King Hezekiah's Seal Bears Phoenician Imagery

Frank Moore Cross

Biblical Archaeology Review

March-April, 1999

Not long ago, a clay impression of the seal of a Hebrew king came to light for the first time: The seal of 'Ahaz, king of Judah from about 734 to 715 B.C.E., had been pressed into a small bit of clay (called a bulla) that once sealed a papyrus roll.* On the back we can still see the impression of the strings that tied the roll and of the fabric of the papyrus. The seal, inscribed in Old Hebrew letters, reads simply: l'hz y/hwtm mlk /yhdh "Belonging to 'Ahaz (son of) Yehotam, King of Judah."**

     Now an even more astonishing bulla has come to light--that of 'Ahaz's son, the great Judahite monarch Hezekiah. I say more astonishing because unlike the seal of 'Ahaz, which is purely epigraphic, Hezekiah's seal is also iconic--it depicts a two-winged beetle (called a scarab) pushing a ball of mud (making it a dung scarab). Moreover, for reasons I will explain, there can be little or no doubt as to its authenticity.

     For some time we have possessed seals and bullae of the servants of Israelite kings, but of the more than twelve hundred West Semitic seals now published, only two bullae--those mentioned here--bear recognizable stamps made by the seals of the kings of Judah.

     The discoveries of the royal seals of Hezekiah and his father, 'Ahaz, are therefore quite remarkable. Both belong to Mr. Shlomo Moussaieff, who, being full of years, has decided to seek publication of important pieces in his private collection. I am in his debt for bringing the Hezekiah bulla to my attention and for providing photographs of it and permission to publish it.

     The Hezekiah bulla is very small, measuring only about .4 inches in diameter and a little less than .08 inches in thickness. The inscription on the bulla reads: lhzqyhw 'hdz mlk/ yhdh, "Belonging to Hezekiah, (son of) 'Ahaz, king of Judah."

     There is some damage to the initial letter, lamed, but there is no question that's what it is, the familiar "to," meaning "belonging to." The spelling of Hezekiah does raise a question, however. In the Bible the name is spelled in two ways: hzqyhw and yhzqyhw, with an initial y. The former is used mostly in the older texts (Kings and Isaiah) and the latter mostly in the later texts (Chronicles), though even within books, the spelling is not consistent. I think the former is the reading in the Hezekiah bulla: There is very little space after the lamed, and I cannot read a yod there. In the occurrences of his name on sealings of the servants of Hezekiah, his name is spelled hzqyhw, without the initial y.(1) The name means "Yahweh has strengthened." Yahweh, of course, is the personal name of the Israelite God.

     At top center, above the head of the winged beetle, yhdh (Judah) is inscribed. The inscription lhzqyhw 'hz mlk, "Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) 'Ahaz," circles under the beetle beginning below the right wing. Note that "son of" (ben in Hebrew) has been omitted. The same is true of the 'Ahaz bulla, where the name 'Ahaz is followed by the patronymic Yehotam, without the ben. This is not infrequently the case on seals. It is, however, contrary to what one would expect on formal royal seals. Yet this very feature points to the genuineness of these bullae, as a forger would want his forgery to look as typical as possible.

     A second feature of the Hezekiah bulla points to its genuineness. Another bulla impressed with the same seal was published some time ago by the dean of Israeli epigraphers, the late Nahman Avigad.(2) But the inscription on that bulla was so indistinct that none of the names could be recognized. Only one full letter and part of another letter of "Judah" are there. The four last letters of "Hezekiah" are on the bottom of the bulla, immediately followed by the first (and only) letter of "'Ahaz." There is no space or dot to indicate the beginning of a new word. In this condition, it was impossible to reconstruct any of the names. When Robert Deutsch recently saw the more complete bulla that is being published here, he recognized it as a duplicate of the fragmentary bulla published by Avigad, which Deutsch was then able to reconstruct based on the more complete exemplar.(3)

     Since both exemplars are burnt, it would not be surprising if they came from the remnants of the same burnt archive. Because they surfaced on the antiquities market, however, their provenance cannot be established with any certainty. But it seems very likely that they came from an archive in Jerusalem.

     All the features of the script are in agreement with a date in the reign of Hezekiah (c. 715-687 B.C.E.).(4) The script is almost identical to that on the royal jar handles known from the inscriptions stamped on them as l'melekh (belonging to the king) handles. These handles date to the reign of Hezekiah, as shown by David Ussishkin's excavations at Lachish.(5) The script on the bulla is also similar to that of the Siloam Tunnel inscription, which is also attributed to Hezekiah's reign.(6)

     Interestingly, the two-winged beetle on the seal is seen more clearly on the Hezekiah bulla with the more fragmentary inscription. The dung beetle pushes the circular ball of dung, which symbolizes the movement of the rising sun.(7) The meaning of the symbol is clear from Malachi 4:2: "For you who revere my Name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings." In other words, the winged sun disk is a symbol of the deity bringing salvation.(8)

     Two- and four-winged sun disks also appear on Hezekiah's l'melekh handles, so the two-winged scarab with the sun disk is wholly appropriate on Hezekiah's seal. There appears to have been a tendency to solarize Yahweh in Judah in the eighth century and later.(9)

   This tendency, however, did not last very long. In the seventh century B.C.E., the makers of Hebrew seals appear to have eschewed any iconography. In the burnt archive from the time of Jeremiah, which Avigad published,* very few of the bullae exhibit iconographic motifs, but among them is the seal of Hezekiah. Both Hezekiah and Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.) instituted religious reforms to centralize worship in the Jerusalem Temple and to purify the cult. From the evidence thus far available, it appears that the reforms of Josiah were more rigorous in their aniconic thrust than those of Hezekiah.

     In any event, it is quite extraordinary to be able to look at original impressions formed by the seal of one of Judah's most important monarchs 2,700 years ago.


1 See Ruth Hestrin and Michal Dayagi, "A Seal Impression of a Servant of King Hezekiah," Israel Exploration Journal 24 (1974), pp. 27-29; see also Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Israel Exploration Society, Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, 1997), no. 407. A duplicate of this bulla (that is, a bulla stamped by the same seal) has been published recently by Robert Deutsch, in Messages from the Past: Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Isaiah Through the Destruction of the First Temple (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publication, 1997), p. 31, no. 2; two other bullae of a servant of Hezekiah are published in the same volume, pp. 52-53, nos. 3 and 4. In the annals of Sennacherib, the transcription of the Judahite king's name is written ha-za-qi-a-u or ha-za-qi-ya-a-u (hazaq'iyahu). (Back)

2 See Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), p. 110, no. 199. (Back)

3 See the discussion in Deutsch, Messages from the Past, p. 163, no. 199. I am indebted to him for photographs of the two bullae and for two drawings made with access to the original bullae. In his drawing of the new Hezekiah bulla, he has seen some detail I do not have on my own drawing, which was made from poor photographs. Hence I have substituted his drawing for mine. His reconstruction of the Avigad bulla is bold but I believe accurate. (Back)

4 Downward ticks on the lower horizontal strokes of the zayin are probably present, though the traces are faint (Deutsch has not shown them on his drawing). The curved, lowest horizontal of the he of hzqyhw is characteristic of the Siloam script. The yod is large, with no tendency to suppress or elevate the lowest horizontal (as in seventh- and sixth-century scripts). The het is a box form, as occasionally seen in the l'melekh handles, with little breakthrough of the verticals. (Back)

5 See David Ussishkin, "The Destruction of Lachish by Sennacherib and the Dating of the Royal Judean Storage Jars," Tel Aviv 4 (1977), pp. 28-60. (Back)

6 See Jo Ann Hackett et al., "Defusing Pseudo-Scholarship: The Siloam Inscription Ain't Hasmonean," BAR, March/April 1997 (Order this issue). (Back)

7 For a discussion of the scarab (dung beetle) iconography popular in Israel, see Sass, in Studies in the Iconography of Northwest Semitic Inscribed Seals, ed. Sass and C. Uehlinger (Fribourg: University Press, 1992), pp. 214-219. On the significance of the scarab in Egypt, see H. Bonnet, "Skarabaeus," in Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte (Berlin: DeGruyter, 1952), pp. 720-722 and references. (Back)

8 My colleague Lawrence Stager called this passage and its application to the winged sun disk to my attention. (Back)

9 Discussion and literature may be found in E. Lipinski, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament 8 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994), pp. 306-314. (Back)