Small Silver Scrolls

Parashat Naso | May 30, 2015


“You can tell a lot about a person by the the company they keep.” “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat their dog.” “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle rainy days.”

Clearly, we have many ways of learning about the people around us. I tend to prefer another way of learning about a person. By what is on their coffee table. What magazines there are, what books, what coasters, what art, etc. This to me is the best indication of who a person truly is and what they are interested in. With that being said, here is a selection of what you might find on my own coffee table.

Sports Illustrated
ESPN The Magazine
Martha Stewart Weddings
Game of Thrones Coasters
Biblical Archaeology Review

So which of these things is not like the other one? I think it’s clear that it’s this final one – Biblical Archaeology Review. The day that this magazine comes, once every two months, is seriously a very exciting day for me. I love to see what the headlines are, what new discoveries are being made, what new analysis there is of old finds, and most importantly, based on the ads that appear in the magazine, I love to see that I’m about 45 years younger than the typical reader.

It’s from reading this magazine that I’ve learned about a great many things. I’ve learned about the construction style of Synagogues during the rabbinic period, some 2,000 years ago. I’ve learned about the many building projects of King Herod across the Land of Israel as well as the search for his tomb. And I’ve learned about many different theories surrounding King David, what he built, when he built them, how big was his kingdom etc.

It’s also from reading this magazine and other similar ones, that I learned about two Silver Scrolls that were discovered in Jerusalem, about 35 years ago. At a site called Ketef Hinnom, just southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, overlooking the Hinnom Valley, archeologists from Tel Aviv University were excavating a series of burial chambers. While sifting through some of the dirt they had removed from the site, archeologists found two silver amulets. They appeared to be very old and of course very delicate. While examining them, they noticed that they were each in fact a silver scroll that was rolled up.

What would our reaction be in this instance? To unroll them of course and see what’s on the inside. However, initial observations indicated that the scrolls were over 2,500 years old, and very delicate. Unrolling them, might ruin them forever. It took a few years, before scientists were able to carefully unroll the scrolls without destroying the find. Once unrolled, archeologists could see that there was an inscription on the scrolls, but photographic technology was not able to fully decipher the text. It was not until the mid-90s, that technology had advanced enough to read what was on the scrolls. And that was when the full impact of this find was learned.

On the scrolls, written in archaic, paleo-Hebrew letters, one of the precursors to the Hebrew language we know now, were sections of the following texts:

May God bless you and keep you
May God cause His face to shine upon you
May God bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace

We of course recognize this text as being from the Priestly Blessing, that we read this morning in the Parashat Naso. This text, as we know, is used in a variety of settings. Originally, it was the text with which the Kohanim, the priests would bless the Israelites at the Temple in Jerusalem. It later became part of our daily services, being recited in the Amidah for shacharit and musaf. It is recited at weddings, Bar and Bat Mitvahs, and of course as parents bless their children every Friday evening.

And here it is, discovered on scrolls from around 600-700 BCE. These two scrolls then became the oldest reference to biblical text outside the Bible itself. Yes we have the Dead Sea Scrolls which have taught us a great deal about earlier biblical texts, but these two scrolls are over 600 years earlier than that. They are examples that these prayers and at least parts of our sacred texts, were already in existence and were already used in ritual functions during the time of the first Temple.

This discovery and others like it, have a great deal to teach us about our own history and the history of the bible. Many people look to archeology to confirm their religion, to prove the stories that happen in the bible as true. Others look to archeology to destroy religion. To prove that the stories that happen in the Bible are nothing more than fiction. But in my mind, neither of these are the correct outlook we should take when learning about biblical archaeology.

Instead, we need to look at it biblical archaeology, as a way of better informing us about our own religion. Not to prove or disprove the narratives of the Bible, but to teach us about the context from which they came. We look to archaeology in these manners, to learn about the world in which our Bible came into being, and the world in which our ancestors lived and our faith developed.

In a recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the editor of the magazine, Hershel Shanks, conducted an interview with two giants of the field, Eric and Carol Meyers, both professors at Duke University, in which they discuss the past 40 years of biblical archaeology. There are a few points they make that are important for our understanding of the field.

Carol first defines biblical archaeology, saying it is “any archaeological work that helps us understand the Bible and its context.”  Again, it is not seeking to prove the bible as true or untrue as many critics might suggest, but it is seeking to understand the context of the bible.

Shanks brings in a quote from William Albright, the man who many consider to be the father of biblical archaeology, and was the first person who scientifically studied the archaeology of ancient Israel. Albright said: “Every Biblical unit is either historical in content or reflects a given stage of history. No matter how little history a given Biblical book may seem to contain, it originated in a historical situation and reflects a definite stage in the history of religion, the history of ideas, the history of institutions, and the history of the Hebrew language.”

What Albright, Shanks and Meyers all suggest is that it is not necessarily important whether archaeology proves the explicit content of the Bible. We don’t need to find the exact place where Jacob wrestled an angel or where David slew Goliath. What we do need to find out, is what the word was like that Jacob, and many years later, King David may have lived in. Archaeology does not prove aspects of the biblical texts, but it does prove aspects of the biblical contexts.

Now Archaeologists and rabbis certainly can approach these matters from different perspectives. There is an entire school of archaeologists, known as biblical minimalists who feel that nothing in the bible is historical and that it is purely a work of fiction. Now this is a claim that I cannot accept and one that would severely challenge my faith and practice today. However, this is not the claim of the many other scholars who disagree with this minimalist school. But even the opponents do not try to argue the opposite of the minimalist claims. That is to say they do not argue with absolute certainty that the events of the Bible did happen. But instead they argue that the events might have happened. That the events as described in the Bible, do make sense given the archaeological contexts we know to be true.

For me, this is enough to base a great deal of my own faith on. I do not need to know for sure that every event in the Bible is history. In fact, there are certain sections I would have a hard time believing did in fact take place. What I do need to know is that many of the events could have taken place. I do not need all of the events of the bible to be true, but I do need the world of the bible to be true. The Tanakh does not need to be entirely true, but there does need to be truth in it.

So coming back to our Priestly Blessing inscribed on those silver scrolls. What do they show me? They show me that Jews have been using the text of this blessing for nearly 3,000 years. That the idea of God blessing us has been around for as long as we have. And that when we continue using this text today, we continue the heritage of our people. For me, that is an awful lot coming out of two tiny silver scrolls, but that is precisely the point of biblical archaeology. That small, ancient finds, can impact what and how we believe today. That the world of our ancestors and the world in which our Bible came into being, can shed light on our practices and our own faith today.

It is for these reasons, that when the new edition of Biblical Archaeology Review shows up in my mailbox every two months, I immediately set out some time to read it, and why it will always have a place on my coffee table.