NUMBERS 6: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE LORD'S BLESSING?
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
Do you want to bless others with a true blessing of God that has been blessing the world for three thousand years? If you want to bless others, this blog post will show you how to call upon the God who created us to bless others. Isn't that exciting? Could it be more exciting than the passive phrase, "Have a blessed day?" Yes! You too can use Numbers 6 to bless others. But isn't this called "the priestly prayers" and aren't big blessings from God to be done by pastors, ministers, priests?!
The blessing of Numbers 6 may have begun with priests and may be called, "Priestly Blessing" in some Bible chapter headings, but ordinary Jews have practiced blessing families and others for centuries. What does the Lord's blessing really mean?
OK, are you ready to talk about what blessing really is and break down one of the top quoted texts in the Torah, Numbers 6:22-27? If you are one who likes to say, "Have a blessed day," maybe you are offended at me. Well, at least you are still reading! Blessing is deeper and more God-connected than to take God out of it and imply blessing to people from a name-less source. If you have never thought about it, maybe you ought to start thinking more deeply about blessing. If you have thought about this phrase people use in passing and you agree with me but haven't been able to put into words what's really wrong with a nameless blessing, keep reading.
Numbers 6:22-27 is one of the oldest Jewish prayers, yet as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, followers of Rabbinic Judaism still quote it daily at the beginning of morning prayers and during the reader's repetition of the morning Amida. Many say the blessing as part of the Shema (Hear O Israel, Deut 6) particularly at night before bed. This reminds me of my favorite song from Fiddler on the Roof. The blessing is used by parents to bless their children on Friday night, and it is often said to the bride and groom under the huppa.
The blessing is short and beautiful and highly structured, with three lines using prime numbers of words in each line, 3, 5, 7. The blessing of God is incredibly important and meaningful, but how can we understand this blessing more deeply and begin speaking it over our people? I'm going to use a source by Jonathan Sacks to open us up further to the blessing of Numbers 6:22-27 (Covenant & Conversation Book 4, The Toby Press. Kindle Edition).
THE LORD BLESS YOU AND PROTECT YOU
In the world of Mosaic books, blessing has always meant material blessings. Why? Because creation has been called good and the writings pre-date philosophies and faith systems that embrace poverty, asceticism, or anti-material ideals. Sacks says, "It is precisely in the physical world that God's blessings are to be found. But material blessings can sometimes dull our sensitivities toward God. The great irony is that when we have most to thank God for, often we thank Him least (see Deut 8:11-17) . . . 'May the Lord protect you' [also] means: May He protect you from the blessing turning into a curse" of blessings turning you and your people becoming blind and deaf to the good things God has given you.
THE LORD MAKE HIS FACE SHINE UPON YOU AND BE GRACIOUS TO YOU
What does it mean for God to be gracious to us? Does it surprise you to hear about God's grace from the Old Testament? Grace wasn't invented in the New Testament! But what does it mean to call on God to be gracious to us and shine His face upon us?
Sacks says, "Grace is a quality which sees the best in others and seeks the best for others. It is a combination of gentleness and generosity. The second priestly blessing is: May God 'make His face shine on you,' meaning, may His presence be evident in you. May He leave a visible trace of His Being on the face you show to others."
Whoa! How is this supposed to happen? Certainly something that powerful and divine is a mystery to us and not something we can manipulate, but the scriptures are one way we may invite the presence and image of God to shine, rest, come upon us. Saying this blessing to one another is what the priests and we have been commanded to do. God's presence coming and resting, shining upon us is God's work!
THE LORD TURN HIS FACE TOWARD YOU AND GIVE YOU PEACE
Sacks says something very important here: "To make peace in the world we must be at peace with ourselves. To be at peace with ourselves we must know that we are unconditionally valued." We humans value other humans, and I would say we also value God, for what humans and God give us. This is conditional value. Can this person give me something? What is this person worth? What is God worth? It depends on what God is giving me, right? And does God see us this way, valued only by what we give Him, how we serve or put forward in His name? Is there no intrinsic value in us?
Lots of questions in the last paragraph but there's one and the same answer to all of those questions: God values us unconditionally. Here is where Sacks connects the phrase "May the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace." Sacks says,
"The recognition that counts is our reflection in the eyes of God. He loves us for what we are and what we could become. He loves the good in us, not the successful or persuasive or charismatic. He ignores the image we try to project because He knows us from within. His is the voice within us that says, 'With Me, you do not have to pretend. I know you. I knew you before you were born. I know you because I made you, and I made you because I need you--or more precisely, because the world needs you. There is a task only you can do. Now, therefore, be strong and do it. You need not seek praise, nor shall you be deflected by criticism, for I will be with you every step of the way. When you feel most alone, that is when I will be closest.'"
Sacks then concludes, "That is, metaphorically, making eye contact with God. It is the meaning of the third blessing: 'May the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace." This is God pushing back against the self-importance of humanity and opening us up to true holiness, which Sacks says is "transparency to the Divine."
Finally, a word about the tense in which we pray blessings of God. We do not pray for individuals alone, not in the first person singular. No, we pray in the first person plural, "we" and "our." Sacks mentions the great Spanish philosopher Judah Halevi says almost all of our prayers are plural. We do not pray that God give me something but we pray that God give us something. We pray God listens to the prayers of all of God's people. When Moses prayed for the people, says Halevi, God answered yes. When Moses prayed for himself, to enter the promised land, the answer was no.
So Sacks concludes that the three blessings from God communicated by the priests and today continuing through all of God's people to others are for protection, grace, and peace. He says,
"We are what we pray for. If you seek to understand a people, look at its prayers. The Jewish people did not ask for wealth or power. They did not hunger after empire. They had no desire to conquer or convert the world. They asked for protection, the right to live true to themselves without fear; for grace, the ability to be an agent for good in others; and peace, that fullness of being in which each of us brings our individual gifts to the common good. That is all our ancestors prayed for, and it is still all we need."
I'm on a campaign to stop the Christian insider phrase, "Have a blessed day." What is this blessing intended to mean? I don't know what it means but here's how it functions. It's a way Christians are telling each other that they are Christians. That may not be a bad thing in a society of persecution but is it really necessary in a society of free expression of religion? To others who are not Christians, I'm not sure this phrase means much. Why not? Because to say "have a blessed day" is passive blessing without a source. How is someone who is not having "a blessed day" supposed to start having a blessed day? Is this phrase able to point them to something or someone?
So, using the same number of syllables to say "have a blessed day" you can say, "God bless and protect you." Now these are words that may get someone to stop in their tracks, turn their face toward you, and also bless the God who gave them a blessing through you.
Try it this week.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.