News broke today of a royal seal of the Judaean king Hezekiah (II Kings 18-20) that was discovered in a 2009 excavation of the southern portion of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem directed by Eilat Mazar. Written in Paleo-Hebrew script, the inscription reads לחז[ק]יהו.אחז.מלך.יהודה “Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz, King of Judah.” Also on the seal is the image of a winged sun disk and two ankh Egyptian hieroglyphs, symbolizing “life.” The article by the Hebrew University, (linked here), explains the significance of the sun disk:
The symbols on the seal impression from the Ophel suggest that they were made late in his life, when both the Royal administrative authority and the King’s personal symbols changed from the winged scarab (dung beetle)—the symbol of power and rule that had been familiar throughout the Ancient Near East, to that of the winged sun—a motif that proclaimed God’s protection, which gave the regime its legitimacy and power, also widespread throughout the Ancient Near East and used by the Assyrian Kings.This change most likely reflected both the Assyrian influence and Hezekiah’s desire to emphasize his political sovereignty, and Hezekiah’s own profound awareness of the powerful patronage given his reign by the God of Israel.
- It is authentic and not a forgery, because we know its provenance, i.e. where, by whom, and when it was found. While the knowledge of this find has been available to scholars since its uncovering in 2009, it has only now been published and made available for public consumption. It is unknown why it took so long to make it to publication.
- The major significance of this find is not that it “proves” the Bible. As has already been noted, other seal inscriptions of Hezekiah have been known for some time, and no scholar doubts the existence of the kings of the Divided Monarchy period, since they are more or less well documented in extra-biblical sources. We need to rise above an interest in these finds beyond their utility in confirming the historicity of biblical figures.
- Rather, the significance of this find is to confirm an important aspect of Hezekiah’s reign, namely that Assyrian power in Palestine had begun to decline somewhat in the latter part of Hezekiah’s reign due to a rebellion in Babylon during the reign of Esarhaddon as well as further trouble in the north of Assyria, which required Esarhaddon’s attention. During this time, Hezekiah, after being healed of an illness, was able to rule without interference or threat from Assyria. In light of his victory against Sennacharib’s siege of Jerusalem, which 2 Kings 19:35-37 describes as being due to divine intervention, and his miraculous healing, Hezekiah began to use symbols indicating the protection of God, as indicated in the article linked above.
- The presence of Egyptian and Assyrian symbols on the seal indicate the degree to which these cultures had been received in Judaea, even during the reign of a pious, monolatrous worshipper of Yahweh like Hezekiah. It is not just idolators who incorporated Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture, but pious Yahwists as well. This should not be a surprise, since the cherub iconography of the Jerusalem Temple is found in various forms all over the ancient Near East.
- The plethora of archaeological finds from the time of Hezekiah demonstrate what a powerful leader he was as well as the increased strength and size of Jerusalem during this time. Hezekiah must have thought himself strong enough to stand against the power of Assyria and even accept envoys of the Babylonian king Merodach-Baladan, who rebelled against the Assyrian king Esarhaddon.
- It was also the strength of Hezekiah that brought significant religious reform to Judaea including a prohibition of idolatrous worship and a return to the worship of Yahweh alone (monolatry). Without this example, it is questionable whether or not his great grandson Josiah would have been able to initiate a similar reform. Without Hezekiah and Josiah, significant portions of the Old Testament, namely from Joshua-II Kings, would look substantially different.
Notre Dame professor of New Testament, Candida Moss, has written her piece for the Daily Beast, which illustrates exactly why I said what I said above about rising above the interest in “proof.” If we make this about proof, we play into the hands of revisionist scholars and those with anti-religious ideologies, like Robert Cargill, quoted in Moss’ piece. “If this is a legitimate object, then it simply confirms the existence of a king named Hezekiah in Jerusalem,” Cargill states. Yes, this is true. There is nothing physical that actually links the seal to the biblical king Hezekiah. As James Davila notes, the problems with recovery of the seal from the excavation site will make stratigraphy and dating difficult to do.
However, II Kings speaks at length about a very particular king named Hezekiah, who, for all accounts, was kind of a big deal. “There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (II Kings 18:5). And, because he was kind of a big deal, and because there is no record of another king of Judah by the same name, there is a %99.9999999 percent chance that this particular seal refers to the biblical Hezekiah. Proof? No. Beyond reasonable doubt? Yes.
You see, if we play the proof game, then we set an agenda, which is “proving the Bible to be true.” Scholars hate that, and non-religious scholars hate it even more. I hate it. It doesn’t get us anywhere and only muddles things up. However, without setting that agenda, most every scholar will irenically acknowledge or assume that the seal in question belonged to the biblical Hezekiah, and from it, they would begin to piece together its historical significance, drawing upon the biblical narrative as needed for contextual information. But, by making this about “proof,” we’ve hijacked the public and academic narrative about this seal and allowed religious and anti-religious ideology to completely derail it.
This is what we have to move beyond. We need to be concerned about real historical data derived from these artifacts, not an ideology, not an agenda.