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Curses in the Hebrew Bible

Jan Goeree and A. De Blois

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

    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).