“The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture” by Jeremy D. Smoak

Jeremy SmoakJeremy D. Smoak. The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, November 2015, xvii + 242 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Jeremy D. Smoak, Continuing Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, attempts to establish a firmer understanding of Judah during the Iron Age and biblical literature through an approach combining inscriptions throughout the Levant and intertextual interpretation. His unique approach results in an exemplary work which sheds light on both history and the Hebrew Bible. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, discovered tombs dating from the seventh to fifth centuries BCE, provide a launch pad for his analysis.

Chapter One examines the Ketef Hinnom amulets as some of the earliest examples of the priestly blessing in ancient Judah and highlights their apotropaic focus (amulets with the power to avert malevolent forces),  how they testify to the actual writing of the priestly blessing upon people, and accentuates “the significance that the act of writing, rather than reciting, the blessing held as part of its early ritual function” (42). Following, Chapter Two explores how Phoenician and Punic amulets place the Ketef Hinnom amulets into a wider practice of similar lexical and syntactical apotropaic blessings  that were expected to provide protection to the deceased by a deity.

Having demonstrated the wider context of the priestly blessing, Chapters Three through Five apply the refined understanding of it to biblical literature. The priestly blessing, Smoak argues, is was a re-contextualization of the blessing from its use in oral performance to priestly literature, something which centralized power to the sons of Aaron. Thus, the new perspective indicates the blessing as being expected to be written upon people. Chapter Four focuses on the face of Yahweh shining, which he finds to be rooted in temple pilgrimage. So the priestly blessing likely incorporated the Temple element of the blessing into the well-known West Semitic pattern during the late Judean monarchy to centralize the worship of Yahweh. Finally, Chapter Five engages with Numbers, arguing that the priestly blessing is placed where it is because it is in the midst of other ritual Temple activities. He supports his argument with a dedicatory inscription from Ekron that contains the same basic syntactical and lexical patterns in context of a material spatial blessing. Thus, the editor of Numbers, by placing it within Numbers, established a “more enduring and effective location in which the blessing could be embodied and preserved” (132).

Overall, Jeremy Smoak’s analysis of the priestly blessing offers unique conclusions regarding why the blessing is placed where it is in Numbers. His use of archaeology and biblical references to reinterpret the priestly blessing demonstrates a methodological approach which should be utilized more often across the realm of biblical studies. Without a doubt his work is an extremely valuable and significant contribution to both the history of ancient Israel during the later Judean monarchy and analysis of Numbers. Of course, as he indicates, the renewed understandings of blessings in the seventh to fifth centuries BCE challenges common understanding of blessing in biblical literature. The apotropaic, death related, and material nature of the blessing, both written and spoke, should be applied to other studies of blessing as it may provide fresh and alternative understandings.

He does, though, lack focus on ritual theory. Although the lack of this topic does not remove or negate the value of his work, it would certainly strengthen his conclusions which are focused on the writing of ritual performance. Inclusion of ritual theory would sharpen the strength of his conclusions significantly.

Yet, even in view of this point, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture is still invaluable for studies on Numbers and ancient Israelite religion. With portions that could be expanded upon with more archaeological evidence and theoretical discussion, he also provides a fantastic starting point for future studies of Numbers and ancient Israelite religion. Assuming one is studying within those specialties, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture by Jeremy Smoak must be addressed, and perhaps purchased, for solid methodology and excellently evidenced and fresh conclusions.