At some moment in time, in the 9th or 8th century BCE, someone placed the palm of his or her hand on a wet piece of clay and created a perfectly legible imprint. Later, etched over the handprint, an inscription was carved in Early Hebrew Script: ‘Blessed is Uriyahu by YHWA and his Ashera, Guard him from foes.’ The object (purpose unknown, but with significant homage to the ancient Goddess of Israel) weighs about the same as a small melon. When I hold it with both hands, very very carefully, I try not to breath: this is authentic – one of the oldest Hebrew inscriptions in the world. I place it gently back on the shelf, alongside other priceless relics. Safely back on the shelf, at least for now, Uriyahu’s inscription is guarded from foes. What happened to the man himself is anybody’s guess.
Last week I had the privilege of a private tour inside the storage vaults of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. As part of my book research this year I have become somewhat obsessed with what writing may have looked like in the 5th century BCE. My friend D., who is a curator at the museum, graciously organized a private study tour, and there I was, notebook in hand, carefully led around the treasure cave, the holy of holies, deep inside the bowels of the museum. I was led past tight security, magnetic cards were swiped, a metal door opened and there was the Later Biblical Period Storage Unit – a large room full of glass cabinets, display tables and boxes, everywhere, carefully marked with names and numbers. The expression ‘kid in a candy store’ was never more accurate. Except this wasn’t candy – these were crucial clues to a complex riddle – each object guarding secrets that either back up or totally challenge the Bible’s claim for literal accuracy. “Archeology”, D. tells me, “is a lot like poetry – making sense of a poem or a shard is 70% guess work, and 30% intuition. History guards its secrets with a tight fist – the best that we can do is speculate.”
It was an amazing afternoon – the tour was extremely helpful to my research on ancient forms of writing – but the most thrilling was the feeling of awe when, shelf by shelf, item by item, the mystery of history was unveiled – deities, inscriptions, jars and jewels: fragments of a life that, somehow, helps us make sense of ours. And perhaps the most thrilling was the knowledge that I am handling objects that are not just priceless and sacred because of how rare they are today but also because they were created as sacred – so many thousands of years ago. Whoever inscribed that rock, or carved that perfect little bronze calf or molded the perfect breasts on that figurine of the goddess of fertility was a guardian of the sacred, passing along fragments of immortality to future generations. Walking though that basement made me think about my own life, my private archeology: what are the objects that signify the sacred for me? For my family? What are the household items that represent my most cherished values, beliefs, aspirations? And will these objects mean anything to my next door neighbor – or to a descendent or a flea market buyer a hundred years from now? What am I the guardian of?
The delicate job of guarding the sacred is at the heart of this week’s Torah tale – Ba’Midbar – the first one of the fourth book of Moses. The Hebrew meaning of the name is ‘In the Wilderness’, or “Inside the Desert” but most of us know this book by its English title – “Numbers”. The book chronicles the last years of Israel’s wanderings through the Sinai Desert and it opens with long and meticulous list detailing the population census – determining who’s who and how many there are in Israelite society. It’s ironic that the Hebrew name of this book conjures the wilderness of uncharted dunes, while the English name is about numbers and structures. The book – and life – is somehow about both – a noble attempt to balance order and chaos, nature and culture.
And so, at least ideally, the People Israel march to Canaan like perfect army – each tribe with specific formation, location and flag. At the heart of this mobile camp is the tent of the Divine – religious headquarters. This area is under the jurisdiction of the Levites – the guardians of mystery. Specifically, the Torah tells us, they have to guard the ‘ark, the table, the candlestick, the altars and the vessels of the sanctuary’. The super-guard is the highest ranking Levite: ‘Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, the prince of the princes of the Levites, will be in charge of the guardians of the sanctuary.’ (Bamidbar, 3:32)
The Hebrew word for ‘ guardians’ is ‘Shomrei’ – the exact same root of the word found on the hand-imprinted object in the museum (identified by the location in which it was found, Hirbat El Kum, not far away from Hebron)
The notion that a God can guard a human being is here matched by the notion that the humans in turn guard the domain of the Gods. The Levites protected the sacred objects in the Tabernacle, just like the guards are doing today at the Israel Museum. But Eleazar and his guard squad weren’t just guarding the objects – they were protecting the very notion of the sacred from being blurred with the mundane matters of life. They were keeping order away from chaos, keeping clear boundaries between the ordinary – and the extraordinary.
Back from the museum, I sat down to copy my notes. I turned off my cell phone, did not connect to the internet, and devoted the next few hours to the fine craft that my ancestors have developed for thousands of years – writing things down. Guarding myself away from intrusion I made lists, wrote words, added up data, seeking, like an archeologist, or a poet, or a museum guard or an ancient Levite to mark clear boundaries between the important and irrelevant, chiseling, word by word, inscriptions that may mean something to my next door neighbor, or to you reading this now, or, maybe to somebody else, in some other sacred domain, many years from now.
(This weekly REVERB is dedicated to the memory of a great teacher and writer – who influenced me a lot. Dr. Leonard Shlain passed on last week at the age of 71. He would have loved the fact that the early inscription at the Museum honored both Hebraic God and Goddess. His bestselling book The Alphabet vs. The Goddess is one of the best ways to understand order vs. chaos within one’s self and throughout history. He was a true guardian of the sacred. May his memory be a blessing. )