In this week’s Torah portion, we find the priestly blessing, the three verses that God commanded the Kohanim, the priests from the family of Aaron, to recite when blessing the children of Israel. Each of the three verses of the priestly blessing is made up of two statements. I’d like to take a close look at the second verse of the three.
The Lord shall shine His face towards you, and He shall be gracious to you. – Numbers 6:25
This verse tells us that God will grant two things to the recipients of this blessing.
1. He will shine His face towards them
2. He will be gracious to them
What exactly does this blessing mean?
The previous verse (Num. 6:24) described God blessing and protecting those who are blessed. The word “bless” – barech – in that verse usually refers to abundance. The blessings of that verse, abundance and protection, are easily understood. In this verse, by contrast, the meaning of the blessings are less clear. Here, God promises to “shine His face towards you,” and “be gracious to you.”
What does it mean for God to “shine His face towards” someone? Does that give them wisdom? Happiness? Success? Strength? Prophetic power? As beautiful as these words are, their precise meaning is unclear. The immediate context of the verse does not provide any clarity on the matter.
The second blessing of this verse, “He shall be gracious to you,” is equally unclear, but for a different reason. The Hebrew word used here can be interpreted grammatically in several ways. The Hebrew word for “and He shall be gracious to you” is vi’chuneka. The first syllable, vi, is the Hebrew prefix meaning “and.” The final syllable, ka, means “you.” The verb root of the word is chen. This root has several possible meanings. To illustrate, here are two examples, among many in the Bible, which use the same root as our word here.
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until He has mercy on us. – Psalm 123:2
And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her. – Esther 2:15
In the quote from Psalm 123, the root chen means “mercy” or “compassion.” However, in the verse from Esther, the meaning of chen is “favor,” meaning that Esther was admired and liked by other people. There are numerous examples in scripture of both meanings of this root. Without getting into the technicalities of Hebrew conjugation, suffice it to say that it is unclear which meaning is the correct one for our verse.
To sum up this point: the meaning of the root of the word vi’chuneka – “and He shall be gracious to you” – is either the “grace” or the “favor.” Our verse is promising either that God will show grace and mercy to those being blessed or that He will grant them favor in the eyes of others. It is important to note that both possibilities are equally grammatically correct.
This problem leads us to another question. How would either of these options relate to the first blessing of the verse, “the Lord shall shine His face towards you”?
God shining His face in the Bible
Excluding our verse, seven verses in the Bible speak of God shining His face. In five of the seven, the context is God’s redemption of Israel from exile and oppression at the hand of other nations. Three of these five are a repeating phrase in the same chapter, Psalm 80.
“Cause Your face to shine, And we shall be saved!” – Psalm 80:3,7,19).
The other two verses that refer to the redemption of Israel are:
Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor – [lit. “shine Your face”] on your desolate sanctuary. – Daniel 9:17
May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make His face shine on us, so that Your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. – Psalm 67:1-2
The remaining two verses that refer to God shining His face speak of a personal, private redemption from enemies.
Deliver me from the hand of my enemies; And from those who persecute me. Make Your face shine upon Your servant; Save me for Your mercies’ sake. – Psalm 31:15-16
Redeem me from the oppression of man, That I may keep Your precepts. Make Your face shine upon Your servant; And teach me Your statutes. – Psalm 119:134-135
To sum up, when the Bible describes God shining His face, it means that God is saving Israel or an individual from exile or oppression. That said, if we look more closely at these verses, there is another important implication. The redemption of Israel is not a final goal in and of itself. The redemption of Israel is meant to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, the redemption of the entire world.
We see this in Daniel, where we find Daniel praying not only for and end to the exile but for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. On the personal level, the verse in Psalm 119 quoted above describes redemption from enemies in order to be free to serve God by keeping the commandments. In other words, when someone in the Bible prays to God to shine His face, the meaning of the prayer is the plea to God for redemption so that the supplicant can proceed to accomplish a higher goal in the service of God.
This implication is most evident in Psalm 67:1:
God be merciful to us and bless us, cause His face to shine upon us, Selah
That Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations.
Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You. – Psalm 67:1-3
As we clearly see, the stated purpose of the redemption of Israel is the universal goal of all nations and all peoples praising and worshipping the God of Israel. Keeping in mind that Israel’s mission is to bring all humanity to faith in God, we can now return to our verse in Numbers.
I would like to suggest that the meaning of this verse is as follows.
The Lord shall shine His face towards you, – God will redeem you from exile and oppression
and He shall be gracious to you. – and He will grant you favor in the eyes of others so that you will be able to influence them to have faith in the God of Israel.
Seen this way, the second half of the verse should be translated, “and He shall grant you favor.” In fact, a number of the traditional Jewish commentaries understand the verse this way.
This is an important lesson for all people of faith. Even as we pray to God to bless us and redeem us from trouble and adversaries, we must remember the purpose of the redemption for which we pray. When God grants us freedom and elevates us to a position of autonomy and influence, He does so to give us the tools to build His kingdom for all.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast