Smoak, Jeremy D. The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Jeremy Smoak’s The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26 sheds new light on the origins and diverse functions of the Priestly Blessing. Whereas scholars have written extensively about the blessing’s history and uses in early Judaism and Christianity, a dearth of extrabiblical evidence has precluded an understanding of its history during the Iron Age, including its functions in ancient Israelite and Judahite religious practice; the relationship between these functions and the description of the blessing in the book of Numbers; and the blessing’s connection to blessing inscriptions from the epigraphic records of ancient Israel and Judah. The discovery of two silver Iron Age amulets at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem, of which the West Semitic Research Project at USC provided new photographs and translations in 2004, allows Smoak to fill this gap in his monograph.
Smoak casts a wide net, drawing on material and textual evidence including the Ketef Hinnom amulets, contemporary Phoenician and Punic amulets and bands, biblical passages, and blessing inscriptions from the southern Levant. He argues that the language of the Priestly Blessing derived from a broader tradition of apotropaic language, often inscribed on metal in order to provide protection against evil. Versions of the blessing occur especially in mortuary and cultic contexts, which Smoak links to the formula in Numbers. He further highlights the role of the blessing as both performative speech and performative writing, and ultimately demonstrates how the writing of the Priestly Blessing in the book of Numbers signified a recontextualization of the blessing from the sphere of performative speech and writing to the realm of scripture.
Chapter 1 begins with archaeological and paleographic evidence in favor of a 7th-early 6th centuries BCE dating of the two Ketef Hinnom amulets. Black-and-white photographic images and drawings accompany readings and translations of the amulets’ inscriptions; a clear color image of the second more complete amulet also appears on the front cover of the book. A chart outlines the major similarities and differences between the blessing formula in the first amulet and Numbers 6:22-24; a more complete chart, which includes also the text of the second amulet, appears later in the volume (67). Smoak briefly discusses Yhwh’s “Warrior” epithet in the second amulet, comparing this to iconographic depictions of warrior deities on contemporary amulets. The suggestion that such depictions constituted “an important element in the ritual logic of Iron Age amulets” (32) warrants further study. Finally, Smoak points to the apotropaic function of the amulets as evidence for the function of the Priestly Blessing as a performative utterance and incantation, which was spoken and sometimes written down in order to protect people from danger. Blessing inscriptions from late Iron Age sites in Judah attest to the widespread religious significance of performative writing in that period. In this light, certain biblical passages (e.g., Prov 3:1-4; 6:20-22; Deut 6:6-9; 11:18-21) that typically inspire metaphorical interpretations ought to be understood literally as references to physical apotropaic objects.
Chapter 2 shifts its sights northward to Mediterranean basin sites, where Phoenician and Punic inscribed amulets and bands dating to the 6th-4th centuries BCE have been discovered in tombs. Like the Ketef Hinnom amulets, they were made of metal, rolled up, and worn on the body. Several include brief inscriptions and iconography, with lexical and syntactic similarities to the Ketef Hinnom amulets and the Priestly Blessing, suggesting that the language of Numbers 6:22-24 originated from a set of stock verbs that often were inscribed upon metal for apotropaic purposes in the Mediterranean world of the Iron Age. Smoak further highlights the importance of the mortuary context in which these amulets were discovered. Several biblical passages connect the language of the Priestly Blessing with death and burial, and the late 8th century BCE Khirbet el-Qom inscription, which includes the blessing verb brk, appears on a tomb wall. In ancient Judah, then, some believed that just as inscribing blessings on objects worn during life could protect the wearer from harm, amulets placed on bodies in tombs could protect the dead. This connection between the Priestly Blessing, tombs, and the afterlife in the late Iron Age anticipates early Jewish commentaries that similarly relate the blessing to death.
The Priestly Blessing itself, as well as the instructions that frame it, occupies the focus of Chapter 3. Smoak reviews the structure of the blessing as well as its place within Numbers 5:1-6:27. Although specific words in the Priestly Blessing are common in the Bible, the syntactic sequences in which they occur find parallels not in the Bible, but in blessing inscriptions from late Iron Age southern Levant. Comparing the Priestly Blessing with the Ketef Hinnom amulets, Smoak rejects the view that the lengthier version of the blessing in Numbers reflects a chronologically later expansion; such a view does not account for the diverse contexts and functions of the blessings on the amulets and in Numbers. Noting verses in which śym refers to marking or writing, and relates to protection from danger, Smoak contends that the enigmatic instruction to “put [Yhwh’s] name on the Israelites” in Numbers 6:27 reflects a practice of physically wearing the deity’s name and blessing for apotropaic purposes. The instructions in Numbers thus not only reflect a practice of priests reciting a blessing at the Temple, but also of inscribing it upon amulets for use in the everyday lives of Israelites while away from the Temple.
Chapter 4 examines the dual allusion to Yhwh’s face in the Priestly Blessing. Comparing this language to various Psalms, Smoak suggests that these references connect the Priestly Blessing to the experience of the pilgrim, who would visit the Temple to receive divine protection and the deity’s blessing, signified by his shining face. The association with the Jerusalem Temple supports dating the Priestly Blessing in Numbers to the period of the late Judean monarchy. Chapter 5 explores the phenomenon of writing the Priestly Blessing in the text of Numbers, which shifts the priests’ authority from the sphere of oral performance in the Temple to the realm of material text. Smoak looks to blessing inscriptions from Ekron and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud to explain why the Priestly Blessing is juxtaposed with the description of the Tabernacle dedication in Numbers 7:1-88. Both inscriptions contain linguistic similarities with the Priestly Blessing and attest to the ritual importance of writing blessings at cultic complexes, specifically in connection to dedicatory offerings to deities. The Priestly Blessing thus drew from a stock blessing formula for votive and dedicatory inscriptions in Iron Age southern Levant, situating it within a network of cultic rituals including dedication ceremonies and offerings. The additions relating to Yhwh’s face expand upon the standard formula by connecting the blessing to the Jerusalem Temple.
Smoak argues that in writing the Priestly Blessing in the literary space of the book of Numbers, the authors – likely priests – found a novel way to solidify their ritual authority in blessing Israel. Numbers is therefore not just a text, but a ritual space for the performance of the Priestly blessing through the original act of writing down, and through the subsequent practice of reading the Torah. This in turn reinforces the connection between the realm of ritual text and Yhwh’s blessing. The recontextualization of the blessing from oral performance to ritual text paved the way for its later liturgical use in Jewish and Christian communities, who viewed the blessing’s place in sacred scripture as evidence of its significance.
In addition to uncovering the Priestly Blessing’s early associations with death and apotropaic ritual, which later found their way into Jewish and Christian religious practice, Smoak emphasizes the importance of the materiality of blessing text, and its ramifications for considering text and ritual more broadly. The materiality of text should figure in discussions of the composition of biblical literature, and scholars ought to resituate the study of textual production in ancient Israel and early Judaism within the study of ritual performance.
Yael Landman is a PhD Candidate at Yeshiva University.