New Light on the Priestly Blessing from Ancient Judah

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Jeremy D. Smoak

The most meaningful prayers are not simply recited but lived. And some of the best known have surprising backgrounds.

Numbers 6:22–27 instructs the sons of Aaron to recite the following blessing to the Israelites:

24May Yahweh bless you and guard you;
25May Yahweh make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26May Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Since this text associates this blessing with the Israelite priesthood, both Jewish and Christian traditions refer to it as the “priestly blessing.” Jewish and Christian literature shows that the blessing came to hold a central place in the liturgies of both communities over the course of the past two thousand years. The blessing itself is structured as a rising crescendo. The first line, which requests the Israelite god to bless and keep/guard, consists of three words in the Hebrew, whereas the second and third lines consist of five and seven words in Hebrew, respectively. Importantly, the last two lines of the blessing invoke references to Yahweh’s face as part of the blessing’s request for divine favor.

Until recently our knowledge of the background and early function of this blessing outside of the Book of Numbers was rather limited. This was largely due to the paucity of evidence for the blessing in ancient Judah dating to the Iron Age (ca. 1200–586 BCE). The discovery of several Iron Age inscriptions from the regions of Syria and Palestine, however, has begun to shed new light on the early function of the blessing.

Gabriel Barkay at Ketef Hinnom

Gabriel Barkay at Ketef Hinnom

Ketef Hinnom

Most notably, in 1979 Gabriel Barkay and Judith Hadley discovered two tiny silver amulets at the mortuary site of Ketef Hinnom just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. The amulets were made of thin sheets of silver, which were rolled up like small scrolls and suspended around the neck as jewelry. When a team of specialists unrolled the amulets, they discovered that each amulet contained several lines of Hebrew inscriptions on their surfaces. The small size of the amulets required that microscopic photography to read the inscriptions. When the inscriptions on the amulets were photographed and read, the team discovered that both contained versions of a blessing with striking similarities to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26.

Reconstructed burial cave

Ketef Hinnom Amulet 2

For instance, Amulet 1 contains the following inscription:

1 . . .]YHW . . . 3the grea[t . . . who keeps] 4the covenant and 5[G]raciousness toward those who love [him] and (alt: those who love [hi]m;) 6those who keep [his commandments . . . 7 . . . ]. 8the Eternal [. . .] 9[the?] blessing more than any 10[sna]re and more than Evil. 11For redemption is in him. 12For YHWH 13is our restorer [and] 14rock. May YHWH bles[s] 15you and 16[may he] guard you. 17[May] YHWH make 18[his face] shine . . .

In addition to the blessing, the inscriptions on the amulets also contained phrases reminiscent of several other biblical passages (Deuteronomy 7:9, Nehemiah 1:5, and Daniel 9:4). The discovery of the blessings on the amulets was significant for several reasons. Most notably, they showed that a blessing with very close parallels to the priestly blessing functioned in the poorly understood personal realm as a protective incantation written and worn upon the body. The discovery of the amulets in a tomb indicates that the blessing may have also been concerned about the status of the dead in the afterlife.

But the amulets also contain references to the Judean god Yahweh as the “Rebuker/Exorciser of Evil” and describe Yahweh’s blessing as stronger than “Evil/the Evil (One).” In this way, the amulets draw much-needed attention to the subject of the even less understood demonic realm in ancient Judah. The amulets join thousands of other amulets discovered in Iron Age Israelite and Judean contexts attesting to a widespread concern over protection against demons, Evil, and other malevolent forces. This evidence might be used to suggest that a better translation of the first line of the blessing might be “bless and guard” rather than “bless and keep.” What evils and which demons, however, remain unknown.

The location of the blessings on the amulets invites new questions about the association that the Book of Numbers draws between the priestly blessing and the Tabernacle. The Book of Numbers cites the blessing as part of the instructions that Yahweh delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai. The context in which these instructions appear in the book connects the blessing with the duties of the priesthood and the Tabernacle. The instructions appear between the law of the Nazarite (6:1–21) and the description of the dedicatory offerings given by the tribal leaders of Israel during the dedication of the altar (7:1–88). In this way, Numbers connects the priestly blessing to a strikingly different context than the amulets by associating it with the giving of votive and dedicatory offerings at a temple.

Past studies have argued that the instructions for the blessing in Numbers reflected its use in the liturgy of the First Temple. While there is no reason to doubt this, several inscriptions discovered within other Iron Age temple complexes shed light on the association that Numbers draws between the priestly blessing and the Tabernacle. One such inscription was discovered at the site of Ekron on the Philistine inner coastal plain about thirty-five kilometers west of Jerusalem.

Excavators discovered the inscription in a temple complex dating to the seventh century. The inscription was written on a block of limestone, which originally had been set in and displayed on the western wall of the building. The inscription was a royal dedicatory offering that the king of the city of Ekron had donated to the temple. It contains a standard dedicatory formula, requesting the goddess of the city to bless the king and his land. But toward the end of the inscription appears the following blessing formula: “May she bless him, and guard him, and prolong his days, and bless his land.” This blessing formula exhibits very close lexical and syntactic similarities to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and the blessing on the Ketef Hinnom amulets.

Plan of Ekron Temple

Ekron inscription

Beyond such similarities, the Ekron inscription is also important because it sheds light on the contexts in which inscribed blessings functioned in the Iron Age Levant. The inscription at Ekron, like the blessings on the Ketef Hinnom amulets, draws attention to the importance of the written-ness, that is, the tangibility, of the blessing in the Book of Numbers. In other words, the fact that the blessing inscription at Ekron was displayed in a temple complex might suggest that the writing of the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24–26 was an appropriation and adaptation of the practice of inscribing blessings in temple space. That is, the appearance of the blessing in Numbers not only reflected its function as an oral formula, but also the significance of its written-ness or “textuality” in temple spaces in the Iron Age.

The placement of the blessing in the text of Numbers may thus be seen as a re-locating of the ritual function of blessing’s from temple to text. By associating the priestly blessing with the tabernacle and the description of Israelites bringing dedicatory and votive offerings to the altar, the text of Numbers reflected the physical connection that existed between temple dedications and inscribed blessings in Iron Age temples. In this way, the citation of the blessing in the text of Numbers also paved the way for the continued use of the blessing in later Jewish and Christian liturgy and practice.

Jeremy D. Smoak is Lecturer, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture, The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26 (2015).


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