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 essay 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.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
Ancient Amulets with Incipits by Joseph E. Sanzo
The blurred line between magic and religion
Word Play by Glenn J. Corbett
The power of the written word in ancient Israel
The Shema‘ Yisrael
Monotheistic Jewish amulet discovered near Carnuntum
Become a member of Biblical Archaeology Society, and gain All Access with your membership today
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy the same current issues in glorious, traditional, full-color print …
Biblical Archaeology Review tablet edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by buying a special All-Access pass.
That’s right: when you purchase your All-Access pass, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, as well as the Special Collections like this one.
The All-Access pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.