What Is a Curse?

Having discussed the biblical concept of blessing, it only make sense to look at the biblical concept of cursing. Interestingly, just as there are many words to describe sin, there are a wide variety of words used to describe curses. For now, we will look only at three of those words, two Hebrew and one Greek.

The main Hebrew word for a curse is arar, which is used as the opposite of barak. Whereas barak refers to divine favor that empowers a person, arar refers to divine bondage that renders one powerless. Thus, when Adam sinned, the earth was “cursed” (Gen. 3:17), meaning it would no longer produce fruit with the abundance it once did (cf. Gen. 49:11, a prophecy that sees the removal of this curse when Jesus returns). Another interesting example is found in the story of Balaam, where the king of Moab asked him to “curse” Israel so that he could defeat them. He recognized both that Israel was too numerous and too powerful for him, so he asked a prophet to bind them.

In the ancient near-east, curses were just as superstitious as blessings were. They were thought of as spells by which one could summon evil forces to subdue others. The OT, however, completely strips away such ideas and, like blessings, sees curses as directly related to one’s relationship with God. Thus, the person who breaks God’s law is “cursed.” Looking again at the story of Balaam, he notes that he is unable to curse those whom God has blessed (Num. 23:8).

The other major Hebrew word is qalal, which has the idea of making something small. Both arar and qalal are used by God in Gen. 12:3. Those who curse Abraham (qalal, those who make him small, to consider him worthless) will be cursed by God (arar, they will be bound by God [for destruction]). In this, we see that God, ultimately, is the protector of His people, and their relationship with them defines their relationship with Him. The exact parallel arises ultimately in Jesus Christ. Those who bless Him are blessed–they are empowered to live as God intends; whereas those who curse, or belittle, Him are cursed by God, or bound by Him.

The main Greek word that translates these two is katara in its various forms. It has the literal idea of being brought low or brought down by a prayer (from kata, meaning “down” and ara, meaning “prayer”). In Gal. 3:13, Paul quotes the Greek translation of the OT in Deut. 21:23 which says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” The Hebrew is qalal here. The idea is that Jesus was brought low or “cursed” on the Cross. He was, in a sense, weighed down by the sin of the world. It is hard to imagine a greater act of humility than for the God of creation to be willingly brought low or bound by the evil of His creation. The idea of bondage is prominent here, for Paul calls the Mosaic Law itself a curse (Gal. 3:10), meaning that those who are under it are bound by it. In this, it stands, again, in complete opposition to the idea of blessing, which points to freedom and liberation.

In the biblical sense, then, a curse is that which comes from God and binds a person or thing and prevents them from living a life of freedom and abundance. Curses come as a result of sin, that is, by rejecting God’s will. Every person today–especially Christians–can choose to live under the blessing or curse of God. By accepting His Son and walking by the Spirit, a person will reap life abundantly; by walking in sin, he will reap destruction, both in this life and the next.

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