Last Sunday, Jeff Griffin, the pastor at The Compass Church in Naperville, preached a sermon on Hezekiah’s seal. Jeff is my pastor and The Compass is the church where my family and I worship every Sunday.
What is so interesting about Jeff’s sermon is that very few pastors use archaeology to illustrate their sermons. I have already mentioned one of Jeff’s previous sermons, a sermon in which he used Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah as the background of his sermon.
In the introduction to his sermon last Sunday, Jeff presented the purpose and significance of Hezekiah’s seal. The sermon was the first in a series of sermons entitled “Awakening.” A beautiful graphic (pictured above) based of Hezekiah’s seal was prepared to illustrate the sermon series.
Since most Christians are not familiar with Hezekiah’s seal, I have decided to provide an introduction to this significant archaeological discovery because it illustrates the mind of King Hezekiah during his reign.
In antiquity, seals or signet rings were used to make impressions on clay that were then used to sign and authenticate official documents. The clay impression marked by the seal was called a bulla. Once the clay with the seal impression dried, the contents of the document could not be read without breaking the bulla. Thus, the recipient would know that the document had not been opened or read by another person.
There are several references to seals and signet rings in the Old Testament. For instance, when Judah promised to pay Tamar for her services as a prostitute, she asked as a pledge, his signet ring and his cord (Genesis 38:18). These words indicate that Judah’s signet ring was on a cord around his neck.
When Joseph was promoted to a position of authority in Egypt, during his investiture, Pharaoh said to Joseph: “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, thus giving Joseph authority over the affairs of Egypt (Genesis 41:41-42).
Below is a reproduction of Hezekiah’s seal. The Hebrew inscription on the seal reads as follows:
l’hzqyhw ’hz mlk yhdh.
Translation: “Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, King of Judah.”
A most impressive aspect of Hezekiah’s seal is the image portrayed on the seal. The image on the seal is a two-winged beetle pushing a ball of mud or dung. The presence of an Egyptian image on the seal of a Hebrew king raises many questions, the most important of which is the reason a Judean king chose to use an Egyptian symbol in a royal seal.
The Egyptian dung beetle was also known as a scarab. The scarab was an Egyptian sacred symbol associated with the journey of the sun across the sky. In Egyptian mythology, the dung beetle symbolized resurrection because the Egyptians believed the beetle was born without procreation.
The two-winged beetle was popular in Egyptian iconography. The two wings symbolized Egyptian unity; they represented Upper and Lower Egypt. The ball in the mouth of the beetle represents the sun as it moves in the sky. The scarab received its name “dung beetle” because it used dung to feed its offspring.
The scarab was a symbol of Egypt. When the prophet Isaiah referred to Egypt, he called it “the land of winged insects” (Isaiah 18:1 HCSB). Kristin Swanson has shown that the presence of two-winged scarab beetles in Judah in the eighth century B.C. reflects the use of solar imagery in the worship of Judah.
The archaeological evidence indicates that the iconography on Hezekiah’s seal came from Egypt. However, the reason Hezekiah adopted an Egyptian religious motif for his royal seal is debatable.
In his article, “King Hezekiah’s Seal Revisited: Small Object Reflects Big Geopolitics,” published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Meir Lubetski proposed that Hezekiah had a political motive in selecting the Egyptian scarab for his royal ring.
According to Lubetski, when Hezekiah became king of Judah, his goal was to reunify the Northern Kingdom of Israel with the Kingdom of Judah and revive the united kingdom that existed in the days of Solomon.
One evidence that Lubetski uses to support his view was Hezekiah’s celebration of the Passover: “Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, to keep the passover to the LORD the God of Israel” (2 Chonicles 30:1). Lubetski wrote:
I believe that Hezekiah consciously chose the Egyptian design, laden with symbolic content, to promote his own lofty ambitions. He borrowed the beetle icon from his southwestern neighbor and ally to convey the concept of permanence. The ball the beetle pushes represents the rejuvenation of the kingdom; the set of wings signifies the unification of the north and south of the Land of Israel under a scion of the House of David, just as they characterized the union of Upper and Lower Egypt under the pharaoh.
According to Lubetski, Hezekiah removed the religious symbolism of the scarab and infused it with nationalist sentiments in order to promote his desire to reunite the two kingdoms under his leadership.
However, there may be another reason for the use of a scarab in the royal signet. The prophet Isaiah provides ample evidence that during the reign of Hezekiah, the king entered into a covenant with Egypt in order to confront the Assyrian menace under Sennacherib, king of Assyria. Two oracles in Isaiah seem to indicate this alliance between Judah and Egypt.
The first passage is found in Isaiah 30:1-2: “Oh, rebellious children, says the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt.”
The second passage in found in Isaiah 31:1-3: “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD! . . . The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit.”
Hezekiah had sent ambassadors to the “land of winged insects” in vessels of papyrus (Isaiah 18:1-2) to make a covenant with Egypt, a covenant which Isaiah said was “a covenant with death” (Isaiah 28:15). Thus, it is possible that the presence of the scarab on Hezekiah’s signet ring was to declare his covenant with Egypt.
In preparing to revolt against Assyria, Hezekiah embarked on a series of religious and political reforms in Judah. You can find more information on Hezekiah and his reforms by reading my “Studies on Hezekiah, King of Judah.”
Hezekiah’s religious reform was a success. Hezekiah probably was influenced by the preaching of the prophet Micah and, as a result, he removed the high places of Judah, smashed the sacred pillars used in the worship of pagan gods, cut down the Asherah, and destroyed other items of pagan worship. Hezekiah’s desire was to establish the exclusive worship of Yahweh in Judah.
But the political reality did not allow Hezekiah to accomplish all his goals. When Sennacherib invaded Palestine in 701 B.C., he attacked and conquered forty-six fortified cities of Judah. Hezekiah was forced to pay a heavy tribute to Sennacherib and he became a vassal of Assyria.
Although Hezekiah sought Egyptian help to deal with Assyria, in the end, the words of Isaiah came true: “The protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation” (Isaiah 30:3). “When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper [Egypt] will stumble, and the one helped [Judah] will fall, and they will all perish together” (Isaiah 31:3).
NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Lubetski, Meir. “King Hezekiah’s Seal Revisited: Small Object Reflects Big Geopolitics,” Biblical Archaeology Review 27/4 (2001): 44-51, 59.
Swanson , Kristina. “A Reassessment of Hezekiah’s Reform in Light of Jar Handles and Iconographie Evidence.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64 (2002):460-69.