Language in sacred texts often holds more than meets the eye. Sometimes, hidden between the lines and phrases, there’s a pattern or change that speaks volumes. For example, Genesis 12:3 says: “I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you I shall curse; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Upon careful reading of this verse, we notice a striking change from the first clause to the second. The phrase “those who bless you” is written in the plural form whereas “he who curses you” is written in the singular. What is the reason for this shift? Is it suggesting that those who curse Abraham and his descendants do so as individuals, while those who bless Israel do so as part of a collective?
Two Hebrew words for “curse”
To answer this question, we will take notice of another transition in the syntax of this verse. While it is undetectable in most English translations, in the phrase “he who curses you I shall curse” two different Hebrew words are used for the word curse. Here is a literal translation:
um’kalelcha – and he who curses you
a’or – I shall curse
Just by reading the transliteration of the Hebrew, it is easy to see that these two words bear no resemblance to each other; they do not share the same root. In other words, they are not conjugations of the same verb. There are some English translations that translate these two words differently. For example:
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. – ESV
The Hebrew root of the first word that means ‘curse’ is k,l,l. This root means “to ridicule” or “to make light.” The second “curse” is a form of the word aror. It is related to the word me’erah, meaning “plague” or “illness.” This is the word that is used every time God curses something or someone in the Bible. For example:
So, the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed – [aror] – are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” – Genesis 3:14
The Bible never describes God cursing anyone with the word root k,l,l. This root refers only to situations in which humans are doing the cursing. Why? What is the difference between these two words for “curse”?
God’s curse always has an effect
As I mentioned above, the root k,l,l derives from the Hebrew word for “light,” the opposite of heavy. It means “to make light of” or, as translated above by the ESV, “to dishonor.” This word refers to a “curse” only in the sense that a curse expresses an idea in words. The disparaging and dishonoring statement – the curse – was expressed. Nothing more is implied by this word. On the other hand, aror– or a’or as it appears in our verse – refers to actual damage done by the curse. Aror means that there is a tangible result of the curse. This is the reason that God’s curses always use some form of the word aror. God’s words always have an impact. That is how they are known.
What God said to Abraham was this: I will bless those who bless you; and anyone who even speaks a curse against you, I will curse in such a way that there will be a tangible real-life impact to my curse.
The Power of Negative Words
Now let us return to our first question. Why is “those who bless you” written in the plural while “he who curses you” is in the singular? Obviously, God did not mean that there would be only one person who would curse Abram. Clearly, God’s intention was that any and all people who would ever curse Abram and his descendants would be cursed by God. So why the singular?
We explained above that the Hebrew word for “he who curses you” – mekalelcha – refers to a curse that is expressed as words only. It does not imply action beyond words. It is an unfortunate feature of human nature that ridicule and negative criticism are more powerful in their impact than positive praise. Think about our current media culture. When something negative or damaging is said about Israel in the media it is immediately broadcast loudly and widely. On the other hand, when Israel is praised, there is hardly any impact.
God is the Father Who defends His people
The individual who curses Israel, who publicly shames and dishonors the children of Abraham, may think that he did not really cause any damage because he did nothing more than express an opinion. After all, what is so damaging about words? And words spoken by only one person, no less! To such a person, God responds by saying: If you curse Israel, even if all you do is express your curse in words and think that you should not be held responsible, know that the lasting impact that evil words can have in this world is sufficient for God to punish you for disparaging and dishonoring His chosen people.
To put it another way, both the change in verb root as well as the switch from plural to singular express the extent of God’s love and protection of Abram and his descendants. Even if the curse is only words; even if those words are spoken by a single person, God will punish the one who curses His chosen people.
The enemies of Israel never prosper. It is those who bless and praise Israel, who share in God’s love for Abram and his descendants, who are the beneficiaries of blessings. Like the loving father that He is, God jealously defends His beloved from any and all who speak ill against him.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast