Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Geography



" NUMBERS 6:  24-26

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's see where the Priestly Benediction was found

The priestly benediction bestowed by Aaron and his sons upon the children of Israel, recorded in Numbers chapter 6, verses 24 through 26, is still recited to this very day on occasions ranging from the inauguration of the U.S. President in Washington D.C., to an assembly of tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, during the Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles.  

Imagine, then, the excitement when the oldest biblical texts ever discovered – from the seventh century B.C. (that’s 2700 years ago) – revealed the Hebrew words of the Priestly Benediction originally recited by Aaron and his sons.

Priests reciting the Priestly Benediction

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Thousands of priests (cohanim) reciting the Priestly Benediction
by the Western Wall during the feast of Passover

The discovery of biblical texts incised on silver amulets was made in 1979, by the Scottish Church of St. Andrew in Jerusalem, during an excavation headed by Gabriel Barkay, on behalf of Tel Aviv University.  Today, immediately below the Scottish church, it is now possible to view the burial cave complex where the Priestly Benediction was found.  A walkway leading to the rock-cut tombs is part of a new center dedicated to the legacy of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Thousands of pilgrims by the Western Wall

Burial Tombs by the Church of St. Andrew

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Pilgrims gather by the Western Wall

Burial Tombs by the Church of St. Andrew

to be blessed by the priests (cohanim)

where the 7th c. BC amulets were found

“It’s the most important find of my life,” says Gaby, who is presently in charge of the sifting of ancient material illicitly carted off in the course of the building of a mosque on the Temple Mount and dumped in the Kidron Valley.  “It’s something that you find very rarely.”
For this “Holy Sites – Gila’s Highlights,” I met with Gaby at his Jerusalem home, just two miles south of where the silver amulets were found, and asked him to describe the discovery of the Priestly Benediction for readers of “Pilgrimage Panorama.”

Here is Dr. Gaby Barkay’s account.

“In the 1970’s I was interested in extra-mural activity, that is, activity outside the walls of the city.  There would be quarrying of stones outside the city, growing fresh vegetables, military gatherings, burials, roads and military watch towers.  These would have occupied a place not too far from the city, but not too close.

“I put myself in the shoes of the ancients and thought to myself, where would those functions have taken place?  I decided that the hill [Ketef Hinnom] where St Andrews was located was the best probability.  I took a survey and collected pottery and was convinced that there were finds to be made there.

“With a little donation in 1975, I did a modest exploration and found remnants from an ancient Christian church and a burial grave.  It was enough to prove that it was a worthwhile location.

“In 1979 to 1980, I came back with a limited budget under the sponsorship of Tel Aviv University.  The ‘volunteers’ were 12- to 13-year-olds from Tel Aviv, members of an archeology club for youth organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.  Thirteen is a dangerous age.  But the S.P.N.I. provided the money – it was a low budget -- I was happy to have them nevertheless.

“We excavated by the outer apse of the present day church.  The graves were in bad shape with collapsed roofs.  The caves had all been looted.  On top of the caves was a road connecting Jerusalem with Bethlehem.

“One cave had a series of headrests and burial benches.  One bench was shaped like a cushion with six head rests.  One bead was found that had been part of the burial gifts.  Under the bench, we discovered a repository where they buried the bones and I looked into that repository and saw something that looked like a rock floor.  I was disappointed.

Ketef Hinnom burial bench

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

One burial bench with six head rests shaped like cushions

“Among the thirteen-year-old diggers, there was one annoying kid named Nathan, who was always tugging at my shirt.  I thought this was an ideal place to put him – he would be out of my sight.  I told Nathan the repository had to be as clean as his mother’s kitchen, even if he had to lick it.  It had to be clean for the photography.

“Not too long afterwards, I felt him tugging at my shirt again.  Nathan had in his hand almost complete pottery vessels.  This time, I pulled at his shirt, took him back to the area and asked where he found them.  Bored, Nathan had banged on the floor with a hammer.  Under the rocks, he found the pottery.

“Little Nathan was sent home with his peers.  Then I recruited archeology students from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and from the Institute for Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion.  The pastor at St Andrew, who was a student of mine, brought us electricity from the church.  We worked 24 hours around the clock.

Burial benches in Ketef Hinnom

Courtesy of Gordon Franz

Volunteer excavators illustrating the burial benches in Ketef Hinnom

“In one chamber more than a thousand objects were found.  They included 125 objects of silver, 40 iron arrowheads, gold, ivory, glass, bone and 150 semi-precious stones.  There was 60 centimeters [two feet] of accumulation filled with objects and skeletal remains.  There was a lot of dust and a lack of oxygen.

“It was very hot.  We had to change teams every few hours.  There was a lady who was in charge of coffee and sandwiches.  Everyone was sworn to secrecy – they weren’t allowed to tell parents, spouses, or friends.  If word got around Jerusalem that there was such a treasure, the California gold rush would be nothing compared to what would happen here.

Larger silver plaque

“Judy Hadley, a girl from Toledo Ohio, now a professor of Bible at Villanova University in Philadelphia, showed me a purplish-colored object looking like a cigarette butt.  It took us three years to unroll it properly.  It was 2.5 cm wide, about 1 inch.  When unrolled, it was 10 cm [nearly 4 inches] in length.  It was made of pure silver, 99 % silver. Very delicately scratched on the silver were ancient Hebrew characters.  I saw it at the Israel Museum lab and immediately recognized the four letters of the Divine Name, YHVH. [yod he vav he]

“During the dig we decided that all the dirt was very important and stored it in large plastic boxes donated by Tnuva [Israel’s major dairy].  Then we sifted the dirt in lab conditions.  We found a smaller silver object – all buckets were labeled, so we would know exactly where they were found.  The second one is smaller – 4 cm in length [1.5 inches].

“The surprise was immense when we

Exhibition Catalogue

realized that both objects have the

Larger silver plaque, 7th c. B.C.

Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26.
  Because of the pottery and the script,
the objects are dated to the seventh century B.C., to the time of the prophet Jeremiah.  They are the earliest Bible verses ever found.”
Ironically, the dig supervisor in the chamber where the repository was found in 1979, Gordon Franz, recalls Gaby’s introductory words, “Remember, Archeology is not a treasure hunt.”  Today Gordon is a staff member of the Associates for Biblical Research and a Bible teacher.

Gordon Franz and crew by Cave #25

Courtesy of Gordon Franz

Area supervisor Gordon Franz with his crew at
Burial Cave #25 where the silver scrolls were discovered


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"Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights"

Gaby went on to tell me that the discovery of the silver plaques received very wide public interest.  In the 1990s he was approached by some people from the University of Southern California's West Semitic Research Project.  Dr. Bruce Zuckerman and his team wanted to photograph the plaques using new photographic and computer imaging techniques.  With the advances in photography, they got a resolution that did not exist in the 1980s.  They could zoom in on every letter, and then superimpose those letters upon broken letters to decipher those that were unclear, reconstructing broken letters in the scribe's own peculiar style. 
By this method, Gaby told me they had identified another biblical verse from Deuteronomy 7, "Know therefore that the Lord thy God, He is God; the faithful God, who keeps covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations."

Burial cave #25 at Ketef Hinnom

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Burial Cave #25, where the Priestly Benediction was found,
 is marked with an X.  Gordon Franz was the supervisor.

These 7th century B.C. amulets were worn on the body -- on the forehead or arm, or around the neck -- to protect the wearer from evil or surround the wearer with the name of the Lord for protection.  Just like today, when people wear religious objects on the body, hoping that the Almighty will be gracious onto them, and protect them from calamity.
On your next visit to Jerusalem, don’t miss the exhibit of the silver plaques with the priestly benediction in the Archeology Wing of the Israel Museum.  And I’d be happy to show you and your group the burial complex where the rolled-up silver amulets were found and recount the amazing story of their discovery.  We’ll also look at the cushioned headrests still visible and talk about burial customs during the First Temple period when the deceased was “gathered unto his fathers.” (See II Kings 22:20 and Judges 2:10)

Copyright 2005 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

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13-year-old Nathan who was pestering Dr. Barkay

After I interviewed Gaby about his discovery of the silver amulets, he introduced me to Gordon Franz with whom he had stayed in contact since 1979. Gordon, then a student at the Institute of Holy Land Studies, was a volunteer at Ketef Hinnom, the dig by St. Andrew’s Church. Gaby appreciated Gordon’s energy and appointed him to be “area supervisor” of three junior high Israeli students.  Once Gaby realized the importance of Cave #25, the youngsters were replaced with adult volunteers.

In Gordon words, “I caught the ‘bug’ at Ketef Hinnom in 1979 and have not been cured from it yet!”  Since then, Gordon has worked at Tel Lachish, Tel Jezreel, Ramat Rachel, and Khirbet Nisya (Biblical Ai).  Since 2003, Gordon has been bringing groups from the Associates for Biblical Research (www.BibleArchaeology.org) to dig at Hatzor.  “I am not an area   supervisor," says Gordon modestly.  “I am

Photo:  Courtesy of Gordon Franz

just a donkey pushing wheelbarrows.”

13-year-old Nathan in 1979

Gordon is especially interested to know if anyone has seen Nathan, whose youthful impatience alerted Dr. Gaby Barkay to the potential of Cave #25.


Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a former Connecticut Yankee living now in King David's Court, has been guiding since 1978.  She has been taking on-site archeological seminars with premier archeologist Gaby Barkay since the 1980s.  Gila shares her up-to-date info with groups and thrives on showing veteran tour leaders new, authentic, biblical sites.  Give her an opportunity and your sermons will be enriched and your colleagues envious....

Coming to Jerusalem soon?  Are you coming from very far away and want every minute to matter?  Would you like to experience both the authentic and the traditional sites, yet you are most interested in finding the venues where you can quietly be transported back in your imagination to the time of Jesus?  David?  Abraham?

Make every minute matter while you "Explore Jerusalem's Soul" with Gila's Unorthodox Guide.  This up-to-date PDF (Adobe Acrobat) 46-page guide gives you the Top Ten places to meditate on the Bible, the Top Ten lesser-known churches worth visiting, the Top Ten most rewarding roof-top views and the top Ten places for Middle Eastern food.  More on Gila's Jerusalem Guide....

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1st C AD street in Bethsaida

Copyright 2005, 2009 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.




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