Archeology: Why do the seals of biblical kings depict Egyptian gods?
I've transformed my recent Sheffield-Phoenix paper into an animated presentation. The video showcases some of my digital art and explores several questions:
1) Of the thousands of Hebrew seals in biblical archeology that have surfaced, which ones can we reliably say belonged to biblical characters?
2) Why do some of these seals plainly depict Egyptian gods?
3) How did Egyptian solar theology influence Yahwism of the biblical classical period.
Ahora se han agregado subtítulos en español (gracias a Matías)! Script follows:
Ancient Israel and Egypt were primarily papyrus manuscript cultures. Since papyrus decays easily, extremely few of these documents survive from history. However, what does survive are thousands of seals, typically carved of semi-precious stone. A soft lump of clay called a bulla would be fixed onto a closed document or other container, often molded around binding cords. A seal would then be used to stamp a characteristic, presumably unimitatable marking into the clay. After the bulla impression dried, it would be presumably impossible to gain access to the sealed object without breaking the bulla or cutting its cord binding. In this manner, seals were important as ancient security devices and served proof of authenticity—the legal signatures of the ancients.
We know that these tiny artifacts often had the secondary function of serving as magical amulets and were worn by ancient people as jewelry, and often set in rings. For example, in the story about Joseph’s slavery in Egypt in Gen 41, the Pharaoh honored Joseph by giving him his seal ring in an investiture ceremony symbolizing that Joseph was being granted the king’s authority.
Of over a thousand Hebrew seals and bullae from the biblical period that have surfaced, many have been claimed to have originally belonged to persons known from the Bible. In 2019, at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the German University of Hamburg, I decided to conduct my research thesis on this specific set of artifacts in order to see what insights they might reveal about the world of the bible.
The first step was to apply a verification system to these thousands of artifacts in order to formally determine which of them have a high degree of probability of having belonged to a biblical person. For this task, I stood upon the shoulders of a 2004 doctoral dissertation by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Semitist Lawrence Mykytiuk entitled, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions. Mykytiuk’s book comprehensively worked out and articulates the logical architecture of epigraphic identification and produces a six-tier probabilistic identification grading system.
When I applied Mykytiuk’s system to the updated known corpus of Hebrew seals and bullae, its criteria produced at least 24 seal artifacts that may be confirmed as ranging from “reliable” to “virtually certain” for identifying 15 biblical persons living up to the period of the Babylonian exile. These 15 individuals were found to span the eighth to early sixth centuries BC—the classical period of the Hebrew Bible’s composition. From the shadows of over 26 centuries these individuals step forth from the pages of the Bible though stone and clay.
These persons are:
Jeroboam II king of Israel, Uzziah, king of Judah, Jotham king of Judah, Ahaz king of Judah, Hosea, king of Israel, Hezekiah, the king of Judah and contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, the royal scribe Shaphan and his son Gemariah who interacted with the prophet Jeremiah. Hilkiah the high priest, and his son Azariah. The Josiac officials Shelemiah and his son Jehucal, Pashhur and his son Gedaliah, the latter two of which are likely to have participated in a plot to kill the prophet Jeremiah, according to the Bible. Finally, and most recently announced, is a Josaic official Nathan-Melech, who appears in a single passing reference in the Bible.
After the process of deriving this set. I set about to plot these artifacts. I was immediately impressed by the heavy use of foreign iconography among them before the reign of king Josia. For example, why does Hezekiah, praised as a Yahweh exclusivist by the Bible and for tearing down pagan altars in his lands, bear an icon of the Egyptian god Ra on the official seals of his administration? A court minister of the committed Yahwist Uzziah bears an image of the god Horus. Have the biblical authors misrepresented history? Did perhaps ancient Jews tolerate such depictions of Egyptian gods as casual mere decoration?
In regards to the winged sun on Hezekiah’s seals, it is interesting that Hezekiah’s confidant, the prophet Isaiah, himself figures Yahweh as the luminous ‘breaking’ and ‘rising’ ‘dawn’ in Isa. 58.8 and 60.1. In 60.19, it is even said that Yahweh’s glory will eternally replace the sun at the eschaton.
Scholars recognize that orthodox biblical texts from all periods associate Yahweh with solarized aspects, especially in war god hymns and creation texts.
In the Babylonian Creation account Enuma Elish, the warrior creator god Marduk is heralded upon his birth as the sunlight of the gods and is, “clothed in the aura of ten gods.” The Princeton Semitist Mark Smith has compared this text to the creation hymn Psalm 104 in which Yahweh was “clothed in light as with a garment” when he stretched out the heavens. This comparison likely resolves mystery of how, in Genesis 1 there could have been evening and mornings three full days before the sun was even created. In the theology of the Priestly author, God himself was the source of the light that first brought order to creation.
The broader context of the ancient Near East attests that cultures often adopted the sun disk to represent their local chief deities. In the Bible, it was typical to take the titles, hymns, and mythic features of foreign deities and to attribute them to Yahweh, often as a strategy of elevating Yahweh above his competitors. Israel inherited this practice in their stone art especially from Phoenician artisans who mediated Egyptian trade to Israel. On Phoenician seals, we find their gods like Baal represented through the glyptic of Egyptian gods and symbols.
One of our seals belonged to one of Isaiah’s coworkers in the court of king Uzziah. I have uncovered that this artifact was undoubtly produced in the same ancient workshop as another seal that depicts an official worshiping a sun disk. Since the disks are identical on these seals, the first would appear to contextualize the former as a symbol of the Hebrew god.
A similar explanation may hold for another seal from the court of Uzziah. The name Uzziah means, ‘Yahweh is my strength’, and the name of the seal owner, Abiyahu, is likewise pious, meaning, ‘my father is Yahweh’. However, the seal’s iconography unequivocally depicts a foreign god motif called Harpocrates—Horus as the lotus child.
In Egyptian religion, this motif “symbolizes the sun born within the first lotus flowers emerging from the primordial waters. Like the dying god every night, entering the underground realm, and reborn every morning.” At its most basic level, the symbol therefore represents the newborn sunrise and resurrection. A Dendra inscription states that Horus’ lotus birth “divides the night from the day.”
The Phoenician god Baal was often depicted through the iconography of Harpocrates on seals. Similarly, Yahweh theology is likely being intended through Horus symbolism on this seal.
A final example is the seal of Ashna, a minster of Ahaz—the famed eighth century king to whom Isaiah gave the Immanuel prophecy. 2 Kings 16 indicates that Yahweh was Ahaz’s main god and the sun disk on the seal is crowned with a construct called the hemhem. Typically, this crown is seen in Egyptian art being worn by harpocrates. The ram’s horns represent the horizon and the plant construct most likely represents the thicket of Khemnis where Horus was concealed in childhood as he grew to avenge his father Osiris. The iconography on this seal therefore is probably a variant of the dawn sun theology seen in Isaiah.
Flanking the royal sun, the Ashna seal contains the iteration of dual uraei cobras, this is a quite popular eighth-century Hebrew motif, often depicted in winged form which, in general expression, has come to be viewed by the majority of scholars as synonymous with the royal Seraphim divine guardians of ancient Israelite mythology. The word seraph means snake in Hebrew.
There is archeological Canaanite and biblical evidence that Yahweh was indigenously associated with brazen divine serpents. It seems that the Hebrews appreciated this as a parallel their religion held with Egyptian royal mythology and therefore found it natural to adopt the uraeus form into their own art.
We can see in mortuary papyri leading up to this period that the ancients understood these gods who attended Ra through the gates of the underworld as full-fledged divine beings thought to manifest in all sorts of different anthropoid forms despite how iconographically compressed they are typically shown to be in art.
Hebrew seals attest to at least 15 biblical persons. Their interpretation indicates that foreign influence on biblical theology was more complex and subtle than previously expected. The intelligent way in which Hebrew artisans adapted these foreign images is evidence that Yahwistic religion is a transcendent integration of many prior near eastern theologies.
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