A Strange Angel With A Hammer

Jerusalem is a holy place for three world religions. At any given time, the city is full of political radicals, religious zealots, pious pilgrims and cash-strapped archaeologists. That the sun scorches the earth for most of the year does not help the peaceful coexistence of an often volatile mix of people. Too many seek God in mutually exclusive ways. Tempers flare and it feels like curses are more common than blessings. 

The heat does not make Jerusalem conducive to hard manual labor. But no matter how hot Jerusalem may be, archaeologists rely on daylight and so they dig into the ground. Archaeology is the art of recovering the material remains of bygone ages. From those remains one can conclude how life might have been in the culture that left relics in the ground.

In modern Israel archaeology is closely connected to national identity. Journalist Amos Elon wrote in 1971: “Israeli archaeologists, professionals and amateurs, are not merely digging for knowledge and objects, but for the reassurance of roots, which they find in the ancient Israelite remains scattered throughout the country”.[1] That leads to many people volunteering and donating money to archaeological excavations. 

Gabriel Barkay at Ketef Hinnom

One of those heat defying beneficiaries of the Israeli passion for archeology was professor Gabriel Barkay from the University of Tel Aviv. He excavated Ketef Hinnom, a burial site southwest of the old city. It seemed that anything that could have illuminated the past had long been plundered. That made the site boring for the 12- and 13-year-old boys from a Tel Aviv archeology club that helped Barkay dig.

The club sponsored the excavation, and because every archeologist in the whole world is always in need of cash, Barkay happily accepted the boy’s volunteer labor that came with the funds. 

Professionals like Barkay get excited by a slight discoloration of the soil. 12- or 13-year-old boys need more Indiana-Jones-like archaeology action to keep their attention focused. And because a sterile site is not a case for Indiana Jones, the boys got bored. Bored boys have a tendency to be irritating and one Nathan was especially insistent on keeping Barkay from working. He was so annoying that Barkay exiled the boy into a far corner of the burial cave to keep him out of his sight. He was to remove dirt from a space until it was as clean as his mother’s kitchen. It is not clear if Barkay did not notice that Nathan had a hammer as a work tool or if he simply ignored it. Priceless antiques and a bored 13-year-old with a hammer are not a combination that most archeologists would find useful. When Barkay was gone, the boy cleaned a bit, but soon enough he started banging his hammer against the walls and the floor. When Barkay finally relieved the boy of his hammer Nathan had broken through the floor and discovered a repository of more than 1000 pristine objects. The flabbergasted archaeologist stared at small pottery vessels, iron objects and even gold jewelry. He also found what some scholars consider the most significant discovery of biblical studies. 

Among the finds were two small rolled up scrolls made of silver that were most likely worn as amulets. They were inscribed with the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. The scrolls can be dated to the late 7th or early 6th century, a time before the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple and took the Israelites into exile. These words are the oldest fragments of scripture ever found. 

To this day these words are cited in many Christian and Jewish services. They are God’s command how the priests should bless the people. Accordingly, every service at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church ends with these words that bored Nathan’s hammer brought to light. 

“May the LORD bless you, and keep you;
May the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the LORD lift up His face to you, and give you peace.”

Sometimes God sends strange angels so we don’t forget that while we curse each other God always sends blessings to us.


[1] https://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777190209/, accessed 6/29/2023 12:35 pm

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Olaf Baumann

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