Many churches conclude the worship service with these words from Numbers 6:22-27, or something similar:
May the Lord bless you and keep you,
May the Lord’s face shine on your with grace and mercy,
May the Lord look upon you with favor and grant you peace.
Those words are beautiful and meaningful in their own right. However, when you dig into the original language and see the poetic structure they take on a new radiance.
First of all, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron to bless the people. What does it mean to bless someone?
The Hebrew word is barak. Here is what it looks like…
Barak literally means to kneel before someone. It also means to give to someone something that the giver deems valuable.
Imagine that. God kneels before this group of people who have already betrayed God at the foot of Mt. Sinai when they made the golden calf. They have already grumbled against Moses and God.
God knows they will grumble again…and again.
Yet, God kneels before them and offers them this blessing.
The Poetic Structure
In Hebrew culture, when something is repeated three times it demonstrates that this thing is the best.
Once is good.
Twice is better.
Three times is the best.
Notice how this poem has three lines. The first line has three words. The second line has five words, the third line has seven words.
Each line is a crescendo from good, to better, to best.
This structure is difficult to see in English. So, I created this image in an attempt to capture the structure. Each colored box represents one Hebrew word. The English translation of that one word is inside the box. I also organized the words in the syntax of Hebrew. This is the closest we can get to hearing the blessing in the way the Hebrew listeners would have heard it.
Line one establishes the base line of blessing. God blesses them and promises to protect/keep them like a shepherd keeps sheep. This is good.
Line two gets a little louder by adding two words. Yahweh will make God’s face shine on the people. God is their light. Not only that, but God will be gracious to them, offering them unmerited favor. They’ll need that for sure. This is better.
Line three adds two more words. Now we are shouting. Notice how “his face” is exactly the same word in lines one and two. Not only does Yahweh’s face shine on the people, Yahweh lifts up God’s face to them. For a king to lift up, or look upon, someone was to show that that person is received by the king and safe.
Then comes the grand crescendo. God’s ultimate gift and vision for a preferred and promised future is one of Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. This is the best!
This blessing writes Yahweh’s name on the people. God claims them as God’s own.
No matter how far they may stray. No matter how dark the place is that they find themselves when they turn away from God, they will be found. God’s name is there and it says, “return to owner.”
This blessing is not just a pretty poem. It is not just a nice thing to say at the end of a worship service. It is the very heart of the Gospel. God created and continually brings all things into being out of love and for the purpose of loving interdependence, relationship, and true peace. That is what the Garden of Eden represented. It is God’s ultimate vision for creation, no matter how long it takes to get there.
The people of Israel, in Numbers 6, were about to travel to Canaan and enter into the land promised to Abraham and Sarah. Just before they left, God spoke these words to them through Aaron to remind them of why and how and with whom they travel.
Each week we are gathered by God in places of worship. We are reconnected and refreshed in Word and Sacrament. Then, just before we are sent back into God’s world, to live into God’s preferred and promised future, the pastor or priest stands before us and reminds us why and how and with whom we travel.
Receive this blessing.
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