Central Seminary Faculty Devotion
9 January 2018
By Dr. David May, Professor of New Testament, Director of Online Curriculum Design and Director of MA(TS)
As usual, my faculty devotion comes at the beginning of the new year and the start of the new semester/term. I usually try to share a reflection that relates to new beginnings—usually an uplifting devotional, a type of blessing for fresh starts that inspires and warms. But I am taking this devotional in a different type of direction, some might even say in the opposite direction from a blessing to a curse.
I have often been asked to create and give blessings—blessings for new buildings, newly planted trees, animals, children and lately even a blessing for technology. I have never, however, been asked to create a litany for a curse.
I usually agree with the old saying, “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” but perhaps at times we need to dust off some curses and hurl them, with both discernment and abandonment, at appropriate situations.
First, let me point out that cursing has a long history among the people of God and was a very biblical practice of our ancestors in faith.
For example, in the Hebrew Bible, there is a what can only be called a litany of cursing in Deuteronomy 27. Moses and elders have gathered with the people, and in this covenant setting, we have this give and take:
“Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.”
All the people shall say, “Amen!” (27:18 NRSV)
“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”
All the people shall say, “Amen!” (27:19 NRSV)
In chapter 27, there are a total of twelve different curses issued by Moses and the elders to the people, to which the people shout “Amen.”
The prophets also sharpened their “Thus says the Lord” with curses. And it’s hard to forget Elisha, when confronted by a gang of young men calling him baldy, cursing them—with the result being a bear mauling forty-two of the name callers (2 Kings 2:24).
Some of Psalms fall into a category called imprecatory (examples 35, 58, 69, 83, 109 and 137) because of their reliance upon curses. As the Psalmist says about an evil person who was plaguing him,
“. . . let curses come on him . . . may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones. May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself, like a belt that he wears every day” (Psalm 109-17-19, NRSV)
And of course, the New Testament is filled with curses. In the Lukan Sermon on the Plain, Jesus not only gives blessings to the poor, hungry, and meek, but he also heaps up curses: Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing, woe to you when all speak well of you (Luke 6:24-26).
And lest we think that curses were simply flippant words cast back over one’s shoulder when angry and that they don’t mean much, the Gospel writers remind us of Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree. When Jesus’ disciples came upon the tree later, “. . . Peter remembered and said to [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered’” (Mark 11:21 NRSV). That’s what curses could do; they caused things, times, objects, and people to shrivel up. They erase an offense.
Paul the Apostle, never one to hold back, could also employ the curse at moments in his ministry. In his farewell words to the Corinthians, he tells them “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22 NRSV).
When Paul saw that the Galatians practicing a form of discrimination and abandoning the Gospel of grace, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:8 NRSV). Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles puts it like this, “Even if we or an angel fresh out of heaven preaches to you any other message than the one we preached to you—to hell with him!” And Jordan’s footnote says, “The Greek is even stronger!”1
The New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, from the beginning curse upon Adam, Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3 to Revelation 22, and the curse upon anyone who tampers with its wording, present cursing as a tool used by the people of God.
This ministry praxis of cursing is conveniently and silently overlooked by good folks today. There are no “Cursing 101” classes in the curriculum. But in the world of our ancestors in faith, curses were felt to have an ability to create a new reality. Words did something. Words carried power to make a difference. One would be fearful of the words another person might cast upon you, because their words could make things happen. In the biblical world, words were weighty, especially for those without access to power. When exploited, hurt, and ground under the wheels of their society, the folks on the margin could still give a good, earthy curse, and in a sense their curse was a type of honest and authentic prayer.
Today, however, we are awash in cursing world. Curses seem cheap and trite that get thrown around rather easily on social media. Cursing and name calling is today associated with bullying and being vulgar, and has been raised (or sunk) to a new level with the current occupant of the
White House. Cursing has devolved and disintegrated into road rage rants after being cut off in traffic. What might have been a religious curse for justice in past has devolved into the bigoted hate speech today.
And yet I wonder if there might not still be a grain to glean from our biblical ancestors and their practice of cursing. Sometimes when we see injustice, corruption, and evil, we might say we disagree with it, we don’t condone it, we object to it, we might even actively resist it, but do we ever say, “let’s curse it.” Could we unconditionally condemn it to “pit of the abyss?”
Of course, we need to be very conscious of what we say and the words we use. When we opt to curse, it should be done infrequently, carefully, and prayerfully. But may be sometime in 2018, we will be called upon not just to speak against evil but to curse it.
God, give us discernment to challenge with agitation
the things that need to be changed;
Courage to not flinch from truth,
and wisdom to use our tongues to curse
for the sake of justice and righteousness. Amen.
See Brian Britt, Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011)