Review of Jeremy D. Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26 (Oxford, 2016)

 

The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture by Jeremy Smoak is an in-depth study into the origin and background of the priestly blessing in Num 6:24-26. The argument of the book is fairly simple. Building on recent inscriptional discoveries, Smoak proposes that the language of the blessing stems from a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic formulae that were spoken and written down to protect individuals from demonic forces, and this illuminates not only the function of the blessing prior to being incorporated into the biblical text but also its meaning in its current narrative setting in the priestly source.

Chap 1 offers a translation and commentary on the Ketef Hinnom inscribed amulets containing language that parallels the priestly blessing. The amulet setting and full context of the inscriptions suggest that the blessing functioned as an incantation that could be written down on objects for protective purposes.

Chap 2 describes a number of Phoenician and Punic inscribed amulets whose language overlaps with Ketef Hinnom and the priestly blessing. The lexical and syntactic similarities leads Smoak to identity the blessing as belonging to a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic ritual, which was closely linked to mortuary contexts.

Chap 3 moves to an analysis of the priestly blessing itself, arguing that its placement within the legal material in Numbers reflects an understanding of the blessing as ritually effective language employed by authorized priests. The phrase “they will put my name on the Israelites” in the instructions evokes the practice of carrying apotropaic blessings on one’s body in the form of amulets.

Chap 4 discusses the significance of the reference to YHWH’s face in the blessing. The divine face is a poetic trope closely associated with temple worship in the Bible. So the allusion to the divine face in the blessing connected the goal of personal protection to communal temple imagery

Chap 5 refers to examples of blessings having been written for the purpose of public display at cultic sites. Because of this linkage between blessing and physical temples, the placement of the priestly blessing prior to the dedication of the tabernacle in the priestly narrative may have been intended to accomplish something similar, establishing effective ritual blessing within the literarily imagined world of the temple.

A conclusion reviews the major findings of the study.

I found Smoak’s general thesis to be well-argued and supported. The book represents a significant contribution to the study of apotropaic ritual/magic in Israel-Judah, which will be of interest to both biblical scholars and students of ancient Near Eastern religion. The careful use of material culture and inscriptions from the broader region so as to illuminate the thought-world of the biblical texts is exemplary, building a historically-informed hermeneutical context without forcing the evidence.

A few points of criticism:

First, Smoak acknowledges that apotropaic formulae were likely directed against demonic and death-dealing influences, but he almost completely avoids any discussion about the nature of this demonic evil opposed by YHWH. The translation of hrʿ in the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions as “the Evil” or “Evil” seems awkwardly abstract and undefined, more plausibly it refers to a personalized “Evil One.”

Second, in chap 2 I think it would have been helpful to provide more discussion on the divine iconography that often accompanied apotropaic formulae on Phoenician and Punic amulets. Inscriptions associated with particular iconography often tend to be mutually illuminating.

Third, I didn’t find the discussion about the dating of the priestly blessing and associated instructions to be entirely convincing. While the blessing itself may be pre-exilic in origin or relatively older than its surrounding literary context, this tells us nothing certain about when it was taken up and incorporated by the priestly authors. The use of the infinitive absolute of ʾmr “to say” as a command in the instructions hardly requires a pre-exilic date (p. 86). Smoak also doesn’t sufficiently explain why the imagery of the divine face would only make sense “against the background of the ritual language associated with the temple in the pre-exilic period” (p. 83).

Fourth, the correlation of the priestly blessing to the centralizing reforms of Josiah depicted in biblical narrative is problematic and appended to the discussion almost as an afterthought (p. 110). The various versions of the blessing do not mention a specific temple where the divine face was located, and neither can I detect any hints at a centralizing or aniconic ideology (p. 139). The mention of a divine face could easily be consistent with the worship of cult statues, icons, or standing stones.

Aside from these fairly minor weaknesses, Smoak’s book is certain to move the scholarly discussion on apotropaic ritual/magic in ancient Israel-Judah in productive directions.

 

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]

אל קנה ארץ: Creator, Begetter, or Owner of the Earth?

 

I have a new article up on the meaning of the verb qny in the divine epithet qny ʾrṣ, variously translated “Creator,” “Begetter,” or “Owner of the earth.” I argue that the verb never means “to create” in West Semitic and that all attested usages can be explained on the assumption that they derive from a single root with the basic meaning “to acquire, come into possession.” The correct translation of Hebrew qnh šmym wʾrṣ in Gen 14: 19, 22 is “Owner of heaven and earth.”

The god Gad

 

011.Abraham_Goes_to_the_Land_of_Canaan

The cult of the god Gad in ancient Israel is at first glance obscure. As a god identified with good fortune (the word gad means “fortune, happiness”), the divine name is attested sporadically in the Bible as well as in personal names and inscriptions from the larger Syro-Palestinian region. The laconic quality of personal names provides few hints about his character and identity, while the single literary text in which the divine name occurs is highly polemical and of limited use (Isa 65:11). Further complicating matters is that not only was there a god in the southern Levant known as Gad, but the noun gad was also commonly used in personal names in its appellative sense to identify a particular god as a source of good fortune. During the first millennium it seems a variety of gods could be described as a source of gad, as reflected in the personal names gdmlqrt (“Melqart is fortune”), gdʿštrt (“Astarte is fortune”), gdnbw (“Nabu is fortune”), gdyhw (“Yahu is my fortune”), gdyʾl (“El is my fortune”), mlkmgd (“Milkom is fortune”), ṣlmgd (“Ṣlm is fortune”). Eventually the name gad was generalized and came to be used as a title for patron deities of cities, tribes, and localities in the Graeco-Roman Near East (Höfner 1965: 438-39; Lipiński 1995: 62-64; Kaizer 1997; Ribichini 1999: 340).

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Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem

 

The discovery of two late Iron Age seals from Jerusalem has been announced, and though we await more detailed discussion of the seals in an official scholarly publication, Christopher Rollston has provided a valuable provisional analysis clarifying aspects of the reading of the inscriptions and their script, language, and date based on examination of the available photos, as well as a discussion on the use of seals more generally in the ancient Near East and the exceptional nature of a woman owning a seal.

 

For myself, what is most interesting is the content of the various names found on the seals. I have elsewhere discussed the significance of personal names as a window into the family and national religion of the peoples of the southern Levant (cf. Albertz 2012, Burnett 2009). As many names contain both a theophoric element (YHW, El, Baal, Kemosh, Milcom, Qos) and a predicative statement articulating some belief about the named deity, they tell us something about how these individual deities were conceptualized at both a familial and societal level.

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Plaster Wall Inscription 4.2: El, Baal, and YHWH

I have put up a draft of my study on plaster wall inscription 4.2 from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which offers a revised transcription, translation, and commentary. If you are less interested in epigraphic analysis, then you are welcome to skip to the commentary further below. There I present the argument that in the context of Israel-Judah the name Baal referred to El, the head of the Israelite pantheon.

A New Analysis of YHWH’s asherah (updated)

 

I have added parts 2 and 3 to the paper on YHWH’s asherah, which you can access here or through the pull down menu. The new additions start after the subheading ʾšrth= Asheratah/Ashirtah about two thirds of the way through the paper. For convenience I have also included an abstract of the finished article below.

 

Abstract:

The meaning of asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom has been a focus of persistent discussion and debate, and still today the divergence in scholarly views is wide-ranging. The present paper aims to critically assess previous scholarship by examining each of the major proposals that have been made for elucidating the term and in the process advance a new understanding that is not only less problematic than current alternatives but historically more plausible given our present knowledge of the cultural and historical context of ancient Israel-Judah. Because asherah likely refers to a female deity and yet the designation is declined with a pronominal suffix, I propose that the term is a hitherto unattested common noun denoting YHWH’s female partner and that the goddess is to be distinguished from the goddess Asherah.

Review of Thomas Römer, The Invention of God (2015)

 

In the Invention of God, Thomas Römer tackles the perennial question of the origins and evolution of the god of Israel. Incorporating a wealth of archaeological and biblical data, Römer traces the complex and multi-layered history of the deity, showing how an obscure desert war god YHWH eventually became the singular God of monotheistic religions. Although the topic has received extensive treatment in recent decades, Römer’s discussion is fresh, accessible, and state of the art, demonstrating a broad knowledge of various disciplines and fields of study and especially critical analysis of the biblical texts.
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An Image of Yahweh and his Consort?

 

I have now posted my article on the standing figures on Pithos A from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud here.

Abstract:

The question of the identity of the two standing figures at the center of pithos A continues to be a subject of vigorous debate, with the scholarly community divided over whether they should be explained in light of the inscription invoking Yahweh and his asherah that is situated above them. In this article, I review the main iconographic arguments for identifying the figures as Yahweh and his female partner and in the process respond to some of the common objections that have been raised against the hypothesis. These include the figures’ sexual dualism, overlapping pose as male and female partners, their Bes-like and bovine features, the evidence for a shared mythological compatibility between Bes and Yahweh, and the larger iconographic context of the pithos.