Pondering the Spade: Ketef Hinnom

by Dr. David Schreiner

Earlier this summer, the excavators of ancient Ashkelon (…of dreaded Philistine fame) announced the discovery a Philistine cemetery. The importance of this find can be articulated in a variety of ways (see my brief blog reaction here), but for the purposes of this entry, let’s focus on the reality that people in antiquity were often buried with a wide variety of “stuff.” Before you crinkle your nose at the thought of being interned with jewelry, clothes, weapons, and even other people, we should recognize that the differences between ancient and modern people might not be as wide as we first think. Whether a hat that supports one’s favorite sports team, a valued possession, or something else, people today are still buried with “stuff.” Moreover, those things reveal something about that person and what he or she valued. Thus, the burial practices of humanity display certain points of commonality across cultures and centuries. It is no wonder why the excavators of Ashkelon are so excited—this site will offer insight toward individuals as well as a culture.

The ancient Israelites were also buried with “stuff.” Naturally then, excavations of Israelite burial sites are also potentially fruitful. In fact, in the late 1970s, the burial site of Ketef Hinnom fulfilled that potentiality. Ketef Hinnom is situated just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, and there archaeologists found an Iron Age grave filled with a number of small finds that dated to the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. These finds would have been significant by themselves, as anything that illuminates Judean culture immediately before the Babylonian invasions is noteworthy. However, two tiny scrolls were uncovered among the small finds that launched the importance of the site to an entirely different level.Ketef Hinnom 1

Now, when I say they were tiny, I mean tiny. Both scrolls, unrolled, are only 3 cm X 10 cm and 1 cm X 4 cm respectively. The material is silver, and, as with anything over 2500 years old, the scrolls were disintegrating. Thus, they had to be handled and studied with the utmost skill and care, utilizing innovative technology in the process. When all was said and done, it was clear that these scrolls each contained a pithy but erudite votive inscription. Furthermore, both scrolls recited Numbers 6:24-26 so closely that some have called this the earliest quotation of Scripture. Scroll 1 may also read a variation of Deuteronomy 7:9, but the reconstruction is debatable.

Here is Numbers 6:24 juxtaposed to both texts.

The Book of Numbers Scroll 1[1] Scroll 2[2]
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 (lit. lift his face to you), and give you peace. […] May Yahweh bless you [and] keep you. May Yahweh cause his face to shine [on you…].


[…] May Yahweh bless you and keep you. May Yahweh cause his face to shine [on] you and give you peace […].

As with so many topics in archaeology, the excavators have been criticized. In particular, many have criticized the initial dating of the finds on paleographic grounds. Naturally then, the debate rages on. Yet my fascination with these scrolls goes beyond the style of the letters. We are, however, going to have to stray into the wild and wooly world of biblical criticism.

Ever since Julius Wellhausen’s classic articulation of the sources behind the Pentateuch, there has been a tendency among biblical scholars to date the composition of the priestly traditions to the era after the exile. Indeed, there have been detractors, but they have been a vocal minority. Yet if the priestly traditions Ketef Hinnom 3were not compiled, synthesized, and composed until the post-exilic period, then there are further implications, which include confusion over what in the world characterized Israelite worship during the Iron Age. But do these scrolls constitute evidence that the priestly traditions were being composed in large order during the final decades of Iron II? Some people would have you believe so.

In my opinion, however, these scrolls by themselves do not constitute direct evidence for any large-scale composition of the priestly material. The only thing that these scrolls directly evince is that people were invoking and inscribing small, mnemonic portions of the priestly traditions. But if we look at these scrolls in the context of other factors, they bear testimony to a broader cultural phenomenon that was conducive to the large-scale composition of the biblical traditions, which include the priestly traditions.


In other words, the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, at best, offer circumstantial evidence for the large-scale composition of the Old Testament.

I know…I know. I’m a total wet blanket. But before you totally write me off, realize that it is absolutely critical that we appreciate finds like these for what they offer. It is when we engage in sensationalized banter that we are often humbled, perhaps even humiliated. In the case of Ketef Hinnom, we see one of the earliest quotations of the Scriptural traditions as well as one of the earliest invocations of Yahweh. When it comes to the priestly traditions, it shows that they were established enough to be used by the populace. As for what this all means for Mr. Wellhausen’s ideas, well rest assured that Documentary Hypothesis, classically defined, is largely untenable. In particular, any insistence that the priestly traditions are post-exilic compositions with post-exilic sources does not hold water. The sophisticated rituals found on the Ugaritic and Emar tablets testify that some Israelite rituals have comparative precedence in the Bronze Ages, thereby accommodating the possibility that the priestly traditions are rooted it the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.

So, we can thank archaeology, which includes Ketef Hinnom, for the onslaught against any dogmatic stance that the priestly traditions are post-exilic.


Figure 1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketef_Hinnom

[1] William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 2:221.

[2] Ibid.

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