Digging Up the Priestly Blessing

By Amy Flattery |

Many, many years ago, while living in Israel, I studied with several interesting professors. My parables teacher was a rather intimidating Jewish woman who knew her stuff! In her class, you did not want to speak out of turn or attempt to guess. It was only mildly safe to open your mouth if you were sure of your response and could back it up in several ways. Thankfully, she liked me, and we worked out a good relationship. 

One of my favorites and most difficult professor was Dr. Gabriel Barkai. Not only was he my teacher, but he was also my landlord and a good grandpa figure to my children. 

Do you remember those blue notebooks for test-taking? When I took his tests, I would write nonstop for hours. I filled several books, and yet, it was never enough. 

I once stood with him, in the same spot, for three hours, overlooking the city of David in Jerusalem. It was an excellent place to stand. He talked and talked. And could have continued for hours, months, and probably years. 

Dr. Barkai is still considered the leading and foremost in the world in knowledge of the archaeology of Jerusalem. He has accomplished so much. He has found significant finds from the biblical periods. Yet, I want to share a story of what I consider one of his most special finds. And it remains, and likely will always remain, my favorite. 

The Interview

In an interview conducted by By David Parsons and Jonathan Parsons, ICEJ StaffDr. Barkai tells the story of this specific find in the following excerpts:

He says: It was an interesting case. We worked that season in 1979 with the help of some kids from an archeology club in Tel Aviv. These were kids of the ages 12 to 13, which is a dangerous age. They have the brains, but they don't know how to use them. Among those kids, there was a boy that was a nagging type. He used to pull my shirt from behind. And when I turned around, he would ask me silly questions.

In any case, in order to get rid of this boy, I put him into that repository. After we discovered the repository (almost like an ancient dumping ground), I had the impression that the place was looted, that there was nothing in it. I saw some stones at the bottom, and I thought: 'Well, that's the floor.' And then, the floor was cleared of all the contents of the repository. I left him there to clean the place for photography.

And he, in his boredom, took a hammer and began banging on the stones which I thought were the floor. And he began to pull out complete objects from underneath, which was against all instructions they had been given.

Actually, I saw my shirt being pulled from behind and turned around and saw this boy handling in-tact pottery vessels from the First Temple period. So, I asked him: 'Where did you get it?' He couldn't supply me an answer, and I was ready to suffocate him on the spot.

I discovered that it was an untouched repository; all the kids were sent home. 

We introduced a new group of diggers, students of archaeology from Tel Aviv University and an American studies program in Jerusalem, and we worked there around the clock for about a week. And on one of these days, an American student working inside the cave called me in and showed me the first silver scroll in the soil. I had the feeling that it might be of importance, but I didn't know how much.

In any case, after the dig, we made several attempts to unroll it. The attempts were unsuccessful, and they damaged the object. So, part of it is missing today as a result of the unsuccessful attempt

He made the discovery of my life. Mine, not his! 

Among the finds in that repository, we had two tiny rolled-up plaques made of 99% pure silver. And after three years of effort, we managed to unroll those two tiny scrolls, and they were densely covered with ancient Hebrew script, which included, in both cases, the priestly benediction from the book of Numbers from chapter six, verses 24 to 26. And these are the earliest biblical verses that we own today. They are from the seventh century BC, about 2600 years old, from just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, before King Josiah. 

It is from the time that the first temple, Solomon's Temple, still stood in Jerusalem. And those two tiny scrolls, they mentioned six times the name of the LORD, which was also the first word that I managed to decipher when I first saw them after they were unrolled. 

It's a silver leaf with the Hebrew words inscribed on it. And these are the oldest Biblical verses that we own all around the world. Nothing parallels it. 

In addition, we found out in the 1990s, with more advanced methods for photography as well as computer programming, that there are some more verses on these. 

We tried to soften it to unroll it and found that is the wrong way. And finally, the labs of the Israel Museum managed to open it, but it took three years. And when they called me into the lab of the Israel Museum, I saw the letters were very delicately scratched on with a sharp instrument upon the silver. 

I worked for several years on deciphering the two inscriptions. They were found in 1979, and it was finally published only in 1986. It has immense significance to Biblical studies and various other fields. It is 60 characters, 15 words arranged in three blessings, one of three words, another of five, and the next one of seven words. The second word in each of these three blessings is the name of the LORD, and it culminates in the word 'shalom,' which usually is translated as 'peace.' (The full Q&A can be found here:https://www.icej.org/blog/gabi-barkay-the-dean-of-biblical-archaeology/)

What Was Written

Written on the silver scroll is the biblical text from Numbers 6:24-26. It represents one of the central passages of Scripture, known as the 'Priestly' or 'Aaronic' Benediction. I am confident they are familiar to you: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace.” 

Why spend so much time telling you this story? 

These verses exude the graciousness of God. Never forget that for as old as our biblical text and the oral culture before it, these words have had significant meaning to God's people for thousands of years. 

As a child, I could not wait for the end of service to receive this blessing in church. Truly. I only wanted to leave once I was blessed. My pastor would recite it, and I would accept it. 

What I love about this ancient blessing is that it is written in the second person singular – “you.” Most Jewish liturgy is in the first-person plural – “us.” 

Often, when we pray together, our prayer is focused on the community, in agreement with those around us. But in the case of blessings, there is a shift. This blessing is spoken in public but is for the individual. It is a blessing for our individual needs and hopes; for the grace of God to pour over each of us individually. 

God is concerned for individuals. We are equally dear to our Father. We are not undefined individuals lost in a crowd. Each of us is precious to God. 

A shortened variation of this blessing is found in Psalm 67: "May God grant us grace and bless us, may God's face shine upon us" (Ps. 67:2). Do you notice something different? It is in the plural. "May God grant us grace and bless us; may God's face shine upon us."  

We have moved from the individual to the community. As God's kids, we must love and care for each other. In this way, we show our love for our Father. We understand that the graciousness of God is for us and extends beyond us. It does so by how we behave toward all God's children and by how God acts toward us. 

Dissecting the Blessing

That being said, let's look at the verses from Numbers 6:24-26 once more. "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace."

The act of blessing is rooted in Israelite culture and comes in several forms. A divine blessing, as found in Numbers, was a part of everyday language for greeting one another and placing God's name on his people. 

This specific blessing begins with a physical need. The Lord bless you and keep you – May God provide for all you need. How much will He care for us if we are His children? If you have children or close family members, how much do you care for them?

The blessing of God strengthens us and empowers us. If God blesses us, He also keeps us! God is faithful. God holds us as Psalm 121 says: 

I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?

            My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

            He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will not slumber;

            indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

            The Lord watches over you. The Lord is your shade at your right hand;

            the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

            The Lord will keep you from all harm. He will watch over your life;

            the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

The second phrase in Numbers 6:25 grants hope that God will shine his face on us and be gracious – even in our failings. The very nature of God exudes graciousness toward his children. God's face shines on us, and the graciousness of God tells us that God is near. He is present. He is close. His graciousness is goodness, and His love is an extension of mercy. 

The third phrase asks that God will pay attention to us. His full attention: that He will turn His face toward us and see us. In doing so, we will find peace. The very extension of God's blessing is by His grace. The turning of God's face toward us is His graciousness extended. 


There is another step. Will you accept the blessing? Just because one is said over you or in your presence, do you receive it? In a blessing, a response of faith is necessary. The blessing is received when those receiving it are repentant, trust God, and obey His word. 

As this blessing is tied with going out, I would love to close with the fullness of this blessing, with this fullness of God's presence in our lives. We can do this because Jesus healed the separation between us and God. Because of this, you never need to doubt the blessing of God. This blessing is fulfilled in our obedience and faith, and God covers us with His presence. 

"May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace" Number 6:24-26.

Scroll Photo Credit: Tamar Hayardeni

Posted In Devotional Israel

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