The more than 100 popular videos of “The Blessing” sung by churches as benedictions to their cities, countries, and the world have become a multilingual phenomenon. As one YouTube comment mentions, it’s like a foretaste of the great polylingual choir described in Revelation 7.
Seven years ago in an article for Christianity Today, I looked forward to language’s “crowning achievement” in the “amazing sight and sound” that Christians around the world anticipate in heaven. But now I wonder whether I actually left out an even more crucial component than sight and sound: meaning.
When you listen on YouTube to the Malay, Burmese, German, or French renditions of “The Blessing,” you may rightly assume that they are substituting the words of Numbers 6:24-26 from a Bible translation in their language for the original English text. But how does the meaning transfer from one language to another?
We know from experience that Bible translations within one language can differ widely from each other, and it’s clear that this gap becomes more extreme in translations from one language into another. The words of different languages have different histories (etymologies), and the fields of meaning that words have do not cover exactly identical grounds between languages.
Why is this relevant?
We fundamentally believe that God loves his people equally, so we can trust that he fully equips them to communicate with him and about him through their languages. Because I regularly come to the limits of my own understanding—especially when it relates to God— I would love to reduce my limitations by looking at how others communicate with and about God in their own languages.
“The Blessing” phenomenon provides a remarkable opportunity to lift this veil, to peek into the language of God in cultures far from our own. How would singers of the world’s 6,000+ languages bless their families, their towns, and their countries in the words of Numbers 6?
To zero in even closer: How would they sing the very first line of the song, sung in English as “The Lord bless you”?
Let’s skip Lord, the richest term in the line (you can read about the extraordinarily many ways languages across the world translate that name for God right here), and focus instead on the third word: bless. A perusal of English Bible translations reveals no disagreement on how to translate the original Hebrew term barak. All have chosen bless.
But two problems immediately emerge with this English word. One is related to its modern secular usage. The social media phenomenon “hashtag blessed” (#blessed) is completely divorced from any of the meanings of bless in the biblical context. You are “#blessed” when you have a nice tan, meet a great-looking new person, or get a chic new haircut (and #cursed when you don’t?). While this is unfortunate, Christians can do little to change that— aside from not participating.
The other problem hits closer to home, and arises because bless has multiple meanings in the biblical context. As a new Christian, I remember how confused I was about that term. I could understand that God could bless people. I could also comprehend that people could bless other people, or even things like food. But people blessing God? How does that work? As confusing as it may be, the Hebrew barak, the Greek eulogeo, and the English bless are used for each of those meanings.
If you grew up in a church environment with church language surrounding you from a young age, you might never question a single such term being used for three or four different activities; however, for someone learning “church” and “Bible” as a new language, it’s not an easy hurdle to master. (Linguists will explain that the Hebrew barak originally meant “to kneel,” which implies worship. In a somewhat parallel development in English, bless comes from a term that also denoted sacrifice and worship. But this is knowledge that’s not readily available to a wider audience.)
Maybe it’s not surprising, then, to see that languages which encountered the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible more recently than English tended to choose different translations for the various activities described by the English bless— much like a young adult Christian might have.
For example, translators for Jula, a widely spoken language in Côte d’Ivoire (its Bible was published in 2013), chose three different words for the different kinds of blessing: baraka, an Arabic loan word, for empowerment via the blessing that comes from God; dugawu, a term that is frequently used in common language for spontaneous prayer, for the blessing from one person to another; and tando (“praise”) for what people do toward God. Many other languages that don’t have a long history in Bible translation or Christian terminology chose terms for bless that are associated with transferring goodness or happiness.
Amazingly enough, Toraja Sa’dan, a language spoken in Indonesia, uses an old and familiar expression in that culture that almost foreshadows the next verses of Numbers 6 (“the Lord make his face to shine on you … the Lord turn his face toward you”) with its translation of barak and eulogeo as “sprinkling with a propitious face.”
In a step further, those who speak the Bantu language of Koonzime in Cameroon understand the Numbers 6 blessing as a traditional transfer of saliva, giving the receiver of the blessing “tenderness of face.” (All of these examples and more are available right here.)
Another language, Tagbanwa, spoken in the Philippines, uses an expression that provides a powerful example of why it is worthwhile to listen into how other cultures and languages speak with God. What English readers know as bless, Tagbanwa readers know by an expression that back-translates to “caused to be pierced by words causing grace.”
Pierced by words that cause grace.
What do we do with this understanding of blessing? Or better: What does it do to us?
Being pierced by words that cause grace makes us vulnerable. And with new vulnerability, we can watch “The Blessing” videos again and be pierced by the blessing that is sung to us. We can reach out to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers and pierce them gently with our words of grace. And we can welcome and embrace blessings that are spoken and given to us.
The Lord bless you.
Jost Zetzsche works as a consultant for United Bible Societies in creating and maintaining the Translation Insights & Perspectives tool, a portal that allows visitors to look at the text of the Bible in more than 600 languages.