Ryan Byrne: Hebrew Seals and the Rush to Biblical Judgment

Seal Controversy: From Temech to Shlomit

Back to Seal Controversy: From Temech to Shlomit Introduction

The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Eilat Mazar, a member of Israel’s most famous archaeological family, had discovered a stamp seal in Jerusalem bearing a Hebrew name mentioned in the Bible. The seal featured a fairly common motif with two bearded figures flanking what appears to be a horned (?) altar with a crescent symbol in the upper center. This scene is especially common on seals from Iron Age Transjordan. On the bottom of the seal, Mazar read three characters: taw, mem, and het, or the name tmh, which she associated with the family name Temech mentioned in Nehemiah. Given that Mazar did not read the characters in reverse order, as the seal would impress them into clay, it is clear that the inscription cannot read taw, mem, het and thus cannot refer to the biblical family of Temech. Reading the characters in the proper order also requires us to reject het as the first character. Instead the seal appears to read šin, lamed, mem, taw, or the Hebrew name Šlomit. The apparent desire to connect the seal with the family mentioned in Nehemiah also seems to have informed Mazar’s preference to place the seal’s manufacture in Babylon and lower its date far later than the palaeography of the characters suggests. A date in the late seventh or early sixth century is preferable. The glyptic scene, as I mentioned, is perfectly suitable for the Iron Age Levant and need not require so elastic an explanation as Babylonian influence. There is hardly a consensus among West Semitists, moreover, that the upper crescent must specifically signify the god Sîn in favor of the poorly understood lunar imagery indigenous to the Levant.

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Palaeography and Identification of the Characters

With the seal reversed to reflect its impression, I understand the inscription as follows.

The šin is made with four oblique incisions, which is customary for most specimens throughout the Iron Age. Whereas the lines of most šins make perfect intersections with each other (resembling the modern “w”), in this instance, the scribe’s first three lines overlap or cross over each other. This is most likely a reflection of the difficulty of incising lines into lesser quality stone than a deliberate or idiosyncratic ductus of this scribe.1 The physical medium in which scribes write often has an impact on their ability to reproduce certain characters with palaeographic consistency. Nevertheless, we find comparable šins on bullae (impressions from stamp seals) from the early sixth-century hoard from the City of David in Jerusalem. For similar šins, which exhibit overlapping incisions, see City of David bullae 67, 79, 83, 101, 107, 122, 124, 126b, 127 and 147.2

The best reading for this letter is a lamed, although it is clear that the character is either incomplete or partially eroded due to the poor quality of the stone in which the scribe incised it. Notably missing is the characteristic hook at the bottom of the vertical shaft, which should circle upward to the right. It is possible to make out the faintest curvature at the letter’s bottom, but this may be a trick of the light. It is worth noting, however, that there are several examples of early sixth-century lameds, in which the hook is little more than an upward right tick. In some instances, the tick (or hook) is barely noticeable. In fact, in some ostraca (Lachish 9, 13, 16, and Arad 2, 6, 7, 8, 16) there are examples of a lamed missing the hook altogether; the entire lamed may appear as a single calligraphic stroke. This accords well with the character in our seal. For examples of ductus with a very weak tick, see additional ostraca from Lachish (3, 4, 6, 10, 13) and Arad (1, 5, 11, 12, 13, 17, etc.).3 It is worth mentioning an alternative reading of this letter, although I am not inclined to adopt it. Instead of a lamed, we could read pe. Many bullae in the City of David corpus (e.g. 24a) exhibit pes with a strong, sharp head and an oblique stroke, which moves down right without a curving tail —a very different picture from our letter here. There are other examples from these bullae, however, which curve down left in a similar direction to that of our seal (104, 152, 153, 155).4 The Lachish ostraca, moreover, feature numerous attestations of pe nearly comparable to this letter. One might also argue for the vestigial, eroded traces of a head and a leftward tail in this instance, but the lamed is the better reading. The reading of špmt, moreover, would not produce a particularly coherent personal name in Hebrew.

The identification of this character as mem is beyond doubt. The interesting ductus occasions some commentary, however. The conventional mem features three oblique strokes, which form the crown of the letter, with the right-most stroke also producing the tail of the letter, which typically curls leftward at its foot. These vertical strokes are usually connected either by loops or a crossbar transected them. In this instance, note that the three vertical strokes stand independent of each other without any loop or horizontal stroke to bind them. While this is by no means the dominant form, there are numerous examples of “disembodied” verticals in the bullae from the City of David (4, 15, 16, 30, 38, 39, 40, 75c, 78, 79, 80, 83, 87, 89, 98, 100, 108, 113, 118, 154, 163, and 174).5 Note further that the three vertical strokes are incised first with a fourth vertical superimposed over the right vertical to construct the tail. Ordinarily the third, right vertical is simply extended down right to construct the tail, but here the scribe inscribes a fourth line, which only partially covers the third vertical of the crown. This is perhaps partially a mistake in ductus owing also to the obdurate nature of the stone in the way that the šin required more forceful incisions.

The fourth letter taw is unremarkable unless the down left direction of the vertical stroke concerns sticklers for stance. Ordinarily, we would expect to see a down right oblique stroke during the late seventh and early sixth centuries, producing a character with a stance resembling a modern “x”.6 It is possible, however unlikely, that this is an instance where incising the character in reverse did inadvertently affect the stance, but there are also a few exceptions of an incised taw with a stance resembling the taw in this seal.7 So there do not seem to be any particular problems with its ductus and no question whatsoever about its reading.

Women in West Semitic Seals

While the seal does not bring the Temech family to life or leave us “astonished by the credibility of the biblical source as seen by the archaeological find,” as Mazar puts it,8 it does give us the name of a female owner in Šlomit. Female names on West Semitic seals are particularly rare, but they do exist, and some scholars unfortunately tend to associate the personal stamp seal as status objects exclusively used by males of high office. We do have evidence of women who owned and used these important prestige objects, but sadly they are rarer than we might like. An accounting of Avigad’s comprehensive Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (WSSS) reveals only nineteen stamp seals with a female name.9 Who were these women?


  • Himi’ohel daughter of Menahem (WSSS 35)
  • Hannah daughter of Azaryah (WSSS 664)


  • Abigail wife of Asayahu (WSSS 31)
  • Abigail daughter of Elhanan (WSSS 32)
  • ’Adata’ wife of Pašhur (WSSS 33)
  • Baqqašat daughter of &8216;Ebedyerah (WSSS 34)
  • Hami‘adan daughter of Ahimelek (WSSS 36)
  • Hannah (WSSS 37)
  • Yeho‘adan daughter of Uriyahu (WSSS 38)
  • Ne’ehebet daughter of Domleyahu (WSSS 39)
  • ‘Immadiyahu daughter of ‘Azaryahu (WSSS 40)
  • ‘Immadiyahu daughter of Šebanyahu (WSSS 41)
  • ‘Immanuyahu (?) daughter of Giddel (WSSS 42)
  • ’Ahat daughter of Natsri (WSSS 756)
  • ’Abihay daughter of Yenahem (WSSS 867)
  • Menahemet wife of Padmelek/Gadmelek (WSSS 1053)
  • Yehoyišma daughter of Šawaššar’utsur (WSSS 1071)
  • ’Ahatmilk wife of Yaša‘ (WSSS 1102)
  • ’Ay’ohel daughter of Hilqia (WSSS 1120)

Many readers of Biblical Archaeology Review will be familiar with the problems associated with archaeological objects, especially inscriptions, which are unprovenanced. Artifacts obtained from the black market do not only forfeit the credibility of finds discovered during controlled scientific excavation, but they also carry the stigma or looting or forgery. Careful epigraphers should always distinguish between inscriptions that are provenanced and unprovenanced to eliminate the contamination of suspect data from their analysis. For the corpus of stamp seals with female names, I am sad to report that the Šlomit seal from Jerusalem (to my current knowledge) is only the third published, provenanced specimen in West Semitic prior to the Persian period. As a scholar particularly interested in the recovery of both genders of Judean culture, I am excited about Mazar’s discovery, but also deeply saddened to consider the small female company that Šlomit keeps. Would that we knew much more about these obscure but important women.

Hebrew Seals and the Hebrew Bible

When reading seals, epigraphers may commonly reverse the letters in their minds as their eyes pass over inscribed characters, but it is always important to remember to reverse the order of the whole inscription as well! Mazar’s oversight may be a little embarrassing, but it is the kind of mistake that is easily pointed out and corrected by a company of colleagues as fastidious as those in the archaeological and epigraphic community. No harm done. But there is a moral to this story, which does hint at a wider issue for those of us who excavate in archaeological periods pertinent to biblical history. In the mad dash to report biblical artifacts to the public or connect discoveries with the most obscure persons or events reported in the Bible, there is sometimes a tendency to compromise the analytical caution that objects of such value so dearly deserve. Archaeological recovery of deceased cultures is a way of bringing dignity to real people whose experiences of love, loss, triumph and grief might otherwise be lost to human memory. We recover those experiences as a way of honoring not only the integrity of those lost lives, but also all the loves and losses that we share with them as human beings. When we rush to judgment about the past, we say a lot about the present as well.

Ryan Byrne is an expert in West Semitic epigraphy and co-director of the Tel Dan excavations. He teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis.



1. The term ductus refers to the logistical construction of the incised character, i.e. direction of strokes, number of strokes, but it may (and should) also take into account the effect that medium (stone, potsherd, etc.) has on the means of inscription (incising, brushing, etc.). Some hard media like stone or fired ceramics will complicate the scribe’s ability to inscribe a character as well as he might have were he using an ink brush on leather, papyrus, or an ostracon. Imagine the difference between trying to inscribe your name into wet cement soon after it is poured and the point at which it begins to harden. The state of the medium changes and so does its effect on the scribe’s ability to manipulate it with consistent elegance or curving lines. Many personal stamp seals are inscribed into semi-precious stones (carnelian, agate, etc.), which are easier to incise. In the case of this seal, however, we see the ductus of two letters (the Šin and the mem) perhaps compromised by the poorer quality of the stone, which also exhibits the kind of erosion less common for semi-precious varieties of chalcedony.

2. Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986).

3. Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981); Harry Torczyner, Lachish I: The Lachish Letters (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938).

4. Avigad, Hebrew Bullae.

5. Avigad, Hebrew Bullae.

6. See Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions, pp. 133-135; Avigad, Hebrew Bullae, nos. 2, 21, etc.

7. Avigad, Hebrew Bullae, no. 154.

8. As quoted in Etgar Lefkovits, “First Temple Seal Found in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Post, January 17, 2008.

9. Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997.

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