By Casey Strine
Last week, archaeologists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced the discovery of a royal seal naming King Hezekiah of Jerusalem. Ironically, the seal was found in a rubbish heap, mixed in with other waste, perhaps from a royal building. It is the first provenanced find of a seal for a king named in the Bible. In other words, because of the methodology used to excavate this rubbish heap, for the first time archaeologists can relate this seal to its physical surroundings and, one hopes in time, to its broader historical context.
But what will those archaeologists tell us in due course? Early reports suggest the seal is very similar to those we already know, so it is unlikely to tell us a great deal of new information about seals. The inscription closely follows the pattern known already.
Will we learn anything about Hezekiah, the king to whom it is ascribed? There is hardly a better-documented person from ancient Judah. A king in the ‘house of David’ who ruled in Jerusalem around 700 BCE, he is held up by both the books of 2 Kings and Isaiah as a model of faithful leadership. Outside the Bible, Hezekiah appears in an account of a military campaign by Sennacherib, King of Assyria, that included a siege of Jerusalem. Those same events are described in 2 Kings 19–20 and Isaiah 36–37. The stories differ immensely: whereas Sennacherib’s annals say the siege was halted because Hezekiah was ‘locked up like a bird in a cage,’ both 2 Kings and Isaiah say that Jerusalem survived because of a secret tunnel dug to bring water into the city and through the miraculous work of an angel of YHWH that decimated the Assyrian army. Whatever one makes of the angel’s role, the tunnel is real.
In 1880 a local boy was exploring one of the known tunnels cut into the rock of Jerusalem, and found a previously undiscovered inscription, which he reported to Conrad Schick—a well-known scholar in Jerusalem at the time. Soon after, Major Conder and Lieutenant Mantell of the PEF were able to make a papier-mache impression (known as a squeeze) of this inscription. That squeeze remains the earliest accurate record of this important artefact, the only record of its appearance in situ since the original inscription was unfortunately broken (it is now in the Istanbul Museum). For many years, scholars believed the inscription was royally authorised, erected by Hezekiah himself. Now, many scholars believe the men who built the tunnel to celebrate their engineering prowess carved it.
As for the seal, perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is the images, not the words. Alongside the inscription, the seal bears a winged disc and an Ankh. The latter is the Egyptian symbol for life. Easy to identify, the Ankh is hard to explain. Why would a Judahite king put an Egyptian symbol on a seal meant to represent his identity to someone important enough to receive correspondence from him? Something like finding the French motto ‘Dieu et mon droit’ on the English monarch’s seal, the nature of this image needs explaining.
What of the other image, the winged disc? Its precise identity remains up for debate, but the immediate corollary that comes to mind is the winged disc of the deity Aššur, familiar from Assyrian iconography. Is this image drawn from Assyrian practice to balance the Ankh that comes from Egyptian religion in an attempt to pay respects to the two opposing powers between which Judah lived and had to negotiate its existence?
The Hebrew University archaeologists who discovered the seal will answer some of these questions; other scholars will answer some others; many will remain unanswered. That, indeed, stands as the main conclusion for now: exciting as this discovery is, one must be reserved in their estimation of what new knowledge this seal will furnish us.