The desiring, threatening, or pronouncing of evil upon someone or something is the basic idea of a number of Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible that are translated by the word “curse” or similar expressions.
The first curse employed was, logically, at the time of the Edenic rebellion and was directed by God against the instigator of the rebellion through the agent that one employed, the serpent. (Ge 3:14, 15) This curse was to end in his destruction. At the same time the ground was cursed on Adam’s account, resulting in its producing thorns and thistles but not in its destruction. (Ge 3:17, 18; 5:29) The curse that Jehovah placed on Cain condemned him to a fugitive life.—Ge 4:11, 12.
Following the Flood, the first curse pronounced by a human was that which Noah directed against Canaan, son of Ham, condemning him to slave for Shem and Japheth, a curse that saw its major realization some eight centuries later with the conquest of Canaan by the Semite nation of Israel. (Ge 9:25-27) Thus the Gibeonites, descendants of Canaan, were told by Joshua that they were a “cursed people,” in view of which they were assigned to a slave’s position.—Jos 9:23.
Such cursing, therefore, should not be confused with profanity, nor does it necessarily imply violent anger, as is evident from the case of the Gibeonites. In the above texts the Hebrew word ʼa·rarʹ is used. This word is found 18 times in the formal declaration of pronouncements at Deuteronomy 27:15-26; 28:16-19, and also in solemn pronouncements, such as those at Exodus 22:28; Jeremiah 11:3; 17:5; and 48:10. The related noun meʼe·rahʹ occurs five times. (De 28:20; Pr 3:33; 28:27; Mal 2:2; 3:9) The Bible usage of these words indicates a solemn pronouncement or a prediction of evil and, when made by God or by an authorized person, has a prophetic value and force. Joshua’s curse made against any man who, in the future, might rebuild devastated Jericho was fulfilled many centuries later. (Jos 6:26; 1Ki 16:34) King Balak’s requests for Balaam to curse Israel, however, were disapproved by Jehovah, and He caused blessings to be pronounced instead.—Nu 22:6–24:25; see EXECRATION.
ʼA·lahʹ, another Hebrew word rendered “oath” as well as “curse,” implies an oath that carries with it a curse as its penalty for violation of the oath, or because of the oath’s proving to be false.—Ge 24:41, ftn; Nu 5:21, 23, 27; De 29:19-21; 2Ch 34:24; 1Ki 8:31, 32; see OATH.
In the Greek Scriptures the two basic words translated “curse” are a·raʹ and a·naʹthe·ma, along with related words such as ka·taʹra, e·pi·ka·taʹra·tos, ka·ta·raʹo·mai, ka·taʹthe·ma, and ka·ta·the·ma·tiʹzo.
The word a·raʹ has the meaning of an imprecation or a prayer calling down evil from a divine source. John uses the related e·paʹra·tos in writing that the Pharisees viewed the common people who listened to Jesus as “accursed people” who did not know the Law. (Joh 7:49) By contrast, Paul showed that all the Jews needed to be redeemed from the curse of the Law covenant by Christ’s becoming a curse for them through his death on the torture stake. (Ga 3:10, 13) At Galatians 3:10 Paul used e·pi·ka·taʹra·tos to translate the Hebrew word ʼa·rarʹ (the first word considered in this article), as found at Deuteronomy 27:26. In verse 13 he used the same word to translate the Hebrew word qela·lahʹ (something accursed; malediction), as found at Deuteronomy 21:23.—See MALEDICTION.
A form of the word ka·ta·raʹo·mai is used to describe Jesus’ action in cursing the “goat” class (Mt 25:41), and also in instructing his followers to “bless those cursing you.” (Lu 6:28) Paul and James used forms of the same word in giving like counsel at Romans 12:14 and James 3:9. Paul used the word ka·taʹra in likening Christians who fall away after having partaken of holy spirit to the “ground” that is unresponsive to rain and that produces only thorns and thistles (Heb 6:7, 8), while Peter uses the same word to describe as “accursed” those who are covetous, who “have eyes full of adultery” and entice unsteady souls.—2Pe 2:14.
The word a·naʹthe·ma literally means that which is “laid up” and originally applied to votive offerings laid up or set apart as sacred in a temple. (See Lu 21:5, where a related word is used.) In the Greek Scriptures the Bible writers use a·naʹthe·ma to apply to that which is accursed or subject to becoming accursed and, therefore, set apart as evil or execrated. Thus Paul wrote to the Galatians (1:8) that they should consider as “accursed” anyone (even angels) who declared to them as good news something contrary to that which they had received. Those who had “no affection for the Lord” were due to come under a similar designation. (1Co 16:22) In his anguish over his fellow Israelites who had not accepted Christ, Paul said that he could even wish that he himself were “separated as the cursed one from the Christ” in their behalf. (Ro 9:3) In other cases a·naʹthe·ma is evidently used to refer to the declaring of an oath that, if not carried out or if proved false, was intended to result in a curse, as in the case of the 40 men who formed the oath-bound conspiracy to kill Paul. (Ac 23:12-15, 21) The words ka·ta·the·ma·tiʹzo and a·na·the·ma·tiʹzo are used in connection with Peter’s denial of Christ. (Mt 26:74; Mr 14:71) In effect, Peter was here saying that he wished he ‘might be cursed or set apart as evil if he knew the man.’
At Revelation 22:3 the promise is made concerning the New Jerusalem that “no more will there be any curse [ka·taʹthe·ma].” This appears to serve as a contrast with earthly Jerusalem, which did come under God’s curse. It is likewise in sharp contrast to the cursed condition that results to the symbolic city Babylon the Great as a result of God’s judicial decree against her. The “anathema” pronounced against her is evident from the command given at Revelation 18:4-8.—See also 2Co 6:17.
In the Greek Septuagint the translators generally used a·naʹthe·ma to render the Hebrew cheʹrem.—See DEVOTED THING.