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The Bible, a New Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem, and a High Official of Judah

The Bible, a New Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem, and a High Official of Judah

Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)


During October 2018, a particularly important piece of ancient Judean officialdom was found: an Old Hebrew bulla with the name of a high official. The press reports about this important inscription began to appear in late March and early April of 2019 (see the link to the New York Times article at the conclusion of my blog post). This is a fairly striking find, and so I especially applaud those connected with this find and the careful press reports about it (e.g., Excavators Yuval Gadot and Yiftah Shalev as well as Epigrapher Anat Mendel Geberovich) for the sober historical approach which they have taken. I consider this cautiousness to be a model for the field, and I find myself (to use a phrase of affirmation that I first heard from the late Frank Moore Cross) to be in happy agreement with the statements that Gadot, Shalev, and Mendel Geberovich have made regarding this find. At this juncture, I shall turn to some of my reflections on this bulla.

Synopsis of the Details:

I. The reading of the bulla, the palaeographic date, and its archaeological context.
The clay bulla consists of two registers. The first register reads: LNtnmlk (“Belonging to Nathan-Melek”) and the second register reading: ‘bd hmlk (“Servant of the King”). The reading is certain, as all of the letters are clear. I would date the script to the mid-7th century BCE (ca. 675-625 BCE). Indeed, I would be quite disinclined to push the date down into the early 6th century, primarily because the morphology and stance of several of the letters (e.g, nun, lamed, and especially the kap) reflect the hallmark features of the mid-7th century Old Hebrew script, not the further developments that are part of the Old Hebrew script of the late 7th or early 6th centuries BCE. It is also worth noting and emphasizing that the script of this bulla is definitively that of the Old Hebrew script. Note, for example, that the curvature at the terminal portions of the nun, mem, and kap are diagnostic markers of the Old Hebrew script (and as such, they can be distinguished from the contemporary Phoenician and Aramaic scripts as well as the daughter scripts hailing from those script traditions). It is also worth emphasizing that this bulla is aniconic (i.e., without imagery), something that is a standard feature of Old Hebrew seals (and thus also bullae) from the time after the reforms of Hezekiah (reigned ca. 715-687 BCE) and Josiah (reigned ca: 640-609 BCE). Significantly, this inscription was found on a scientific excavation in Jerusalem (namely, the City of David). Moreover, this inscription was found in the remains of a large, First Temple Period administrative building. Thus, it hails from officialdom.

II. The Personal Name Nathan-Melek: Meaning and Biblical Reference

The name “Nathan-Melek” means “The King has given.” That is, ntn is a Hebrew verb in the perfect tense, and mlk is the common noun “king.” Martin Noth’s discussion of this personal name remains current (Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1928], 21, 118, 170). Furthermore, as Noth correctly states, the word “Melek” is to be understood as a means of referring to God. Thus, this personal name is a means of referring to the benevolence of God. As such it is analogous to personal names such as Nathaniel (“El has given”) and Natanyahu (Yahweh has given). Of particular significance is that there is only one reference in the entire Hebrew Bible (2 Kgs 23:11) to someone with this name: Nathan-Melek a sārîs (meaning: royal attendant, or perhaps eunuch; on this see Nili Sacher Fox, In the Service of the King: Officialdom in Ancient Israel and Judah [Cincinnati: HUC Press, 2000], 196-203) in the court of King Josiah of Judah. In short, according to 2 King, a certain Nathan-Melek was a high official and was mentioned in the context of the great religious reforms of King Josiah (for the similar reforms of Hezekiah, see 2 Kings 18:3-8, etc.). Here is the fuller context of that reference in Kings: “Josiah….removed the horses which the kings of Judah had given to Shamash (the Sun God), (that is, those placed) at the entrance to the House of Yahweh (i.e., the Temple in Jerusalem) by the chamber of Nathan-Melek, the sārîs, which was in the precincts (reading with NRSV). And he burned the chariots of the (aforementioned) Shamash with fire” (2 Kings 23:11). It should be remembered that in the ancient Near East (e.g., Mesopotamia) Shamash (literally: “sun”) was often connected with horses and a chariot, in essence symbolizing the travel of the (sun) God Shamash through the sky each day. Quite obviously, the presence of the chariots of the Sun (Shamash) in the Judean Temple was understood as syncretism by King Josiah (and as such was to be removed).

III. The Title ‘bd hmlk (or ‘bd + Royal Name) “Servant of the King.”

Significantly, the term ‘bd hmlk (or ‘bd + Royal Name) is definitely not a way to designate a slave (although the term ‘bd alone can and normally does signify this), but rather it is the title of a high royal official. It is nicely attested in Northwest Semitic inscriptions. For example, a Hebrew seal was found during the excavations of 1932 at Miṣpah (Tell en-Naṣbeh) in Tomb 19 and reads: “ly’znyhw ‘bd hmlk” (“Belonging to Ya’azanyahu, servant of the king”; Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences, Israel Exploration Society, Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, 1997, 52 [#8]). Similarly, Lachish Ostracon 3 (line 19) refers to a certain “Ṭbyhw ‘bd hmlk” (“Ṭobiyahu, servant of the king”; Frank Cross 1985). Along the same lines, a seal was found at Megiddo in the 1904 excavations and reads: “lšm‘ ‘bd yrb‘m” (“Belonging to Šema, servant of Jeroboam”; Avigad and Sass 1997, 49 [#2], that is, with the personal name of the king of Israel stated (rather than simply giving the title). This same title (i.e, ‘bd + hmlk or ‘bd + Royal Name) is also attested in various additional Northwest Semitic dialects (e.g., Avigad and Sass 1997, 322 [#859] from an Ammonite tomb; Avigad and Sass 1997, 322 [#860] from Tall Umeiri in the Madaba Plains; Avigad and Sass 1997, 388 [#1050]; (Avigad and Sass 1997, 389-390 [#1051] from Tell el-Kheleifeh. In addition to the epigraphic evidence, there are a number of attestations of this title (or a related title) in the Hebrew Bible as well (e.g., 2 Sam 18:29; 19:29; 2 Kgs 5:6; 2 Kgs 22:12; 2 Chr 34:20; 2 Kgs 25:8; cf. also 1 Sam 21:8; 1 Sam 29:3; 2 Chr 13:6, etc.; for discussion and earlier literature for the biblical and epigraphic materials, see Fox 2000, 53-60).

IV. Sealing Practices

Before drawing conclusions about the possible identification of the Nathan-Melek of the new bulla and the Nathan-Melek of the Hebrew Bible, some reference to the usage of stamps seals in the Iron Age Levant is useful. Namely, seals were part and parcel of the economic and legal activities of the people of the ancient Near Eastern world, particularly the elites. Seals would be used in cases, for example, of the purchase or sale of something of substantial value (e.g., land, precious metals), or in the case of a marriage, or divorce, or adoption (etc.). Within Iron Age Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, Philistia, and Syria, stamps seals were very commonly used. Many seals have been found on scientific excavations in these regions. Most of these seals are quite round and have about the same diameter as a small coin (although they are thicker than coins). Most were made of attractive, and sometimes rare, stones (incised with a sharp incising tool, made of metal). Most seals have holes drilled through them so that a string (“cord”) could be attached to them. Some were attached in antiquity to a ring, and on rare occasions (such as tomb contexts), the seal and ring are found together. Seals with words inscribed on them are called “Epigraphic Seals.” Seals without words inscribed on them are called “Anepigraphic Seals.” Seals with imagery (e.g., animals, people) on them are called “Iconic Seals.” Seals without imagery are called “Aniconic Seals.” Some seals have words and imagery, some just imagery, some just words. Seals are often divided into “lines.” Each line is referred to as a “register.”
There are some particularly nice references to seals and sealing practices in the Hebrew Bible. Among the most detailed descriptions is the one contained in the book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the late First Temple and early Exilic Periods. Within this biblical text (Jeremiah 32), the prophet is said to have purchased a field from a kinsman of his, in the tenth year of Judean King Zedekiah (ca. 587 BCE, just as Jerusalem was about to fall to King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon). Jeremiah is said to have signed a deed of purchase, in the presence of witnesses. There were two copies of this deed (both probably written on papyrus), one the “open copy” and one the “sealed copy.” The open copy would normally be retained for rapid reference and would often have been kept by the purchaser (or a close associate). The sealed copy, however, would normally be archived, often in the house of a scribe, or in an archive of a palace or temple. The sealed copy was the binding legal copy and would only be opened if and when there was some reason to verify in a decisive legal fashion the fact or the nature of the agreement (e.g., purchase, or sale, or marriage, or adoption, or divorce, etc.). In any case, the sealed copy would be rolled up or folded up, and a string would be wrapped around it and then a small clump of wet clay would be attached carefully and precisely to the string, and then the parties to the agreement would press their seals into the clumps of wet clay (the result would be an impression of the seal in the clay, the impressed clumps of clay are referred to as “bullae,” sing: “bulla”). The seals would serve as proof of the event (e.g., purchase, sale, marriage, divorce, adoption). Note that seals are normally incised (i.e., made) in mirror image, so that when they are impressed into the clay, the resulting image is positive (i.e., in the correct orientation). Within the narrative of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah gives both the sealed copy and the open copy to Baruch ben Neriah for safe keeping.

V. Nathan-Melek the servant of the King and Nathan Melek the Sārîs

Finally, some reference is in order regarding the possible identification of Nathan-Melek the Sārîs (2 Kgs 23:11) and Nathan-Melek ‘bd hmlk of this Old Hebrew bulla. (1) First and foremost, it must be emphasized that this personal name is rare. Indeed, as noted, it is attested in the Hebrew Bible for just one person. (2) Second, the figure Nathan-Melek in the Hebrew Bible is connected with King Josiah (r. ca. 640-609 BCE) of the second half of the 7th century BCE, and this is also the most convincing palaeographic date (and the archaeological context as well). (3) Third, the Nathan-Melek of the Bible and of this bulla both have royal titles. (4) This data converges to make it probable that the figure of the Bible and the figure of this bulla are one and the same. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the two titles are different (although arguably someone referred to as a sārîs could also be referred to as an ‘bd hmlk, or conversely, could be understood to have risen to the position of an ‘bd hmlk). Ultimately, therefore, I would contend that although it is not absolutely certain that the biblical Nathan-Melek and the epigraphic Old Hebrew Nathan-Melek are the same, I would consider it most likely that we are indeed talking about one and the same. Of course, fate can sometimes be cruel, and sometimes the most convincing of assumptions proves to be false. Thus, because we do not have a patronymic for Nathan-Melek in the Bible or on the bulla, and because the titles are not identical (cf. 1 Sam 8:15; 2 Kgs 24:12), certitude remains just beyond reach. But, as for me, I am entirely comfortable considering it most likely, or virtually certain, that 2 Kings 23:11 and this bulla refer to the same person.

Addendum: Added at 3:50 p.m. on 1 April 2019: It is useful for me to mention that because of the practice of patronymy and the practice of papponymy, someone might wish to contend that this bulla is not that of biblical Nathan-Melek, but rather that of his son (or grandson). Also…in terms of an additional PN that contains some related data, see also Elimelech (my God is King”) in the book of Ruth.

Archaeology, Bible, Epigraphy

2 Comments to “The Bible, a New Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem, and a High Official of Judah”

  1. […] Christopher A. Rollston […]

  2. I mean no disrespect, but my heart sank when I saw that you had commented on this bulla. Going on past experience I presumed that you’d point out that (e.g.) it had been hastily carved out of cheese by someone who didn’t know which way the letters went, and was consequently unlikely to be genuine. “Please,” I thought, “let me just have this one thing.” I’m tremendously relieved that you’re happy with its paleography, because it’s really a very exciting find.

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