Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27
The year begins with a benediction!
This familiar benediction has long been used by the church (and Jewish communities) to conclude services of worship. But it is wise to remember that this blessing stands at both the beginning and end of our life with God and in the world.
This text is located in the middle of a major section of Numbers (1:1-10:10). It describes Israel’s preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai (where the people have been camped for almost a year) and the continuation of its journey through the wilderness to the land of promise. This blessing is designated for Israel’s time of departure from Sinai, and was to be used daily throughout their journey. This is a blessing for a journey!
The placement of this benediction seems unusual. It is preceded by specifications for the vocation of nazirites (6:1-21). These were male or female individuals who took a vow of consecration for a special vocation among the people of God. The nazirites are sometimes called the monks and nuns of ancient Israel. Perhaps the theme of consecration is the primary link with our text. The text that follows (7:1-88) describes the consecration of the tabernacle, standing in the center of the community, wherein God was believed to be present. The link with our text probably associates the benediction with God’s presence among the people.
This benediction in some form was widely used in ancient Israel, especially at the conclusion of worship (see Leviticus 9:22; Deuteronomy 21:5; 2 Chronicles 30:27; Psalm 67:1; 121:7-8). Note also that the word commonly translated Lord is Yahweh, the primary name of God in the Old Testament. It is often thought, however, that Lord (a masculine metaphor) is not the best way to bring this name into English.
Each line of verse, with God as subject, is progressively longer (three, five, seven Hebrew words). Besides three occurrences of the name Yahweh, the remaining twelve Hebrew words may signify the twelve tribes. God is the actor in all six clauses: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God’s benevolent activity from various angles and state God’s gracious will for the life of the people.
The second verb in each line gives greater specificity to the divine action of the first verb and emphasizes the more concrete effects of God’s activity. Interestingly, the “you” is singular, perhaps with the idea that each person who hears this blessing will make it his/her own (without taking away the communal context and character of the blessing).
The word “bless” in 6:23 refers to the entire blessing that follows and hence that word covers all dimensions of the benediction. To “bless” testifies most basically to the work of God, both within the community of faith and beyond. It signifies any divine gift (spiritual, earthly, and bodily) that directly or indirectly serves the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. No conditions are attached.
To “keep” is a specific blessing given to those with concerns for safety, focusing on God’s sheltering the people from evil and its effects, especially pertinent for wilderness wandering. The verb “keep” occurs six times in Psalm 121 and covers a wide range of life’s journey.
God’s “face/countenance” (the same Hebrew word is used twice) is a common anthropomorphism, especially in Psalms (see Psalm 4:6; 31:16; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 89:15). At the same time, the reference to “shining” draws in elements of light and brightness from the nonhuman world, with the contrasting idea of darkness not far from view. The nonhuman world, too, illumines the basic character of God (see, e.g., Psalm 36:6).
The shining face of God signifies God’s benevolent disposition toward the other, here in gracious action, for which Israel can make no special claims. The shining face is to be contrasted with the hiding face of God (see Psalm 13:1): You get to see God’s face glowing, not glaring! This is a gracious move on God’s part to those who are undeserving. Moreover, the whole world is brought into view to experience the effects of God’s shining face (see Psalm 67:1-7). In today’s idiom, we might say: God smiles on you.
The lifting up of the Lord’s face/countenance signifies a gracious movement toward the other (see Genesis 32:20; 40:13). The word “peace” (shalom) is the climactic word of the benediction and has wide-ranging connotations. In the words of Dennis Olson (Numbers [Louisville: John Knox, 1996] 42-43), the richness of the word includes “prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Psalm 128:6), safety, security (Psalm 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Psalm 38:4), friendship (Jeremiah 38:22), and general well-being.”
The concluding statement in 6:27 (“I will bless them”) returns to the opening theme, only with greater specification that it is God who blesses through the words spoken by the priests (the “I” is emphasized in Hebrew). Note the promise here: “I will bless them”; the translation of 6:24 that is sometimes used, “May the Lord bless you…,” could be understood to take the edge off this promise.
Putting God’s name on the people (supremely by means of the word) emphasizes the divine source of all blessings. It is as if the people now wear God’s name, and that it should be worn so that all will see and believe. Putting the name of God on the people may have been understood literally, given that the blessing is inscribed on two cigarette-sized silver plaques found near Jerusalem, dating from the 7th-6th centuries BCE — the earliest known fragments of a biblical text (see Jacob Milgrom, Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990] 360-62).
That this text is chosen for the “name of Jesus” Sunday is especially appropriate. In Jesus Christ, the “name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), the Christian community encounters the gracious face of God in an unsurpassable way. This benediction is a deeply appropriate way to being the service of Christian worship in God’s name to a gathered conclusion.