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Blessing In the Old Testament:

     A Study of Genesis 12:3

                                          Paul Rotenberry


                                           The Problem Stated

Since the appearance of the RSV of the OT, there has been much

discussion of the section dealing with the blessing of Abraham, Gen.

12:1-3. The Hebrew text is rendered by the ASV: "and in thee

shall all families of the earth be blessed." The RSV renders the

same text: "and by you all the families of the earth will bless them-

selves." Many seem to fear that the rendering of the RSV destroys

the messianic idea in the verse, and so they oppose the rendering.

           Interpreting the Verse

Messianic. According to the messianic interpretation of the verse,

"In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed . . . (ASV)" is un-

derstood to refer to the blessing received through Jesus the Messiah

who came of the seed of Abraham, so that truly all families of the

earth were blessed through Abraham. The new translation is just

as susceptible of a messianic interpretation as the older translation,

though with reflexive action. "By you all the families of the earth

will bless themselves . . . (RSV) " is thus understood to mean that

in the Messiah of the seed of Abraham, all the families of the earth

would avail themselves of the blessings. Thus far, the new transla-

tion has really lost nothing of the reference to Christ seen in the

verse by Christians from the early days of the church.

Non-messianic. The non-messianic interpretation of both transla-

tions would see in the verse only that the name of Abraham (or his

descendants, Gen. 22:18) would be used in pronouncing a blessing.

Notice the usage in Gen. 48:20 with the same Hebrew preposition

"by thee" or "in thee" taken as instrumental. ASV "In thee will

Israel bless, saying, God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh."

RSV "by you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, God make you

as Ephraim and as Manasseh . . ." In this sense, Gen. 12:3 would

be understood to mean that when one "blessed himself" "in" or "by"

Abraham, he would simply say, "God make me as Abraham" or one

would be blessed by having someone say, "God make me as Abraham."

The force of the words and the context of Gen. 12:3 alone would not

determine the interpretation. Both are equally possible in the context.

The Early Christian Interpretation-Messianic

In the early church the messianic interpretation was given by in-

spired men, thus Peter (Acts 3:25f) and Paul (Gal. 3:8). This we

accept without question. But this acceptance does not depend upon

the passive translation of Gen. 12:3. The messianic idea is just as


33                                    Restoration Quarterly


clear whether the Hebrew be taken as reflexive or as passive: whether

it be read "And . . . shall bless themselves . . ." or "and . . . shall

be blessed . . ."

Some may wonder how one could accept the messianic interpreta-

tion of the New Testament quotations and yet admit the possibility

of the difference of translation. Why did the RSV translators use

the expression "bless themselves" in Gen. 12:3 and the expression

"be blessed" in the NT quotations of this verse, whereas the word

occurring in the Greek NT is the same form of the same word that

occurs in the Greek translation (Septuagint) of Gen. 12:3? The so-

lution to this problem is found in the text with which the translators

worked in each instance. In the NT they worked with the Greek NT

text; in the OT they worked with the Hebrew text, and presumably

our Hebrew text of Gen. 12:3. is the same as that used by the trans-

lators who produced the Septuagint.

One may well doubt that the grammatical construction of a trans-

lation is to be regarded as inspired merely because it is quoted in the

New Testament when the writer or speaker is simply giving the

Septuagint rendering.1 Now, if one should choose to make this an

argument that God inspired the translation of the Niphal form as

passive, the discussion must end there, for we accept Peter and Paul

as inspired men. (However, one is then faced with more serious

problems of text and canon, if this is taken as putting a divine seal

on all selections of words, texts, and constructions in the Septuagint

translation.) If, on the other hand, one understands that Peter and

Paul were simply quoting the translation commonly used by their

hearers and readers, then we may investigate the disposition of the

Niphal form made by the Septuagint translators.2


The Hebrew Verb, Niphal Conjugation

In the Hebrew language, verbs are used in different forms to ex-

press person, number, voice, mode, tense, and extension of the root

idea. The extension of the root idea of a verb is expressed by conju-


   1 Editor's Note: Compare, for example, McGarvey's comment on Acts 7:14 where he

explains the apparent contradiction between the figures 70 and 75 there and in Gen. 46:27 by

saying that the difference is a difference between the Hebrew text of Gen. 46:27 and the

Septuagint which Stephen was quoting and which was known by his hearers. New Commentary

on Acts of Apostles, p. 120.

    2 The translation of T. J. Meek in The Bible, An American Translation, published by the

University of Chicago Press, represents the Niphal of Gen. 12:3 as reciprocal: ". . . through you

shall all the families of the earth invoke blessings on one another." This is a force perfectly proper

to the Niphal conjugation, but it is a highly specialized force. This translation would limit the

meaning of the passage to the use of the name of Abraham in pronouncing blessings

and would, in the judgment of this writer, unduly restrict the action of the verb. New Testament

usage of this verse could not be justified if the force of the Niphal in Gen. 12:3 be understood as


Rotenberry/ Blessing in the OT                                  34


gations; thus, the Qal conjugation is the simple active or stative

form, the Niphal is the reflexive or passive of the simple active,

the Piel is factitive or intensive or denominative, the Pual is passive

of the Piel, the Hiphil is causative, the Hophal is passive of the

Hiphil, and the Hithpael is reflexive. These are the basic meanings

of the conjugations. With reference to the word "b-r-k" (translated

"bless"), the problem of translation in the RSV centers in the Niphal

conjugation which form occurs in Gen. 12:3. The earliest force of

the Niphal conjugation in Hebrew was reflexive. Though in later

Hebrew the Niphal came to be used more as a passive of Qal, the

reflexive force was still common. Thus, Gen. 12:3 would in its ear-

liest force be rendered "and they shall bless themselves" (the perfect

tense occurring here with waw consecutive). But with many Hebrew

verbs, the Niphal is used to express the passive voice only; and in

many other verbs, the Niphal is used to express both passive and re-

flexive voices. So the use of the conjugation alone is not decisive. The

Septuagint gives no help in this consideration for a Niphal is translated

into Greek middle or passive voice as the translator understood the usage

in the particular context. In the present and imperfect tenses of the

indicative mode in Greek, the middle and passive voices are not dis-

tinguished in form, whereas the future middle is in a different verb system

from the future passive. In Gen. 12:3, there is no possible confusion as to how

the translator understood the Niphal. The Greek translated clearly the Niphal

as future passive, which translation was cited by Peter and Paul in the NT.

The Niphal form of the verb b-r-k occurs only three times in the

OT: Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 28:14. The Niphal is used often as a re-

flexive or passive of the Qal conjugation; however, the Qal (with

the exception of the passive participle) occurs only twice in the OT

and has the meaning "bend the knee" or "kneel" (2 Chron. 6:13; Psa.

95:6). The Qal passive participle does occur c. 72 times with the

meaning "be praised" or "be blessed." The Piel form is the regular

active form used in the sense "to bless"; the Pual form occurs as the

passive of Piel "to be blessed." The Hiphil is the causative form of

the root idea, "to cause to kneel" or "to cause to bend the knee." The

Hithpael is properly reflexive "to bless oneself," but may bear the

passive force "to be blessed." The Hithpael occurs only six times

in the OT; in each passage, the RSV translates as a reflexive where-

as the ASV translates three occurrences as passive (Gen. 22:18; 26:4;

Psa. 72:17) and three occurrences as reflexive (Deut. 29:19; Isa.

65:16; Jer. 4:2). It should be noted that in each instance in which

the text of the ASV translates the Hithpael as passive, the marginal

reading is reflexive: "bless oneself." Also, one should note that

the marginal reading of the RSV of Gen. 22:18 is passive: "be blessed."

The root idea of the verb b-r-k is "bend the knee," and the root

is found throughout the Semitic family of languages with this mean-

ing. In Hebrew, the Piel conjugation became specialized in the usage

35                                    Restoration Quarterly


"to bless." The Niphal and Hithpael conjugations are associated in

meaning with the Piel; and the Qal passive participle is associated

with the Piel and not at all with the active voice of the Qal. There

are other Hebrew verbs in which this phenomenon is found, e. g. b-

s-r "cut off." The Piel and Qal passive participle signify "fortify,"

the Niphal means "be restrained," the Qal active means "cut off."

Of course, the Piel meaning is an extension of the root idea. (cf.

also the root n-t-q). Furthermore, the root b-s-r also presents the

Niphal in closer relationship (reflexive or passive) with the Piel than

with the Qal. This shows a usage similar to that noted in the verb

b-r-k. Thus, the Niphal on perfectly good linguistic grounds may

rather be taken as a reflexive or passive of Piel than of Qal. That

the Niphal need not be understood as passive can be readily seen in

the verb d-b-r "speak" in which the Qal is active, the Niphal is mid-

dle-active, the Piel is active, and the Pual is passive.


B-R-K; Bless

The root meaning of the Hebrew verb b-r-k as already noticed is

"bend the knee." As this was done in worship, it acquired the mean-

ing "praise" or "bless" (give adoration to the deity). Since a "bless-

ing" was spoken, the Greek translators uniformly render the verb by

"eulogeo" with the force "praise" or "bless" (lit., to "speak well of,"

or to "speak good things"). The blessing to the Hebrew mind, how-

ever, does not correspond exactly to the English word "bless" as

shown in that '-s-r (lit., "go straight") "to be happy" is translated

in Psa. 1:1 "Blessed is the man . . ." Even the English word "bless"

has acquired many connotations far removed from the root idea "to

consecrate with blood." In the Hebrew idea of blessing, there was

always the "pronouncement" of blessing. The blessing was "some-

thing said." The word (blessing) spoken then began its work to

effect that which was desired; thus, "God blessed them (sea crea-

tures), saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the

seas . . ." (Gen. 1:22). The "blessing" was what God "said," then

the word of God produced its effect. (This shows also something of

the meaning of the curse by Jehovah in Zech. 3:2.) We may see

further this idea of blessing in Gen. 48:20 as Jacob says concerning

Ephraim and Manasseh, "In thee will Israel bless, saying, God

make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh . . ." Here again, the

blessing was something spoken, and the spoken word was to effect

that which was desired. We may work our way in each occurrence

of the word throughout the entire Bible with this idea. There was

something of the force of the whole personality involved in the bless-

ing, and once given, it could not be recalled. So Isaac, having

blessed Jacob, cannot recall the blessing and can give only a lesser

blessing to Esau (Gen. 27:18-40; esp. vv. 37-40). A modern scholar

expressed the idea quite well: "In the Bible blessing means primarily

Rotenberry/ Blessing in the OT                                  36


the active outgoing of the divine goodwill or grace which results in

prosperity and happiness amongst men."3 Another said that ulti-

mately all blessing must spring from God.4 For those to whom the

work is available, the psychological interpretation of the blessing

from the Hebrew viewpoint is well expressed by Johs. Pedersen.5




It appears more likely, therefore, that Gen. 12:3 has immediate

reference to the use of Abraham's name in pronouncing blessings, but

that this interpretation must include a tacit recognition that through

this Hero of Faith the Messiah also would come to pronounce new

blessings of His own upon His people, Acts 3:25f; Gal. 3:8.


Abilene Christian College.



RSV-Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible

ASV-American Standard Version of the Holy Bible

OT- Old Testament

NT- New Testament


    3 A Theological Word Book of the Bible, ed. Alan Richardson, p. 33,

art. "Bless," by the editor.

    4 Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, G. Kittel,

Zweiter Band, ss. 751-763.

    5 Israel, Johs. Pedersen, vol. I-II, pp. 182-212.




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