Light from the Sidra


Torah: Numbers 4:21-7:89. Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25


I don’t know about you but I really hate that expression, ‘Bless.’ You know what I mean. You share an anecdote with someone and they go, ‘Aah, bless…’ I really don’t know what it means. Blessing in the Bible is serious and wonderful.

When a couple of my friends used to visit an elderly Jewish lady, they always prayed with her before they left and one day they recited the priestly brucha: ‘The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26, JPS translation).

‘That was a lovely prayer,’ said the lady. ‘Much better than all that Bible stuff you talk about’!

But the priestly blessing is more than beautiful religious sentiment. God himself instructed the priests how to bless Israel, so the prayer reflects his attitude to the Jewish people. The prayer is not an expression of how the people want God to bless them or even how Moses would like God to deal with the people. Still less is the blessing a trite cliché that trips easily off the tongue. Each of the six blessings is full of meaning and significance.

‘The LORD bless you.’ In Genesis 1, God blessed all he had made but Adam’s disobedience brought a curse on himself and the creation. But that was not the end of the matter. God initiated a programme to restore the creation to a state of blessing and in Genesis 3:15 he promised that a ‘seed of the woman’ would one day undo the work of the serpent. The calling of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations in Genesis 12 was a pivotal point in God’s programme of tikkun olam, the restoration of the cosmos.

‘And keep you.’ According to Psalm 121:7-8, the Lord is Israel’s keeper, and the purpose of his protection is to maintain Israel’s covenant relationship with himself.

‘The Lord make his face shine upon you.’ The shining of God’s face is the greatest blessing anyone can experience. Three times in Psalm 80, the poet asks ‘the Shepherd,’ the keeper of Israel to make his face shine, so that Israel may be saved. According to the Psalm, God was ‘angry’ with the prayers of his people; he had ‘fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure’; he had made them ‘an object of contention’ for their neighbours, and Israel’s enemies laughed at them.’ The final verses of the Psalm show that the face of Israel’s Shepherd had turned from them because they had turned from him and were in need of restoration and salvation.

‘And be gracious to you.’ God’s grace is the mercy and kindness he shows Israel through the unconditional covenant he established with Abraham in Genesis 15. God shows mercy to Israel because of his love and his faithfulness to his oath.

The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…’ (Dt 7:6–8).

‘The Lord turn his face towards you.’ If the turning of God’s face toward Israel is the greatest blessing, the hiding of the divine countenance is Israel’s worst case scenario, as seen in Psalm 44: ‘Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?’ (v24)

God’s face is a sign of his favour: ‘By your favour, O LORD, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed’ (Ps 30:7).

‘And give you peace.’ Shalom is completeness and well-being. God’s shalom extends to the whole of life, and one of the most significant names of the Messiah is Sar Shalom, ‘Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Through this beautiful blessing, the priests put God’s name, his mark of ownership, on the Israelites. Although the priests regularly pronounced this blessing on the people, there are places in the Tanakh, notably in the Psalms, which make it clear that Israel did not enjoy these blessings; at least not in their fullest sense. At the beginning of Psalm 67, the Jewish Psalmist pleads with God to ‘be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us … that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.’

In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised to bless Abraham and make him a blessing to the nations. The author of Psalm 67 saw that God’s ultimate blessing for the nations was salvation but the nations could not know salvation until Israel experienced in their fulness the blessings of Numbers 6:24-26. So the priestly prayer was not selfish. The writer knew that the nations couldn’t be blessed unless Israel was blessed. As it goes with Israel, so it goes with the world.

The blessings of Numbers 6, it would seem, can only be experienced in their fullest sense through Messiah. In the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, in the accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Messiah, there are a number of angelic announcements and songs that reflect the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. ‘Blessing’ (1:48), ‘light’ (1:50, 79; 2:32), ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ (1:50, 54, 72, 79), ‘peace’ (1:79; 2:29) and salvation (1:47, 71, 77 2:11, 32) crop up throughout the two chapters in relation to what the Messiah will accomplish not only for Israel but also for the nations. And having brought all the benefits of the priestly blessing to Israel, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, Messiah sends out his messengers to proclaim the message of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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