In the Old Testament being cursed includes loss of everything significant and a lowering to the most menial of positions. The serpent must crawl on his belly and eventually be crushed (Gen 3:14-15). Cain can no longer farm and must become a vagabond (Gen 4:11). Canaan becomes the lowest of slaves (Gen 9:25).
Nowhere in the Bible is the state of being cursed portrayed in more graphic terms than in Deuteronomy 28:16-68. The curse follows its victims everywhere, extending to progeny and all means of livelihood. It includes incurable diseases, slow starvation, abuse by enemies, exile, panic, confusion, and eventual madness.
Curses are usually imposed by persons in authority for major breaches of the Torah that might threaten collapse of society. Thus in Deuteronomy 27:15-26 people who practice idolatry, incest, misleading the blind, ambush, disrespect for authority, and subversion of justice are cursed.
The curse is totally under Yahweh's control. It is his power, not magical forces, which brings about the curse. His sovereign decision alone decides who merits being cursed (1 Kings 8:31-32). He cannot be forced into action by proper wording or ritual. Thus a curse could not be used capriciously as a weapon against one's personal enemies.
A king might utter a curse against an innocent person but, like a nervous bird, it would not light (1 Sam 14:24, 28; Prov 26:2). A curse directed against the elect could be turned into a blessing or even come back against the one who sent it (Num 24:9; Deut 23:5-6). Curses could be removed by faithfulness. Levites were to be dispersed according to Jacob's curse (Gen 49:7). Because of their faithfulness this scattering resulted in a widespread teaching ministry (Deut 33:8-10).
The unusually severe imprecations hurled at enemies in psalms such as 109 and 137 may be understood as cries of agony. They accurately record a stage of human spiritual development in people longing for the deeper revelation of love that Christ brought into the world. In some cases these enemies appear more than human and may represent demonic forces of evil. In any case these psalms do not contain divine approbation of the curses.
In the New Testament Christ voluntarily assumed all the pain and agony reserved for those who do not keep the law (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10, 13). He is publicly exposed in the same shameful manner as the rebellious son (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). Paul wished himself to be accursed for his brethren (Rom 9:3).
A curse came to mean total removal of a person from the company of the redeemed where all blessings are localized. Thus anathema [ἀνάθεμα] in the New Testament became equivalent to herem [חֵרֶם , חֵרֶם] in the Old Testament. This curse was imposed for apostasy (Gal 1:8), not loving Christ (1 Cor 16:22), and not extending loving care to the least of the brethren (Matt 25:41).
First Corinthians 12:3 confesses the impossibility of an inspired curse against Christ. Revelation 22:3 looks forward to a day when the curse will be no more.
See also Devote, Devoted; War, Holy War
Bibliography. B. Anderson, Out of the Depths; H. C. Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible; D. R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the OT Prophets.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.