Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem


The discovery of two late Iron Age seals from Jerusalem has been announced, and though we await more detailed discussion of the seals in an official scholarly publication, Christopher Rollston has provided a valuable provisional analysis clarifying aspects of the reading of the inscriptions and their script, language, and date based on examination of the available photos, as well as a discussion on the use of seals more generally in the ancient Near East and the exceptional nature of a woman owning a seal.


For myself, what is most interesting is the content of the various names found on the seals. I have elsewhere discussed the significance of personal names as a window into the family and national religion of the peoples of the southern Levant (cf. Albertz 2012, Burnett 2009). As many names contain both a theophoric element (YHW, El, Baal, Kemosh, Milcom, Qos) and a predicative statement articulating some belief about the named deity, they tell us something about how these individual deities were conceptualized at both a familial and societal level.

So I thought I would briefly comment on the reading and interpretation of each of the four names:



Rollston has plausibly read the name as consisting of the theophoric element ʿly and the verbal element hnḥ from the root NWḤ in the hiphil, meaning “The Highest has brought rest.” The name is unique in the attested corpus of Hebrew names from inscriptions and the Bible. Although names with nominal forms from the root NWḤ are found in the Bible (Noah, Manoah), I know of no other instance of a name with a verbal element from the root NWḤ and only one example with ʿly functioning as a theophoric, yḥwʿly “The Highest causes to live” in two inscriptions from Samaria.

The question is, which deity is meant by the epithet Highest? Of course, one possibility is that ʿly is a descriptive designation for YHWH. We have several examples of personal names in which a YHWH theophoric is appended to this predicative element, including yhwʿly, ʿlyhw, and ʿlyw, all meaning “YHW is highest/exalted” (Albertz 2012: 571). But to be described as ʿly in a predicative statement in a personal name is not the same thing as being called ʿly as a proper name in itself. The first characterizes YHWH as the highest/exalted and the second implies that being highest/exalted is inherent to the identity of the deity so named. Although this may seem to be a distinction without a difference, comparative analysis shows that many different deities in the Levant could be described as ʿly as a gesture of praise for their power and benevolence in the lives of name-givers, sometimes even multiple deities in the same national pantheon (cf. ʾḥʿl “my brother is highest,” ʿlʾl “El is highest” in Aramaic). Further, the structure of West Semitic theophoric personal names was patterned off simple sentences with a proper noun subject and predicative statement commenting on some aspect of the deity. So by virtue of its syntactical position the predicative statement was essentially non-specific in nature and not necessarily the exclusive property of the deity to which it was associated. Thus the translation “YHW is highest/exalted” and not “YHW is Highest/Exalted” noted above.

Perhaps even more importantly, the independent epithet ʿly or ʿlyn is only rarely applied to YHWH in the Hebrew Bible, but is more strongly linked to contexts suggestive of the god El. This includes Gen 14; Num 24:16; Deut 32:8; 2 Sam 22:14; 23:1; Ps 82:6; Isa 14:14; Hos 11:7. The major exception is the Psalms, where YHWH is frequently designated ʿlyn (Ps 7:17; 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:4; 47:2; 50:14; 57:2; 73:11; 77:10; 78:17, 35, 56; 83:18; 87:5; 91:1, 9; 92:1; 97:9; 107:11). However, this body of literature evinces a much stronger tendency to conflate the profiles of YHWH and El, so the application of the title ʿlyn to YHWH here fits with the tradition’s unique theological character.

In sum, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that ʿly in the newly discovered seal refers to El and not YHWH in the context of 8-7th century Judah.



This name is likely a hypocoristic or shortened form of the name gʾlyhw “YHWH has redeemed.” The long form of the name is well attested in inscriptions and the god YHWH is often associated with acts of salvation or ransoming in personal names more generally (Albertz 2012: 543). The implication of this usage is that YHWH was viewed as a kinsman who could act as a goʾel or redeemer. The basic function of the socio-legal institution of the goʾel was to protect and defend the interests of the kinship group. Growing out of a deep sense of family solidarity, the goʾel was the responsibility to act on behalf of another closely related member of the group when the occasion required in order to insure the wellbeing of the community, such as to liberate from economic servitude, to rectify a direct attack against the group, or to continue the family line. Which raises the question, to which context does the personal name “YHWH has redeemed” refer? To be redeemed implies that someone has been delivered from some threat in particular. Following Albertz (2012: 253), I have argued elsewhere that many if not most personal names relate to the birth context. The birth event and the period surrounding it were among the most dangerous and portentous moments of a woman’s life, just as successful reproduction was key to the survival and well-being of the family as well as a woman’s social authority. The names bestowed on children therefore tended to reflect beliefs about the role of individual gods in facilitating the production of offspring. In this context, the claim of YHWH’s redemption and salvation can only have reference to protection from the forces of death and infirmity, which were perceived and spoken about in personal demonic terms. A larger number of personal names depict YHWH as a strong warrior fighting against some unspecified enemy (e.g. yhwḥyl “YHWH is strength”; gbryhw “YHWH has proven mighty”; gdlyhw “YHWH has shown himself to be great”; ʿzzyhw “YHWH has proven strong”) and in the Hebrew Bible in the sphere of personal religion YHWH typically redeems from death/Mot, the Pit, or physical harm (cf. Gen 48:16; Ps 69:14-18; 72:14; 103:4; 119:154; Lam 3:58; Hos 13:14). In the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions YHWH is notably described as a warrior and redeemer figure, who rebukes evil and delivers from “the Evil One” (cf. Lewis 2012).



Rollston is uncertain whether the third letter in the name is a reš or dalet and so provides interpretations of both potential lexical elements: “For s‘r, the lexeme is arguably the one that has the basic meaning ‘to visit, inspect, conduct affairs,’ or the lexeme ‘heavy gale, high wind, to drive away, to blow away.’ I slightly prefer the former lexeme, if the reading resh is accepted. Conversely, for the reading s‘d, the lexeme is arguably the one meaning ‘support, strengthen.’” However, setting aside the issue of the correct epigraphic analysis of the third letter, his first two suggestions are not very attractive from a philological and/or onomastic perspective. The lexeme SʿR “to visit, inspect, conduct affairs” is poorly attested in classical Hebrew, which already has the near equivalent PQD “to visit, inspect, conduct affairs.” In Deut 32:17 the word is spelled with a sin rather than a samek; seems to mean “to know about, be familiar with” and may reflect Aramaic influence; and is used with humans rather than YHWH as the subject. On the other hand, the notion of YHWH storming, blowing, or raging like a tempest is unparalleled in the larger corpus of Hebrew personal names and seems inappropriate as the topic of a personal name. Although several scholars have previously read sʿryhw “YHWH has stormed” in several other Hebrew inscriptions, Albertz has argued that this reading is not entirely certain and “because such a group of ostensibly theophanic names would be extremely small, and because names derived from the root סעד are much better represented (with nine appearances), the question can be raised whether a dalet is a more accurate reading than a reš in all these cases” (2012: 267). The strong tendency of theophoric personal names to comment on the relationship of a person to a deity or describe what a deity has done on his/her behalf thus leads me to suspect that sʿdyhw “YHWH has supported” is the correct reading.



The last name is the most difficult among the four to decipher and Rollston is understandably noncommittal: “In terms of meaning, some have suggested that the tri-literal root of this personal name means something such as ‘to come near, close.’ Perhaps.”  The basic problem with the name is that we lack any known lexeme from the root ŠBN in Hebrew and the vocalization of this element as preserved in the Bible does not correspond to any known Hebrew word or word combination. One proposal is that the word may be related to Arabic šabana, “to be near, come near” (Renz and Röllig 1995: 85; Rechenmacher 2012: 131). But the existence of this Arabic root is in doubt and there are several well established lexemes available in Hebrew that could be used to express the same or similar notions (e.g. QRB, NGŠ,ʾṢL, etc.). If šbn was a simple verb of movement, I think we should expect it to have been preserved somewhere else in the Hebrew lexicon. A more plausible explanation is that the predicative element šbn is the imperative of ŠWB with an appended particle of entreaty -na, meaning “Do return, O YHW,” or “Please return, O YHW.” This analysis has become increasingly favored in recent years by epigraphists and students of the Hebrew onomasticon (Peckham 1972: 464-65; Zadok 1988: 43; Israel 1992: 192; Avigad and Sass 1997: 534; Cross 2006: 81; Albertz 2012: 271). We have clear attestation of personal names that feature an imperative addressed directly to a deity, including the name type ŠWB + theophoric (e.g. šbʾl “Come back, O god,” šby “Come back, O DN”). Earlier Amorite names seem to show evidence for this same morphemic combination of ŠWB + -na + theophoric and the name ḥšbnyh “Have regard, please, O YH” (Neh 3:20; 10:26) may provide a Hebrew parallel for the use of imperative + -na + theophoric (Burnett 2013: 48). Finally, the understanding of šbn as the imperative ŠWB + -na may find confirmation in the spelling of the name šbnʾ as Σομνας in the Septuagint of Isaiah and as šwbnʾ in 1QIsfrom Qumran.


Nonetheless, while I regard this latter interpretation as attractive and likely correct, it still leaves some unanswered questions. If the nun in šbnyhw is understood as the particle of entreaty, then why does it occur on ŠWB imperative names only in the case of šbnyhw or its variants? We have several other examples of names with the imperative ŠWB + theophoric, including šbʾ, šbʾlšby, but in these cases the -na particle is consistently absent. The -na particle is also only rarely featured on other imperative Hebrew names (cf. Zadok 1988: 42-44; Albertz 2012: 583). Albertz has argued that ʾšnyhšnyw and ʾšnʾ may represent an imperative of ʾWŠ + -na + YHWH theophoric parallel to šbnyhw (2012: 271), but based on the presence of the lexeme ʾšn “gift” in Ugaritic it seems possible that in this case the nun is part of the word stem (DUL: 118). Further, although we have some thirty-six attestations of šbn prefixed to a YHWH theophoric in inscriptions and the Bible, we do not have one example of the imperative ŠWB + YHWH without an infixed -na. Needless to say, this pattern of absence and evidence is highly odd and demands some explanation. In addition, if the name šbnyhw was so popular and consisted of such simple morphemic elements as the imperative ŠWB + -na + YHW, why was the name misunderstood by later biblical tradition and erroneously vocalized as a simple verb + YHWH theophoric?





Albertz, R.

2012   Personal Names and Family Religion. Pp. 245-367 in Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant, ed. R. Albertz and R. Schmitt. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.


Avigad, N. and B. Sass

1997   Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Burnett, J.

2009   Iron Age Deities in Word, Image, and Name: Correlating Epigraphic, Iconographic, and Onomastic Evidence for the Ammonite God. SHAJ 10: 153–64.

2013   Divine Silence or Divine Absence? Converging Metaphors in Family Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant. Pp. 29-70 in Reflections on the Silence of God, ed. Bob Becking. Leiden: Brill.


Cross, F. M.

2006  Personal Names in the Samaria Papyri. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344: 75–90.


DUL= Del Olmo Lete, G. and Sanmartín, J.

2003   A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition. HdO 67. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill.


Israel, F.

1992   Review of Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah: Remnants of a Burnt Archive, by N. Avigad. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 108: 189-93.


Lewis, T.

2012   Job 19 in the Light of the Ketef Hinnom Inscriptions and Amulets. Pp. 99-113 in Puzzling out the Past: Studies in Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures in Honor of Bruce Zuckerman, ed. M. Lundberg, S. Fine and W. Pitard. Leiden: Brill.


Peckham, B.

1972  Nora Inscription. Orientalia 41: 457-468.


Rechenmacher, H.

2012   Althebräische Personennamen. Münster: Ugarit Verlag.


Renz, J. and Röllig, W.

1995   Handbuch der althebräischen Epigraphik, Vol. 2, Fasc. 1: Die althebräischen Inschriften, Zusammenfassende Erörterungen, Paläographie und Glossar. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


Zadok, R.

1988  The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography. OLA 28. Leuven: Peeters.

4 comments on “Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem

  1. I will suggest to read the letters as they are depicted and not to add or invent features which are not existing. The final letter in the lady’s name is a He and not a Het and the reading has to be ‘Alyanah (With ‘Ayin). As to the name of the gentleman, the letter Daled is certain and the reading is Sa’adyahu. The letter Resh is completely different, it has to be vertical, with a rounded and smaller head and with a long leg, such as the Samekh.

    • RT says:

      Thanks for the comment Robert. I hope I am not adding or inventing features, and if further analysis demonstrates that the letter is a He rather than a Het then I will be happy to accept that conclusion. But because there has been wearing away at the side of the seal, it is difficult for me to make a positive declaration either way about the letter identity. Further, it is unclear what the name would mean in Hebrew if it were spelled ʿlyhnh. I am unaware of any example of a predicative element based on the lexeme HNH.

      As to the name of the man, I believe you are correct that the reading is a Dalet. Because my post was basically a response to Rollston’s semantic interpretations, I took for granted his epigraphic readings. I appreciate you providing clarification on the issue.

  2. Joseph I. Lauer says:

    I wonder if there is a comment on the suggestion by Avi Shveka, posted at The City of David [Hebrew] site, that the name Elihanah is based on the feminine form of the royal command in Mishlei/Proverbs 25:7 to “Come up hither” and should be read or pronounced as “Ali henah [עלי הנה]”? See [Hebrew].

    • RT says:

      Thanks Joseph. I had not heard of that suggestion. My view is that while such a reading is grammatically feasible, it has no parallel with any other attested Hebrew personal name that I know of, which tend to feature a theophoric element and simple predicative statement related to the theophoric. Ali henah “come up here” by itself is in fact a sentence without a context and so would have been virtually unintelligible as a personal name.

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