A Silver Priestly Blessing
In Numbers 6:24-26 we find the priestly blessing, well-known to us from our worship services.
The LORD bless you and keep you: the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
It is not my intention to give an explanation of these beautiful words. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that an ancient inscription has been found outside Jerusalem which apparently contains this very blessing.
Gabriel Barkay of Tel Aviv University has directed excavations immediately west of Jerusalem above the Hinnom Valley at a site called Ketef Hinnom (Hebrew for "The Shoulder of Hinnom") and has written a catalogue describing the artifacts that have been found and which are now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. From this publication (Ketef Hinnom: A Treasure Facing Jerusalem's Walls, 1986) most of the information for this article has been derived.
Among the finds were looted and destroyed burial caves. However, there was one happy exception – an untouched burial site, full of objects interred with the ninety-five individuals who had been buried there. This is the first such site discovered in Jerusalem from the time of the first temple. Much pottery and beautiful silver and gold jewelry were found in this cave, but most exciting was the discovery of two small cylindrical silver objects. These were tiny scrolls with a space in the middle through which a string could be threaded enabling them to be worn. When unrolled (a delicate task!), they turned out to be two silver plaques measuring about 97 by 27 mm. and 39 by 11 mm. On these plaques, delicately incised inscriptions were found. Understandably, they could only be read with great difficulty. But two important conclusions have already been made. In the first place, the form of the script and comparison with other dated Hebrew inscriptions indicate that these plaques are from about 650 B.C., i.e. in the last years of King Manasseh's reign and about ten years before Josiah's. In the second place, the larger fragmentary text contains words almost completely identical (in so far as the words are legible) with the priestly blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. The smaller inscription, which is less well preserved, is reminiscent of the Hebrew of Psalm 67:2: "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine upon us, Selah."
This find is of great importance if only because one of these plaques is the earliest known fragment of a Biblical text.
Previous to this, the oldest available text material was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, of which some of the Biblical texts may date as far back as the late third century B.C. What adds to the significance of this particular discovery is that Numbers 6:24-26 is usually considered by critical scholars to be of a much later date than the mid-seventh century B.C. assigned to these plaques. This find should provide another reason for rethinking some of the critical presuppositions underlying much contemporary study of the Old Testament, by which parts of the Old Testament are rather arbitrarily assigned to late periods. Indeed, there is no reason to question the Mosaic dating of these words. The testimony of Scripture is clear enough (Numbers 6:22).
Also in another way this discovery is important in that it helps us appreciate the religious situation in Israel in the decadent days of Manasseh. Since the inscriptions are extremely small and compact, being rolled up as tiny cylinders, and could thus be worn on a string, the plausible conclusion has been drawn that they were amulets. (Amulets are mentioned in Isaiah 3:20). Amulets were common in Near Eastern antiquity as a means of warding off evil spirits and the like. That God's people should use His Word, in this case a priestly blessing, as a type of charm, does not reflect well on the times. It testifies to an externalization of the true religion which may very well have been justified by a literalistic appeal to passages such as Deuteronomy 6:8.
And you shall bind them [God's words] as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.cf. Exodus 13:9
Such amulets were probably the origin of the later phylacteries (the word means "amulet," "means of protection"), the hollow cubes containing certain Scripture passages, which the Scribes and Pharisees wore in Christ's time (cf. Matthew 23:5) and which are still worn by orthodox Jews today. Prior to the discovery of the silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom, it was not thought that Scripture passages were so used this early in Israel's history. Also in this regard our understanding has thus been increased.
The place of archaeology is limited. It is not needed to establish the truth of Scripture, for God establishes the truth and Scripture as His Word is truth (cf. John 17:17; also see Art. 5 of the Belgic Confession). Yet we may gratefully take note of and use any archaeological data that have a bearing on the Bible, for it can deepen our understanding and appreciation of what we read in God's Word.