Museum of Biblical History Staff • 1.9.2015
In the archaeological season of 2009, in the city of Jerusalem, an exciting discovery was made when a small clay object was excavated. After several years of analysis by scientists, it was announced recently that a royal seal impression had been found from the reign of the Judean king, Hezekiah.
According to Dr. Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the project’s leader, the seal was discovered in a refuse pile in the Ophel – an administrative quarter located near the southern wall of the Temple Mount (Hasson, “Seal Impression”). Since the announcement of its discovery, this tiny artifact has quickly become a sensation in the archaeological community; and was recently named among the top 10 archaeological discoveries by Biblical Archaeology Society (Ngo, “Top 10”). What about this tiny clay seal makes it so important? Together, we will take a closer look at the seal, and discover what it means on various levels.
What Is a Seal Impression?
In ancient times, seals were used for limiting access to an item to authorized individuals, for ensuring authenticity of authority, etc.
For example, in the days of the New Testament writers, a letter was written on a papyrus scroll, which was then folded, and tied with a chord. A piece of clay was then pressed around the knot, and a signet was pressed into the clay which bore a mark of some kind, designed to authenticate the document; similar to the modern use of a signature to authenticate documents. When the recipient received the document, they would break the seal, untie the chord, and read the document. Understanding practices such as this helps us to better understand Biblical passages such as Revelation 5:1ff “I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals . . . Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals . . .” (NASB).
Seals go back to the early days of writing: in fact, it is believed by some that the invention of writing came out of the use of the seal. In ancient Sumer (in the region of southern Iraq, off the coast of the Persian Gulf), cuneiform emerged around the fourth millennium B.C. as the first writing system. Before cuneiform was invented, however, tokens were used to record business transactions. These tokens were often placed in a lump of clay known as a “bulla”, which served as a sort of envelope. A mark was often impressed on the bulla to authenticate the record. The recipient could then break the bulla to discover the tokens inside. Eventually, cuneiform tablets were also enveloped in such sealed bullae. Cylinder seals were the earliest and most common seal, which impressed an image of a scene; usually depicting mythic heroes, symbols, or important events.
In Egypt, a similar practice was done. Documents were sealed by clay seals impressed by signets as we have already seen in the New Testament era.
Tombs such as Tutankhamun’s tomb were also sealed using the same technique. Egyptian signets came in several forms; the most common of which was the scarab. Scarab seals are oval-shaped, have an image of a scarab beetle on the top, and writing on the bottom – often identifying the owner of the seal or an important figure.
The Hezekiah seal is an example of this Egyptian-style technique. According to Mazar, it was originally located in a food storage facility located next to the refuse dump where it was discovered, and was likely used to seal a rolled papyrus bound with thin chords, the impressions of which are found on the reverse side. The seal itself measures in size at 13×12 mm. The signet that made the impression on the bulla likely was a ring, which was common in the Near East by Hezekiah’s time (“Impression of King”).
What Does It Say?
The seal impression has two key features: it has writing, and it has two kinds of symbols. The writing is ancient Hebrew, in what scholars often refer to as “Paleo-Hebrew.” What this means is that it uses a script based on the Phoenician script. Later, after the Babylonian exile, Hebrew was written in the more familiar block letters, known as “Assyrian Script.” The writing is a simple identification statement. Translated, it reads “Belonging to Hezekiah, [son of] Ahaz king of Judah (Hasson, “Seal Impression”).
This brief statement alone reveals much. First, the name Hezekiah adds more corroboration to the fact that Hezekiah was king in Jerusalem during the late 8th century B.C., which has already been confirmed by several finds, including the famous Taylor Prism. For Bible students, the inclusion of the name Ahaz in connection with Hezekiah confirms the Biblical account of kings in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that Hezekiah succeeded his father on the Judean throne in Jerusalem. King Ahaz’s reign is also confirmed elsewhere, such as the Tiglath-Pileser Inscription. None of this information is new, however: but serves as further corroborative material. It is however, the first seal impression of a Judean or Israelite king discovered in an archaeological excavation (Hasson, “Seal Impression”).
The second key feature is the two forms of symbols, which say much more than the writing. The first of these symbols is the most prominent: the large, winged sun disk in the center.
Originally, the symbol used to represent the king and the royal administrative authority was the winged scarab, which was standard in the region, as it was borrowed from the Egyptian tradition. However, this changed during the life of Hezekiah to that of a winged sun disk, according to Mazar (Hasson, “Seal Impression”). The use of the sun disk with its wings downward is reminiscent of Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (NASB). It symbolized God’s protection and provision, as the verse suggests. Interestingly enough, it was also a symbol employed by Assyrian kings (Hasson, “Seal Impression”), which reinforces the idea of Assyrian influence by this time, as suggested in the biblical account of Hezekiah’s life. Later, the symbol reappeared in Persia as part of the Zoroastrian symbol which represented the Ahura Mazda, their deity.
In 733 B.C., during the reign of King Ahaz, Judah became a vassal of Assyria. Hezekiah was then about 18 years old. Throughout his life, he saw the force of the Assyrian empire, even to the fall of Israel and the campaigns of Sennacherib. The second symbol on the impression is the Egyptian ankh, a symbol representing life. Mazar believes this symbol to bolster the theory that the king’s symbols changed after Hezekiah’s sickness (Hasson, “Seal Impression”). This theory certainly makes sense, and would support the biblical account. In 2 Kings 20:1-11 and 2 Chronicles 32:24-26, the Bible details this illness and Hezekiah’s recovery.
In the end, Hezekiah “humbled the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come on them in the days of Hezekiah” (NASB). The symbology becomes extremely poignant in light of this event, as the symbol is changed from an Egyptian scarab to a symbol showing that under God’s protection and provision is life; as the Scriptures say, “The Lord redeems the life of His servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (ESV). If this is true, a fairly precise date could be given at some time shortly after 704 B.C.
What Difference Does It Make?
The seal is significant for many reasons. For the historian and archaeologist, it reflects a period of great change in the region. The symbology reflects a change from the former Egyptian influence to a contemporary Assyrian influence, which corresponds to the political situation in the Levant at this time. It also directly connects the Judean kings Hezekiah and Ahaz to these events. For the Bible student, it confirms much of what we already know about the time period. In this tiny seal impression alone we can confirm the existence of Hezekiah as a successor of Ahaz as King of Judah in ca. 704 B.C. We can confirm the presence and influence of Assyria, and the political effect of Hezekiah’s illness and recovery, as well as his attributing his recovery to the work of the Lord. Finally, the seal was found in a refuse dump in the Ophel, and came from a food storage facility, such as that described in 2 Chronicles 32:27-28: “Now Hezekiah had immense riches and honor; and he made for himself treasuries for silver, gold, precious stones, spices, shields and all kinds of valuable articles, storehouses also for the produce of grain, wine and oil, pens for all kinds of cattle and sheepfolds for the flocks.”
Exciting discoveries such as this amazing seal help archaeologists learn much about the history and people we read of in the Bible, and result in confirming that indeed the Bible is true in its historical accounts. As archaeologists continue to study, learn, and excavate, they uncover much evidence that serves to show the validity of the Word of God as a trustworthy document which is historically accurate, and shed light on the context of the Scriptural account.
English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print.
Hasson, Nir. “Seal Impression with King Hezekiah’s Name Discovered in Jerusalem – Archaeology.” Haaretz.com. Haaretz, 02 Dec. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
“Impression of King Hezekiah’s Royal Seal Discovered in Ophel Excavations South of Temple Mount in Jerusalem.” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 02 Dec. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 1995. Print.
Ngo, Robin. “King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light.” Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archaeology Review, 03 Dec. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
Ngo, Robin. “Top 10 Biblical Archaeology Discoveries in 2015 – Biblical Archaeology Society.” Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archaeology Review, 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.