Curses and imprecations (Psalm 83)

Bilderesultat for ancient curses

Illustration: Ancient Inscription with magic and spells

To pray for someone else’s wellbeing is to make intercession for that person, but to pray for someone’s destruction is to make an imprecation. The Bible contains a number of imprecations; onw of the clearest is Psalm 83. Here the psalmist called on God to take action against his enemies (83:1-2), the Gentile nations all around (83:6-8) who were plotting harm against Israel (83:3-5). The prayer minces no words; the psalmist asked God to destroy them (83:9-18).

Prayers ans rituals meant to bring about the destruction of enemies (whether personal or national) were common in the ancient world:

  • Egyptians practiced an execration rite whereby they would inscribe names or figures of their adversaries on terra-cotta or pottery, after which they would pronounce a curse upon the enemy and ritually smash the pottery. Execration texts with lists of names of cities in Syria-Palestine have been located, the Egyptians who created these texts wished to call down destruction upon such places as Ashkelon, Byblos and Damascus.
  • Mesopotamian tablets contain rituals meant to call down destruction upon enemies.
  • From the Greco-Roman world archaeologists have discovered magical papyri that called down curses upon all kinds of enemies. For example, there are texts that invoke curses against adversarial parties in lawsuits, as well as those that curse business competitors.

Are the imprecations in the Bible any different from these curses from pagan sources? Obviously there are similarities. Psalm 83, like the execration texts, delineates a list of the foes the psalmist wanted God to punish. Several factors, however, set Biblical imprecations apart:

  • Biblical imprecations have no tie to magic. In magic, a person seeks to manipulate supernatural powers with riual words and actions in order to achieve his or her desire. The Bible provides no rituals to bring about the destruction of enemies. God’s people could only call upon the Lord to punish the enemy and then leave it to Him to decide whether or not to act.
  • Biblical imprecations were based upon belief in the righteousness of God. When making an imprecation, a psalmist appealed to God’s justice in a tacit acknowledgement that God punishes only because it is the right thing to do – not simply in response to a psalmist’s anger. By contrast, in magic-based rituals justice was not an issue.
  • Biblical imprecations were never used for personal jealousies and ambitions.
  • Biblical imprecations ultimately sought to give glory to God. 83:16 prays for the destruction of the wicked “so that men will seek your name, O Lord.” God’s honour – not Israel’s – was to be maintained.


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