“The LORD make his face to shine upon you”

Last Sunday in church the sermon was mostly based on the Priestly Blessing also called the Aaronic Blessing. The Priestly Blessing is found in Numbers 6:24-27. “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

The people of Israel believed God’s blessing upon them influenced their lives and the destiny of their nation. The people believed that what happened to them was dependent on the will of God. The word “blessing” appears almost four hundred times in the Hebrew Bible. Eighty-seven times God is the one who blesses people. Thus, the concept of blessing and curse played a major factor on the faith of Israel.

The Priestly Blessing is the most well known and the most widely recited blessing in the Bible. Christians and Jews have used the Priestly Blessing in times of worship, celebrations, and other religious events. A blessing is a prayer asking God’s favor upon an individual. The purpose of the Priestly Blessing is for the priests of Israel to invoke God’s name upon the people: “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27).

In the Old Testament, the name of Yahweh equals the presence of Yahweh himself as can be seen by how God responded to Moses when he asked “who shall I say sent me?” God answered by telling him to say to the people that “I AM” has sent me. Calling on the name of Yahweh was to call upon God’s presence, and in the case of the Priestly Blessing, God’s name, Yahweh, was being invoked upon God’s people as Aaron and his descendants blessed the people. The blessing of Israel, in which God’s name was invoked upon the people, shows the extent to which God desired to be present with his people and live among them.

The Priestly Blessing is also called the Aaronic Blessing because Aaron and his descendants were given the responsibilities to bless the people: “At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today” (Deuteronomy 10:8 NIV). The Priestly Blessing is divided into three blessings and each blessing has two components. In this post I will only deal with the first half of the second blessing.

“The LORD make his face to shine upon you” (Numbers 6:25).

The Hebrew word for face is panim. The word panim appears several times in the Old Testament in combination with God or the Lord. In most cases, the face of the Lord is a reference to God’s presence. For instance, when Moses asked God to assure him that he, God, would go with the people to the land of Canaan, God told Moses: “My face shall go before thee” (Exodus 33:14 DRA). Most modern translations use the word “presence” to translate the Hebrew word for face. The ESV translates Exodus 33:14 as follows: “My presence will go with you.”

God’s promise to Moses means that God himself would go with Moses and the people to the land he was giving to Israel, to the land of Canaan. The word “face” is used with the meaning of “presence” in several passages in the Old Testament.

Isaiah 63:9 (NIV): “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [Hebrew: “the angel of his face”] saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

Lamentations 4:16: “The face of the Lord has sent them in all directions; he will no longer take care of them: they had no respect for the priests, they gave no honour to the old men” (Lamentations 4:16 BBE). The NRSV identifies “the face of the Lord” with God’s presence: “The LORD himself has scattered them, he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders” (Lamentations 4:16 NRSV).

In Deuteronomy 4:37 Moses told the people of Israel that God led them from Egypt through his face: “And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence [Hebrew: “with his face”], by his great power” (Deuteronomy 4:37 ESV).

According to Moses, God’s face is the same as his power. Thus, God’s panim (God’s face) is the means through which God does his mighty works of salvation.

In his study of Yahweh’s countenance (Yahweh’s face), Preuss (1991: 164) wrote: “The conclusion of the so-called Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:26), even as the passage cited before, makes one recognize that this expression [Yahweh’s face] has to do with the gift of divine grace. It is the language of the cult, and especially the language of prayer that favors, and not without reason, this figure of speech.”

Preuss also said that one encounters Yahweh’s countenance (his panim) in history to express the presence of God. He wrote: “This divine activity through the countenance of YHWH is always a positive occurrence that leads to the well-being of the one concerned.” The face of Yahweh is seldom associated with divine judgment or punishment in the Old Testament. Because the face of Yahweh appears mostly in the context of blessing or divine favor, the use of the face of Yahweh seldom appears in the message of the prophets. The face of Yahweh is the gift of grace to his people.

In his discussion of the Lord making his face to shine upon his people, Walton (2009:351) wrote: “The metaphor portraying God’s face as light shining on his people occurs in numerous biblical and extrabiblical texts.” For instance, Psalm 67:1-2 says: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.” The shining of God’s face upon the people of Israel celebrates God’s saving power and deliverance in times of trouble.

The Priestly Blessing was uttered in the temple in a context of worship. Brueggemann (2005: 532) wrote: “Israel’s testimony holds that public worship is a context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced. Thus the power of blessing is alive and loose within the world. At the same time, in such a well-known text as Num 6:24-26, the power for blessing is situated or intensified in the holy place.”

This brings me back to the sermon I heard on Sunday. In his use of the Priestly Blessing as the basic text for his sermon, my pastor used the New Living Translation from which he read the blessing to the congregation. What called my attention was how the New Living Translation translated the first section of the second blessing. It reads as follows:

“May the LORD smile on you” (Numbers 6:25 NLT).

I have to confess that I was amazed when I read what the NLT said about this important section of the Priestly Blessing. The Hebrew word bālag appears only a few times in the Hebrew Bible and only refers to a human smile as in Psalm 39:13: “Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”

The NLT misses completely the deep implication of the word “face” in the context of the Priestly Blessing. The reference to God’s face shining upon people is an indication that Yahweh looked upon his people with favor. The face of Yahweh indicates His presence with the people. The NLT statement that the priest is praying that God smile upon the people trivializes the true intent of the blessing, that is, that through his presence Yahweh shows his grace; through his presence he is with Israel looking toward them with favor, and that there is hope for Israel within this promise of grace because of the covenantal relationship Yahweh has with Israel. Nothing of these great truths is present in the poor translation of the NLT.

Only a good preacher can preach a great sermon from a poor translation of the biblical text. My pastor preached a great sermon because he is a good preacher.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Preuss, Horst Dietrich. Old Testament Theology. Volume 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark: 1991.

Walton, John H. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

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