One of the most important discoveries in the annals of Biblical Archaeology is also one of the smallest: Two silver amulets containing a version of the Priestly Benediction, Numbers: 6: 24-26. To remind you, if you slept through that Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons the phrases with which to bless the people: “May YHWH bless you and keep you. May YHWH cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May YHWH turn his face to you and grant you peace.”
A slightly truncated version of these words appears in ancient Hebrew script etched on rolls of silver the size of cigarette butts that were found in a 7th century BCE tomb. Like many archaeological finds, their discovery was a combination of lucky coincidences, guided by the wise scholarship and the instinctive horse sense of the inimitable Gabriel Barkai.
In 1978 Barkai was a young archaeologist with a small budget and a meager digging crew composed of a group of 12-year-olds from a local youth movement. Working with the little troop fate had handed him, Barkai chose to excavate a First Temple Period burial cave behind the Scottish Church of St. Andrew. Although the crypt had apparently been cleared of its contents by grave robbers centuries ago, Barkai sent his intrepid 12-year-olds to clean out the various chambers to be photographed and catalogued. One of his young helpers, a particularly pesky fellow named Nathan, was given the dreary task of cleaning out an apparently empty little stone niche and out of boredom began whacking at the stone walls of the nook with his hammer. He broke the wall. As luck would have it, the wall was not a wall, but an accumulation of dried mud that had been hiding a chamber of archaeological riches including hundreds of objects: iron arrowheads, glass, ivory, semi-precious stones and silver. There, in this trove representing the wealth of some long forgotten Jerusalem family, were the two little amulets with the priestly blessing etched in them.
Barkai and his 6th graders were sitting on a gold mine. They had no guards, no fences, no alarm systems, no police escort and they were in the middle of the busy traffic of Israel’s capital city. The entire team was sworn to secrecy: The kids weren’t even allowed to tell their parents. They worked around the clock and pretended to be continuing to empty the dirt out of an old deserted crypt.
When the dust settled, the finds were duly cleaned and catalogued and the excavation report written, Barkai was left with the two silver amulets. Bear in mind that they were rolled into tight cylinders and Barkai was not certain that the technology existed to unroll them without destroying them. There was a chance that the text of the amulets would never be revealed. But after traveling through three continents over the course of four years, they were eventually revealed to be those verses from the Book of Numbers.
There are many profound things about this find. For one, it is the oldest example of Biblical writing in existence. It is also the first written known incidence of YHWH, the Hebrew tetragrammaton name for God. Beyond that, it substantiates that at least some of the words of the Bible actually reach back to Biblical times. The amulets are dated from the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who was haranguing King Zedekiah only half a mile away from where the amulets were buried.
To me, there is something wonderful, serendipitous, and yes, spiritual about the fact that of all the verses that could have emerged from this accidental find, it was these words that were found, speaking to our cyber-frenzied world from deep within the days of the Kings of Judah: The words that I use to bless my children every Friday night. The words that the Cohanim descendants of priests have used to bless congregations of Jews for as long as there have been synagogues. The words that, when uttered during the repetition of the prayer service, require the response Ken Yehi Ratzon (So, may it be His will).
Today, the actual amulets are safe in the Archaeology Wing of the Israel Museum, but this little bit of Jewish haiku lives with us daily. May we all be deserving of the blessings of Aaron and his sons. “May YHWH turn his face to you and grant you peace.”