Jar handles reveal Hezekiah's hopes

The seals stamped on jar handles in ancient Judah point to Hezekiah's attempt to unite the peoples of the northern and southern kingdoms and so to restore the Davidic kingdom.

Randall W. Younker, Ph.D., teaches Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and directs the Institute of Archaeology and the Siegfried H. Horn Museum of Archaeology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

When an archeologist recovers an ancient artifact, the first questions usually asked revolve around the object's historical context: What is its age? What circumstances brought about its existence? While many artifacts can be useful for rough dating purposes, those that were used for a limited time period are especially valuable. Archeologists of ten call such artifacts "index fossils" (I prefer "index artifacts"!).

One such class of artifacts are the Imlk jar handles of Judah. These handles from a certain type of storage jar are stamped with a seal that bears the Hebrew inscription Imlk, meaning "be longing to the king."

Naturally, the questions that immediately came to mind when these handles were first discovered were When were they made? and To which king did the jars (or their contents) belong? Since these handles appeared to be restricted to certain strata or levels at southern (Judahite) sites, the identification of the king who ordered their manufacture would be of tremendous chronological and historical value.

Initially, archeologists, led by such scholars as W.F. Albright, believed that these handles belonged to one of the last kings of Judah, perhaps King Jehoiachin. Recently, however, a number of technical studies involving ceramic, paleographic, stratigraphic, and historical data have led scholars to believe that the jar handles actually date from the time of King Hezekiah. This inference would be especially significant because the handles could thus serve as index artifacts. They would date precisely the destruction layers of cities throughout Judah that had been destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in either 701 or 688 B.C., events well known from biblical and extrabiblical sources.1

While there has been a growing consensus that the jar handles do indeed date to the time of King Hezekiah, a couple of problems have not yet been resolved satisfactorily. First, it has been noted that although all the seals feature the inscription "belonging to the king," some display a picture of a four-winged scarab under the inscription, while others depict a two-winged (sun?) disk. Why would a king display two different royal emblems on his seal?

Second, and even more curious, is the distribution of these seals. Eighty percent of the royal jar handles found in the central hills of Judah (for example, around Jerusalem) display the two-winged disk motif. Just the opposite is true of those seals found in the Shephelah (for example, in the area around Lachish). Here, 80 percent contain the four-winged scarab.

Hezekiah and the fall of Israel

Before attempting to explain either the simultaneous use of two different royal motifs or their unusual distribution, it will be helpful to review the historical situation at the time Hezekiah became king of Judah.

Just prior to Hezekiah's ascent to the throne, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the overwhelming forces of Assyria (722 B.C.). The conquest undoubtedly resulted in a large migration of refugees from the north into Judah, an influx that several lines of evidence, both biblical and archeological, point to. For example, 2 Chronicles 31:6 describes the ''people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah" (RSV), and who brought their tithes to the Lord following Hezekiah's reinstituting of the Passover service at Jerusalem. Many, if not all, of these "men of Israel" who lived in Judah migrated south around the time Samaria and the kingdom fell.

The book of the prophet Micah contains a similar reference to an Israelite presence in the south. The first chapter makes It clear that the prophet is concerned that the sins that brought down the northern kingdom will infiltrate Judah and bring a similar fate: "For her [Samaria's] wound is incurable; and it has come to Judah" (verse 9, RSV). These sins included worship at inappropriate places such as high places and false sanctuaries.

Of particular interest is verse 13, which reads "Harness the £::5if steeds to the chariots, inhabitants of Lachish; you were the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion [Jerusalem], for in you were found the transgressions of Israel" (RSV). This verse suggests the presence of an Israelite sanctuary or high place at Lachish. Y. Aharoni, an Israeli scholar, argues from this text that there was indeed an "illegal" sanctuary at Lachish at the time of the Assyrian conquest, a claim for which certain archeological evidence appears to offer indirect support. While corruption from the north was always a concern of the Judahite prophets (see, for example, Amos 5:5; 8:14), these verses in Micah seem to describe the situation after the fall of Samaria.

Archeological evidence also suggests an Israelite presence in the south. Inscriptions found at Kuntillet Ajrud contain the name Samaria and personal names written with the ending -yw— a suffix typical of Israelite names. This seems to indicate that the inscriptions were written by people from the northern kingdom rather than by the native residents of Judah. Paleographer Andre Lemaire has indicated that these inscriptions were written around the time of King Hezekiah. 2

Excavations in Jerusalem reveal that during Hezekiah's reign the city under went an incredible expansion in a short time. According to archeologist M. Broshi, near the end of the eighth century (that is, 722-701 B.C.) the city's population increased from about 8,000 to 24,000. The "Broad Wall" also points to this expansion. According to the Israeli archeologists who excavated it, this wall, built during the late eighth century B.C., probably was intended to incorporate an unwalled suburb that had grown upon the Western Hill (the Upper City) of Jerusalem.

Of further interest is the fact that this wall was built on top of some late eighth century houses located on the edge of this western suburb. Some archeologists associate this construction with both Isaiah 22:9-11 and 2 Chronicles 32:2-5, 30, passages that describe Hezekiah's preparations for the coming of the Assyrians.

Additional evidence for Jerusalem's expansion comes from recent survey work that has discovered a large number of farm units on the hills surrounding Jerusalem. These units also appear to have been constructed at this very time, probably to feed the increasing population.

The only reasonable explanation for such a demographic surge in Jerusalem is a mass immigration into the capital from Israel and outlying Judahite regions as they came under attack from the Assyrians. Obviously Jerusalem could not absorb this demographic surge by herself, so most of the refugees must have been relocated either in new settlements or, more likely, in already existing towns.

From Hezekiah's perspective, the most logical towns in which to place this influx would be those in strategic locations along the border in the lower hills to the west of Jerusalem. First, the most secure towns and cities within the heart of the kingdom were no doubt already occupied by native Judahites, leaving little room for a large number of new comers. And second, and more important, Hezekiah would have wanted to strengthen the defenses of the border cities, particularly those on Jerusalem's vulnerable western approaches. The numerous refugees would be just the thing to swell the manpower in these areas. Hezekiah probably provided refuge in exchange for aid in defending his kingdom at key locations.

Adopting Israel's royal seal

Keeping in mind the foregoing arguments for the settling of a large number of Israelite refugees at key locations in Judah, we can now return to the problem of Hezekiah's simultaneous use of the two-winged sun disk and four-winged scarab as royal emblems of Judah.

Several years ago A. Douglas Tushingham published a couple articles on the Imlk seals. He suggested that the four-winged scarab motif represented the royal emblem of the northern kingdom of Israel, while the two-winged sun disk was the royal emblem of Judah.3 He based his conclusion on several lines of evidence. First was the discovery of nine identical four-winged scarab seal impressions in the excavations at Samaria. The depositional context of the nine identical seal impressions seemed to suggest that they came from the palace or the royal archive.

Second, neither the seal nor the impressions carry an inscription, implying that the symbol must have been of such prominence that whoever encountered it would immediately recognize its significance.

Finally, the fact that a similar motif occurs on the numerous stamped jar handles from Judah, along with the inscription Imlk ("belonging to the king"), substantiates the idea that Israel used the four-winged scarab motif as a royal motif.

Tracing the history of the two-winged sun disk, Tushingham showed how it too was a royal emblem and suggested how it could have become the royal insignia of Judah.

But Tushingham was left wondering why Judah apparently employed both royal motifs simultaneously. He concluded that it was part of Josiah's attempt to reconstitute the kingdom of David. In other words, using both of the seals was a way of expressing that the two kingdoms had been united into one monarchy once again. (Perhaps a parallel may be drawn from ancient Egypt, where the Pharaohs used the royal emblems of both Upper and Lower Egypt after the two regions were united under one throne.)

Tushingham's answer was, of course, framed in harmony with the scholarly consensus that considered the Imlk seals to be dated to the end of the seventh century B.C. rather than the eighth. In view of the most recent analysis of the handles, how ever, it now seems more appropriate to examine the time of Hezekiah for the proper historical context. Although several scholars have already attempted to explain how the Imlk jars could have been used during Hezekiah's reign (for example, containers for royal provisions for troops), no one has yet, in our opinion, provided a satisfactory explanation for the simultaneous use and unique distribution of the two different motifs.

As already noted, about 80 percent of the Imlk seal impressions found in the hill country have been the two-winged sun disk. In the low hills to the west (the Shephelah) about the same percentage are the four-winged scarab. If indeed the two-winged sun disk is the royal symbol of Judah and the four-winged scarab is the royal emblem of Israel, this distinct concentration can now be seen to reflect the geographic distribution of native Judahites and resettled Israelites within the kingdom of Judah.

Again, as noted above, we surmise that the heartland of the kingdom (and the most secure area) would be already heavily occupied by native Judahites. In this region we find the heaviest concentration of the two-winged sun disk seals (nearly 85 percent at Ramat Rahel just outside of Jerusalem, for example). Sites in the Shephelah, on the other hand show a high concentration of fourwinged scarab seals (for example, Lachish--85 percent). Here we would expect a greater number of Israelite refugees to be settled. In other words, whatever the official function of these Imlk jars, the official seal of Judah was impressed upon them in areas of high Judahite concentration, while the royal seal of Israel was used where there was a large contingent of Israelites.

We would agree with those scholars who suggest that the jars contained pro visions for military garrisons stationed throughout the country, rather than sup plies for the population at large. It seems reasonable to assume that garrisons stationed in areas of high Israelite concentration would be composed mostly of Israelites. The reverse would be true in regions of high Judahite concentration. We believe the seal distribution reflects this concentration.

It is not difficult to find reasons why Hezekiah would utilize the two seals in this way. One reason for using the Israelite seal in areas where Israelites concentrated might be that Hezekiah simply wanted to employ an emblem that would be recognized immediately by the new comers as "royal" or "official."

Maintaining administrative order during the potentially confusing time of re settlement may have played a role in the selection of this symbol of authority. The large and sudden influx of people would require a number of trained administrators. Undoubtedly a number of officials fled south when the northern kingdom fell (I doubt they all fell on their swords!). It would be only logical for Hezekiah to take advantage of their skills. They were trained and the refugees would recognize and accept them as leaders. Their presence would reduce the risk of friction that might result if Judahite administrators were put directly in charge of Israelite refugees. Hezekiah wanted the loyal support of these newcomers.

At the same time, the employment of the Israelite seal would tend to establish Hezekiah in the minds of the refugees as their new lord and protector. By adopting the royal seal of their former kingdom, Hezekiah was in effect saying "I will be your king (and protector) and you shall be my people." Thus the adoption of the royal emblem of Israel may have been a way of gaining the respect, or at least of respecting the sensitivities, of the Israelite refugees.

But the most likely reason for Hezekiah's use of Israel's royal seal is that it would be a significant symbolic way to lay claim to the unoccupied throne of Israel. That Hezekiah possessed the strength and courage to push out beyond the constricted borders of Judah is made clear in 2 Kings 18:7, 8, which describes Hezekiah's rebellion against Assyria and his invasion of Philistine territory. An Assyrian text N. Na'aman published a little more than 20 years ago apparently also speaks of this rebellion. In the text, Assyrian king Sennacherib accuses Hezekiah of capturing a royal city of the Philistines (possibly Gath).

Obviously, if Hezekiah was willing to attack the Assyrian vassalage of Philistia to his west, he would have no qualms about extending his authority over the territory of the fallen kingdom of Israel to the north if an opportunity presented itself. In view of Israel's historical relationship to Judah, this makes good sense. It may, therefore, be more than just a coincidence that Imlk seal impressions have been found at Jericho and Gezer, both border cities that were formerly within the territory of the kingdom of Israel. The presence of the royal seals could be interpreted as a Judahite attempt to move into and to gain control over former Israelite territory.

Hezekiah's invitation to the Israelites to join in the special Passover festivities at the national Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 30) may provide additional evidence of his desire to claim the fallen throne of the northern kingdom. While the biblical record clearly shows that Hezekiah's action was motivated by piety, this invitation by a Judahite king had important political implications. In what better way could Hezekiah exert his claim, spiritually and politically, of being the only legitimate king over "all Israel"?

Hezekiah's adoption of the royal emblem of Israel can now be seen in the context of two important factors. Both Israel's fall and the large number of refugees fleeing south would provide Hezekiah with a perfect opportunity to do what many Judahite kings had undoubtedly dreamed about since the days of Rehoboam and Jeroboam: to reunite the Davidic monarchy. By inviting people from north and south to one grand, unifying Passover service at Jerusalem, and by adopting the royal symbol of the northern kingdom, Hezekiah was both legitimizing himself as the one true king of all Israel and positioning himself to restore the Davidic kingdom.

Obviously, Hezekiah did not succeed in his plans for unification. One wonders whether the Lord would have blessed his efforts to that end if he had not failed the test with the Babylonian ambassadors (2 Kings 20:12-19). Although the king did not achieve his goal, the desire did not die. His great grandson Josiah set out to do precisely the same thing when the opportunity presented itself. Unfortunately, an untimely death cut short the righteous Josiah's attempt, and the Babylonian conquest of Judah a few years later finally extinguished the bright hopes for the restoration of a united Israel.

1 As these two dates suggest, we are allowing
for the possibility that Sennacherib conducted two
campaigns against Judah, rather than one, as most
scholars currently assume. For a recent discussion
on the two-campaign theory, see W.H. Shea,
"Sennacherib's Second Palestinian Campaign,"
Journal of Biblical Literature 104/3 (1985): 401-

2 For a discussion of the Kuntillet Ajrud in
scriptions and their date see A. Lemaire, "Who or
What Was Yahweh's Asherah?" Biblical Archaeology
Review 10/6 (1984): 42-51.

3 For Tushingham's discussion of the Imlk
royal jar handles, see "A Royal Israelite Seal"
and the "Royal Jar Handle Stamps" (parts 1 and
2), Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental
Research 200/71-78: 23-35.

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Randall W. Younker, Ph.D., teaches Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and directs the Institute of Archaeology and the Siegfried H. Horn Museum of Archaeology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1991

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