Curses in the Hebrew Bible by Brian M. Britt

Can words do harm? The authors of the Hebrew Bible answered the question in different ways. At least three Hebrew verbs (’alah, ’arar, and qalal) can be translated "curse," though these terms cover a variety of oaths, imprecations, maledictions, and covenant formulas uttered by people and the God of Israel. Curse can be defined as the use of powerful words to invoke supernatural harm. Curses can be human or divine, oral or written, personal or collective. Some curses are binding, whereas others are conditional, such as the covenant curses pronounced in Deut 27-29.

Depending on their purpose and context, biblical curses can be approved (as in Deut 27-29) or condemned (as in Job 2:10), collective or individual, and they may combine political and theological aims (e.g., Jer 24:9). Curses in the Hebrew Bible are varied and innovative, ranging from ethnic curses (against the Gibeonites in Josh 9) to curses that morph into blessings (Num 22-24), insults hurled at King David (2Sam 16), and a curse in the form of a flying scroll (Zech 5).

Curses are sometimes figures of speech. The curse on the serpent in Gen 3:14 is really a judgment expressed as a curse. And if the people of Israel are truly subject to divine sovereignty, then on what grounds could they justify invoking God’s power against others, as in Exod 20:7, for instance?

Biblical sacrifices could include curses. When God and Abram “cut” (make) a covenant in Gen 15, God commands Abram to cut animals as well. Such cutting of animals is a conditional curse that warns parties what will happen to them if they fail to uphold its terms: “And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18). The curse-like penalty of karet, of an invididual being completely cut off from the people, punishes failure to observe Passover or the Day of Atonement properly (Num 9:13, Exod 12:15, Exod 12:19, Lev 23:29-30). Slaughtering animals outside the temple precinct (Lev 17:9) or worshipping Molech, which probably entails child sacrifice, (Lev 20:2-5) are also violations that will result in karet. The proper way to atone for karet violations is with sacrifice or a scapegoat (Lev 4, Lev 16). In all these ways, the karet curse, like the cutting of a covenant, is directly linked to the language and imagery of sacrifice.

For suspicious husbands, the book of Numbers offers a special ritual that requires a woman suspected of adultery to drink a potion of dust and written curses rinsed in water. If she is guilty, her uterus drops and she “becomes a curse” (Num 5:11-31). Although it is unthinkable that biblical wives could subject their husbands to such treatment, some scholars have suggested that this ritual offered protection to women by replacing jealous violence with a public ritual bound not to work.

Sometimes people curse their own lives (Job 3 and Jer 20), which can be an indirect criticism of the God who created them. The biblical expression “so may God do to me” (2Sam 3:35, 2Sam 19:13, 1Kgs 2:23, 2Kgs 6:31) accompanies a gesture indicating harm to the self in case the oath is violated.

Biblical curses sometimes fail to work (1Sam 14, Judg 19-21). Or they can work in reverse, backfiring as it were, as in the story of Balaam in Num 22-24. Through a great variety of forms and uses, biblical curses typically serve to affirm the sovereignty of the God of Israel.


Brian M. Britt, "Curses in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 25 Sep 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/curses-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Brian M. Britt

Brian M. Britt
Professor, Virginia Tech

Brian M. Britt is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. He works at the intersection of cultural theory and biblical studies on questions of modernity and tradition. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). His other books are Walter Benjamin and the Bible (Continuum, 1996); Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004); and the coedited volume (with Alexandra Cuffel) Religion, Gender, and Culture in the Pre-Modern World (Palgrave, 2007).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A biblical name indicating a god associated with child sacrifice.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The goat offered as an expiatory sacrifice on behalf of the people of Israel in order to purify the temple on the day of atonement; see Lev 16.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Deut 27-29

The Inscribed Stones and Altar on Mount Ebal
1Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am comma ... View more

Deut 27-29

The Inscribed Stones and Altar on Mount Ebal
1Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am comma ... View more

Job 2:10

10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did n ... View more

Jer 24:9

9I will make them a horror, an evil thing, to all the kingdoms of the earth—a disgrace, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive the ... View more

Josh 9

The Gibeonites Save Themselves by Trickery
1Now when all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the ... View more

Num 22-24

Balak Summons Balaam to Curse Israel
1The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.2Now Balak son of Zippor saw all t ... View more

2Sam 16

David's Adversaries
1When David had passed a little beyond the summit, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a couple of donkeys saddled, carrying two ... View more

Zech 5

Sixth Vision: The Flying Scroll
1Again I looked up and saw a flying scroll.2And he said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll; its length ... View more

Gen 3:14

14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
an ... View more

Exod 20:7

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Jer 34:18

18And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two ... View more

Num 9:13

13But anyone who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet refrains from keeping the passover, shall be cut off from the people for not presenting the Lord's of ... View more

Exod 12:15

15Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until ... View more

Exod 12:19

19For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien o ... View more

Lev 23:29-30

29For anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day shall be cut off from the people.30And anyone who does any work during that entire day, su ... View more

Lev 17:9

9and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it to the Lord, shall be cut off from the people.

Lev 20:2-5

2Say further to the people of Israel:
Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put ... View more

Lev 4

Sin Offerings
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,2Speak to the people of Israel, saying: When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about ... View more

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

Num 5:11-31

Concerning an Unfaithful Wife
11The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:12Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to hi ... View more

Job 3

Job Curses the Day He Was Born
1After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.2Job said:3“Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the nigh ... View more

Jer 20

Jeremiah Persecuted by Pashhur
1Now the priest Pashhur son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things.2Th ... View more

2Sam 3:35

35Then all the people came to persuade David to eat something while it was still day; but David swore, saying, “So may God do to me, and more, if I taste bread ... View more

2Sam 19:13

13And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? So may God do to me, and more, if you are not the commander of my army from now on, in place of Joab.’ ”

1Kgs 2:23

23Then King Solomon swore by the Lord, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life!

2Kgs 6:31

31and he said, “So may God do to me, and more, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat stays on his shoulders today.”

1Sam 14

1One day Jonathan son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not t ... View more

Judg 19-21

The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more

Num 22-24

Balak Summons Balaam to Curse Israel
1The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.2Now Balak son of Zippor saw all t ... View more

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