Word Play

The power of the written word in ancient Israel

At the bottom of this magic incantation bowl from late antique Babylonia, a shackled and bound demon is shown surrounded by the spiraling words of a prayer for protection. It was believed that the written words of the encircling prayer would be able to keep the evil forces in the center of the bowl at bay. Throughout ancient Israelite and Jewish history, authors used writing as a sort of sympathetic magic, a way to directly control and manipulate forces beyond their control. Photo: Hershel Shanks.

To the modern world, the written word is often taken for granted. We are so removed from the origins of writing that when we write something, whether on a piece of paper, on a sign or on the internet, we don’t even think about the physical act of creating words. For us, writing is simply a means to an end, an almost primordial and instinctive technology that we use to communicate with each other.

But 3,000 years ago, when alphabetic writing had just begun to spread across the masses of the ancient Near East, written words were far more than idle marks meant simply to be read. Words were repositories of power, physical vessels that gave material reality to one’s innermost thoughts and even the soul itself. So it was in ancient Israel.1

In the Hebrew Bible there are clear indications that writing was often thought to have tangible, even magical, properties. In Numbers 5:11–28, a woman accused of adultery is made to consume “the water of bitterness,” a cloudy concoction infused with the washed-off ink from the words of a written curse. If the woman is innocent, the curse will have no effect; if she is guilty, the curse will cause her thighs to waste away and her belly to swell. In a similar vein, when Ezekiel accepts his prophetic mission from God during a dreamlike trance, he eats a scroll inscribed with the words of the divine message (Ezekiel 2:9–3:11). Having ingested the words, Ezekiel and God’s message become one.

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The magical properties of writing meant that written words, once they came into being, were active and sometimes even unstable forces that could be manipulated, both for good and for ill. Numerous short dedicatory inscriptions found in Iron Age Israel and elsewhere make requests for divine blessing and protection,* many having only the author’s name, what is requested and the name of the deity. As Biblical scholar Susan Niditch has said, it is as if the act of writing the prayer “[brought] the God-presence into a sort of material reality,” thus allowing the words to become infused with “visceral power.”2

But just as writing could help an author’s prayers get answered, it could also be used to inflict pain and suffering. Curse inscriptions often protected tombs, monumental inscriptions and seemingly mundane graffiti throughout the ancient Near East, and ancient Israel was no exception.** In a world where the simple act of erasing an author’s name was tantamount to wiping out a person’s very life and essence, author’s went to great lengths to ensure that would-be vandals and robbers suffered the same fate. Hiram, a tenth-century B.C. king of Byblos, wrote on his sarcophagus that anyone who attempted to destroy his inscription would have their own inscription (i.e., life) blotted out. Likewise, the anonymous author of an inscription found at the seventh-century B.C. site of Horvat ‘Uza in the eastern Negev claimed that if the words of his text were not heeded, the grave of the disobedient reader would be destroyed.

Similar ideas about the transformative power of written words continued to persist among the Jewish populations of the Near East throughout antiquity. In late antique Babylonia (third–seventh centuries A.D.), for example, countless ceramic bowls were inscribed with prayers, curses and healing rituals written in the Jewish-Aramaic script.*** The spiraling, cramped inscriptions of the bowls often encircled drawings of bound demons and other evil spirits. Writing, even in this late period, was still invested with the power to bring prayers and curses to life.


Check out “Rare Magic Inscription on Human Skull” in the March/April 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review for more information about ancient inscriptions.

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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in July 2012.



* Gabriel Barkay, “The Riches of Ketef Hinnom,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August September/October 2009.

** Hershel Shanks, “The Tombs of Silwan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1994.

*** Hershel Shanks, “Magic Incantation Bowls,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2007.

1. For a thorough overview of the power and uses of the written word in ancient Israel, see Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1996).

2. Niditch, Oral World and Written Word, pp. 46–47.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Amulets with Incipits by Joseph E. Sanzo
The blurred line between magic and religion

Miniature Writing on Ancient Amulets
Ketef Hinnom inscriptions reveal the power of hidden writing

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?

The Gospel of the Lots of Mary: Previously unknown 1,500-year-old ‘gospel’ contains oracles

Roman Curse Tablet Uncovered in Jerusalem’s City of David

Glenn J. Corbett is associate director of the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan, director of the Wadi Hafir Petroglyph Survey and contributing editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago, where his research focused on the epigraphic and archaeological remains of pre-Islamic Arabia.


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  • Robert says

    David: Why aren’t you asking Michael that question? Marana tha.

  • EDWARD J says

    Beth – you do understand that not everyone shares your religion, don’t you?

  • Bobby says

    Hello!!! The Word of God is alive and powerful … (Hebrews 4:12)

  • Kurt says

    Why God’s Son is called “the Word.” A title often describes the function served or the duty performed by the bearer. So it was with the title Kal-Hatzé, meaning “the voice or word of the king,” that was given an Abyssinian officer. Based on his travels from 1768 to 1773, James Bruce describes the duties of the Kal-Hatzé as follows. He stood by a window covered with a curtain through which, unseen inside, the king spoke to this officer. He then conveyed the message to the persons or party concerned. Thus the Kal-Hatzé acted as the word or voice of the Abyssinian king.—Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, London, 1790, Vol. III, p. 265; Vol. IV, p. 76.

    Recall, too, that God made Aaron the word or “mouth” of Moses, saying: “He must speak for you to the people; and it must occur that he will serve as a mouth to you, and you will serve as God to him.”—Ex 4:16.

    In a similar way God’s firstborn Son doubtless served as the Mouth, or Spokesman, for his Father, the great King of Eternity. He was God’s Word of communication for conveying information and instructions to the Creator’s other spirit and human sons. It is reasonable to think that prior to Jesus’ coming to earth, on many of the occasions when God communicated with humans he used the Word as his angelic mouthpiece. (Ge 16:7-11; 22:11; 31:11; Ex 3:2-5; Jg 2:1-4; 6:11, 12; 13:3) Since the angel that guided the Israelites through the wilderness had ‘Jehovah’s name within him,’ he may have been God’s Son, the Word.—Ex 23:20-23; see JESUS CHRIST (Prehuman Existence).

    Showing that Jesus continued to serve as his Father’s Spokesman, or Word, during his earthly ministry, he told his listeners: “I have not spoken out of my own impulse, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a commandment as to what to tell and what to speak. . . . Therefore the things I speak, just as the Father has told me them, so I speak them.”—Joh 12:49, 50; 14:10; 7:16, 17.see Hebrew word:WORD, THE

  • Beth says

    Michael scripture says that our words have power.
    Your suggestion that the author betray Christ will come back to haunt you. Why don’t you know that? I believe the answer is that you have been in part blinded. Yes, words are immensely powerful aren’t they?
    Maranatha Maschiac Nagid. Maranatha!

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