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Hebrew Thoughts

Bârakh - בּרך (Strong's #1288)
To kneel, bless

The verb בּרך bârakh (Strong's #1288) and its derivatives such as בּרכה berâkhâh "blessing, invocation" (Strong's #1293) occur 415 times and range in meaning from "to kneel, bless, praise, salute" to its opposite, used euphemistically, 'to curse'. בּרך bârakh is possibly a denominative verb from בּרך berekh 'knee' (Strong's #1290) because of the idea of kneeling or being low to receive blessing, compare the Arabic, baraka, Syriac and Ethiopic, which are all similar.

Another similar sounding word, which appears to be related, is פּרק pâraq (Strong's #6561) 'to break'. It is an onomatapoeic word sounding like the cracking of a tree branch as it breaks either underfoot or ripping from an ageing tree. Gesenius thinks that בּרך bârakh, therefore, relates to the 'breaking' of the knees, and hence to kneel.

Genesis 24:11 records how Abraham's servant, in search of a bride for Isaac, brought his master's camels to a well frequented by local women and there יברך yabh'rêkh "he made his camels kneel down". The Arabic use of the verb also includes making one's camel kneel, an odd process of first bending one pair of knees, sending the rider forwards, then collapsing the back knees, sending the rider backwards, finally coming to rest with both knees folded underneath and the rider able to dismount. Indeed, as with Abraham's servant, the desert bedu virtually lived on his camel only dismounting to sleep, eat or drink, and the word for a pool of water where camels 'kneel' to drink, the discovery of which, in the desert, was a 'blessing', was called a בּרכה berêkhâh 'pool, pond' (Strong's #1293).

The idea of blessing may come from several factors including that of bending the knees to give or to receive. To be bent in Hebrew thought could mean several things. It could mean 'bent' in the sense of crooked or wicked. It could mean 'bent' in the sense of bowed down or brought low through poverty, or more positively of humbling oneself. Solomon, when dedicating the temple (2 Chronicles 6:11), "bent his knees" ויברךעל־בּרכּיו vayyibh'rakh ‘al-birekâyv, "spread his hands towards heaven" and prayed.

Psalm 95:6 parallels worship and bowing down with kneeling before the Lord:

"Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker."

Indeed, the verb כּרע kâra‘ (Strong's #3766), "bow down", has similar meanings to בּרך bârakh, "to bend down, sink to one's knees" or cause animals "to rest". In Job 4:4, using כּרע kâra‘, "bent knees" are said to be strengthened by God. In Isaiah 45:23 we are informed that every "knee will bow". Ezra, like Solomon above, "bends the knees" in prayer (Ezra 9:5).

Blessing, as in Deuteronomy 30:1, is often contrasted with קללה qelâlâh 'a curse' (Strong's #7045 from קלל qâlâl 'to esteem lightly, curse, flow away' Strong's #7043). Job cursed or "spoke lightly" of the day of his birth (Job 3:1; Job 3:8 uses 2 further different verbs for 'cursing'!). The waters of the flood, using קלל qâlâl, are said to 'abate' or 'flow away' (Genesis 8:8,11), which, although was a good thing post-Flood, could imply that water flowing away or drying up was a curse.

Blessing, therefore, may be synonymous with being highly esteemed or favoured. A close inspection of Deuteronomy 30:19 compares life with blessing and death with curse:

"...I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing;
therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
that you may love the LORD your God,
that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him,
for He is your life and the length of your days;
and that you may dwell in the land..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

A particular form of life and blessing was the birth of children which in Hebrew is described as taking place upon one's knees (Genesis 30:3; 50:23), e.g., "Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should suckle?" (Job 3:12). The first two uses of the verb "to bless" are in Genesis 1:22 and 1:28 of reproduction, "And God blessed them, saying: 'Be fruitful and multiply..." (cf. Genesis 9:1 where the reproductive blessing is given again to the sons of Noah).

The idea of reproductivity could be extended to the blessing of bread, which only occurs in Exodus 23:25 and seems to mean "to give life to" or "make bountiful" rather than to imbue with any holy status. In the Gospels Jesus blesses God and breaks the bread, not the other way around!

More bizarrely related to 'curse' is the idea that בּרך bârakh could itself mean "to curse". Remember how Job's wife called upon him to just get on with it and bring about an end to his sufferings by "blessing God" (Job 2:9) and dying. Similarly, Job himself was concerned for his sons that they may "have blessed God in their hearts and sinned" (Job 1:5; cf. 1:11; 2:5).

To sum up, it appears that being reproductive rather than barren and giving birth upon one's knees, and, finding water for your camel to bend down and drink, may be two of the more primitive word pictures relating to blessing. The more theological extension of the position of kneeling with respect to receiving honour (as in a knighthood) or the giving of honour (prayer and praise) seems to have come later. The blessing of Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3) does not only refer to the state of his soul or the size of his bank balance but most especially to the size of his family and eventual nation, "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee". Similarly, in Genesis 17:16, God speaks of Sarah:

"And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations..."

The blessing of the Lord is children, and a quiver full (Psalm 127:4-5)!

   
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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. Their "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at www.biblicalhebrew.com.

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