An Open Notebook

The Aaronic Blessing

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In 1979, two silver amulets were discovered, tucked quietly away in the tombs of Ketef Hinnom–below Old-City Jerusalem. On them was inscribed a shortened form of the Aaronic Blessing (Nu. 6:24-26), often just called ‘the priestly blessing.’

These abbreviated texts were written on strips merely 4″ x 1″ and 1.5″ x 0.5″ in size and both were dated to approximately the 7th Century B.C, making them them by far the oldest biblical references we have outside the Scriptures.

Amulets, of course, are worn around the neck; and, certainly some sort of special significance exists in that these were carried so close to the breast, near the heart.

When the bearers of these objects died, friends or family left the necklaces with them, that the message may resonate for eternity, echoing beyond the tomb-walls. If the phrase was familiar then, and even written on jewelry, it makes us wonder exactly how old this poem-prayer is?

Priests have passed down the benediction for years, reiterating the peace at the end of liturgical services and synagogue-gathering essentially since it was penned. 2 Chronicles 30:27 serves as just once instance were it is linked to the Passover Festival.

Many Christian services, to this day, would not end without saying the particular phrase as it has been repeated for thousands of years, communicating the hope we have in our Lord’s Salvation.

“The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.”

We find the priestly benediction is alluded to plenty of times in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 28:50, for instance); and, more than a few Psalms use the phrase ‘face shine upon you’ (Psalm 3:8, 4:6, 27, 31, 80:3, 7, 19; Psalm 121). The sixty-seventh basically re-writes the priestly blessing into a pious prayer. 

Yet, in a bit of irony, the blessing is associated with at least one negative reference. Malachi 2:1-3 tells us the Lord has been so angry with his priests at the end of First Testament times that he is going to ‘curse’ their blessings, probably thinking formostly of the Aaronic one.

Though often confused, benedictions are not doxologies. For instance, compare how Jude 24-25 (a doxology) is pointed towards God, while benedictions are directed to the congregation (occasionally, blessings and doxologies are twisted together, cf. Heb. 13:20-26).

Christians typically ascribe Trinitarian significance to the threefold repetition. At least some of the patristics tended to regard this phrase as at least allusory to the Trinity, the same way Luther once read Psalm 67:6-7 (Moreover, Luther inferred Numbers 6:24-26 was the blessing said in Luke 24:50-51, a powerful Trinitarian reading to the end of the Gospel). Yet, for some reason, it has fallen out of favor with many ‘non-liturgical’ services. 

Therefore, it prods the question, “Should we still use the benediction today?” Some may prefer to forgo regular repetitions, such as this. But, beyond those who simply prefer fast-and-loose services, why not? Paul himself seems to be in in the habit of bestowing his own apostolic-benedictions (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24), and expects his letters to be read publically, before a congregation (Colossians 4:16), meaning these very benedictions would be read out loud.

Moreover, all of Paul’s standard farewells, which use some combination of ‘grace and peace,’ might actually be shorthand ‘the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’ (l Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2).

[One complication to this theory is that the LXX uses eleeo, not charis, and Paul might have been more familiar with the Greek OT than the Hebrew, which would render straightforwardly to ‘grace.’ Yet, despite this, it might be more preferable to the common theory rendered in commentaries that Paul is making a mishmash of Greek and Jewish greetings, cf. 2 Baruch 78:2]

A fortiori, if all of Paul’s salutations are essentially a form of the Aaronic blessing, how much more should we be using it today? Many might contest it’s ‘too strict and stuffy,’ but return to such a habit would be much improvement on the plethora of catch-phrases, and terribly lame dismissals (‘You are dismissed’–What is this, a class?), some congregations have turned to in its absence.

Let us reclaim the Aaronic blessing.

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By Ryan
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