The first usage of the Hebrew root “to bless” (ברך) in the Bible is at Genesis 1:22, the 5th day of Creation, when upon creating the “swarming swarms” to fill the sea and the sky, G-d blesses them, i.e. endows them with fruitfulness (the ability to reproduce).* He also blesses 6th day creation (land animals and humans) in the same way. Specific examples of such a usage can be found in Deut. 28:4-5; 1 Sam 25:33; and Prov 5:18 – “blessed be the fruit of your womb.” Oswalt defines the word as “to endue with power for success, prosperity, fecundity, longevity, etc.”°
The Hebrew word בָּרוּךְ (blessed) conveys the idea of being strengthened, of our weakness being compensated for with G-d’s strength. The field of meaning of its root (ברך) is “to kneel, bless, praise, salute.”
One of the nouns which derives from this root is the Hebrew word for “knee” (בֶּרֶך), which is one of the weakest parts of the body; i.e. the English idiom for fear-stricken “weak in the knees.” You can see even in English the relationship between the two words “knee” and “kneel.” In our weakness, we kneel before G-d and He provides His strength (lit. blessing). Thus a blessing from G-d is empowerment to be able to do what is not within our natural capabilities.
Some of the contexts in which blessing occurs include the end of a worship service, when we are sent back out into the pagan world – often the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26):
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ May Adonai bless you and keep you;
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ May Adonai lift up his face upon you and be gracious unto you;
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם May Adonai lift up his face upon you and give you peace.
Blessings are also a traditional part of a Jewish wedding, for without G-d’s help, how much more difficult marriage would be! The marriage contract has three partners: the husband, the wife, and the L-rd. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
When we bless G-d, however, the meaning can obviously not be us supplying strength where G-d is weak… so there must be another use as well. When we pronounce blessings on G-d, we are describing His attributes – most often his covenant loyalty (חֶסֶד) and truthfulness (אֱמֶת); cf. Deut. 15:14; 1 Sam 23:21; I Kgs 10:9; Ps 31:21; 106:48. When G-d blesses us, it is these two qualities that are being manifested to us. It is because G-d has these attributes that He chooses to bestow His blessings upon us.
* Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978).
° John N. Oswalt, “ברך,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 132.