The Significance of the Priestly Blessing
(Amy Flattery is the director of the Center for Holy Lands Studies for the Assemblies of God. The following article reveals archaeological confirmation and explanation of a passage in Numbers 6 that many may recognize, but may not fully comprehend.)
Many years ago, while living in Israel, I studied with several interesting professors. One of my favorite and most difficult professors was Gabriel Barkay. Not only was he my teacher, but he was also my landlord and a good grandfather figure to my children.
Today, Gabriel Barkay is still considered the leading and foremost expert in the world concerning the archaeology of Jerusalem. He has discovered a number of significant finds from the biblical periods. Yet, I consider one of his most special finds to be the discovery of two small pieces of silver.
In an interview conducted by David Parsons and Jonathan Parsons, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) staff, Barkay tells the story of this specific find in the following excerpt:
“Among the finds in that repository, we had two tiny rolled-up plaques made of 99% pure silver. And after three years of effort, we managed to unroll those two tiny scrolls, and they were densely covered with ancient Hebrew script, which included, in both cases, the priestly benediction from the book of Numbers from chapter six, verses 24 to 26. And these are the earliest biblical verses that we own today. They are from the seventh century BC, about 2600 years old, from just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, before King Josiah.” (The full Q&A interview can be found here.)
WHAT WAS WRITTEN
Written on the silver scroll is the biblical text from Numbers 6:24-26. It represents one of the central passages of Scripture, known as the “Priestly” or “Aaronic” benediction. I am confident they are familiar to you: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
These verses exude the graciousness of God. Never forget that for as old as our biblical text and the oral culture before it, these words have had significant meaning to God's people for thousands of years.
What I love about this ancient blessing is that it is written in the second person singular – “you.” Most Jewish liturgy is in the first-person plural – “us.”
Often, when we pray together, our prayer is focused on the community, in agreement with those around us. But in the case of blessings, there is a shift. This blessing is spoken in public but is for the individual. It is a blessing for our individual needs and hopes; for the grace of God to pour over each of us individually.
God is concerned for individuals. We are equally dear to our Father. We are not undefined individuals lost in a crowd. Each of us is precious to God.
A shortened variation of this blessing is found in Psalm 67: "May God grant us grace and bless us, may God's face shine upon us" (Psalm 67:2). Do you notice something different? It is in the plural. "May God grant us grace and bless us; may God's face shine upon us."
We have moved from the individual to the community. As God's children, we must love and care for each other. In this way, we show our love for our Father. We understand that the graciousness of God is for us and extends beyond us. It does so by how we behave toward all God's children and by how God acts toward us.
DISSECTING THE BLESSING
That being said, let's look at the verses from Numbers 6:24-26 once more. "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace."
The act of blessing is rooted in Israelite culture and comes in several forms. A divine blessing, as found in Numbers, was a part of everyday language for greeting one another and placing God's name on His people.
This specific blessing begins with a physical need. The Lord bless you and keep you – May God provide for all you need. How much will He care for us if we are His children? If you have children or close family members, how much do you care for them?
The blessing of God strengthens us and empowers us. If God blesses us, He also keeps us! God is faithful. God holds us as Psalm 121 says:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
The second phrase in Numbers 6:25 grants hope that God will shine His face on us and be gracious – even in our failings. The very nature of God exudes graciousness toward His children. God's face shines on us, and the graciousness of God tells us that God is near. He is present. He is close. His graciousness is goodness, and His love is an extension of mercy.
The third phrase asks that God will pay attention to us. His full attention: that He will turn His face toward us and see us. In doing so, we will find peace. The very extension of God's blessing is by His grace. The turning of God's face toward us is His graciousness extended.
There is another step: accepting the blessing. Just because a blessing is said over you or in your presence, do you receive it? In a blessing, a response of faith is necessary. The blessing is received when those receiving it are repentant, trust God, and obey His word.
This blessing is tied with going out/departing with the fullness of God's presence in our lives. We can do this because Jesus healed the separation between us and God. Because of this, you never need to doubt the blessing of God. This blessing is fulfilled in our obedience and faith, and God covers us with His presence.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26).