their hearts, just as the ground is prepared by the farmer for rain." Gordon Wenham shows that the role of the priest and the context and timing of the blessing do play a critical part in the process: "The proclamation by the priests - at the close of the morning service in the temple and later in the synagogues - was a guarantee that G-d would indeed bless the people of Israel."1
Do the exact words really matter? TheRashbam is certain that they do, insisting that "you shall not make up a blessing of your own ... rather you are to pray to Me that I bless them." Milgrom confirms this: "That is, when you bless, use this formula, not one of your own devising." Although it is a priestly duty - something that they do because they are priests, serving G-d - it cannot be done casually. Drazin and Wagner note that "the priests cannot bless the people as one might bless a friend. Rather, the priests pray to G-d and G-d blesses them", backed up by the Ramban, who returns to the commanded nature of the action: "In this verse, Aharon and his descendants are commanded to do the same throughout the generations and the specific blessing they are to use is given." Once again this reminds us that the role of the priests does not include change or innovation; they deliver a consistent and unchanging service to G-d and people, following the rules of the Torah.
The Psalmist picks up the theme of blessing in Psalm 118, the last of the Hallel psalms and described by Brueggemann and Bellinger as "a thanksgiving psalm", perhaps "an entrance liturgy" or "a processional liturgy."2 The NJPS translation sounds unfamiliar - "May he who enters be blessed in the name of the L-RD; we bless you from the House of the L-RD" (Psalm 118:26, NJPS) - but the Hebrew text starting the verse, , Baruch haba b'shem Adonai and its conventional English translation is well known for its use in the Triumphal Entry narrative found in all four gospels: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the L-RD!" (ESV). It is also quoted by Yeshua in His words to Jerusalem about His return: "For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matthew 23:29, ESV). Another psalm, one of the Psalms of Ascent, relates the blessing normally shared by the reapers and others working in the harvest: "The blessing of the L-RD be upon you. We bless you by the name of the L-RD" (Psalm 129:8, NJPS). This can be seen in the exchange between Boaz and his workers harvesting in the fields near Bethlehem: "Behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, 'The L-RD be with you!' And they answered, 'The L-RD bless you'" (Ruth 2:4, ESV).
David acknowledges the power and longevity of G-d's blessing when he thanks G-d for His promise that David's house or line will continue forever: "You have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever before you, for it is you, O L-RD, who have blessed, and it is blessed forever" (1 Chronicles 17:27, ESV). Balaam, hired by Balak the Moabite king to curse Israel while they were on his land, reflects something of the same when he tells Balak, "I received a command to bless: He has blessed, and I cannot revoke it" (B'Midbar 23:20, ESV). This, in turn, shadows the promise of blessing given to Avraham: "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice" (B'resheet 22:17-18, ESV).
Yeshua tells us that blessing should be a part of loving - "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28, ESV) - while Rav Sha'ul urges us to "bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12:14, ESV). Blessing others, asking G-d to bless them, is meant to be one of the things that we do. Speaking out a blessing so that people can hear is a powerful witness and testimony; even if they do not believe in G-d themselves, they will usually appreciate your words. Even agriculture benefits from being blessed: "land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from G-d" (Hebrews 6:7, ESV). As with other words, the act of speaking a blessing has a creational quality.
So how do we bless people today? Dallas Willard said that "blessing is the projection of good into the life of another. It isn't just words. It's the actual putting forth of your will for the good of another person."3 Blessing always involves G-d because He is the only one who can make blessing happen. We can hear and receive blessing; we can walk in the way of blessing and we can request blessing, but it is G-d who implements and actualises blessing in our lives and those we ask Him to bless. Blessing isn't just trite words, spoken without care and attention; to the contrary, as with the priests of Israel, a blessing is to be deliberate and intentional and - although it doesn't have to be - it is often at least slightly formulaic and will use some words from the 'standard' blessing vocabulary. Don't be scared - the Bible contains many examples of blessings that you can read to see how they do it - what matters is making the effort; the words will follow as you allow the Spirit to guide you. A smile is a good place to start and prepares the way for the words that follow. It is our duty and obligation to bless others: to speak words of kindness and blessing into the many dry and thirsty lives that we meet every day.
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 101.
2. - Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014), page 506.
3. - Dallas Willard, Living in Christ's Presence - Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of G-d, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2017), page 164.
Further Study: Psalm 67:1-7; Mark 11:1-11; Ephesians 1:3-6
Application: How can you bless someone in your travels or correspondence today? How can you develop the habit of blessing people as you go about your life? Ask the Source of All Blessing to guide you and show you the people He wants to bless through you and then give you the words they need to hear.
Comment - 06:11 16May21 SP: This was a wonderful piece;
Comment - 08:24 16May21 HW: I have grown to look forward to the Sunday drash and this morning was particularly given new insight into blessing ... I was blessed by you!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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