We all say “Bless you!” reflexively when someone sneezes, or “I’ve been blessed” as we pull into that prime parking spot at the grocery store. Nice sentiments, certainly, but what does blessing mean? While it’s certainly good to be thankful for God’s presence in the little things of life, there’s a danger that our focus on them can trivialize a bigger, more robust God-sized vision. To get a better sense of the word’s scope and meaning, let’s look at blessing (or barak, in Hebrew)—and its alternative, curse (qalal)—in their respective biblical contexts.
Two Mighty Mountains
God set two paths before the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). The blessing was theirs if they followed the ways of the Lord; the curse, if they turned to their own wicked ways and rebelled.
Visuals are helpful, so the Lord gave them a very striking image: two mighty mountains. The people were to pronounce the blessings on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal (Deut. 11:29; Josh. 8:30-35). Both were about the same height, and in a valley between them was located the major crossroads of Shechem.
If you were standing at this intersection, facing Gerizim would orient you toward Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place. And if you turned toward Ebal, you’d be facing away from the holy city, toward the land of exile and suggesting distance from God. Jewish tradition has it that Mount Gerizim (the mount of “blessing”) was lush with vegetation, while Mount Ebal was dry and barren.
If Israel followed God’s path, His blessing was for the whole community: The land would thrive, crops and cattle would flourish, and the people would experience abundance. A synonym for blessing was “life and prosperity,” whereas the synonym for curse was “death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15). If Israel stubbornly disobeyed and walked the path that led to darkness, she’d reap the barren fruit of pestilence, famine, war, and plague. So the curse was ultimately exile—distance from the face of God.
Blessing had a strong social aspect: It was not a lottery ticket for one lucky individual but something that applied to the people as a whole. Today, too, God doesn’t desire to bless only us; rather, He wants to make us agents of blessing for an entire neighborhood or nation. When Jesus says He came that we might “have life, and have it abundantly,” we can rejoice that He came to restore this blessing down to the cracks and crevices of this world (John 10:10).
A Gift-Giving People
So how do we walk in the way that leads to blessing? Living altruistic lives is a good start. God is extravagantly generous and loves to bless. As Proverbs 11:25-26 puts it: “The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered. He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it.”
Indeed, in a famous passage, Jesus says that those who cared for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned—the “least of these”—are “blessed,” because ultimately when they cared for these folks they were doing so unto Him. Those who did not do these things, however, are “cursed” (Matt. 25:34, Matt. 25:41).
Jesus draws on the rich foundation of the Old Testament, using the language of blessing and curse to prove it matters how we treat those who hurt. We can’t avoid the poor on the street corner, keep away from the wounded at the hospital, or ignore the kid sitting alone at lunch and expect God’s favor. Jesus loves to bless the down-and-out (Matt. 5:1-11). He affirms this major truth from the Law: that caring for the vulnerable is an important factor in the way leading to blessing.
A Dangerous Road
If we refuse to walk in God’s ways, we travel the dangerous road of the curse. The psalmist talks about one who “loved cursing” and “did not delight in blessing” (Psalm 109:17). His fondest wish is for the person’s own curse to act like a boomerang and “come back on him”—and for the blessing he wouldn’t give to also be “far from him” (NIV).
God doesn’t desire to bless only us; rather, He wants to make us agents of blessing for an entire neighborhood or nation.
Walk away from the Light, and find yourself in darkness. Get too far from home and hearth, and discover the bitter chill of the cold. Similarly, if we refuse to follow the God who blesses, we enter the distance of His curse. The prophet Isaiah envisions this destruction engulfing our rebellious world, with its vineyards withering, the music of its people coming to a halt, and its “city of chaos” breaking down, as “a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty” (Isa. 24:6-10).
Even when we walk down this dangerous road, our Father’s heartbeat continues to be for blessing. God called Abraham as the forefather of Israel, and at the center of His promise was not just a pledge to bless Abraham but one that would make him “a blessing”—one through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).
Early in Genesis, God reiterates this Abrahamic promise of blessing three times, demonstrating its significance. And Abraham didn’t have to do anything to earn it—he just believed (Rom. 4:3). Likewise, we don’t need to be perfect but are simply to look up in faith and receive the extravagant generosity of God.
Jesus calls us to hear God’s heartbeat for the world, telling us we’re to bless not only our family, friends, and those in need, but also our enemies: “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matt. 5:44 KJV). Paul echoes this in Romans when he tells the believers in no uncertain terms to “bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse” (Matt. 12:14).
No, it’s not always easy, and if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’d prefer not to do it. But ultimately, it’s possible because God Himself did it for us. At the cross, Jesus bore our curse—while we were still His enemies—so we could receive His abundant divine blessing. (See Rom. 5:8; Gal. 3:13.) At the very moment we were most strongly set against God, murdering His Son in the cruelest way yet devised by man, God was transferring His extravagant mercy onto us sinners, all to reconcile us to Himself.
Jesus took our curse and gave us blessing in its place. Neither is a word we should throw around lightly, because ultimately each of them points us toward the beauty of our Savior.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft