In 1979 an archeologist Gabriel Barkay from Tel Aviv Univ. was performing
a survey of an ancient necropolis at Ketef Hinnom (a ridge between Rephaim and
Hinnom valleys) south west of Jerusalem.
Two lines from Ketef Hinnom II with the tetragramaton
and request for a watchful protection.
There his team discovered an earlier unnoticed part of ancient tomb and most importantly an alcove used to store burial remnants and refuse. There, in what can be described as ancient cemetery refuse dump, they found two small relatively heavy metal cylinders roughly of the size of a cigarette butt, or a small marker cap.
These two cylinders turned out to be two silver scrolls. When they were carefully unrolled scholars discovered that those scrolls were inscribed with old Hebrew script. Both scrolls appeared to contain an abbreviated quotation of the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24ff)
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.
Paleographically the scrolls are datable to the 6th century BCE, Biblically speaking - before or around the time when Babylonians captured Jerusalem and sent many Judeans to exile.
Some people immediately claim that these two silver scrolls were the oldest ever discovered quotation from the Hebrew Bible! But that is a shallow fundamentalist argument. More likely is that scrolls contain quotation from an oral priestly tradition. But regardless it was quotation from the written biblical text or from oral tradition we need to pay attention to the context. The full context is indeed so much more interesting!
Firstly we can consider the full text on the scrolls. There was not only the “biblical” quotation of the priestly blessing. And remaining text clearly shows that the scrolls were originally personalised amulets providing personal protection of the wearers. Similar scroll amulets are well documented throughout Ancient Near East. Very often archeologist find their small tubular containers while papyrus or parchment scrolls decomposed over years. In Ketef Hinnom we have opposite situation, we have scrolls while containers likely decomposed.
Secondly we can also considering the context of the find in a tomb. The amulets provided protection not only for the living but also for the journey to afterlife. That is further strengthened for instance by a blessing inscription from a tomb in Kirbeth el Qom. Departed are accompanied on their journey with blessings.
And so the Aaronic or priestly blessing, used weekly in worship in many synagogues and churches, is not only the oldest part of our worship preserved in writing, its oldest function was in apotropaic magic, and it was used to protect and accompany the loved ones on their journey to afterlife.
And that is something you might not know about the Bible and I find quite meaningful and touching as we mark All Hallows and Souls Holy Day.
Comparison of Ketef Hinnom scrolls with the Masoretic (Biblical) Text