Not long ago I was talking to someone soon to be priested about what priesthood is. As it happens I had just recently read C W Mitchell’s book on the meaning of ‘bless’ in the Old Testament.
A key text is the ‘Priestly Blessing’ in Numbers 6:24-26:
May God bless you,
And protect you;
May God make his face shine on you
And be gracious to you;
May God lift up his face toward you
And give you peace.
Many commentators have stated that, in the Old Testament, for God to bless people is about bestowing fertility. Mitchell argues that it is more about relationship:
'God blesses because of his favourable attitude toward a person or group of people. A blessing is any benefit or utterance which God freely bestows in order to make known to the recipient and to others that he is favourably disposed toward the recipient. Certainly it is true that fertility is the most common benefit God bestows. However, the reason God blessed by bestowing fertility, dominion, prosperity, etc., is that these were the most valued benefits during the biblical period'.
When one person blesses others the speaker declares, or prays, or hopes, that God will bless the people addressed. The Hebrew word for ‘bless’ is also often used for when people praise God. Almost always, the praise is a response of gratitude for something God has done.
What, Mitchell says, does not occur in the Bible is the magical idea that there are techniques for coercing blessings either from God or from some other source. When God blesses, it is always out of God’s free will. There is a sense, though, in which blessings and curses were believed to bring about what they stated. However there was nothing magical about them. An example is Genesis 27 when Isaac, in preparation for his death, declares how he wishes to dispose of his estate and does it using the form of a blessing which then becomes irrevocable. Blessings uttered inappropriately do not have the intended effect: Proverbs 27:14 warns against blessing a neighbour in a loud voice too early in the morning, as it will be counted as a curse. I fully agree.
Does this have anything to say about priesthood today?
I think it does. For those who believe in a god who created us to live fulfilled lives and flourish, to bless is to reaffirm this purpose: God wants the best for us. When things are going badly, something is wrong and needs to be put right. When things are going well, that’s the way it should be. In my pastoral experience people often need to be reassured about this. Sometimes it needs emphasising, perhaps because circumstances make it look unlikely. To hear it said by a neighbour may be helpful, but often it makes a difference to hear it from someone publicly acknowledged to know about these things.
Religious figures often claim too much for their roles. Some exult in their power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, others in their ability to interpret the Bible more correctly than other people. They often need to be reminded that they are just humans like everybody else.
On the other hand, every society feels a need for religious office-holders who can speak authoritatively about the divine; and in my experience, if there is one such role which really does count for a lot, it is that of pronouncing, with some degree of publicly granted authority, that the divine creator of our lives does indeed want the best for us.