A blessing (b'rachah) is a short prophecy describing God's benevolent will for someone. The blessing is the promise of upcoming good things, not the good things themselves, as Proverbs 10:22 reminds us:
|The blessing of Adonai enriches, and he includes no sorrow with it.|
A blessing can be the statement of a new promise or the reminder of a previous promise. In one sense all blessings from God are reminders because it is God who gives us the basic ability to get wealth and prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
Not all blessings are from God. People can promise benevolent intentions towards each other. But Deuteronomy 29:19 and James 4:13-15 warn us to not think we can bless ourselves.
Alternately, a blessing made by a person could be prophetic: the blessing is actually from God but is communicated through another person. Famous examples of prophetic blessings happen about the tribes of Israel twice (spoken by Jacob at the end of Genesis and by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy).
On a few occasions someone speaks a hope as a blessing. On these occasions the speaker is not prophetically sure what increase God will bestow and the prayer for upcoming good things is phrased quite generally.
In later Israelite history, on three occasions the use of language is sloppy a material gift is called a blessing: by Abigail when she approaches David, (First Samuel 25:18-27), by David to the elders of Judah (First Samuel 30:26), and by Naaman to Elisha (Second Kings 5:15). This use of the word does not find wider acceptance. God never speaks of a gift as a blessing.
Blessings may be conditional. The blessings and curses that appear at the end of Deuteronomy are clear examples. Similarly, a blessing may be refused instead of accepted if the person that God is trying to bless acts in a way that ignores the promise.
Blessings may be for an individual or for a group.
The Ancient Israelites had two slightly tricky understandings about blessings.
First, a blessed person would be protected by God, and this would also provide some protection to his or her neighbors. For example, in Proverbs 11:11 we read:
|In the blessing of the upright a city is lifted up, but in the mouth of the wicked it is pulled down.|
In Genesis 15:16 God refers to this concept when he tells Abram that "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" and so Abram's descendants must wait four generations to conquer the Promised Land.
This shared protection was called a "shadow" because the blessed person would provide shelter as a shadow protects from heat. Thus in Numbers 14:9, Joshua urges the Israelites not to be afraid after the spies report because those spied upon are evil and have lost their protection:
|Only do not rebel against Adonai, and do not fear the people of the land. For they are bread for us, and their shadow had been removed from them, and Adonai is with us. Do not fear them.|
Other examples of this use of "shadow" as "shared defense" are in Psalms 91:1 and 121:5, Ecclesiastes 7:12, and Isaiah 30:2-3.
This concept of a blessing's shadow is the central point of what God promises to Abram in Genesis 12:2-3:
|I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. In you will all of the families of the earth be blessed.|
Abram will himself be a blessing because the goodness he will receive from God will spread and be shared with all other peoples.
The second slightly tricky understanding that the Ancient Israelites had about blessings was that prophetic people should "manage" their blessing by explaining to other people how it spread and how it affects them. The most interesting example of this is when Issac is tricked by Jacob.
The elderly Issac had received many promised from God. He knew that those he inherited from Abraham were destined to go to Jacob. But what about the other blessings that were not from Abraham, such as agricultural success or political influence? He personally deisres, and believes as a prophet that God agrees, that these newer blessings should go to Esau. But Isaac is tricked to speak them about Jacob.
However, Jacob's deception fails because God's will cannot be manipulated in that way. When Jacob and Esau meet again several years later, Jacob repents of his deception. First Jacob sends messengers to Esau (Genesis 32:4-5) who explain that Jacob had served Lavan these past twenty years (in contrast to the stolen promise of becoming a ruler) and had acquired wealth in livestock (in contrast to the stolen promise of agricultural abundance). Then Jacob concludes by calling Esau "my lord" and asking to be shown mercy and favor.
In Genesis 33:11, when Jacob meets Esau in person, he repents again even more explictly by offering to return the stolen blessing to Esau:
|Please take my blessing that is brought to you, for God has favored me and I have all [I need]. And when pressed, [Esau] accepted.|
To summarize, Isaac knew his duty to prophetically explain how his family blessings would pass into the next generation. The blessings from his father that passed to Jacob were spoken in Genesis 28:1-4. But before that a newer set of blessings intended for Esau were apparently stolen by Jacob. But those never materialized for Jacob and he returned them to Esau.
Yeshua's contemporaries understood the concept of a blessing as discussed so far, and also had a well-established answer to one more question: What does it mean to bless God?
During the days of Ezra, just after the Jewish people returned from Babylonian captivity, a number of prayers were written that began with the phrases "Blessed are You, my Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who..." These prayers were called b'rachot (blessings) because they were understood as ways to bless God.
The philosophy behind those b'rachot first claims that God's people should identify themselves with what God is doing to bring more of the presence and nature of God into their lives. (In English this is called acting "sacramentally"). In Second Peter 1:4, Peter writes that God's promises allow us to be "partakers of the divine nature"; the b'rachot were an earlier attempt to experience that same dynamic.
The second claim of the philosophy behind those b'rachot is that the things God creates are not completely finished being created until they are dedicated to the purpose for which God created them. With the b'rachot people partner with God in completing parts of creation by agreeing to the purpose God intends for food, drink, special occasions, and resources.
Ezekiel 22:30-31 mentions that sometimes it takes one person to agree with God's will to allow God to do something on earth. So the b'rachot begin by addressing God in the second person: it is you, God, with whom we are speaking and partnering. This agreement--this participation--is why people "make" b'rachot, not "say" them. To bless God is to describe God's will and desires for himself.
Next the b'rachot say "my Lord, our God, King of the Universe". The ancient Jewish sages worried that people might focus on how frequently a blessing is said, and then falsely believe that God values most what is blessed most often, when what God values most is being our Lord, God, and King. For example, someone might make the b'rachot about food several times a day as different meals are eaten: but God does not value being our provider as much as he values being our Lord, God, and King. So the long preamble was established as a way to remind the Jewish people of God's priorities. With six Hebrew words we considere God in both second-person and third-person, as Lord, God, and King, and over ourselves personally, over all God's people, and over all creation.
Some scriptural examples of similar blessings, which led the sages of Ezra's era to compose the traditional b'rachot, can be found in Genesis 24:27, Exodus 18:10, Ruth 4:14, First Samuel 25:32, First Chronicles 29:10, and Psalms 28:6, 41:14(13), 72:18-19, 106:48, and 119:12. Also see Matthew 9:8, 14:19, and 15:31,36; Luke 10:21; and John 6:11. Finally, note that if Yeshua had not habitually made the traditional b'rachot before meals his opponents would have pointed out the omission.
There is also a second, "Hodu" tradition of b'rachot that seems to have been started by King David. For scriptural examples of these, see First Chronicles 16:34, Second Chronicles 7:3, and also Psalms 54:6, 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, and 136:1. Note that this "Hodu" style of b'rachot is mentioned in Ezra 3:11, but this is not surprising because in Jeremiah 33:11 God himself says this "Hodu" formula will be part of the Exile's end and Ezra's men would have been eager to fulfill that prophesy. There is no reason that we cannot also make a sacramental blessing that begins Hodu l'Adonai kee tov... ("Give thanks to my Lord for he is good...") or any other phrases, but the rich significance discussed earlier makes the standard b'rachot especially meaningful.
Yeshua is a blessing. He is a promise of past, present, and future good things from God.
Yeshua is also a "shadow" for his followers. God's promises to Yeshua protect, nourish, indwell, and sustain us.
We should listen to God to hear his promises for us, and his promises he wants us to tell or remind other people.
We should keep track of the promises God has made to us. We can choose to accept or refuse a blessing.
Blessings acknowledge what is promised by God; they do not set apart something as holy or otherwise change how God relates to something. We cannot pretend that making a blessing changes the thing blessed. However, God is willing to bless something he does not approve of (see Matthew 5:45). Thus it can still be appropriate to pray that God will bless people who are sinning.
Sometimes it is appropriate to include words of gratitude or praise before making a blessing. For example, the traditional Jewish blessing made over the family at the start of each Shabbat is prefaced with (among other things) reading from Proverbs 31 to compliment the wife, and speaking compliments to the children by reminiscing about their good behavior from the past week.