Walking along the road in a rural town, I smile at the baby on the lap of the woman who is sitting on the pavement, selling greens from her basket. The woman wipes her forehead with the back of her hand.
It’s a hot day, and it might be just a gesture to wipe off the sweat and dust. But what she is actually doing is using the palm of her hand to ward off the impact of the evil eye that might come from me admiring her child.
When I first arrived in the Middle East, I was perplexed about how to respond to babies. I wanted to say, “What a beautiful baby!” But to admire a baby was inappropriate; it was believed to draw the attention of the evil eye to them, risking their illness or injury. After some time I realised that the Bible nowhere calls us to admire: but it does call us to bless. Now each time I meet a baby, or want to comment on someone’s new possession, instead of admiring I pray for them, asking God’s blessing and protection over the child or item or person.
What is blessing all about?
The word for blessing in the OT is baraka ( (נרכה, as it is also in Arabic (بركة) and many other languages around the world. Being blessed is about fertility – fruitfulness, fecundity (Gen 1:28). The Psalms are rich in pictures of blessing – of the earth yielding its bounty, of hills overflowing with crops, of livestock bearing young, of flowing milk and honey, olive oil and wine. It links with the picture of shalom, of health and well-being, of living at peace.
The NT word for blessing is eulogia (ευλογια) and it carries over the same material meaning of fruitfulness, health and bounty. Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes and they multiply to feed thousands. He blesses people and they are healed. He blesses the bread and wine at the last supper. But in the NT, there is also a spiritual dimension which finds its fulfillment in Jesus (Eph 1:3). Blessing means ultimately to become like Jesus. So blessing, fruitfulness, includes growing in the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-3), into Christlikeness. Blessing includes an eschatological aspect, where it finds ultimate consummation in the coming Kingdom.
The Bible includes two other words linked to blessing. These are asher (אשר) in Hebrew and makarios (μακαριος) in Greek. They describe the state of being blessed and are sometimes also translated as ‘happy’ (Ps 1:1, Mt 5:3ff).
Blessing (barakah) can be understood as power, a flow of power to the recipient to give them fruitfulness.[i] In anthropological terms, blessing is a success-biased force (like ‘mana’ or luck), in the same way that sorcery, cursing, envy and the evil eye are failure-biased forces.[ii] The power of blessing can be associated with particular people (including priests, holy men, informal religious practitioners), places (shrines, religious centres, special trees or rocks), objects (masks, amulets) or times (religious festivals, sunset or sunrise, particular days of the week or month).
In the Bible, blessing can be linked with particular people (Melchizedek, Balaam, priests and prophets, fathers who bless their sons), places (Shiloh, the Temple) and even objects (the ark of the tabernacle, Jesus’ clothing). Blessing can be passed on through the spoken word, through physical touch, and through anointing oil. However in the Bible the ultimate source of blessing is always God. Blessing is grounded in a covenant relationship of obedience with God. Seeking to access blessing through other sources independent of God is to use a manipulative or magic approach to blessing: and can lead to danger, defeat or even death (for example, Lev 10; Dt 27-28; 1 Sam 4-6, 2 Sam 6: also Acts 8:9-24; 19:11-17). Cursing is the reverse of blessing, the consequence of seeking power outside covenant obedience to God.
Linked to covenant relationship, blessing also has a reciprocal dimension to it (as with khesed [חםד] – faithful loving kindness, and charis [χαρις] – grace). When God blesses us, he endows us with power. In turn we are to bless God, which means to thank him, and ascribe to him praise and honour as the source of all power and goodness. When one human blesses another, it means to ‘convey to someone God’s beneficent power’.[iii]
Many of our Muslim friends are preoccupied with finding protection against failure-based forces, like envy and the evil eye; and seeking the power of barakah for healing or fertility, or for success in school or business. This is particularly true for women, who carry primary responsibility for maintaining harmony, health and welfare in families. A Biblical understanding of blessing reminds us that it is grounded in relationship with God. It also tells us that we are do not receive blessing purely for our own personal benefit, but in order to bless others. We are to reflect God’s character by passing on his blessing to the nations (Gen 12:2-3; Acts 3:25-6; Gal 3:8-9, 14). Barakah “comes with a relationship, and this relationship gives the authority to pass on blessing.”[iv]
How are we to live this out in daily life? An understanding of blessing can both inform and empower our prayers for those around us. For example, we can memorise Biblical blessings and pray them over our friends.[v] Some may be unsure of using these Biblical blessings to pray for non-believers. We can only pray the prayers with which we are comfortable. But the Bible gives us not only permission, but actively commands us to pass on the blessing which we have received as inheritors of Abraham, and to use it to bless the nations.
- Lenning, Larry G. Blessing in Mosque and Mission. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980.
- https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/fear-of-the-evil-eye/; https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/in-a-world-of-limited-good/; https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/envy-and-blessing/
- Folk Islam: https://whenwomenspeak.net/issue/vol-3-no-1-september-2018/
[ii] Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London & New York: Routledge, 1966, 110-113.
[iii] Goerling, Fritz. “Baraka (as Divine Blessing) as a Bridge in Manding Languages (Especially in Jula of Cote d’Ivoire).” Journal of Translation 6, no. 1 (2010), p.2.
[iv] Goerling 2010, p.6.
[v] Examples include Num 6:24-6; 1 Cor 6:23; 2 Thess 3:16. Other Biblical prayers can also provide models for us.
Picture credits: Thanks to Christine Schmidt https://pixabay.com/photos/blessing-bless-consolation-1261935/; https://pixabay.com/vectors/hand-handprint-fingerprint-stop-310884/; and Illiya Vjestica, https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1586861223840-7802dfaf65fc?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=eyJhcHBfaWQiOjEyMDd9&auto=format&fit=crop&w=634&q=80.
(c) When Women Speak… September 2020
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).