To Curse, A Study

To Curse

By Rev. Jack Barr

A. Verb

qãlal "to be trifling, light, swift; to curse." This wide-ranging word is found in both ancient and modern Hebrew, in ancient Akkadian, and in ancient Ugaritic. The word occurs about 82 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. As will be seen, its various nuances grow out of the basic idea of being "trifling" or "light", with somewhat negative connotations involved.

´ãrar is found for the first time in Gen. 8:8 "...To see if the waters had abated..." The term indicates a lessening of what had existed.

The idea of "to be swift" is expressed in the Hebrew comparative form. So, Saul and Jonathan "were swifter than eagles" (2 Sam. 1:23 -- literally, "more than eagles they were light"). A similar idea is expressed in 1 Sam. 18:23; "And David said, Seemeth it to you a light thing to a king's son-in-law...?"

Qãlal frequently includes the idea of "cursing" or "making little or contemptible"; "And he the curseth [belittles] his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death" (Exod 21:17). "To curse" had the meaning of an "wrath" when related to one's gods; "And the Philistine cursed David by his gods" (1 Sam. 17:43). The negative aspect of "non-blessing" was expressed by the passive form; "... The sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed [by death]" (Isa. 65:20). Similar usage is reflected in; "... Their portion is cursed in the earth..."(Job 24:18).

The causative form of the verb sometimes expressed the idea of "lightening, lifting a weight:": ... Peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you..."(1 Sam. 6:5). " shall it be easier for thyself..." (Exod. 18:22).

´ãrar, "to curse." This root is found in South Arabic, Ethiopic, and Akkadian. The verb occurs 60 times in the Old Testament.

The first occurrence is in Gen 3:14; "thou [the serpent] art cursed above all cattle," and Gen. 3:17; "Cursed is the ground for thy [Adam's] sake." This form accounts for more than half of the occurrences. It is a pronouncement of judgment on those who break covenant, as; "Cursed is the man who ..." (twelve times in Deut. 27:15-26).

"Curse" is usually parallel with "bless" The two "curses" in Gen. 3 are in bold contrast to the two blessings ("And God blessed them..." in Gen. 1. The covenant with Abraham includes: "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse [different root] him that curseth thee..." (Gen. 12:3). Compare Jeremiah's "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man" and "Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord" (17:5,7).

Pagans used the power of "cursing" to deal with their enemies, as when Balak sent for Balaam: "Come .., curse me this people" (Num. 22:6). Israel had the ceremonial "water that causeth the curse" (Num. 5:18).

God alone truly "curses." It is a revelation of His justice, in support of His claim to absolute obedience. Men may claim God's "curses" by committing their grievances to God and trusting in His righteous judgment (cf. Ps. 109:26-31).

The Septuagint translates ãrar epikatarasthai, its compounds and derivatives, by which it comes into the New Testament. "Curse" in the Old Testament is summed up in the statement: "Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant..." (Jer. 11:3). The New Testament responds: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree..." (Gla. 3:13).

B. Noun

´ãlãh, "curse; oath". Cognates of this word appear in Phoenician and Arabic. The 36 Old Testament occurrences of this noun appear in every period of biblical literature.

In distinction from ´ãrar ("to curse by laying an anathema [to reduce to minute particles; pulverize] on someone or something") and

qãlal ("to curse by abusing or by belittling"),

´ãlãh basically refers to "the execution of a proper oath to legalize a covenant or agreement." As a noun, ´ãlãh refers to the "oath" itself: "Then shalt thou be clear from this my oath, when thou comest to my kindred; and if they give not thee one, thou shalt be clear from my oath" (Gen. 24:41 --the first occurrence). The "oath" was a "curse" on the head of the one who broke the agreement. This same sense appears in Lev. 5:1, referring to a general "curse" against anyone who would give false testimony in a court case.

´ãlãh functions as a "curse" sanctioning a pledge or commission, and it can close an agreement or covenant. On the other hand, the word sometimes represents a "curse" against someone else, whether his identity is known or not.

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