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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
How should we interpret the lists of blessings and curses in the Bible? They give the impression that we should serve God out of fear.
The most important lists of covenant blessings and curses are found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Blessings and curses are directly associated with the covenant God made with the people of Israel, so they should be interpreted within that context.
1. Covenant Blessings: A covenant is a mutual commitment made between two or more persons or groups. In the case of Israel, God took the initiative, and Israel responded with an oath of loyalty. The covenant is a common biblical metaphor used to describe God’s relationship with His people. This type of relationship is based on promises and mutual trust, and includes obligations and responsibilities. The covenant was rooted in God’s loving-kindness manifested in His deliverance of Israel from the enslaving power of Egypt (Ex. 20:2). Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, their commitment to exclusive faithfulness to Him, was their loving answer to God’s previous goodness toward them. The blessings (e.g., fertility of the Israelites, the land, and the animals; victory over their enemies; prosperity) were God’s promises to them as His covenant partners (Deut. 28:1-14). All covenant blessings flowed out of the initial blessing of redemption from Egypt; therefore, they were embedded in the daily experience of the people. This covenant was grounded in a divine, fundamental promise: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev. 26:12). The Israelites committed themselves to Him as their only and exclusive covenant God, and to the preservation of the religious and social order established by Him through the covenant law. They would live within the sphere of His divine blessing.
2. Covenant Curses: Since the covenant assumes a willingness to enter into a relationship, the possibility of weakening or simply breaking the relationship always exists. By listing the covenant curses (e.g., infertility, defeat by enemies, diseases, loss of the land, exile), God was acknowledging that humans could bring the covenant to an end. The fact that the results of such an action are called curses indicates that God does not ignore what we do as His covenant partners. He cares for us enough to respond or react with an equivalent reaction (verse 21). He takes us seriously!
The curses also function as a deterrent. God emphasizes the evil results of breaking the covenant in order to discourage us from breaking it. Our quality of life is radically damaged when the covenant relationship is broken. From a positive perspective, we could say that the emphasis on curses motivates humans to covenant faithfulness.
Finally, the curses are described as God’s disciplinary activity against disobedience (verses 14, 18, 27). God does not give us up easily.
3. Covenant Blessings and Curses: The juxtaposition of blessings and curses in the covenant relationship presupposes a cosmic order. The biblical world, as ours, was formed by spheres of blessings and curses. The first are experienced within the sphere of the covenant, and the second in the sphere of sin outside the covenant relationship. Shalom and rest are available only in the covenant Lord, in the world order He established. Theologically speaking, the curses affirm that outside a covenant relationship with the Savior we would experience only inner disruption, chaos, and the constant irruption of death through defeat and suffering. God’s call to seek His blessings and avoid the curses is a dramatic way of speaking about choosing life over death (Deut. 30:19).
The conflict between blessings and curses will come to an end. God promised Israel that even if they were to break the covenant, He would be faithful to it and to His promises of salvation. Forgiveness is always available to covenant breakers (Lev. 26:40-45). God in Christ took the curse upon Himself and freed us from it (Gal. 3:13). We can look forward to when “there shall be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).