The name of the northern kingdom of Israel’s last king has turned up on a beautiful seal from the eighth century B.C.E.! Although the seal did not belong to the king himself, it was the property of one of his high-ranking ministers.
The king is Hoshea (HWS
The seal surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City at the end of 1993. Neither Sotheby’s nor the owner of the seal apparently knew what they had. The title of the catalogue—“Antiquities and Islamic Works of Art”1—gave no hint that one of the items was a rare Hebrew seal. Although the catalogue correctly dated the seal to the ninth-seventh centuries B.C.E., it misidentified the seal as Phoenician and estimated its value at between $1,200 and $1,800. An excellent picture of the seal was enough, however, to alert one member of the small community who follow these things; when the hammer fell on December 14, 1993, the seal fetched $80,000. Even at this price, most experts agree, the purchase was a steal. The winning bidder—and now owner of the seal—was Shlomo Moussaieff, an Israeli collector living in London, who has made it available to me for study and publication.
The seal is translucent brown carnelian—or rather orange chalcedony according to an expert gemologist—scaraboid in shape and perforated from top to bottom so that it might eventually be worn around the neck on a string or mounted. It is one inch high, slightly over one-half inch wide and one-third inch thick.
A man striding to the right is engraved on the seal.b His face is in profile; he wears a long kilt and a short wig, and his right hand is raised, while his left hand holds a papyrus scepter. The seal is obviously in what scholars call Egyptianizing style. This is confirmed by the winged sun disk at the bottom of the scroll.
The inscription is engraved vertically on both sides of the striding man. The very slight damage to the seal’s right edge has not affected its inscription in Old Hebrew (paleo-Hebrew) letters, which can be easily read, first down the back of the figure, then down its front: L‘BDY ‘BD HWS
We will look at each of the three major elements in the inscription: the name “Abdi,” the word “servant” and the name “Hoshea.”
Incidentally, a single Hebrew letter (L) attached to the following word is sufficient (and exceedingly common) to express “belonging to,” or, literally, “to.”
It is also common on seals to give the name not only of the seal’s owner but also of the father of the owner. That is not the case here, however. Abdi is identified as the servant of Hoshea. While less common, that is not unusual.
The name Abdi was apparently a common Semitic 050name at this time. It has been found on another Hebrew seal and on several seal impressions stamped on jars dating to the end of the eighth century B.C.E.2 This, however, is very probably a shortened form of the name. What scholars call a theophoric element (the name of a god) was no doubt added to the name in its original form. In this case, the theophoric element would be a form of the Israelite god, Yahweh. In the northern kingdom of Israel, the form was Yo (YW); in the southern kingdom of Judah, it was Yahu (YHW). Abdi’s full name was Abdiyo since, as we will see, this seal comes from the northern kingdom of Israel. Readers may at this point recognize the same name in Obadiah (Abadyahu in Hebrew). There are several Obadiah’s in the Bible. One was King Ahab’s prime minister, which is the meaning of “governor of the house” (1 Kings 18:3). Another Obadiah is one of the minor prophets in the Book of the Twelve. The name means “servant of Yahweh.”
As Abdi is identified as a servant, one is tempted to think of him as belonging to a lower class of Israelite society. In fact, it is just the opposite. In Northwest Semitic seals (Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic language), the title “servant” indicates a high-ranking official, a “minister,” either of a god or of a king. For example, the famous lion seal from Megiddo is inscribed “Shema servant of Jeroboam,”3 that is, the minister of Jeroboam II, who was king of Israel in the first half of the eighth century B.C.E.4 From Judah, we know of several seals and seal impressions belonging to servants of eighth-century B.C.E. Israelite kings (but none from the seventh century): the seals of two servants of king Uzziah (“Abyaw” and “Shebanyaw”);5 a beautiful Egyptian-style seal of “Ushna, servant of [King] Ahab”;6 and a bulla of “Yehozarah son of Hilqiyahu servant of [King] Hizqiyahu [Hezekiah].”7 Although these seals and seal impressions did not belong to the monarchs themselves (several years ago a BAR article boasted that seals of actual Biblical figures had been found),c they do reliably mention important Hebrew kings.
Thus we know that the Hoshea inscribed in Abdi’s seal is a king. The “servant of Yahweh,” as the meaning of his name implies, is also the “servant of Hoshea.” There is only one possible king with this name: Hoshea, the last king of Israel (2 Kings 17:1–6), who ruled for nine years and whose kingdom was then destroyed by the Assyrians.
Hoshea came to the throne via coup d’etat in 732 or 731 B.C.E. by murdering Pekah, his predecessor (2 Kings 15:30). Hoshea managed to usurp power in the wake of Pekah’s defeat by Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745–727 B.C.E.), king of Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). This is confirmed by Tiglath-Pileser’s annals: “They overthrew their king Pekah and I placed Hoshea as king over them.”8 In short, at the beginning of his reign, Hoshea was already a tribute-paying vassal of the king of Assyria.
After Tiglath-Pileser’s death, Hoshea withheld his yearly tribute to Assyria and sent messengers to the king of Egypt (2 Kings 17:4), apparently looking for Egyptian aid against the Assyrians. This was a critical mistake. The Assyrians attacked, finally capturing Israel’s capital, Samaria, and ending the existence of the northern kingdom. The Israelites were deported and became the ten lost tribes, never heard from again. Hoshea was arrested and put in prison (2 Kings 17:4–6).
Since Abdi’s seal was apparently engraved during Hoshea’s reign, we can date it precisely to a ten year period from 732–722 B.C.E. Without going into a detailed analysis, we can say that the paleo-Hebrew writing on this seal fits very well with other dated inscriptions from the last third of the eighth century B.C.E., not far from the date of the famous Siloam inscription (705–701 B.C.E.).d
As noted, the names of Judahite kings identified above are all from the eighth century B.C.E.; none from the seventh century B.C.E. has been discovered. Why don’t we have seals or seal impressions mentioning Judahite kings from the seventh century? The probable answer is that during the seventh century in Judah the custom was to identify a person by his title alone—for example, ‘BD HMLK, “servant of the king.”9 We have a number of such seals and bullae.
The Egyptian style of our seal is well known in this period,10 reflecting an important Egyptian cultural influence. (Remember that Hoshea allied himself with Egypt in the hope of overthrowing Assyrian rule of his little kingdom [2 Kings 17:4]; and the prophet Hosea castigated Israel for calling to Egypt “like a sick dove” [Hosea 7:11].)
The fact that there is a human figure on this seal may seem surprising, especially in light of the Second Commandment’s prohibition against “graven images.” At this time, however, the commandment was interpreted to prohibit only images of the deity as used in cultic worship.e Representations of men in various styles do appear on seals from the First Temple period.11
Abdi’s seal strikingly resembles a seal impression now in the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa. Like Abdi’s seal, it was purchased at auction12 and incorrectly identified as Phoenician. Made from pale amethyst, scaraboid in shape, it shows a man striding to the right, his face in profile, wearing a short wig and a short kilt (rather than the long kilt of Abdi’s seal), raising his right hand and holding a standard. Behind him is a papyrus scepter similar to the one in Abdi’s seal. The similarities in subject and style of engraving are so close that we can conclude that the two seals were probably made in the same workshop and maybe even by the same artist. We are no doubt looking at seals from a workshop in Samaria, the capital of Israel, that was in business sometime between 750 and 722 B.C.E.
A comparison of these two seals also helps to explain why the inscription on Abdi’s seal is vertical. Generally, seal cutters prepared several seals, engraving the principal iconographic design and leaving a place at the exergue (the space at the bottom of a seal, coin or medal generally separated from the central design by a horizontal line) to inscribe the owner’s name. The name, however, would not be added until the seal was sold. In the amethyst seal in the Hecht Museum, the stonecutter engraved the name of Habli when he purchased the seal. That is the only inscription on the seal.
But with Abdi it was different. He wasn’t satisfied with just his name. He wanted his official title also. After all, he was an important person; seals were important symbols of status—like modern business cards, only more so. This seal was going to be impressed in bullae sealing important papers of state. Abdi chose a seal that was large and beautiful. Unfortunately, there was not enough room for more than his name on the exergue, so the stonecutter engraved the inscription on both sides of the striding man: Abdi’s name on the left, his title on the right. Since the exergue beneath the figure remained blank, the stonecutter chose a classical design to fill it in—and the horizontal winged sun disk from Egypt was both in fashion and fitted the space very well.f
Abdi’s seal thus attests the last king of Israel, heretofore unmentioned outside the Bible, and the name of a high official in his court. Perhaps more important, it reveals a great deal about life in Israel on the eve of the Assyrian assault that would end its existence.
The name of the northern kingdom of Israel’s last king has turned up on a beautiful seal from the eighth century B.C.E.! Although the seal did not belong to the king himself, it was the property of one of his high-ranking ministers. The king is Hoshea (HWSû‘ in Hebrew; the same name as that of the prophet Hosea, but referring to a different person).a Hoshea ruled Israel from 732 or 731 B.C.E. to 722 B.C.E., just before it was destroyed by Assyrian conquest. The minister’s name inscribed on the seal is Abdi (‘BDY), or, to use his full name […]