>The Power of the Written Word in Israel

>Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) has made available an excellent article by Joey Corbett on “Word Play: The Power of the Written Word in Ancient Israel” on its e-feature section. The following is an excerpt from the article:

In the Hebrew Bible there are clear indications that writing was often thought to have tangible, even magical, properties. In Numbers 5:11-28, a woman accused of adultery is made to consume “the water of bitterness,” a cloudy concoction infused with the washed-off ink from the words of a written curse. If the woman is innocent, the curse will have no effect; if she is guilty, the curse will cause her thighs to waste away and her belly to swell. In a similar vein, when Ezekiel accepts his prophetic mission from God during a dreamlike trance, he eats a scroll inscribed with the words of the divine message (Ezekiel 2:9-3:11). Having ingested the words, Ezekiel and God’s message become one.

The magical properties of writing meant that written words, once they came into being, were active and sometimes even unstable forces that could be manipulated, both for good and for ill. Numerous short dedicatory inscriptions found in Iron Age Israel and elsewhere make requests for divine blessing and protection, many having only the author’s name, what is requested and the name of the deity. As Biblical scholar Susan Niditch has said, it is as if the act of writing the prayer “[brought] the God-presence into a sort of material reality,” thus allowing the words to become infused with “visceral power.”

Read the article in its entirety by visiting the e-feature page of the Biblical Archaeology Review.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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1 Response to >The Power of the Written Word in Israel

  1. Duane Smith says:

    >I also found this article interesting. I wish Corbett had discussed, or even mentioned, Scott Noegel’s Nocturnal Ciphers. Noegel discusses the importance of complex, writing based, puns as ancient hermeneutical tools with magical properties both in Hebrew and the rest of the Near East. Ancient Mesopotamian scribes saw language as gift from their gods and thought their gods were literate.

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