Aaron's Blessing The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: 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 shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
This text is located in the middle of a major section of Numbers (1:1-10:10). It describes Israel's preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai (where the people were camped for almost a year) and the continuation of its journey through the wilderness to the land of promise. This blessing is designated for Israel's time of departure from Sinai, and was to be used daily throughout their journey. This is a blessing for a journey!
The placement of this benediction seems unusual. It is preceded by specifications for the vocation of Nazirites (6:1-21). These were men who took a vow of consecration for a special vocation among the people of God. Perhaps the theme of consecration is the primary link with our text. The text that follows (7:1-88) describes the consecration of the tabernacle, standing in the center of the community, wherein God was believed to be present. The link with our text probably associates the benediction with God's presence among the people.
This benediction in some form was widely used in ancient Israel, especially at the conclusion of worship (see Lev. 9:22; Deut. 21:5; 2 Chron. 30:27; Ps. 67:1; 121:7-8). Note also that the word commonly translated Lord is Yahweh, the primary name of God in the Old Testament.
Each line of verse, with God as subject, is progressively longer (three, five, seven Hebrew words). Besides three occurrences of the name Yahweh (a very Trinitarian structure), the remaining twelve Hebrew words may signify the twelve tribes. God is the actor in all six clauses: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God's benevolent activity from various angles and state God's gracious will for the life of the people.
The second verb in each line gives greater specificity to the divine action of the first verb and emphasizes the more concrete effects of God's activity. Interestingly, the "you" is singular, perhaps with the idea that each person who hears this blessing will make it his/her own (without taking away the communal context and character of the blessing). My prayer tonight is this will in effect ignite a zeal for prayer among us due to the promised blessing of God.
1. The commitment of God to bestow blessings on His covenant people
The Aaronic benediction begins and ends with this motif: “The Lord bless … I will bless them.” Thus everything enclosed by these two phrases is to be understood as God’s intention to bless His people. In verses 24–26, the second part of each verse accents the meaning of the first. To bless is to keep; the radiance of the Lord’s face indicates His gracious will for us, and the lifting up of His countenance is the sign and pledge of His peace toward us. God’s covenant people are the bull’s-eye, as it were, of His targeted kindness and love.
The word "bless" in 6:23 refers to the entire blessing that follows and hence that word covers all dimensions of the benediction. To "bless" testifies most basically to the work of God, both within the community of faith and beyond. It signifies any divine gift (spiritual, earthly, and bodily) that directly or indirectly serves the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. No conditions are attached.
The blessings of God, spiritual and physical, ought never to be taken for granted. This benediction recognizes the source of all good things as being God (cf. James 1:17). No doubt the people under Moses' leadership thought of the blessings God had promised them if they would continue to obey Him faithfully. He had promised that "if you will diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments..." that "... all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you." (Deut. 28:1,2). Then the blessings are described. They would be blessed in city and country; in their offspring and the offspring of their flocks and crops and in protection from their enemies. The Lord would make them "abound in prosperity" (Deut. 28:3-14).
Jesus' blessings for us today emphasize the spiritual rather than the physical. While He gives certain assurances in the physical realm, His sacrifice on the cross had to do with restoring us to spiritual life and giving us spiritual bread and water so we need never hunger or thirst again (John 6:27-35). Jesus makes a point that the world often overlooks. He could have made it His business to provide physical blessings the way Moses had (vv. 31, 32) but Jesus was providing something better. This is because those who emphasize their physical needs and desires over their spiritual needs will only grow hungry again and ultimately perish whether they have something to eat or not. But those who partake of the bread of life will live forever.
2. The Lord Himself speaks and commands this benediction
Thus when the priest utters these words, it is not He who confers the benediction, but the God in whose name He speaks. The pronouncement of this blessing is God’s own gracious word to His people. The God who spoke worlds into being , out of nothing, likewise calls into being the very benediction that He commands.
God's "face/countenance" (the same Hebrew word is used twice) is a common anthropomorphism, especially in Psalms (see Psalm 4:6; 31:16; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 89:15). The lifting up of the Lord's face/countenance signifies a gracious movement toward the other (see Gen. 32:20; 40:13). The word "peace" (shalom) is the climactic word of the benediction and has wide-ranging connotations. Its richness includes "prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Ps. 128:6), safety, security (Ps. 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Ps. 38:4), friendship (Jer. 38:22), and general well-being." It suggests His interest as well as His readiness to help. It is a look of approval that the Lord gives to those who live by faith.
The concluding statement in 6:27 ("I will bless them") returns to the opening theme, only with greater specification that it is God who blesses through the words spoken by the priests (the "I" is emphasized in Hebrew). Note the promise here: "I will bless them"; the translation of 6:24 that is sometimes used, "May the Lord bless you...," could be understood to take the edge off this promise.
The Lord's face shines with a tremendous radiant glory, instilling awe in His creatures. We recall how even Moses' face once shined after communicating with the Lord. However, there is more to it than that. The blessing asks the Lord to make His face "shine upon you." This suggests a pleasure or warmth of association with the Lord. Awareness of God's presence brings comfort to the faithful. This is what has been called Coram Deo. We also recall how Jesus was transfigured in the New Testament. Peter, James and John were awe-struck when the beheld the Lord. The Bible says, "And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light." (Matthew 17:2). Paul, in encouraging faithful living on the part of Christians and a warning against being lulled back into the world, later wrote "Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:14)
The Lord watches His people today as well. Again, it is a look of approval that the Lord gives His people. He knows what we endure for His namesake. He will not forget our work and love (Hebrews 6:10) and will one day welcome the faithful home with the words; "Well done!" It is a wonderful thing to know that the Lord approves of the way we are using our talents, opportunities and lives.
3. The Great Blessing of being Special Covenantal people of Yahweh
He binds Himself to His people in covenant mercy by placing His name upon them. To invoke the covenantal name of Yahweh is a constant reminder to the people of God of their salvation in Him; and so cried the Psalmist: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” (). It is Yahweh who gives Himself to His people in giving them His name, and in covenant mercy He has marked them out with His own blood (see ; , ). Yahweh’s blessing is the gift of His name to His people, and it is signed with the blood of His own Son. That gift is efficaciously conferred on His people in the pronouncement of these gracious words of benediction.
The idea of "keep you" is divine protection. In Moses' time, this would refer to protection from hostile invasions and drought and things chiefly of a physical nature. To "keep" is a specific blessing given to those with concerns for safety, focusing on God's sheltering the people from evil and its effects, especially pertinent for wilderness wandering. The verb "keep" occurs six times in Psalm 121 and covers a wide range of life's journey. But it shows a community highly favoured of the Lord than all others (from whom they are protected).
However, again the emphasis shifts in the New Testament and deals more with spiritual protection. One good example of this is the figure of speech that Jesus uses to describe His relationship with His disciples. He is the "Good Shepherd" and we are His sheep. He knows His own, and His own know Him. He lays down His life for his sheep so that they may be protected from the robber or the wolf. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him, and as long as they do, He keeps them safe promising them eternal life (John 10:1-16; 27,28).
Putting God's name on the people (supremely by means of the word) emphasizes the divine source of all blessings. It is as if the people now wear God's name, and that it should be worn so that all will see and believe. Putting the name of God on the people may have been understood literally, given that the blessing is inscribed on two cigarette-sized silver plaques found near Jerusalem, dating from the 7th-6th centuries BCE -- the earliest known fragments of a biblical text.
That this text is chosen for the "name of Jesus" is well fitting, as we pray in Jesus Christ, the "name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9), the Christian community encounters the gracious face of God in an unsurpassable way. This benediction is a deeply appropriate way to conclude the service of Christian worship in God's name.
4. This is a promise of taking possession of the great inheritance
For the people of Israel it was a preparation to taking possession of the Promised Land But this also prepares His new covenant people for taking possession of the new heavens and new earth as joint heirs with Christ. For in that day, “they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (), and which, to be sure, eternity itself shall never erase.
The shining face of God signifies God's benevolent disposition toward the other, here in gracious action, for which Israel can make no special claims. The shining face is to be contrasted with the hiding face of God (see Psalm 13:1): You get to see God's face glowing, not glaring! This is a gracious move on God's part to those who are undeserving. Moreover, the whole world is brought into view to experience the effects of God's shining face (see Psalm 67:1-7). In today's idiom, we might say: God smiles on you!
The reference to "shining" draws in elements of light and brightness from the nonhuman world, with the contrasting idea of darkness in full view here on earth. This shining is what is called glory of God in which His infinite holiness is displayed in splendor that no human eye has seen. It is shown in magnificent grandeur. The glory of God called Shekinah is such a wonderful beauty, and sparkling radiance of God that we cannot comprehend as at now but look forward to its revelation.
Moreover, here is the divine promise of the Lord's Peace - "...And give you peace." (Numbers 6:26b). This peace denotes stability and calmness. Isaiah wrote, "The steadfast of mind Thou wilt keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in Thee. Trust in the Lord forever, for in God, the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock." (Isaiah 26:3,4). And finally we read of the Lord's Graciousness "...And be gracious to you" (Numbers 6:25b). Certainly God favored the faithful of Moses' era with mercy and blessings. Our God is happy to give good things to His children. The nation of Israel never did better than during those times when it was loyal to God. Neither will our own nation, and the same thing applies to individuals.
The supreme example of God's graciousness is not found in the sun or rain or crops, money or education, family or plum jobs, big estates or good education or physical prosperity. We thank God for these things; but as wonderfully sweet and pleasurable as they are, they fail when compared to the favor God bestows upon us through His Son Jesus. It is this inner wealth that is most important; the blessings of the Spirit who God abundantly gives. "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
Jesus is our Rock, and gives peace as well. A solid foundation is needed for stability, and there is none sounder than that of the Living Word of God. Jesus promises peace, and since He is the Prince of Peace we can be sure of His promise. In this mad, crazy world, we are sorely in need of this calm assurance and peaceful confidence. Your friends, family and neighbors need it as well. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6,7).
Peace and grace are common blessings promised upon the new covenant people as we have it at the beginning of the letters of the New Testament. The point is that we enjoy them now on earth as our inheritance. Yet more is coming that Peter simply describes as follows:
Born Again to a Living Hope Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
This familiar benediction has long been used by the church (and Jewish communities) to conclude services of worship. But it is wise to remember that this blessing stands at both the beginning and end of our life with God and in the world.
These are the gracious words of the Aaronic benediction. It is a benediction, moreover, that should never cease to move and amaze us, and which should leave us always lost in a posture of wonder, love, and praise that God would ever be pleased to bless and mark us with His own name. We tap into this divine blessing when we pray to Him and seek His help.