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SIDIC Periodical XXI - 1988/1
Violence and Peace (Pages 15 -17)

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The priestly blessing and the gift of peace
Lawrence E. Frizzell


The Hebrew Concept of Blessing.
The concise genius of the Hebrew language is manifest in several liturgical terms that are used in two related ways. The same word expresses the divine gift and the human response, "descending" and "ascending" aspects of a reality. The blessing expresses God's gift of life and all that it entails, focusing on the ultimate reality of life as communion with the living God. This gift is accepted with an act of thanksgiving-and-praise. also designated by the word berakhah or blessing.(1) Thus, the community shows gratitude for the gift and acknowledgment of the Giver, magnifying the divine Name, which is a manifestation of God's presence in the midst of the covenant people.

Israel was constituted as a "kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6), an ordered community whose acknowledgment of God's rule was bound up with Temple worship (Ex. 15:17-18). While the entire peoples was dedicated totally to God, the priests exemplified this service.

"Come, bless the Lord, all your servants of the Lord,
Who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!
May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!"

These lines from Psalm 134, the last song of ascents, express the ideal of constant prayer, both in grateful praise and in petition for further favors fostering true life for the community.

The priestly blessing (Numbers 6:2446) (2)
At Sinai and in the context of the covenant, "the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him, and to bless in his Name" (Dent. 10:8, see 21:5).

Although Moses blessed the people (Lev. 9:2224), the tradition in Numbers portrays God bestowing the privilege on Aaron and his sons (Num. 6:22-23). The text itself is structured very carefully, the verses progressing from three to five and then to seven words in the Hebrew. The community and its members are addressed in the second person singular, probably to emphasize their unity, but perhaps also to give each individual a sense of personal relationship with God. The sacred Name (revealed in Ex. 3:6-14) is repeated in each verse, to emphasize that the various aspects of the blessing are constituted by union with God, the source of all gifts.

"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 face upon you, and grant you peace!"

Does the conjunction in each verse merely join the parts or does it imply an action that bears fruit? If the latter be the case, then the divine blessing leads to preservation, the manifestation of God's benevolence brings gracious compassion, the divine smile conveys shalom, peace in the sense of well-being and wholeness.

The very brevity of the prayer makes it evocative; its simplicity reveals that God's presence with his people is central to Israel's perception of the human search for happiness.(3) This point is clear from the comment that follows the blessing itself. "So shall they put my Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them" (6:27).

Use of the prayer
There are echoes of this blessing in Psalms 4:7; 67:2, and it must have been the object of instruction so that the congregation would appreciate it better.(4) Malachi weaves its themes into his indictment of the priests of his time (1:6-2:9).(5) They above all should have incorporated its meaning into their lives!

The Qumran community of the late Second Temple period was structured around priestly leaders; in the annual renewal of the covenant the priests bless "those who walk perfectly in all God's ways":
May he -bless you with all good and keep you from all evil! May he enlighten your heart with life-giving understanding and grant you eternal knowledge! May he raise the face of his mercy toward you for everlasting peace" (1 QS II 2-4).(6)

Each part of the prayer is expanded, with the last two verses taking clear eschatological overtones (see 1 OS IV: 6-8). This thrust is even more evident in the curse by the Levites against any hypocrites who may be partaking in the ceremony (1 QS 11: 5-9).(7) This blessing constitutes a gift demanding a response of total commitment to the Giver.

The Gospel according to Luke begins in the Temple during worship. The priest Zechariah could not give the blessing (1:21-22), but when his tongue was loosened, his prayer was modelled after the text of Numbers. However, because the blessing of God had come upon the people in an extraordinary way already, the Benedictus (1:68-79) is an ascending prayer of thanks-and-praise .(8) "Guide our feet into the way of peace" (1:79) is a petition that conveys the image of life as a pilgrimage. Human cooperation is demanded in achieving the reality of shalom in the world, as a preparation for the full communion with God promised in the new age.

The translation into Aramaic known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan offers an expanded version that unites mundane and spiritual concerns. Freedom from enemies, demonic and human, allows Israel the tranquillity to search the depth of divine teachings.

"May the Lord bless you in all business and protect you from miseries and earthquakes, from midday and morning demons and destroyers. May the Lord make his face shine upon you when you busy yourself with the Torah and may He reveal hidden things to you and have pity on you. May the Lord lift up his face upon you in your prayer and lay his peace upon you in all your borders."

In the synagogue service, the priestly blessing is preceded by a solemn introduction, and followed by the prayer Sim Shalom.

"Grant peace, happiness. blessing, grace, kindness and mercy to us and to all Israel your people. Bless us all alike, our Father, with the light of your countenance; indeed, by the light of your countenance you have given us, Lord our God, a Torah of life, loving kindness, charity, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it please you to bless your people Israel with peace at all times and hours. Blessed are you, 0 Lord, who bless your people Israel with peace."(9)

These expansions of the priestly blessing offer early examples of how its riches were tapped by communities with both existential concerns and eschatological hope. It continues to reverberate down through the ages in synagogues and churches, challenging each generation to realize that its true peace is found only with God.

* Rev. Lawrence Frizzell. D. Phil. is a Priest of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. U.S.A. Fr. Frizzell is a member of the Board of Consultants to the SIDIC Center and a consultant to the Editorial Board of its periodical.

1. Ancient translations conveyed the idea that the blessing is constitued by a good word (eulogia, boneMoho), whereas the Hebrew root brk probably designates the kneeling position of reverence. Attempts to convey the richness of the "ascending blessing' require a phrase in western languages, the ancient term "eucharist" stresses the element of thanks, to which a laudatory note must be added
For "blessing", sec J. Scharbert in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (ed. G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren) II p. 279-308, U Becker, The New International Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Colin Brown) I p. 206-218
2. These studies of the biblical text should be consulted:
Michael Fishbane. "Form and reformulation of the biblical priestly blessing," Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983) p. 115-121.
David N. Freedman, "The Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6.24-26): No Famine in the Land: Studies in honor of John L. Mckenzie. Edited by James W. Flanagan and Anita W. Robinson. Missoula. Scholrs Press, 1975 p. 35-48.
Patrick D. Miller, "The blessing of God: An interpretation of Numbers 6:22-27," Interpretation 29 (1975) p. 240-251.
Klaus Seybold, Der aaronitische Segen. NeukirchenVulyn, 1977.
3. See John I. Durham, "Shalom and the presence of God." Proclamation and Presence' Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Renton Davies; London. SCM Press, 1970 p. 272293 4. See also L. Frizzelk "Hebrew Bible on peace," World Encyclopedia of Peace (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 19867
See Wisdom of Jesus ben Sire 36:17: 45:15; 50: 20-21.
5. See Fishbane, p. 118-119.
6- This text, formerly known as the "Manual of Discipline" is called "The Community Rule" by Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Baltimore: Penguin Books), 1975. The translation is my own.
7. For a detailed study, see J.A. Loader, "Model of priestly blessing in 1 OS," Journal for the Study of Judaism 14 (1983) p. 11-17.
8. See Meir Gertner, "Rhdrashim in the New Testament", Journal of Semitic Studies 7 (1982) p. 273-282. Although not all of his arguments are compelling, the basic insight can be elaborated in a convincing way. The early Christian tradition continued to use the ideas of Numbers 6:26. "Cord, let your face shine on us for good in peace, that we may be protected by your strong hand and delivered from all sin by your uplifted arm. Deliver us from those who hate us unjustly" (Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, 60-3).
9 This constitutes "an exegetical paraphrase of the Priestly Blessing and a reapplication of its contents in terms of peace," as Fishbane points out (p. 120-121). The translation is from Philip Birnbaum. Daily Prayer Book (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co.. 1949) p. 96.


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