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Upon closer reading of the text in the Hebrew passage the same translated word in English to curse is actually two different words in the Hebrew with two different root meanings.

What does each word convey and is this significant in terms of the promise made to Abraham? Does it intensify (or dilute) the promise?

ואברכה מברכיך ומקללך אאר ונברכו בך כל משׁפחת האדמה

In the English

“I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses ומקללך you I will curse אאר, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭12:3‬

Some translations do attempt to bring this nuance out, “he who dishonors you, I will curse” but do they do justice to the Hebrew definitions?

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    Excellent question - I had not noticed this before. many thanks for bringing this to our attention. – Dottard Jul 17 '20 at 22:13
  • I was going to write an answer, but as you have selected a best answer, I’ll simply recommend that you read Herbert Chanan Brichto’s The Problem of “Curse” in the Hebrew Bible. – Der Übermensch Jul 19 '20 at 16:14
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    I have no problem selecting a better answer, especially since this question didn’t fully address my inquiry, @DerÜbermensch – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 19 '20 at 19:53
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    I had considered asking a question more specifically about the word curse. But a quick glance over the book you linked seems to be exactly what I was asking to know about. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 19 '20 at 19:56
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The second word for "curse" in Gen 12:3 is אָרַר (arar) and is simply the verb to curse. Uncomplicated!

The first word, most commonly translated "curse" is קָלַל (qalal) and is the nub of this question. Its general BDB explanation is "be slight, swift, trifling". It is in this sense that it is ALMOST universally translated. However. BDB lists a final set of meanings as:

1 make light, lighten, יָקֵל אֶתיָֿדוֺ מֵעֲלֵיכֶם 1 Samuel 6:5; he will lighten his hand from upon you; c,. מֵעַל person alone, make light from upon one, lighten one's burden Exodus 18:22 (E), Jonah 1:5; 1 Kings 12:10 2Chronicles 10:10; + מִן partitive 1 Kings 12:4,9 2Chronicles 10:4,9.

2 treat with contempt, accusative of person 2 Samuel 19:44; Isaiah 23:9; Ezekiel 22:7; direct causative bring contempt, dishonour Isaiah 8:23 (opposed to הִכְבִּיד).

Thus, the force of this meaning appears to be a person who treats another "lightly" or dismissively; that is does not regard a person with the respect is due.

If this is true, then Gen 12:3 (the third and fourth Hebrew words) might be translated something like:

"and those who treat you lightly, I will curse", or

"and those who dismiss you as unimportant, I will curse", or

"and those who do not respect you with due honor, I will curse", or

ESV: "and him who dishonors you I will curse"

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  • I’m also interested in אאר as to whether it’s meant to ultimately denote destruction and not merely a verbal proclamation. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 18 '20 at 1:20
  • @NihilSineDeo - I could find no meaning suggesting destruction but only (in this context) making light of another's reputation. – Dottard Jul 18 '20 at 1:36
  • To make light of another’s reputation is ומקללך I was referring to אאר. I agree with your assessment of being dismissive will result in a curse but what exactly that curse means is what I’m still interested in. Thank you for your prompt response. I will give it a few days to give others an opportunity to response before I make my final decision. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 18 '20 at 1:43
  • This answer is fundamentally incorrect on a linguistic level. There are two distinct ק-ל-ל roots in Hebrew with no known relation between them. They are homophones and not polysemes. The first root is related to שקל and has the forms הוקל, הקל, הקלה, מקל, נקל, קל, קלילות. The second root has the forms קלל and קללה. There is no usage in the OT that implies a polysemic or derived connection between these separate roots. It would have been better if you had answered the question using the fact that Semitic languages generally have a rich base on synonyms for "curse" relative to English. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Aug 19 '20 at 9:15
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim - many thanks for this comment. Why no proffer your own answer and I would be happy to upvote it. – Dottard Aug 19 '20 at 10:33
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Thank you to Dottard for a clear and informative answer. I agree with him that the nub (central point) of the matter is the word וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ

In BHS there is a footnote attached to this word. Literally translated it states, "Read with Cairo Geniza, a few (3-10) medieval Manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, the Syriac Peshitta, and the Vulgate have וּמְקַלְלֶיךָ."

The form in the footnote has the prefix "me" that is a characteristic of the pi'el part. However, we do not have the characteristic pi'el doubling of the second radical (Eccl 7:21). If we accept that this is indeed a pi'el form, it is only the suffix that has changed from 2ms to 2mp, and the note therefore does not affect the translation substantially.

I do agree with the view that we should keep the core meaning of the original root in mind, and translate the pi'el as, "curse by treating someone dismissively, disrespectful, with contempt, etc." This view is manifested here in the translations of ESV, NLT for example. Also refer to Lv 19;14; 1 Sm 2:30, 3:13; 2 Sm 16:5, 19:43 in this regard.

PS. For those readers that are not all that familiar with BH grammar, here are two relevant points.

  1. The waw conjunctive is in the form of a shureq because it appears in front of a labial consonant, also known as the "BuMP" letters.
  2. The mem+shewa is indicative of the (active) participle in the pi'el binyan of strong verbs. This is also the case with irregular geminate verbs (verbs that have two identical radicals in the second and third root positions) as found here.
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  • Be wary of the BH and BHS. These witnesses have numerous instances of apparent fixes to conform to grammatical conventions of later Hebrew. Immanuel Tov discounts these as late changes. In this particular case, the BHS addition of the yod of plurality breaks the parallelism for meter between ואברכה and ומקללך and ruins the punch of the verse, the dissonance between these two words. Other than that, it is not clear what this answer contributes other than agreeing with a previous answer. If you had more reputation points there is a chance that this answer might have been down-voted. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Aug 19 '20 at 9:51
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The same formulation of blessing those who bless you and cursing those who curse you appears at least two other times in the Hebrew Bible. In both of those instances the "curse those who curse you" part uses the same Hebrew word for both mentions of "curse":

In Isaac's blessing to Jacob in Genesis 27:29 we have:

ארריך ארור ומברכיך ברוך

In Balaam's blessing to the Israelites in Numbers 24:9 we have:

מברכיך ברוך וארריך ארור

All three of these verses seem to be expressing the same idea; the implication then would seem to be that both terms for "curse" are being used pretty synonymously.

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  • This is close to the correct answer. I would encourage you to investigate the OT literary form in which someone makes a blessing or curse or pledge of any sort using two or more synonyms. What is the relationship between the former and latter synonyms in terms of their intensity or seriousness? How does this affect the way we understand the intended meaning of the verse? What does the relationship of the synonyms indicate about the strength of the statement? What is the role of repetition through synonyms in a verse in the OT to aphorism? – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Aug 20 '20 at 9:24

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