Notes (NET Translation)
22 The LORD spoke to Moses:
23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is the way you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
The priests blessed the people on any number of occasions (e.g., Lev 9:22-23; 2 Chr 30:27). This priestly blessing is used in Jewish and Christian worship to this day.
24 “The LORD bless you and protect you;
“You” is in the second-person singular. The blessing is for each individual Israelite and the entire congregation.
Blessing in the Pentateuch and more particularly in the Book of Numbers includes numerous descendants, fruitful land, good health, long life, protection from enemies, and God’s abiding presence. The people also lived under the protective umbrella of his mighty hand and outstretched arm. They had experienced his deliverance from the terrible bondage of Egypt, as well as his provision and protection thus far through the wilderness, and that aspect of his blessing would guard them throughout their lives for generations to come.
Yahweh’s blessing upon his faithful people Israel was in turn to be an instrument of blessing upon the nations of the world (Gen 12:3; 22:18). From the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to their children’s children, and to the ends of the earth, the purpose of Yahweh’s blessing of Israel was a worldwide mission of blessing and hope. Psalm 67:1–2 provides an extension of this theme of blessing in the Book of Numbers:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine upon us,
that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.1
25 The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The language of God’s face shining upon the Israelites refers to Him being well disposed towards them (Ps 31:17; Prov 16:15; Eccl 8:1; contrast Deut 31:17-18; Ps 30:7; 104:29).
“Grace” describes the attitude that issues in kindly action of a superior party to an inferior one in which the inferior has no claim on the superior. Graciousness is a fundamental aspect of Yahweh’s character, as both Old and New Testaments abundantly witness. Even though the placement of this passage emphasizes the keeping of various laws and rituals, the keeping of the law does not force God to be gracious. In fact, if the inferior party deserves the kindness, it would not be grace but payment. Yahweh is sovereign and he will show his grace when and to whom he wills (Exod. 33:19).2
26 The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”‘
The language of God lifting his countenance upon the Israelites indicates his pleasure and affection towards them (Pss 4:7; 33:18; 34:16). Peace (Hebrew shalom) can involve completeness, unity, well-being, prosperity, health, security, wholeness, and salvation.
27 So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
In the light of the Ketef Hinnom silver plaques, which demonstrate that in seventh (or sixth) century Jerusalem the Priestly Benediction was worn on the body in the form of amulets, the possibility exists that the literal meaning of this phrase is the correct one, that is, that the Priestly Benediction delivered by the priests in the sanctuary was also to be placed on the Israelites as prophylactics. The usual interpretation, adopted in the translation, is that God’s Name is figuratively “placed” by the priests on the Israelites through the medium of the benediction. Alternatively, God’s name is nikraʾ, “called” upon Israel (Deut. 28:10). Both verbs imply ownership (Deut. 12:5; Jer. 7:10).3
The name YHWH carries with it the covenantal promises. The Hebrew is emphatic that it is God, not the priests, who truly blesses Israel.
In 1979 an expedition led by archaeologist Gabriel Barkai discovered a late seventh to sixth century BC burial complex while digging within the compound of the Scottish Church of Saint Andrew. The location, Ketef Hinnom, is on the western slope of the Hinnom Valley, southwest of Mount Zion and the Old City of Jerusalem. Among the remains was discovered a phylactery containing two silver scrolls the size of a small cigarette, upon which were written two versions of the priestly blessing in paleo-Hebrew characters. These texts contain the oldest attestation of the divine name YHWH found to date in Jerusalem. They are the earliest known artifacts containing passages from the Hebrew Bible, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by about four centuries.4
The inscription on the smaller of the two plaques from Keteph Hinnom can be restored reliably to read as follows:
ybrk YHWH wyšmrk
yʾr YHWH pnyw ʾlyk
wyśm lk slwm
May YHWH bless and protect you;
May YHWH look favorably upon you,
And grant you well being
When compared with the version preserved in Numbers 6, we note the following differences, indicated by the bracketed words:
yebarekekā YHWH weyišmerekā
yāʾēr YHWH pānâw ʾēlêkā [wiyḥunnekā
yiśśāʾ YHWH pānâw ʾēlêkā]
weyāśēm lekā šālôm.
May YHWH bless [you] and protect you;
May YHWH look favorably upon you [and be kind to you;
May YHWH lift up his countenance toward you]
And may he grant you well-being.5
The discoveries at Keteph Hinnom raise questions that are even more complex. Assuming, as we must, that the priestly benediction, in one or another of its versions, served as a magical talisman, how did such items find their way into burial troves? It was a widespread ancient custom to bury valuable or useful possessions with the dead, on the notion that the deceased would require them or enjoy them in the afterlife, as biblical concepts would have it, in Sheol. The precise text of the benediction inscribed on the amulets, if we may call the plaques by that name, might indicate further that the benediction was interpreted as being particularly relevant to the dead, as expressing the wish that the dead be protected in death and on their way to Sheol. There was also the wish that the Deity would deal benevolently with the dead in the netherworld.
Two ingredients of the benediction point in this direction: there is, first of all, the term šālôm, and further, usage of the verb šāmar in suggestive contexts. Let us examine the verb šāmar first. The nexus of šāmar and derek ‘way, voyage’ is fairly obvious, because we normally worry more about being safe while journeying, or in unknown places (cf. Exod 23:20; Josh 24:17; Pss 91:11; 121:7–8; Job 33:11; Prov 2:8). God’s protection on the way is guaranteed to his devoted ones (ḥasîdîm). Particularly relevant are statements in which protection is sought for the nepeš ‘life, person, soul’, because nepeš was also taken to refer to the deceased or to the afterlife of the soul (Pss 25:20; 34:21; 86:2; 97:11). Most interesting in this connection is 1 Sam 2:9:
raglê haṣîdâw yišmôr
ûrešāʿîm baḥôšek yiddammû
He guards the footsteps of his devoted ones,
But the wicked perish in darkness.
As for the theme of šālôm, it quite clearly expressed the situation hoped for in the afterlife. The blessed would “repose (šākab)” peacefully, in a state of “well-being (bešālôm)” after their death (1 Kgs 2:6; 2 Kgs 22:20; Jer 34:5).
We know that the later Jewish tradition explicitly associated the priestly benediction with the dead. Such interpretations are preserved in the Sifre, a tannaitic Midrash on Numbers and Deuteronomy. These interpretations once again focus on the theme of šālôm and on the notion of protection conveyed by the verb šāmar.
In the Sifre (Sifre, Nāśôʾ, par. 42) we read, “Šālôm is of great importance, for even the dead require šālôm.” In the same section of the Sifre (Nāśôʾ, par. 40), we find the following comments on the word weyišmerekā ‘May he protect you’: (a) “May he protect your nepeš at the time of death”; and (b) “May he protect your footsteps from Gehinnom.” A medieval midrashic source, the Yalqûṭ Shimeoni (Nāśôʾ, par. 6, p. 125, line 14), offers the following comment: weyišmerekā–lāʿôlām habbāʾ ‘May he protect you–for the world to come’. All of these are later, postbiblical comments, to be sure, but we should not dismiss the possibility, even the likelihood, that in biblical times the priestly benediction was also interpreted, at least on the popular level, as a talisman appropriate for the dead in burial, and that its dicta were understood accordingly.6
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Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.
Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Kindle Edition. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011.
Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.