, professor of Near Eastern studies and archaeology, Southern Adventist University
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced a significant discovery last week: the first seal impression of a Judahite king ever found by archaeologists in Jerusalem.
The impression says, “Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king of Judah.”
Hezekiah, who reigned from 715 to 686 B.C., receives considerable attention in the books of 2 Kings, Isaiah, and 2 Chronicles for his extensive reforms prior to the Assyrian campaign of Sennacherib. The Bible says, “There was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those before him” (2 Kings 18:5).
The seal impression was found in 2009 during the Ophel excavations directed by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, near the Royal Building. It was first identified this year during the preparation of the final report of the excavations.
The seal impression, known as a bulla, measures 9.7 x 8.6 mm, no larger than a human thumbnail. The impression is made after a document was written on papyrus or parchment. A string was tied around the letter and a piece of wet mud was placed on the string before being impressed by the king’s personal seal. Several hundred of these bullae have been found in Jerusalem during the Ophel excavations recently thanks to the procedure of wet sifting, which occurs when water is sprayed over the contents of a bucket of excavated dirt.
The Hezekiah bulla is significant for two reasons:
1. The meaning of the images. Three images appear in the center of the seal. A sun disk with six rays shooting out from it with downturned wings is flanked on both sides by the ankh, the symbol for eternal life.
Why would Hezekiah place these on his seal when the Bible describes him purging Jerusalem of syncretistic worship practices? By contrast, the seal of his wicked father Ahaz has no symbols but only Hebrew.
There are two possible explanations. Hezekiah may have employed Egyptian symbols because of his political alliance with Egypt. This alliance caused Sennacherib to campaign and reassert himself over Judah. Or Hezekiah was using imagery for Yahweh that is also found in the Bible. The Psalmist says, “For sun and shield is Yahweh God” (Psalm 84:12), and the prophet writes, “But for you who revere My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). In this case, Hezekiah’s use of this image would not necessarily reflect Egyptian but Hebrew concepts.
Eight other bullae bearing Hezekiah’s name are known from the antiquities market. Six of these have a winged scarab, a symbol of royal authority. Two others are identical with this seal impression, according to research by Robert Deutsch published in the July/August 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The images on now three impressions, including this one, were made by the same seal and may suggest changes made on Hezekiah’s seal after his recovery from a terminal illness described in 2 Kings 20:1-8, although the dating is not certain because of the mixed stratigraphic context of the find.
2. Found in Jerusalem. This is the first seal impression of a Judahite king found in legal excavations in Jerusalem. Prior to this time all other seal impressions were enshrouded in uncertainty because their precise origin was unknown. Now it is clear that the two previously known identical seal impressions were authentic and came from the same seal.
Through archaeology we can reach back in time and virtually shake King Hezekiah’s hand, for it was most likely from his hand that these impressions were made.