CURSE (Heb. ’ālāh, me’ērâh, qelālâh, Gr. katapa). The reverse of “to bless.” On the human level, to wish harm or catastrophe. On the divine, to impose judgment. In the oriental mind the curse carried with it its own power of execution. A curse was imposed on the serpent (Gen.3.14). Noah cursed Canaan (Gen.9.25). The curse of Balaam, the pseudoprophet, turned to a blessing (Num.24.10). A curse was placed on Mount Ebal for disobedience to the law of Moses (Deut.27.1-Deut.27.9). The cursing of one’s parents is sternly prohibited by Mosaic regulations. Christ commanded those who would be his disciples to bless and not to curse (Luke.6.28). When Peter, at Christ’s trial, denied that he knew him, he invited a curse on himself (Matt.26.74); this passage is often misunderstood by Western readers. Paul represents the curse of the law as borne by Christ on the cross for the believer (Gal.3.13). The modern Western practice of cursing, i.e., using profane language, is never referred to in the Scriptures. See also Blasphemy.
Primitive and pagan beliefs.
Primitive people believed that one could pronounce a curse on his enemy and that deity or superhuman beings could be enlisted to execute it. By this means all kinds of disaster, sickness, and hardship could be inflicted. Crop failure, mortality in herd and flock, defeat in battle, and general misfortune were believed possible by curses or spells. Indeed, the validity of pronounced blessings and the antithesis of cursing in early Bible history is amazing. Noah pronounced a curse on Canaan and a blessing on Shem and Japheth (Gen 9:25-27), and subsequent history confirmed his invocations. Isaac proclaimed distinctive blessings on his twin sons, and added a curse to anyone who cursed Jacob (27:27-29). The most elaborate of these paternal blessings was that of Jacob on his twelve sons, “blessing each with the blessing suitable to him” (49:1-28). The eminence of virtue in ancestral blessings held by Jacob (v. 26) shows by contrast the contemporary respect for curses. It was believed that the blessing and the curse released a power which effectively determined the character and destiny of the recipient (27:12).
Balaam, diviner, soothsayer and prophet, enjoyed a wide reputation in the art of blessing and cursing (Num 22:6c). He lived near the upper Euphrates where he doubtless received a heritage from Babylonia, long famed in the art of divination. Consequently, when Trans-Jordania was threatened with invading Israelite hordes, Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balaam. The sword had failed, so a curse was sought from the king of cursers, who had special access to superhuman powers. Divine interference blasted Balak’s hopes, causing Balaam to bless instead of curse Israel (22-24; Deut 23:5). Later, Goliath “the Philistine cursed David by his gods” (1 Sam 17:43). And Shimei, of Saul’s house, cursed David in his flight from Jerusalem when threatened by Absalom (2 Sam 16:5-14). Both imprecations proved futile against God’s elect.
Curses of the covenant.
Subsequently, Joshua led the Israelites into the heart of Canaan to the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, and there in a great outdoor drama carried out Moses’ commands (Josh 8:30-35). The awesome solemnity of this ceremony must have made a profound and lasting impression on Israel. The penalty of these curses (Deut 28) was often cited to call Israel back to Jehovah worship. It was prob. the reading of them that alarmed King Josiah and resulted in his great reforms (2 Kings 22:8-13). When Judah was heading toward Babylonian exile, Jeremiah in his passionate appeal cited the twelfth curse listed above (Jer 11:3). Likewise other prophets interpreted Judah’s disaster as the curse of the covenant.
Curse as an entity.
Laws governing imprecations.
A curse was not considered a mere wish for misfortune on one’s enemies, but a potent force capable of translating pronouncements into tangible results. The fact that one was an enemy made him an eligible victim regardless of his character. Curses were sometimes written on pieces of parchment and left to chance or some deity to make proper delivery. Curses also were inscribed on tombs, as in Egypt, to deter grave robbers. Certain curses were prohibited: “You shall not curse the deaf” (Lev 19:14); “nor...a ruler of your people” (Exod 22:28). “Even in your thought, do not curse the king, nor in your bedchamber curse the rich; for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter” (Eccl 10:20). To curse God would certainly bring death (Job 2:9; cf. 1 Kings 21:10). The Christian view on curse was spoken by Jesus who said, “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28); and by Paul, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom 12:14).
J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of NT (1889) 335f.; N. K. Gottwald, A Light to the Nations (1959), 25, 80, 156, 336; Davies-Mitchell, Student’s Hebrew Lexicon (1960), 38, 331, 562; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1962), 143, 290f., 408; H. M. Buck, People of the Lord (1966), 147, 253f.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Whereas curses by ordinary persons were considered more or less efficacious--some god being always only too glad to speed them on their way to their destination--yet special persons--"holy" persons--in virtue of their special relation to Divine beings possessed special powers of pronouncing effectual curses on account of their powers of enlisting supernatural aid. Balaam, according to the narrative in Nu 22 f, was an expert in the article Balak was convinced that Balaam’s curse would bring about the defeat of the Israelites (see Gray, "Numbers," ICC).
The term--and the thing signified--plays an important part in Paul’s interpretation of the cross. In the light of the law all men are guilty. There is no acquittal through appeal to a law that commands and never forgives--prohibits and never relents. The violator of the law is under a curse. His doom has been pronounced. Escape is impossible. But on the cross Jesus Christ endured the curse--for "cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Ga 3:10,13)--and a curse that has overtaken its victim is a spent force.
Jesus commands His disciples, "Bless them that curse you" (Lu 6:28; compare Ro 12:14). He Himself cursed the fruitless fig tree (Mr 11:21)--a symbol of the doom of a fruitless people.
Curse as the rendering of cherem, implies a totally different, idea.