Amulets and Life in Bible Times
by Austin Momber and Dr. Coakley
While reading your Bible you will eventually come across the topic of idolatry. God speaks about idolatry very often in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Whether He is speaking about actual objects that were made into idols depicting gods, or inanimate objects that His people can love/desire more than Him such as wealth or a girlfriend/boyfriend. Even good things can be idolized such as comfort.
Scripture strongly advises against the following of idols other than God. We see this in 1 Corinthians 10:14, “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry”(NIV), Jonah 2:8, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them”(NIV), Galatians 4:8, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (NIV), and several other verses.
To commit idolatry is to worship something or someone other than God as if it were God. God commands His followers to avoid and stay away from idols. God warns us for good reason, as idols cannot save (Isaiah 45:20), they lead to more suffering (Psalm 16:4), they enslave (Galatians 4:8), and they are worthless (Jonah 2:8). Bringing amulets into the discussion, where do they fit in with God’s view of idols? I would suggest, based on the discussion to follow, that by wearing amulets with inscriptions solely using Scripture and the invocation of God’s holy name, amulets worn by God’s people are separate from magical pagan amulets and do offer God’s protection from Evil. It would therefore not be idolatrous to wear such amulets.
According to James Orr, general editor for biblestudytools.com, Originally "amulet" denoted any object supposed to have the power of removing or warding noxious influences believed to be due to evil spirits, etc., such as the evil eye, etc. But in the common usage it stands for an object worn on the body, generally hung from the neck, as a remedy or preservative against evil influences of a mystic kind.
The Smith’s Bible Dictionary defines amulets similarly, as, “Ornaments, gems, scrolls. etc., worn as preservatives against the power of enchantments, and generally inscribed with mystic forms or characters.”
Amulets have been found in many different forms as well as various substances from which they are made. The most common amulets consisted of pieces of stone or metal, strips of parchment with or without inscriptions from sacred writings (Bible, Koran, etc.). For example, “The earliest Egyptian amulets known are pieces of green schist of various shapes, animal, etc.
These were placed on the breast of a deceased person in order to secure a safe passage to the under-world.”
“When a piece of stone is selected as an amulet it is always portable and generally of some striking figure or shape (i.g. the human face).”4 Any ornament worn on a person, such as gems, rings, earrings, etc., have been largely held to originally be amulets.
The practice of wearing amulets existed in the ancient world among all peoples, but especially among Orientals—people from East Asian descent. Amulets are still in use today among most modern nations; the underdeveloped rural countries being most prominent of usage, but they are not absent among the people living in the most advanced civilizations of today, including the United States.
Similarly, the talisman also used today is an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck.
The talisman and the amulet are different in the sense that an amulet is believed to have negative results—as a means of protection—while a talisman is thought to be the means of securing for the wearer something positive—it produces positive results.
Notice how both the talisman and the amulet are objects the user believes to hold magical properties. So what does the Bible tell us about the use of amulets? “Though there is no word in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures denoting ‘amulet,' the thing itself is manifestly implied in many parts of the Bible.” Genesis 35:4 tells us, “So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem”(NIV). The "earrings" in Genesis 35:4 were obviously connected with idolatrous worship and were probably amulets taken from the bodies of the slain Shechemites.
Already were seeing amulets in a negative light. In Exodus 32:2 we read, "Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me’”(NIV). These golden earrings, out of which the molten calf was made, were worn by the wives and sons and daughters of Israel and were undoubtedly amulets. If you think of the simple desert life the Israelites were living, what other function could the “earrings” have served? The fact that in Isaiah 3:16-26 the women’s ornaments that were condemned (v. 18, “moonlets” and sunlets, i.e. moon and sun-shaped amulets) were of the same character brings further support.
“The "ear-drops," "nose-rings," "arm chains" and "foot chains" were all used as a protection to the part of the body implied, and the strong words with which their employment is condemned are only intelligible if their function as counter charms is borne in mind.” Amulets are subsequently mentioned among the spoils of Midian in Judges 8:24. Hosea 2:13 contains another like reference, and the “earrings” in Isaiah 3:20 were also amulets. “At Bethel, Jacob burned not only the idols ("strange gods") but also the ear-rings, the latter being as much opposed to Yahwism as the former, on account of their heathen origin and import.”
Hebrew words in Proverbs 17:8 describing “a stone conferring favor” mean without question a stone amulet treasured on account of its supposed magical efficacy.
James Orr writes, “We have reference to the custom of wearing amulets in Proverbs 6:21 where the reader is urged to ‘bind them (i.e. the admonitions of father and mother) .... upon thy heart’ and to ‘tie them about thy neck’—words implying a condemnation of the practice of trusting to the defense of mere material objects.” It is remarkable that the general teaching of the Bible and especially that of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament writers is wholly and strongly opposed to such things. With that being said, how do the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom fit into the discussion?
Ketef Hinnom, Jerusalem, is an archeological site consisting of a series of rock-hewn burial chambers based on natural caverns. In 1997, two tiny silver scrolls inscribed with portions of the well known prophylactic Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers and apparently once used as amulets, were found in one of the burial chambers. The amulets date back to late seventh-early sixth century BCE. They bear the oldest copies of biblical text known to us today; they are some two hundred years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The amulets, inscribed in the ancient Hebrew script were incised with a sharp, thin stylus no thicker than a hair’s breadth, and thus deciphering the inscription was difficult. The lower part “Amulet of the inscription has been identified as a version of Numbers 6:24-26. This formula, which forms part of Jewish liturgy, is known as the Priestly Benediction. Ada Yardeni in his article “Remarks on the Priestly Blessing on Two Ancient Amulets from Jerusalem” explains, Among the verses from the Bible cited on some of those amulets and incantations the priestly blessing is represented many times.
The priestly blessing is appropriate for use in magical contexts because of its inner structure. It is built up of three verses in a pyramid-like structure, the number of words increasing from 3 in the first verse to 5 in the second and to 7 in the third. The name YHWH is repeated three times. The number of the letters is 60—all these numbers have a magical connotation.
He further goes on to say, It is possible that the rolled silver plaques were used as amulets to protect their owners from evil and to bring upon them the blessing of YHWH, not very different from the use
of amulets in later times. Because of the priestly context in which the blessing appears in the Bible and also in the Rule of the Community from Qumran, there still remains the question whether in early times such amulets were commonly used or only by priests.18
I want to end with this conclusion about the use of such amulets drawn by Gabriel Barkay, Andrew G. Vaughn, Marilyn J. Lundberg, and Bruce Zuckerman. The use of “rebuker of "evil” in lines 3-4 of Ketef Hinnom II as an attribute to Yahweh along with the phrase “from Evil” both also indicate that these texts had specific apotropaic function (i.e. supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck).
It seems likely that the inscriptions functioned, as did similar artifacts from later periods, as a means to invoke divine protection against all evil-doers and wickedness.
Further, While neither inscription makes specific referent to satan, demons, or other agents of wickedness, they do offer God’s protection from Evil through the invocation of His holy name and the text of his most solemn of protective blessings. Given that context, it is safe to conclude that these artifacts both served as amulets and that their function falls in line with similar amulets whose inscriptions invoke divine protection for the wearer through the use of one of the tradition’s most famous prayers.
“There is a close relation between the attribution of power to the strictly formulated prayer and to the uttering of the divine name, as reflected in the Bible, and between the use of the divine name and of verses from the Bible on amulets and incantations in order to secure a blessing or to protect from evil.”
Ahituv, Shmuel. “A Rejoinder to Nadav Na'aman's 'A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom’.”
“Amulet - International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.” Edited by James Orr, Bible Study Tools,
Salem Web Network, www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/amulet.html.
Barkay, Gabriel, et al. “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 334, 2004, p. 41., doi:10.2307/4150106.
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations fo Late Antiquity. 2nd ed. (Jerusalem and Leiden, 1987)
M., Haran. “Priestly Blessing on Silver Plaques: The Significance of the Discovery at Ketef Hinnom.”
Na'aman, Nadav. “A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom.”
Sanzo, Joseph E. Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt: Text, Typology, and Theory. Vol. 84. Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
Smith's Bible Dictionary: Barbour Publishing, Inc, 2012.
Smoak, Jeremy D. "‘Prayers of Petition’in the Psalms and West Semitic Inscribed Amulets: Efficacious Words in Metal and Prayers for Protection in Biblical Literature."
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36.1 (2011): 75-92.
“TALISMAN | Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/talisman.
Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Magic in the biblical world." Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983): 169-200.
Yardeni, Ada. “Remarks On the Priestly Blessing On Two Ancient Amulets From Jerusalem.” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 41, no.