Thursday, January 29, 2015

Divine cursing

Cuneiform and Hebrew texts demonstrate that curses by the deities have four principle characteristics. First, solicitation is not a feature of divine maledictions. They function as mandates. This would explain Ḫammurabi’s description of Enlil’s curse: it is KA/pûm, a command. Second, they have an almost immediate effect. Rather than days or weeks, only hours need elapse before the consequences can be readily detected in the physical world. This feature in particular put humanity on guard, making ancient Near Easterners extraordinarily aware of their environment. They were ever watchful for any change, any transformation in their surroundings that may indicate that the effects of a divine curse were invading their cities, homes, land, livestock, and/or people. Third, the words of curses by the supreme deities tend to be fixed and unalterable. This does not mean that the deity looses [sic] control over the curse as soon as it is uttered. Any deity would [have] retained authority over the effects of what had been declared whether it be death, disease, misfortune or diminished fertility. At the very least, a god or goddess could counteract a malediction with a benediction, thereby nullifying it as Yahweh does. The fact that a divine curse was immutable certainly contributed to a malediction’s amazingly independent character. This is the fourth feature of a divine anathema: it can become hypostatized and enjoy a special kind of self-sufficient existence.— Cursed Are You!, page 152

<idle musing>
Interesting, isn't it? Plug Jesus's cursing of the fig tree into this...and the disciples' response. Basically another "proof" of his divinity in their eyes.

Now, let's complicate things a little here—and this is part of my reevaluating my theology, so it is a work in process...bear with me and perhaps even assist me, if you would please.

I was saved through the Jesus Movement and was a part of the the Charismatic Movement up until the "word of faith"/name-it-claim-it-stomp-on-it-and-frame-it people took it over. But, I was still influenced by that mindset in ways that I am still discovering and weighing in the theological balance. Some things I retain, some I reject.

One of the things I rejected (or thought I did!) was the whole "negative confession" theology. For example, one day I was on my way to take a test in a class; I knew I was going to ace it—I had studied and knew the material backwards and forwards. On the way, a friend asked me where I was going. I jokingly responded that I was on my way to "flunk a test." His response, dead serious, was something like don't curse yourself with a negative confession! I about fell over; it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud! I aced the test, by the way : )

Basically what he was saying was that an utterance out of my mouth automatically became true (sure, I know about the psychological power of negative utterances and all that—I'm not talking about that here). And that belief forms the foundation of the word of faith theology.

I rejected that then and I do now. Sure, there is a place for faith and making statements on faith, but again, that is not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is the belief that words automatically have the power to bless and curse—that they become in some sense divine! Reading this book has caused me to examine that belief in a new way.

In order for a curse (or a blessing) to take affect, it has to be approved by a deity—and a deity with enough clout to keep it from getting overruled by a higher deity. That's what makes things complicated in a polytheistic society—witness Enkidu's dual curse: One curse is approved and the other one isn't. The curse that isn't approved now is on its way back to him (and it will curse him!), so he quickly turns it into a blessing on the person he had cursed (this is explained in detail on pages 153–57 in the book).

(For those of you who aren't familiar with Enkidu, he is the sidekick of Gilgamesh in the epic of Gilgamesh. He was a savage—less than human—until he encounters a harlot who tames/civilizes him. The curse that gets turned back is the curse against the harlot.)

But, as Christians, we are in a monotheistic thought world—or at least we should be! So, if someone utters a curse at you, what does that mean? Influenced by the word of faith mentality, I used to think it had real power and would "block" it in prayer. See what I just did? I rejected monotheism. I set up a different deity who had the power to energize that curse! Subtle lack of faith...

OK, have at it! Tell me where I am wrong—or right (I hope the latter is truer!). I'm still thinking through the ramifications of this book, as you can see.

Just an
</idle musing>


David Reimer said...

What space is there in these reflections for Proverbs 26:2 -

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
So a curse without cause does not alight.

כצפור לנוד כדרור לעוף
כן קללת חנם [לא כ] (לו ק) תבא׃

That's an interesting Ketiv/Qere'!

jps said...


Yes, I commented on that a few days ago:
That's what got me thinking along these lines in the first place.

I hadn't noticed the Qere/Ketiv before. That explains the divergence in the translations—although most seem to go with the Ketiv...I should have checked the Hebrew in the first place : )


David Reimer said...

Arghh! How did I miss that one. At least it suggests some independent yet shared joining of the dots. Perhaps that's worth something. ;)

Interesting set of posts. I wonder if there is any intersection with James Aitken's The Semantics of Blessing and Cursing in Ancient Hebrew (Peeters, 2007)?

jps said...

Indeed. Nice to see we are thinking in the same direction : )

I'll have to look at Aitken's book. I had forgotten all about it. Google books only has a small, once again, Interlibrary loan is my friend : )


Nick Norelli said...

James: You've completely opened me up to a new way of viewing Word of Faith theology and seeing that its roots go much deeper than E. W. Kenyon!

I think you hit the nail on the head with reference to polytheism. Word of Faith theology has children of God as being of the same species as God. In other words, we're gods. I've heard enough teachers say that over the years to know it's not a straw man description or mischaracterization of the belief.

This forms the foundation of the belief that "faith is a force." It's the basis of the misreading of Romans 4:17 that has believers being able to call those things that are not as though they were. In effect, as little gods, our faith becomes a more powerful force than God himself to the point where he has to respond to anything we speak in faith.

Put another way, WoF theology is inherently anthropocentric (or should I say theoanthropocentric). God exists to serve the gods. Faith must be responded to, which makes perfect sense given your comments on the blessings/curses having to be approved by a deity with enough authority to keep them from getting overruled. In this instance, the little g gods have the authority through this force of faith, which not even capital G God himself can overrule!

A number of years back I shared some thoughts on this "name it and claim it" mentality from the perspective that we can only name what God has created; we can't speak a blessing or curse into existence (ex nihilo if you will).

I'm going to keep pondering this but I think you're on the right track! Thanks for sharing this!

That's my 2 cents! said...

Hi James!!'

You know what I think about Word of Faith theology (ever after known as WOF). The whole negative confession thing is more about getting human thinking in line with what they believe to be God's thinking. I think it's a simplistic approach (mostly) to new creation realities, but it's gotten out of hand and badly twisted into a kind of co-creating our reality with God. And of course with the WOF new creation reality means rich and not sick, which is sad.

When it comes to theologies I try the "What would this theology look like on Peter, Paul, Abraham or Moses?", question. If Abraham had been a follower of WOF Isaac would never have been offered up as a sacrifice. Abraham would never have taken the journey. He'd have spent his time attempting to discover his sin, and then positively confess his way out of obedience to God's command. I'm not saying the, "What would a champion of faith look like..." question is a perfect approach, but it has proven to be a simple and quick way to get a fair thumb nail sketch of a theological approach.

For me 2 Peter 1:3 brings a needed contrast. If God has given me everything for life and godliness then why do I need to go around confessing; creating or co-creating my own reality? I don't need to completely ignore the demonic, but I want to remember that Christ has defeated Satan. Christ has overcome the world, so whatever I say or don't say has no effect on the finished work of Christ.

Negativity can certainly be a powerful tool in defeating myself and can greatly contribute to depression, but I'm not creating anything real, or cursing myself.

WOF, ultimately doesn't lead me to a deeper understanding of God or the relationship he calls us to with him and each other. If physical wealth and health were merely neutral issues that would be one thing, but focus on the merely physical trappings of this life is actually roundly condemned in Scripture. A theology which does more to trap us in a worldly way of thinking, doing and being, should be modified or simply dumped. WOF is, at the very least, shallow and immature. WOF taken to the extremes is outright heresy. WOF is more a product of the world's insane focus on materialism than a contemplation of God and Christ's work on the cross.

How are you and D? We need to "facetime" again soon!

Grace and peace,


jps said...

Indeed, Lonnie, indeed. It takes a truth of scripture to extremes and makes it the truth of scripture.