Hebrew Mistranslation or Misdiagnoses of Genesis 12:3

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I recently learned that there are some who claim that the traditional view of Genesis 12:3 is wrong. In fact, someone wrote a blog about it last week on our site! So I felt compelled to check it out. This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible and certainly, as a Zionist, it is extremely relevant today.

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” (Gen. 12:3)

The writer argues that the second part, “whoever curses you I will curse” should be translated differently, because two different words for curse are used. This seemed strange to me so I checked and indeed two different words are used for curse. The author said that first Hebrew word for curse KaLaL (קלל) should be translated as “to make light of.”

A quick google search revealed that more than a few people hold to this view and one popular author went so far as to translate the whole second part of the verse as:

“The one who treats you lightly, I must curse.”

The emphasis was on the fact that God must curse the person or entity for belittling Israel — it is a law, like Newton’s law.

I took a look at the biblical Hebrew words to see if this was correct. There are two questions.

  1. Does “curse” in Genesis 12:3 mean “to make light of”?
  2. Does the text say must curse or will curse?

In modern Hebrew, it is widely accepted that  the word for “to curse” is l’kalel (לקלל). The same meaning also applies in Biblical Hebrew. However, God does actually use two words here. The first word in the state, “Those who curse you,” is l’kalel (לקלל), but the second one, the statement, “…I will curse,”  is a word that is only used in Biblical texts, la-ore (לאור) and it definitely means to curse. But the second word is not the issue, rather the first word, l’kalel (לקלל) is. So, does l’kalel (לקלל) mean “to curse” or “to make light of” or both?

The answer is that l’kalel (לקלל) means exclusively “to curse” and not “to make light of”. Every dictionary I checked confirmed this. So why would several Messianic ministry leaders write publically that it means something else? My assumption is that most of these claims are based on referencing Strong’s Concordance for the root KaLaL (קלל) which lumps together every use of the three-letter root KaLaL (קלל), even though there are seven different words! You can see here that Dr. Strong and his team made no distinction.

Noted Hebrew scholar, Dr. Michael Brown agrees that it should be “to curse”:

In Hebrew, the same verbal root can have different meanings, depending on the form of the verb. When it comes to the root KaLaL, in its most basic form it means to be small or insignificant, but in its intensive form, it means to curse or revile. And in Genesis 12:3, as borne out by Numbers 24:9, it is speaking of the people of Israel as a whole, and so, those who curse Israel will be cursed.

The actual verb for “to make light of” has the same root. All Hebrew words have a three or four letter root. KaLaL (קלל) is the root for both l’kalel (לקלל) and l’hakel (להקל). L’hakel (להקל) means to make something easier or lighter in most cases, but can be used as “to belittle.” However that is not the word used in Genesis 12:3, rather it is l’kalel (לקלל) “to curse”. It’s an honest mistake—but a clear mistake.

Here is a good example of l’hakel (להקל), which means “to make light of”:

“In the past the land of Zebulon and the land of Naftali were regarded lightly.” (Isaiah 9:1)

In Hebrew there as many as seven different possibilities for each root. For instance, the root KaTaV (כתב) is used to express “to write” likhtov (לכתוב), “to dictate” l’hakhtiv (להכתיב), and “to correspond” l’hitkatev (להתכתב). In all three words you can see the three-letter root KaTaV (כתב), but they all have different meanings. Often, as in this example, the words are all connected to writing. For a breakdown of the KaLaL root in all seven forms, click here.

A good example of this is in Genesis 8, where in verses 8 and 11 it refers to the waters receding. The verb there is lakal (לקל) from the same root KaLaL (קלל), which is connected to the idea of lessening something. But then in verse 21, God promises never to curse the earth again. What word is used there? The same root of KaLaL (קלל), but in a different form, l’kalel (לקלל), the same as in Genesis 12:3. If we were to take the view that l’kalel (לקלל) means “to make light of” or “to belittle”, then God promises after the flood never to make light of the earth again or to belittle it. Of course, that makes no sense.

Secondly, the texts says “a’ore” which simply means “I will curse.” It doesn’t mean, I must curse. If that were the intention it would have been worded differently. And truthfully, I like the idea that God intentionally defends Israel, not that He has merely set a law in place.

One popular author did make a strong case of God taking issue with nations that mistreated the Jewish people, from The Roman Empire under Constantine to the British Empire, which lost most of their land after giving away 80% of the land they promised to the Jewish people. And on that, we all agree. Israel is the apple of God’s eye (Zech 2:8) and, while we don’t believe that Israel is perfect, she does have a special calling and destiny and the nations should think twice before ‘cursing’ or even ‘making light of her’!