First Impression: What We Learn from King Ahaz’s Seal
by Robert Deutsch

It is time to give Biblical Archaeology Review readers a look at the first seal impression of a Hebrew king ever found. Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks knew of its existence before I showed it at the Annual Meeting in New Orleans in November 1996, so before the meeting he announced a contest to guess the name of the king.1 After the public lecture at the Annual Meeting, he disclosed the name of the king and announced the winner of the contest, a woman from Switzerland.2 Now, having published the seal impression in Hebrew3, it is appropriate that its first English publication be in Biblical Archaeology Review.

Ahaz's seal from the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection, London

Ahaz's seal from the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection, London

The king whose seal is impressed in this well-preserved piece of reddish-brown clay is King Ahaz of Judah, who ruled from 732 to 716 BCE. Alas, he was not a good king: He "did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done" (2 Kings 16:2; 2 Chronicles 28:1). He worshipped idols and followed pagan practices. "He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations" (2 Kings 16:3).

This lump of clay, called a bulla, was used to seal a papyrus document. We know this because the back of the bulla still bears the imprint of the texture of the papyrus. Also on the back of the bulla, we can see the impression of the double string with which the document was tied.

On the left edge of the front of the bulla is a fingerprint that may well be that of King Ahaz himself! Around the edge of the seal impression is a groove about a millimeter thick. This indicates that the seal with which it was impressed was set in a metal bezel, either in a signet ring or in a pendant.

We do not know where the bulla came from -- nor how it was found. It is presently in the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff of London, whose pieces have been featured several times in this magazine.4 Anything that comes from the antiquities market naturally raises questions of authenticity. Happily, there can be no doubt in this case.

The seal contains not only the name of the king, but the name of his father, King Yehotam. In addition, Ahaz is specifically identified as "king of Judah." The Hebrew inscription, which is set on three lines, reads as follows: "l'hz*y/hwtm*mlk*/yhdh", which translates, "Belonging to Ahaz (son of) Yehotam, King of Judah."

Note that dots, or word dividers, separate the words. (The slashes merely indicate line breaks.) The engraver had no hesitation in continuing a word (Yehotam) from one line to the next, a common custom even though they had no hyphens in those days.

Although there are word dividers, the usual register dividers (incised lines that separate the lines of text, as in the example shown on p.56) are absent from this seal. The letters are small (the seal itself is only 2/5 of an inch wide), but they are of very high quality. A triple framing line is engraved around the edge of the oval seal.

Does it seem plain for a king? Perhaps so. The seal is aniconic, that is, without any illustration or decoration whatsoever. The back of the seal may well have been engraved with some symbol or royal emblem, but we only have the impression of the front. More than half a century ago, a seal belonging to a high official of Ahaz's court was published. This seal contains, in addition to the man's name and his identification as a "servant of Ahaz," an engraving of a sun disk with ram's horns, three Osiris crowns and uraei (sacred asps) hanging from the ram's horns.5 We might expect a king's seal to be equally ornate. But if any royal symbols appeared on Aliaz's seal, they were on the back.

The name Ahaz is an interesting one. It appears in the annals of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BCE), who boasts that he received tribute from Ahaz. Here it is spelled Ia-u'-ha-zi or Yeho-ahaz (in cuneiform).6 This longer form of Ahaz's name indicates that the form used on the seal has dropped the theophoric, or divine, element. Such divine elements often appear at the beginning or end of ancient names. Many divine names -- Qos, Baal, Milcom -- are incorporated into personal names in this way, as is, of course, the name of the Hebrew God Yahweh (YHWH). The form of Yahweh incorporated into names in the northern kingdom of Israel differed from that used in the southern kingdom of Judah. In the north Yo (YW) was generally used at the beginning of a name and -yo (YW) or -yah (YH) at the end of a name. In Judah it was Yeho (YHW) at the beginning of a name (as in the cuneiform example mentioned above) and -yahu (YHW) at the end.

Several kings of Israel and Judah bear the name Ahaz combined with a theophoric element. From Judah we have not only the owner of this seal but also Ahaz-yahu (also called Yeho-ahaz), son of Yeho-ram and the sixth king of Judah, who reigned only one year in 84l B.C.E., and Yeho-ahaz, son of Yoshi- yahu and the seventeenth king of Judah, who reigned only three months in 609 B.C.E. Ahaz means seize, so the full name means "seized of Yahweh." A name composed of a compressed sentence like this is called a hypocoristicon.

You will now recognize the theophoric element in the name of Ahaz's father as given in Ahaz's seal: Yehotam. The name appears 19 times in the Bible, but it is spelled Yo-tam in each case, with the theophoric element used in the northern kingdom of Israel (YW).

Somehow it got misspelled in the Bible. The correct spelling of the theophoric element is Yeho- (YHW). So we now know from this seal how Ahaz's father's name should be spelled.

The word for "son of" (BN, or ben) is missing from before the name of Ahaz's father. But this is not unusual on seals. We know from the form of the inscription on innumerable seals that Yeho-tam (placed after Ahaz's name) is the name of Ahaz's father -- and this is confirmed in the Bible. The word "son" was probably omitted simply for lack of space.

Spelling comes up in another context in this seal. "Judah" is spelled defectively, to use the scholarly term. This doesn't mean that it is spelled incorrectly. The Hebrew alphabet is essentially composed of consonants only. But at this time a few consonants were beginning to be used as vowels. These are called matres lectionis, "mothers of writing." When they are used, the spelling (or orthography) is said to be plene, or full. Without the discretionary vowel, the spelling is said to be defective. Here the word "Judah" is spelled YHDH instead of the usual YHWDH. Judah appears in the Bible more than 800 times, but it is always spelled YHWDH. Now we know it could be spelled YHDH, without the letter waw, a mater lectionis. Interestingly, after the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, Judah was spelled in several ways: YHWDH, YHDH (as on our bulla) or YHD. Now we know a variant spelling was also used as early as the 8th century BCE.

This modest lump of clay thus has much to teach us -- in addition to providing the thrill that comes from such a direct connection to an ancient king of Judah.


  1. Sorry, but I'll take the Bible's spelling over man's any day --- but perhaps an earlier translation has it spelled differently? I know I've seen the "error" of missing names in the geneology of Christ in the King James was in the Septuigent ....
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), 07/25, 04:15 AM
  2. You will probably prefer the spelling of your name as it apears on your visit card rather than how one will write your name several hundred years from now.
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  5. We all know Archaeology discovers many civilizations in the world. This science tells about the culture and heritage of the humans. This time it tells about King Ahaz. Congratulations about the work you have done to the world.
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