The Barkhi Nafshi: Longing for wholeness

The Qumran community was an amazing repository of second temple prayers and hymns, many of which foreshadow the way Judaism would eventually arrange their prayers. The Barkhi Nafshi is made up of five collections of fragments, found in Cave 4 at Qumran, which seem to be copies of the same text. The collection is so named because of its opening line, “Bless, O my soul, the Lord,” which in turn is an allusion to Psalm 103 and 104. This collection offers hauntingly beautiful praises of God’s deliverance and grace for his people (in this case those in the Qumran Community).

The author of the Barkhi Nafshi weaves together allusions and references to biblical texts and Psalms—as well as references to poetry created by the Qumran community—to further its overarching theme: that God is the one who gives pious qualities to his people.[2] Consider the first few lines of 4QBarkhi Nafshia (4Q434):

Bless, O my soul, the Lord for all of his wonders forever. And blessed be his name, for he has delivered the soul of the poor,

And the humble he has not despised, and he has not forgotten the distress if the helpless. He has opened his ears to the helpless, and the cry of the orphans he has heard, and he has turned his ears to their cry.

In the abundance of his mercy, he has been gracious to the needy, and he has opened their eyes to see his ways, and their ears to hear his teaching.

And he has circumcised the foreskins of their heart, and he has delivered them on account of his loving-kindness, and he set their feet to the way… (Frg. 1 Col. i. 1-4)

The author of Barkhi Nafshi draws heavily on the biblical metaphors for body parts, like hearts, eyes, and ears that don’t work as they should. He draws on biblical texts like Isaiah, which pleads, “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding with their heart, return and be healed” (Isa 6:10). These body images are also reflected the New Testament, where Jesus opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf so that the people can understand Jesus’ message.[3] In these metaphors only the divine agent can change human, spiritual malfunction.

In the Barkhi Nafshi, God alters spiritual blindness and deafness so that the poor and humble can receive the divine message.[4] Another biblical motif the Barkhi Nafshi picks up is circumcision of the heart, “he has circumcised the foreskins of their heart.”[5] Finally, God has “set their feet to the way,” which in the Qumran community is the path to salvation.[6] Another interesting fragment is 4QBarkhi Nafshic(4Q436i and ii), where the author also vividly uses metaphors of body to describe God’s intimate role in changing the entire spiritual person. [7]

For instance, God engraves his law on the speaker’s heart, opens his mouth to speak holy words, strengthens his feet [to walk in the way of salvation], and removes his “heart of stone” and replaces it with a “pure heart.” The yester ra’a, the evil inclination, God drives from the author’s innermost being. God also sets a “spirit of holiness” in the author’s heart, removing the “adulterous eyes” and humbling the “stiff neck.” Many of these body metaphors can be found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, but here the author weaves them together into a hymn of spiritual change. God is the source of this change; he systematically transforms each broken, spiritual “body part” into something whole, someone able to walk in God’s way.  The Barkhi Nafshi may pre-date the New Testament by more than a century.[8] But, in a way, Jesus was the ultimate reflection of this longing for spiritual healing and wholeness. Those who encountered Jesus didn’t just have their eyes opened or their ears unstopped. Jesus looked into hearts, touched bodies, and transformed spiritual and physical brokenness forever (Luke 17:19; Mark 5:34).


[2] David Rolph Seely, “Implanting Pious Qualities as a Theme in Barki Nafshi Hymns” in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years After Their Discovery: Proceeding of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25, 1997, Ed. Lawrence H. Shiffman, et al. (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society in Cooperation with the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000), 322-31.

[3] Matt 13:14-15; Mark 8:17; John 12:40

[4] Isa. 29:18; 35:5; 42:16-20; 43:8; Deut. 29:4, “The Lord has not given you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to her this day.”

[5] See Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9.

[6] Seely, “Implanting,” 326.

[7] Ibid., 331.

[8] According to John Strugnell the earliest text should be dated to the late Hasmonean period (150-30) BCE; See David Seely, “Barkhi Nafshi” in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 76-77.


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