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Treatment of curses in Scripture

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Malediction (in SCRIPTURE).—Four principal words are rendered maledictio in the Vulgate, “curse” in Douay Version: (I) ARR the most general term, used more often perhaps of men than of God. (2) QLL literally “to treat lightly”, but also used in the sense of “cursing”, whether of God, Deut., xxi, 23, or of men, Prov., xxvii, 14. It frequently expresses no more than “to revile”, II Kings, xvi, 6-13; and so perhaps I Pet., ii, 23, in Sept. epikataraomai (3) ALH, “ to curse”, Deut., xxix, 19-20, more correctly “to take an oath”, apparently from the root ALH and meaning “to call God to witness”, Gen., xxvi, 28; Lev., v, 1; Deut., xxix, 13, also in the sense of “calling God down on any one”, Job, xxxi, 30, hence in margin of R. V. “adjuration”, in Sept. ara, or horkos. (4) CHRS “to devote a thing”, the thing may be devoted to God, Lev., xxvii, 28, or condemned to destruction, Deut., ii, 34. The Sept. seems from the MSS. to use anath?ma of the thing devoted to God, but anathema of a thing doomed to destruction, cf. Luke, xxi, 5; and Thackeray, “Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek”, p. 80. The accepted translation of CHRS is “ban”, signifying that something is interdicted and hence accursed, cf. Deut., vii 26; Mal., iii, 24.

Amongst the Semitic peoples cursing was a religious act; and the Sinaitic legislation was rather of the nature of a purification of already existing usages than a newly-bestowed religion; as appears from the Code of Hammurabi. For the Semites the tribal deity was the protector of his people (III-Kings, xx, 23, and cf. the Moabite Stone 11, 4, 5, 14), and to “curse” was but to call down his vengeance on their opponents. Again, the Hebrews were a chosen people, they were set apart, and in this seclusion lay their defense; hence at the conquest we find the cities and peoples of Chanaan declared to be CHRS, or under a “ban”; their religion was to bring salvation to the world, so it required the highest sanction and needed to be hedged about with anathemas against all who infringed its regulation. Again, the curses of the Q. T. must be interpreted in the light of the times, and those times were hard, the “lex talionis” was the rule not only in Palestine but in Babylonia as well, cf. the Code of Hammurabi, nos. 196, 197, 200. It was the special feature of the New Testament that it abolished this spirit of retaliation, Matt., v, 38-45; the abuse of cursing was, however, forbidden by the Old Law as well, Lev., xx, 9; Prov., xx, 20. At the same time there are passages where the use of curses is hard to explain. The so-called comminative psalms must always remain a difficulty; few would be now prepared to defend St. Augustine’s view that they expressed not a desire but a real prescience of what would happen (“Contra Faustum”, xvi, 22, and “Enarr. in Ps. cix.”; see Psalms). Similarly the curse of Eliseus on the little boys, IV Kings, ii, 23-24, is at first repellent to modern ears, but it is to be viewed” in speculo aeternitatis”, as St. Augustine says expressly (Enarr. in Ps. lxxxiii, 2, and in Ps. lxxxiv, 2.). But though cursing plays a very prominent part in the Bible, we rarely find irrational curses in the mouths of Biblical characters. Nowhere do we find in the Bible curses on those who shall violate the tombs of the dead, such as we find everywhere in Egypt and Babylonia, or on the sarcophagus of Eshmunazar at Sidon.

We referred above to the CHRS, or “anathema”. This is the most important of the O. T. curses in its bearing on N. T. doctrines. The doctrine enshrined in this word lies at the root of S. Paul’s expressions touching the Atonement, e.g. in Gal., iii, 10-14; and it is the precise meaning of the word “cherem” which enables him to treat of our redemption from sin as he does; cf. II Cor., v, 21. The same idea is manifested in the words of the Apocalypse, xxii, 3: “And there shall be no curse any more.” Cf. also I Cor., xii, 3, and xvi, 22.


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