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Hezekiah is one of the most important Judahite kings of the Old Testament. He was deemed righteous, feared Yahweh, and protected his people. Events of his reign (747–698 BC) are outlined in 2 Kings 18–20, and substantial evidence external to the Bible also exists.
In 2015, reports announced a new artefact found in Jerusalem, exciting biblical scholars, archaeologists, and the public alike. The piece was a small lump of clay with a seal impression, known as a bulla, displaying the official mark of the king himself (Fig. 1). Such objects were made by pressing an inscribed stone into a piece of soft clay. Bullae [pl.] were used to seal the string tying rolls of inscribed papyrus, identifying the originator of the document. Indeed, string impressions were visible on the reverse side of this example. The design was probably engraved onto a semi-precious stone like lapis lazuli imported from the region of modern Afghanistan, where lapis originates. The seal was likely set into a gold ring, but neither the seal nor the ring has survived.
The story of its discovery is remarkable. Bullae of Hezekiah were known previously from the antiquities market, but none had been found before from a proper archaeological excavation. A team from Hebrew University of Jerusalem led by Dr Eilat Mazar, working in the Mount Ophel area outside the Old City, found the seal impression while sieving excavated soil, a common practice on archaeological excavations to ensure that nothing is missed, no matter how small. Some 33 bullae were discovered by the team in this way.
The piece measures a tiny 13 x 12 mm. Within a round border is a sun-disk with rays and wings, flanked by ankh-signs, the well-known Egyptian hieroglyph meaning ‘life’. Above and below is an inscription in early Hebrew script reading ‘Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah’.
Both motifs are closely connected with Egypt (Fig. 2). The sun disk and desert scarab beetle are associated with solar gods such as Ra and Khephri, the latter manifested as a beetle who pushes the sun across its daily journey in the sky. More widely, the winged sun-disk or winged rosette motif is often seen in elite iconography of the ancient near east, connected with royal power and divine favour. In the eastern Mediterranean, towns and cities were connected by land and sea through diplomatic activity, trade, and warfare. In particular, Phoenician traders carried ideas and goods across the whole region during this period. As a result, decorative motifs were often shared, adopted and re-imagined across cultures.
So what were such symbols doing on the personal seal of a pious Judahite king?
Winged scarabs are already known on seals from Hezekiah’s reign. For the bulla, some scholars proposed that Hezekiah’s use of this imagery was politically motivated to curry favour with Egypt (e.g. 2 Kings 19:9). Given Egypt’s geographical proximity and the Assyrian threat from the north, this is a plausible political move. Yet a local demonstration of piety may have been a second intent. As other scholars have noted, Malachi 4:2 states ‘For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings’ (NIV). Other passages in the Old Testament evoke solar imagery in relation to Yahweh (e.g. Genesis 19:24; Psalm 84:11; Jeremiah 31:35; Isaiah 60:20). Thus, rather than a sign of divided religious loyalty, it has been suggested that Hezekiah re-worked an image from the cultural melting-pot, re-imagining the foreign winged sun-disk as symbol of national piety to God.
Fig. 1 Bulla of King Hezekiah (date of reign 747–698 BC). ©Eilat Mazar. Photo Ouria Tadmor.
Fig. 2. A winged sun disk on the underside of a lintel from the temple of Egyptian King Rameses III (date of reign c. 1184–1153 BC) at Medinet Habu near Luxor. Note the use of the ankh and solar imagery, including the epithet ‘son of Ra’ to its left, and the seated god Re-Horakhty in the left-hand cartouche. (Photo K. Sowada).
Dr Karin Sowada is a specialist in the archaeology of Egypt and the Middle East, with a focus on foreign engagement, trade and societal change in the Bronze Age. She is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University.
 For a video about the seal and its discovery, see https://watchjerusalem.co.il/348-the-seal-of-king-hezekiah (accessed 9 December 2019).
 The ankh-sign on the left is harder to see but has been re-constructed by Mazar’s team.
 O. Lipschits, O. Sergi and I. Koch, ‘Royal Judahite Jar Handles: Re-considering the Chronology of the lmlk-stamp Impressions’. Tel Aviv 37 (2010), pp3-32.
 See the blog of Dr George Athas https://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/tag/hezekiah-bulla/ (accessed 13 December 2019).
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