Ketef Hinnom inscriptions reveal the power of hidden writing
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.
In 1979 during the excavation of a late Iron Age (seventh century B.C.E.) tomb at the funerary site of Ketef Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay uncovered two small silver scrolls—no bigger than the diameter of a quarter—that were originally worn as amulets around the neck. When researchers from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, unrolled the sheets of silver, they detected tiny lines of the ancient Hebrew script inscribed on them. High-resolution photos of the miniature writing were taken in 1994 by the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, giving researchers the opportunity to study and decipher the Hebrew text on the ancient amulets. When they finally read the arcane writing, the researchers discovered that the inscriptions, dating to the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E., contained blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26.1
The miniature writing on the silver scrolls was clearly not meant to be read—the letters are too small, and the writing was furthermore concealed inside the rolls. If this was the case, then what purpose did they serve? In “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hebrew Bible scholar Jeremy D. Smoak discusses what these ancient amulets from Ketef Hinnom can tell us about religion in ancient Judah.
Upon discovery, Amulet 1 was 1 inch in height and 0.4 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll measures 3.8 inches in height and 1 inch in width. Amulet 2 was 0.5 inches in height and 0.2 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll has a height of 1.5 inches and a width of 0.4 inches. The second scroll contains about 100 words arranged in 12 lines of text—thus, the person who inscribed the text was able to fit all of that onto a silver sheet the length of a match stick.
In addition to containing blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26, the inscriptions are illuminating for what they reveal about the deity Yahweh as well as amuletic magic in Iron Age Judah. As Smoak writes:
Amulet 1 refers to Yahweh as the one who shows graciousness to those who love him and keep his commandments. This expression exhibits close parallels to several Biblical texts (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4). Amulet 2 refers to Yahweh as the deity who has the power to expel Evil.
As the amulets from Ketef Hinnom contained small inscriptions that were not meant to be read, Smoak further considers in his article the significance of miniature writing:
Miniatures—especially those worn on the human body … create a sense of intimacy, privacy, and personal time between the body and the object. Such objects became part of one’s daily routine and lifecycle. Their lightweight quality allows them to dangle comfortably from necks, producing a feeling that they are part of the body. In the case of miniature texts on jewelry, this means that even though the writing might be invisible or hidden from eyes, the words are always accessible in the wearer’s mind as the writing interacts with the body on a physical level. As the jewelry dangles from, bounces off, and returns to the body, the words inscribed on their surfaces are replayed in the mind.
Read Jeremy D. Smoak’s complete analysis of the ancient amulets’ miniature writing in “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of BAR, and discover what these unique artifacts illuminate about religion in Iron Age Judah.
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” by Jeremy D. Smoak in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
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