It is a long-standing Jewish custom to express gratitude by praying using a standard blessing form. Blessings over a meal, as a meeting commences, at key moments of life transition, at the start of the sabbath-eve meal and in the regular sabbath worship, on the anniversary of a death—all of these moments, and many more, are marked with a blessing, a way of giving thanks to God for that precise moment.
The blessing has a standard form. It is addressed to God, and always begins by blessing God for the experience that is about to be shared: baruch atah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, which translates as “Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe …”
After this introductory formula—always spoken or prayed in the same way—the reason for blessing God is then given: baruch atah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, borei p’ri hagafen (Amein), “God who creates the fruit of the vine (Amen)”. This, of course, is said before drinking wine.
Or, baruch attah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, borei m’orei ha’eish (Amein), “God who creates the light of the fire (Amen)”; said before candles are lit.
There are different blessings for different categories of food: bread (“… who brings forth bread out of the ground”); grain products that are not defined as bread (“… who creates different kinds of sustenance”); wine (“… who creates the fruit of the vine”); fruit (“… who creates the fruit of the tree”); vegetables (“… who creates the fruit of the ground”); and everything else (“… from whose word all came into being”).
We see Jesus enacting this traditional Jewish practice of blessing food before eating when he feeds the crowds (Mark 6:41 and pars), at his last meal with his followers (Mark 14:22 and pars), and when he arrived at Emmaus with the two travellers on the road (Luke 24:30): “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”
Earlier in Luke’s orderly account, when Zechariah the priest recovered his voice after the birth of his son, John the baptiser, the first phrase he uttered was a blessing: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (Luke 1:68).
Earlier, when the pregnant Elizabeth meets Mary, she is prompted by the leaping of the child in her womb and “she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Luke 1:42). After his birth, when the infant Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated, the wise prophet Simeon, also filled with the Spirit, blesses him (Luke 2:25, 34).
Paul follows this traditional Jewish pattern at the start of his second letter to the Corinthians. Instead of starting with his typical prayer (“I give thanks to God for you, constantly remembering you in my prayers …”), he says here: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Cor 1:3–4a).
The same pattern is found at the start of later letters; in that of a disciple of Paul, to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3); and in a letter attributed to Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).
Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Jesus, Paul, the Pauline disciple, and the disciple of Peter, each follow standard Jewish practice as they pray their blessings in this way.
In Hebrew Scripture, there are also blessings which God declares over people or creatures or moments. God’s never-ending sequence of blessings begins in the story of creation: on the fifth “day”, God blesses the sea creatures and birds (Gen 1:22). On the sixth “day”, he blesses humanity: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply … and have dominion …’” (Gen 1:28). This blessing of humanity is an expression of being in favour or relationship with God, and brings with it key responsibilities in terms of humanity’s relationship with the world.
Blessing often signifies being protected by, and provided for, by God. We see this in the blessing on Noah: “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). We hear it when Boaz came out from Bethlehem to visit his field, where Ruth was gleaning at the edges of the field while those he employed were reaping the harvest. Boaz said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you!”, and they dutifully replied, “The LORD bless you” (Ruth 2:4).
And the Psalmist offers a prayer inviting God to bless us: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him” (Ps 67:1, 3, 7).
Of course, there are phrases in that psalm that are familiar to us from a most beloved passage in a little-read book from the Torah. This text, short and simple, is the text which exists in a scroll which is dated as the oldest extant Bible scroll—the second, silver, Ketef Hinnom scroll, which was created around 600 BCE. The words of this text are even older still, taking us back into the origins of Israelite faith, the precursor of Judaism, and then Christianity.
That text, of course, offers a fulsome blessing, which Aaron the priest is instructed to speak over the people of Israel: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Num 6:24–26).
Jesus follows this traditional pattern, of offering a blessing in the name of God, to those who merit such a blessing. When his disciples hindered children from coming to him, Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them “(Mark 10:16).
Matthew tells of the response that Jesus gave when Peter declared him to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:16–17). John informs us that Jesus blessed those who follow the example of Jesus (John 13:17) and then, when he appears to the disciples, including Thomas, he states, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Luke reports Jesus as blessing his disciples (Luke 10:23), “those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (11:28), slaves who are alert at night (12:37, 38, 43), and those who “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13–14). In an enigmatic scene recounted only by Luke, Jesus turns to “the daughters of Jerusalem” as he walks to his death, declaring “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed” (23:29).
It is, of course, the blessings of Jesus which we know by their Latin term, the Beatitudes, which are best known. There are nine such blessings collected at the start of the Sermon on Mount (Matt 5:3–12), and a collection of four of these blessings in Luke’s account of the sermon which Jesus gave on the plain (Luke 6:20–23).
Immediately, in counterpoint to these four blessings, Luke reports four curses, or woes (Luke 6:24–26). Matthew, by contrast, holds his series of seven curses, or woes, to the last collated set of teachings of Jesus (Matt 23:13–32). Such curses, or woes, are found in many places in the prophetic books, as the prophets railed against the nations around Israel and the people within Israel. A set of curses, or woes, also appears in Deut 28:15–24, as the farewell speech of Moses is reported. (A series of blessings come later, in Deut 33.)
So the blessings heard in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday show that Jesus lived and spoke firmly within the long-established traditions of Israel; traditions that continue today to have a vibrant life in contemporary Judaism.