Blessing in the Old Testament. A Biblical Theology of Blessing (part 2)
This is an edited (because of space) version of part 2 of a 4 part series. It is written by Paul Barker and from the Gospel Coalition Website. Paul Barker is the regional coordinator for Langham Preaching
Last week we began to explore prosperity theology – the idea that Christians should expect the same kind of material blessing enjoyed by God’s people in the Old Testament. We looked at some of the different responses that have been made to the prosperity movement and concluded that there remains a need for a deep engagement with biblical theology. This week we will begin to highlight some of the important points that such an engagement would need to observe, beginning with the Old Testament.
Genesis 1 – The theme of blessing begins in Genesis 1. On day 5, God blesses the sea creatures and birds (Genesis 1:22). On day 6 he blesses humanity: “Be fruitful and multiply … and have dominion …” (Genesis 1:28). Blessing here is an expression of being in favour or relationship with God. It involves the gift of fertility and an ability to subdue and rule the world.
Blessing often signifies being protected by, and provided for, by God. We see this in the blessing on Noah (Gen 6:22; 8:20; 8:21-9:17); in the greetings of Boaz (Ruth 2:4, 12); and especially in the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. As James McKeown writes: “God bestows blessing on those who are in harmony with him.” “The importance of the theme of blessing lies in its significance as an indicator of a person’s relationship with God.”
Fall – The effects of sin and its spread bring the opposite of blessing; namely curse. In Genesis 3-11 the serpent is cursed (3:14); the ground is cursed (3:17); and, Cain is cursed from the ground (4:11). Noah will bring relief because the ground is cursed (5:29); and, Canaan is also cursed (9:25).
The Promises to Abraham – After all this cursing blessing is a major theme in the promises to Abraham. The Abrahamic promises seek to reverse the effects of the Fall and restore creation to the blessedness seen in Genesis 1.
First, Abraham will have a seed. This is part of the promise in 12:2 that Abraham will become a great nation.
Second, Abraham is promised a land. Like the promise of descendants, the promise of land is made explicit later, in this case in 12:7. God promises Abraham’s descendants the land in which he stands.
Third, and central to the seven clauses of Genesis 12:2-3, Abraham himself will be a blessing.
Fourth. But the blessing is not focused on Abraham. Rather, he is to become a conduit of God’s blessing to others. Other nations will be blessed through Abraham.
Separating the promises into these headings can be useful, but these promises also belong together. Taken as a whole the promises given to Abraham are programmatic for the purposes of God and thus for the narrative of Scripture, to restore the whole world. So the theme of blessing must be understood within this context – especially the purpose of blessing other nations.
At the same time we should remember that blessing is fundamentally an expression of relationship with God. To be blessed is to have God’s favour – and blessing references abound at major transition points to make this point. God promises blessing at the call of Abraham; the marriage of Isaac; the departure of Jacob for Haran; and through Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his sons.
Deuteronomy 28 – The blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 derive from covenant promises to Abraham. The Sinai laws add fresh detail and make it clear that the promises will be realised through Israel’s obedience to law.
These verses unquestionably speak of earthly (and not just spiritual) prosperity and fertility. We read, for example, that “the Lord will make you abound in prosperity,” (28:11). But they also serve God’s goal of bringing blessing to all the nations. As verse 10 puts it: “All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.”
These blessings also speak of the favour and harmony that arise from the covenant relationship. As Mary J. Evans points out, “This blessing is not portrayed as a reward for keeping the law; it rests on God’s promise and is an automatic consequence of being in a relationship with him.”
It is also important to remember that these blessings are corporate. They belong to an obedient people of God. If Israel is obedient, these blessings do not promise that each individual will be prosperous but rather the nation as a whole. For example the laws regarding cancelling debts, woven through Deuteronomy 15:1-11, bring blessing as they are obeyed: “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land, (Deut 15:4). Blessing does not remove the need for radical generosity.
We ought to note that the obedience/prosperity nexus that appears evident in Deuteronomy 28 is not always maintained – especially at the individual level – in the Old Testament. Job subverts this pattern. Proverbs 30:8 cautions against wealth, as does the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The ministries of Elijah and Jeremiah show examples of faithful Israelites suffering poverty despite their faithfulness. Finally the laws given through Moses restrict the accumulation of wealth and the prophets frequently rail against its abuse.
Overall then the Old Testament does presents a general pattern that connects material blessing with God’s favour, though there are important qualifiers. How do we go about applying these things to ourselves today? This is the question we will come to next week.