Hezekiah Seal Proves Ancient Jerusalem Was a Major Judahite Capital

Similar seal impressions had already been found – by thieves. This one uniquely found in situ proves King Hezekiah’s connection to the LMLK symbols and the existence of an advanced Judahite administration.

Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman
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Impression of a seal bearing the words "Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah" and showing a winged sun and ankhs, Assyrian symbols of power and life. Archaeologist Eilat Mazar speculates that the seal was made late in Hezekiah's life, after his recovery from serious illness.
Impression of a seal bearing the words "Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah" and showing a winged sun and ankhs, Assyrian symbols of power and life.Credit: Ouria Tadmor
Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman

The "Hanukkah miracle" wasn't finding King Hezekiah's seal impression by Temple Mount. It was finding it inside the royal building in Jerusalem where the seal had actually been used 2,700 years ago, proving its authenticity. The discovery provides further testimony to the powerful status of the ancient Judahite administration in Jerusalem of the time.

Actually, we had already known the king's seal existed. Impressions from it have been making the rounds of the antiquities market for years. A simulation of the seal is even on display at the Israel Museum, on loan from the Jesselson collection.

The uniqueness of the seal impression announced in December lies in its being a rare solid piece of evidence that Jerusalem housed a major Judahite royal administration. Almost all other seals and bullae from the Judahite era had been illegally dug up and sold by antiquities thieves, rendering them valueless to archaeologists because of their uncertain provenance and questionable authenticity.

This seal impression, called a bulla, was found in a cache together with 33 other seals, figurines and ceramics, inside a collapsed building adjacent to Temple Mount that Jerusalemite archaeologist Eilat Mazar had already deemed to have had an administrative function.

About the size of a grape, the impression reads “Belonging to Hezekiah son of Ahaz, king of Judah” and features a symbol of a two-winged sun disk with ankh symbols on either side.

The map below shows the Old City of Jerusalem. Note the road "Derech HaOfel," running by the Ophel, just south of Temple Mount. where the seal impression was found

Hezekiah was here

Hezekiah is the ancient Judahite king about whom we know the most. He is extensively described in the Bible and is mentioned in Assyrian documents too. The discovery of his bulla in situ is much more than just a cool find. Added to other rare evidence, it attests that Jerusalem in King Hezekiah's time was not some hilltop village, as some postulate. It was the administrative center of the Judahite kingdom.

The building in which the bulla was found had been an administrative or royal building that the Babylonians destroyed when they conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE, Mazar postulates. The archaeologists working there think it was a collapse from an upper floor. (There has been some confusion in the media about the location of the find in a "fill". That refers not to a biblical-era garbage dump but to the imploded building.)

The two-winged sun disk image on the king's seal is also found stamped onto so-called "LMLK" jar handles from Hezekiah's era. (LMLK is merely transliteration of four Hebrew letters on the seals – lamed, mem lamed, kaph, which are shorthand for "belongs to the King".) Some LMLK jar handles features scarab beetles instead of the sun disk.

The Ophel, at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Most such "LMLK jars" were found in central Israel, west of the Dead Sea, notably in Jerusalem, but some were also found in the north.

The sun disk itself is a common Near Eastern symbol representing a solar or sky deity, which is what Yahweh essentially was. Its use does not therefore necessarily signify pagan worship by the jar maker or user, or of course by Hezekiah: over centuries of use in the region, these symbols assumed generic meanings.

Shebnah was there too

LMLK handles also bore personal seals – such as that of Shebnah ben Shahar, whose seal was found both at Ramat Rahel and at Lachish (from the palace floor). Shebnah was Hezekiah’s scribe, according to Isaiah 22:15 and 2 Kings 18:37, but just having a similar name to that found in the Bible doesn't necessarily mean that this was the same person. There are other seals with names corresponding to administrative personnel but until now, archaeologists had difficulty ruling that they were the same people.

The current discovery of the royal and personal seal impression in situ in the excavation allows for these individuals to be connected to Hezekiah's administration and for the LMLK seals to be legitimately connected with Hezekiah.

Finding the LMLK handles had already led scholars to surmise that the ancient Judahite kingdom was no backwater, but had a highly developed administrative system. That theory is now bolstered by the discovery of the royal seals found in situ inside the collapsed Jerusalem building.

An LMLK stamp on a jar handle. Jars with stamps marked by LMLK seals are believed to have all come from King Hezekiah's reign.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now, why would a Judahite king's seal have a lotus and ankhs, especially as the lotus symbol was associated with the goddess Ashera?

Firstly, lotuses had become common symbolism, in the form of volute capitals (proto aeolic) adorning stone pillars found throughout ancient Israel and Judah, including in Jerusalem (along with the LMLK handles). They most likely adorned the entrances to important buildings. One was recently discovered in the Ophel by Temple Mount, very near where the seal was found, and in the Givati parking lot excavation as well. Volute capitals also appear on the shekel – both the ancient coin and now the modern version.

In fact all the symbols found on the Judahite jar handles are commonly found in combination with seals and stelae throughout the Near East. So much for Hezekiah's famous reforms, ostensibly stamping out idolatry: "In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it" (2 Kings 18). Yet sun disks, scarabs and female figurines and the like were found all over the place in excavations up to the destruction by the Babylonians.

Phoenician figure of Canaanite goddess Ashera, 7 B.C.E.Credit: Luis García

As for the ankhs, the presence of this Egyptian symbol on a seal is not surprising, says Christopher Rollston of George Washington University: Judah had formed alliances with Egypt at various times during its history.

The prophesies of Isaiah in the 8th century BCE contain references to Judahite leaders courting Egyptian favor and protection (Isaiah 30:1-5), Rollston points out.

"Similarly, during the neo-Assyrian King Sennacherib's siege of Judah in 701 BCE, his Rab-Shakeh is reported to have belittled Judah for its reliance on Egypt (2 Kings 18:21; Isaiah 36:6). And from the corpus of Old Hebrew inscriptions is Lachish Ostracon 3, penned during Nebuchadnezzar's fateful siege of Judah in 586, which states that 'Conyahu son of Elnatan, the commander of the army, had gone down to enter Egypt,'" Rollston says.

Also, Hebrew seals (and thus bullae) were rich in iconography, from roaring lions to crowing roosters, Rollston says. The Egyptian ankh is common on Hebrew seals too. A stunning example found in Lachish in 1935 has a four-winged beetle and an ankh, accompanied by two Hebrew names in the Old Hebrew script, he adds. In 1905, a Hebrew seal was found at Megiddo with a winged griffin wearing a double crown and facing an ankh, plus with a Hebrew inscription. In 1929, again at Megiddo, another seal with winged griffin and ankh (and a grasshopper) was found.

Ivory plaque from Nimrud, dating from the 9th-7th centuries BCE, showing lotus imagery with what may be a temple prostitute.Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

"In short, for all sorts of reasons, there is nothing surprising about the presence of an ankh on a bulla or seal, not even one associated with King Hezekiah,” Rollston sums up.



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