At the end of our men’s Bible study each week, one of the men gives a “blessing.” It was my turn recently and it made me to think about the meaning of a blessing.
The NIV gives 389 results for “bless” and most of them (301) are in the OT. Genesis starts out with 65 instances, the first in 1.22, on the first day of creation, when God blessed “the great creatures of the sea and every living thing [in the water] …and every winged bird.” His blessing was that they should increase in number, fill the earth with fish and birds and all living creatures. He also blessed the land, and he did all this before he created humans. He then blessed humans by telling them to be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it. He gave them seeds and told them that he would bless the earth and trees with fruit for food. And, we are told, what he did was good, and that he was pleased about it. A little later in Genesis we read that God blessed the seventh day to make it holy. When he created male and female, he blessed them, and the stories of the OT are filled with the blessings of God. That is what he does. We also see another pattern emerge as some blessings become conditional: “I will bless you if you do such and such.”
We read of how Jacob’s sons fought for his blessing and how his blessings ware extended to his grandchildren and sometimes delivered by angels. As Jacob was about to die, he called for his sons and blessed them. But it you look carefully at the blessings you will see that they cannot all be interpreted as positive. He gave each the blessing appropriate to each son. From Genesis to the last book in the Bible blessings are promised, For example, blessings are promised to those “who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” (22.14)
When translating the Kewa New Testament in PNG, the men searched for a suitable word for “blessing” and what they came up with surprised me. The word suggested was “yaina,” which I had most often heard associated with cures for illnesses of various kinds. For example “yaina oma” (sick die) could indicate any kind of serious illness. I had also heard the expression “yaina agaa” (sick talk), which referred to a “spell,” not necessarily spoken by a shaman or healer, but by others as well. For example, I was once out on the trail with a group of men and a heavy storm was approaching. One of the men began to place small tree branches with leaves on fence posts and other places. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained, “I am trying to stop the storm with my “yaina agaa.” He meant that he was trying to cast a spell on the impeding storm. This was new to me. I had seen a shaman visit a very sick man and, using a cassowary bone and other objects, rub them together as he gave incantations. It was not the common Kewa language which I understood, but in a kind of sing-song intonation. He was saying words and phrases that made no sense to me but which were part of his healing ceremony.
I considered the word “yaina” and asked why it was chosen for “blessing.” The Kewa men told me that in a blessing, you want something good to happen, just like a healer does when he uses “yaina agaa.” But, in a blessing you are asking God to make that happen. You use “sick talk” to invoke a good response from God, just as in the past they used such talk to heal someone or stop the bad weather. “And who,” I asked, “made the person well or the weather better?” Their answer was Yaki, a name I knew well, the all-powerful sky spirit that provided good fortune or, as we might say “luck.” Yaki was not an evil spirit whom you had to placate in some way, perhaps by killing a chicken or a pig. Those were other spirits, and they were always lurking around and watching to make sure that they had the smell of a pig or other animal to satisfy them. Even the spirits of the recently departed humans were watching and expecting to be placated in some way. A blessing was different, although the same word was used.
In learning a language that is spoken in another culture, we try to get an inside view of the culture and the language used to describe it. The work or phrase must be appropriate to the cultural context. For example, in our online dictionary of Kewa (at webonary.org) there are four pages of examples of how the word “yaina” is used.
This brings me to my main point: The meaning of a “word” is contextually derived and in translating we must choose the appropriate word or phrase for that setting. Consider, for example, what blessing might be appropriate for you. Would you consider yourself blessed because you were poor, hungry, in mourning, hated, or cursed? Those seem like odd “blessings,” but Jesus promised them in such circumstances. On the other hand, TV evangelists and others promise to bless us with good health and money. Is that what blessing is all about in our church cultures?
Do we bless others—perhaps when they sneeze? What is involved? Consider it when you wish for a blessing or want to bless others.