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]