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Word Study “Curse”

CURSE Expressions of one’s desire for another to encounter difficulty. Often coupled with the belief that a deity had the power to accomplish that result. The biblical concept of cursing is found in the Old and New Testaments; it reflects its ancient Near Eastern heritage. Cursing is defined by the character of Israel’s God and is foundational to the Christian canon.
The lexical data behind the notion of “cursing” in the biblical literature includes six verbal stems in the Hebrew (קָבַב, qavav; קָלַל, qalal; נָקַב, naqav; חָרַם, charam; אָרַר, arar; אָלָה, alah). In addition, there are many Greek lexical forms and nonverbal Hebrew forms. However, the concept of cursing exceeds even the expansive boundaries of this lexical array. A casual reading of Lev 26 and Deut 28–32 may reveal 27 varieties of curses that resist reduction to mere lexical statistics (Stuart, “Curse,” 1218).
Cursing in the Ancient Near East
Ancient Near Eastern curses were used in official documents such as oaths or treaties, public inscriptions, and private prayers. They depended on the assumed power of the deity invoked.
Cursing in the ancient Near East is best defined in relation to another significant concept: blessings. Crawford summarizes: “Blessing consists of a wish for someone to receive the things considered good in life: land, numerous progeny, sufficient food, clothing, etc. Curse is the wish that someone be deprived of these same things” (Crawford, Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age, 25). The curses of the ancient Near East deal with, “A deliberate, considered expression of a wish that evil befall another” (Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses,” 140).
Curses lent an air of magnitude and peril to the document they concluded particularly as they evoked a deity to establish the agreement (Stuart, “Curse,” 1219). For example, the Hittite treaty between Hattusilis and Rameses II reads, “Behold, as for the relationship between the land of Egypt and the Hatti land, since eternity the god does not permit the making of hostility between them because of a treaty (valid) forever” (ANET, 202). However, curses in the ancient Near East were not limited to the powerful—those on the fringes of society could use curses as they sought to combat the injustice of their lives (compare Berakot. 7a; Ben-Dov, “Poor’s Curse,” 450–51; Strawn, “Imprecation,” 314).
Curses derived their power from the deity they invoked, rather than a belief in magic or the dynamic power of words (Crawford, Blessing and Curse, 25; Thiselton, “Power of Words”; Strawn, “Imprecation,” 315; Kitz, “Curses and Cursing,” 618; compare Berakot 56a). Balak asked Balaam to curse the Israelites (Num 22:6, 17) in hopes that the curse of a diviner would give him an advantage over them, but Balaam was unable to do so.
Cursing in the Old Testament
The first curses found in the Old Testament are located in Gen 3. While the man and woman experience the consequences of their sin, God does not explicitly curse them. The word “cursed” (אָרַר, arar) is used of the serpent (Gen 3:14) and the ground (Gen 3:17). Later, God curses Cain (Gen 4:11). Curses were also employed in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. Less officially invoked curses are also referenced, though certain types were forbidden. Curses in the Old Testament depend on the assumed power of Yahweh.
The ancient Near Eastern practice of including curses in official documents is reflected in Israel’s covenant (e.g., Lev 26:14–39; Deut 28–32). Like many ancient Near Eastern texts, the curses are unilateral, though the covenant is bilateral—while both parties are held to certain obligations, the issuing of the curses makes it clear which party is dominant.
The Old Testament forbids certain curses. Stuart summarizes: “Cursing by people could have serious consequences for themselves depending on who or what it was they had cursed. Cursing one’s parents (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:19), the handicapped (Lev 19:14), a king (because he is God’s anointed; 2 Sam 16), or God (Lev 24:11–23) were all crimes or sins punishable by death” (Stuart, “Curses,” 1218). Baseless curses are ineffectual and potentially self-incriminating (Prov 26:2; Gen 12:3; Job 31:30; Strawn, “Imprecation,” 317). Curses which look to Yahweh for their backing must reflect His character as it is reflected throughout the Old Tesament (e.g., Exod 22:27; compare Psa 1:6; Ben-Dov, “Poor’s Curse,” 437).
The Hebrew word for “bless” (בָּרַךְ, barakh) is sometimes used euphemistically to mean “curse”: (1 Kgs 21:10, 13; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9; Psa 10:3).
Cursing in the New Testament
The Old Testament notion of cursing is also found throughout the New Testament. Examples include:
1. Paul’s statement of Jesus’ redemptive accursedness in Gal 3:13. Jesus was under the Law’s curse—which implies coming under Yahweh’s judgment—by virtue of His crucifixion (Gal 3:13b; compare Deut 21:23). The incarnate God bore the full brunt of His covenant curses so that blessing could be extended to His people.
2. The Gospel writers’ depiction of Jesus as the initiator of a new covenant and one who makes statements of blessing (Matt 5:3–11; 26:28; Mark 10:16; 14:24; Luke 6:20–22; 22:20). His statements of “woe” could be read as covenant curses like those found in the Old Testament—statements against those who stand in opposition to His covenant (Matt 11:21; 23:13–16; Mark 14:21; Luke 6:24–26, 46–47). He also curses the barren fig tree (Matt 21:19; Mark 11:14).
3. The psalmic curses find their theological foundation in Yahweh’s nature and in His covenant with Israel (e.g., Psa 5:10; 137:9). These curses share a theological foundation with the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4). Both base themselves on the present reality of Yahweh’s rule and long to see that rule established more securely (compare Strawn, “Imprecation,” 317).
Ben-Dov, Jonathan. “The Poor’s Curse: Exodus 22:20–26 and Curse Literature in the Ancient World.” Vetus Testamentum 44 (2006): 431–51.
Blank, Sheldon H. “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23.1 (1950–51): 73–95.
Brichto, H.C. The Problem of “Curse” in the Hebrew Bible. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 13. Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1963.
Crawford, T.C. Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age. American University Studies 7/120. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.
Gevirtz, S. “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law.” Vetus Testamentum 11 (1961): 137–58.
Hasel, G.F. “The Meaning of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19 (1981): 61–78.
Holladay, William Lee. A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.
Kitz, Anne Marie. “Curses and Cursing in the Ancient Near East.” Religion Compass 1 (2007): 615–27.
Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Robertson, O. Palmer. “Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing.” Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975): 43–53.
Strawn, B.A. “Imprecation.” Pages 314–20 in DicDictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings. Edited by Tremper Longmann III and Peter Enns. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Stuart, Douglas. “Curse.” Pages 1218–19 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 1. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Thiselton, Anthony. “The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings.” Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1974): 283–99.
Urbrock, William J. “Blessings and Curses.” Pages 755–61 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 1. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Wenham, G.J. “The Symbolism of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15: A Response to G.F. Hasel.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 (1982): 134–37.
Joshua McQuaid


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