This now timeless and powerful benediction was first pronounced over God's people at the end of a section on the purity and defilement of the camp. This indicates something of the significance of those purity laws for ancient Israel. In maintaining purity, people found themselves blessed by God. The laws were one way that God brought the "peace" (shalom) promised in the blessings. At the same time, the blessing was never limited to this single context in Israel's life and worship. It became a fundamental liturgical formula, which is indicated by its careful poetic structure. (Psalm 67, for example, brings the language of the benediction into the worship of the community.) Extending a blessing was a powerful phenomenon in the culture of the time (see, for example, the story of Jacob and Esau). To receive a blessing marked the bestowal of favor and promise; to lose or forfeit a blessing portended a diminished future.
This particular blessing presents God's favor in three tangible ways: blessing and security, illumination and grace, and the sustained attention ("his countenance") that brings peace. In times of distress, Israel frequently prayed that God look at them, see them, hear them, turn to them, pay attention to them (for example, Psalms 6:4; 9:13; 27:7; 80:14; 119:153). In Psalm 80, they pray, "Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved" (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19). To be in distress is, in a way, to be "invisible" to God. To have God's gracious attention--God's "face"--is to be blessed, precisely as this priestly benediction promises.
22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
23Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org