Scholars Debate “Jezebel” Seal
Fit for a Queen: Jezebel’s Royal Seal
Thousands and thousands of seals and seal impressions (bullae) from the ancient Near East have been found, including Hebrew exemplars in Israel. Documents would be tied up with string and a blob of clay placed over the string; a seal would then be impressed into the clay to identify the sender and assure the security of the document. Or a seal would be impressed into the handle of a jar to identify the owner— for example, the so-called l’melekh handles (“[belonging] to the king”), of which there are several thousand. Or a seal could be used to prevent unauthorized entry to a storehouse. Deuteronomy 32:34 speaks of the Lord’s attributes “sealed up in My treasuries.”
Of all the thousands of exemplars with Hebrew inscriptions, however, only about 35 belong to women. This paucity nevertheless demonstrates two things. First, some women did indeed possess and use personal seals. Second, this was true of only very few women. Ancient Israel, like its neighbors, was a patriarchal society. Women possessing seals clearly belonged to the upper classes.
On two seals the female owner is described as a “daughter of the king.” Set off against 24 attestations of a “son of the king,” this once again demonstrates that women had a harder time attaining a position of influence than men, even if they were princesses.
One of the most famous queens of ancient Israel is Jezebel, the daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal, wife of Israelite King Ahab (872–851 B.C.E.) and archetype of the wicked woman. I believe that she had a seal and that it has been recovered, although until now not confidently identified.
Jezebel, though a woman, plays a major role— but backstage. Her influence on her husband, King Ahab, was enormous. As the Biblical text puts it: “There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited” (1 Kings 21:25). She never gave up her Phoenician religion, nor her devotion to Baal. Ahab sinned not only by taking a worshiper of Baal for his wife, but, at her urging he, too worshiped Baal (1 Kings 16:31). No doubt this strong Biblical criticism is colored by later Deuteronomistic theology, but it stands to reason that Jezebel did deserve her reputation somehow.
Jezebel went even further. She began killing off the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4). Apparently a hundred were saved when they were hidden in two caves by Obadiah. At that point the prophet Elijah confronts the king, who responds to Elijah with the famous line “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17).
Elijah then sets up a contest on Mount Carmel: 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah who sup at Jezebel’s table (1 Kings 18:19) face Elijah alone. A bull is placed on Baal’s altar, but try as they may, even gashing themselves with knives, the prophets of Baal can produce no fire. Then Elijah orders water to be poured on his meal offering to the Lord. Elijah beseeches the Lord and fire descends from heaven consuming the meal offering and even the water (1 Kings 18:23–38).
In another episode, Ahab decides to enlarge his palace complex by acquiring the adjacent vineyard owned by Naboth. However, Naboth refuses to sell— at any price. Disappointed and depressed, Ahab tells Jezebel about it. “I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite,” she tells him (1 Kings 21:7). She acts in Ahab’s name, even using the king’s seal rather than her own. She arranges for Naboth to be falsely accused, and he is stoned to death. When Jezebel learns that the deed has been done, she urges Ahab: “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite which he refused to give you for money” (1 Kings 21:15).
Elijah passes judgment in the name of the Lord: As with Ahab, whose blood dogs will lap up, so with Jezebel: Dogs will devour her in Jezreel (1Kings 21:19–23).
Jezebel’s life indeed ends badly. When Elisha (Elijah’s successor) anoints Jehu as Ahab’s successor, Jehu is instructed to wipe out Ahab’s line: “That I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 9:7).
When Jehu arrives in Jezreel, where Ahab has a royal residence, Jezebel prepares to greet him. She “paints her eyes with kohl and dresses her hair” and appears at an upper window, apparently hoping to seduce Jehu (2 Kings 9:30). Instead, Jezebel is thrown down from the window. “Her blood splattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her” (2 Kings 9:33).
Jehu orders her to be buried. “So they went to bury her; but all they found of her were her skull, the feet and the hands. They came back and reported to [Jehu]. And he said, ‘It is just as the Lord spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: The dogs shall devour the flesh of Jezebel in the field of Jezreel; and the carcass of Jezebel shall be like dung on the ground’” (2 Kings 9:35–37).
The seal I want to deal with here comes from a private collection, and we don’t know where or when it was found. In some American and Israeli circles, this alone would condemn it to oblivion. Indeed, these critics would ban publication of such an item. This, in my view, is nonsense. Yes, we must be cautious in assessing the authenticity of unprovenanced finds, but we cannot condemn the whole lot simply because they are unprovenanced. As Professor Othmar Keel recently pointed out, even in the highly praised Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals published by Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass (Jerusalem, 1997), only 10 percent of the seals discussed come from professional excavations.a
When what I believe to be the seal of Queen Jezebel came to scholarly attention in the early 1960s, it was donated to the Israel Department of Antiquities and gratefully accepted. Another day and another time! In 1964, it was published in the Israel Exploration Journal by Israel’s then-leading paleographer, Nahman Avigad.1
Despite the fact that the seal bears an inscription YZBL (
Later, the reading “Jezebel” and the possible identification of the seal as Queen Jezebel’s was rejected because the spelling of the name on the seal is different from the spelling of the name in the Bible. On the seal, as noted, it is spelled YZBL; in the Bible, it is spelled ’YZBL (’
I believe I have an answer to this problem.
As Avigad notes, this is a very fancy seal. It is large, as these things go (1.25 inches from top to bottom). It is filled with the common Egyptian symbols that were often used in Phoenicia at this time.c At the top is a crouching winged sphinx with a woman’s face and (part of) a female Isis/Hathor crown. The body of the sphinx is a lioness (cf. Ezekiel 19), clearly appropriate for the seal of a queen. To the left is an Egyptian ankh, the sign of life. A line then divides these symbols from a lower register. Below the line is a winged disk (which, incidentally, also appears on many Hebrew l’melekh handles). Below this is an Egyptian-style falcon. On either side of the falcon is a uraeus, the cobra most commonly seen on the headdresses of Egyptian royalty and divinities. Each of these snakes faces outward. The serpent-like symbol beneath the falcon is actually a lotus, which refers to regeneration but also is a typical female symbol generally connected to women, but especially royal women. The densely filled space reflects the horror vacui (“fear” of empty space) that is typical.
One other thing that may at first seem peculiar: The four letters of the inscription appear to be scattered in the interstices of the symbols that almost fill the space. Two letters (Y and Z) are just below the sun disk. Tucked into the lower left is the B. Tucked into the lower right is the L.
Actually, this is not as peculiar as it might seem at first. We have many seals where the lettering identifying the owner is distributed around an elaborate decoration in a way that matches the Jezebel seal perfectly.
But what about the critical missing aleph at the beginning of the spelling of the name Jezebel in Hebrew? Actually, there are two letters that we would expect to find in a seal like this. In addition to the aleph, we would expect an L, or lamed, preceding the name, as, for example, in the l’melekh handles. The lamed means “to” and is often translated “(belonging) to.” In short, the lamed indicates ownership and appears on almost all seals before a name.
So we should expect two additional letters before the four letters that actually appear on this seal— a lamed and then an aleph. Though theoretically any letter of the alphabet could fill the space of the second letter, only an aleph produces an acceptable name for such an elaborate seal.
There is one damaged part of this seal— at the very top. It is just large enough for the two missing letters: lamed and aleph. In my view, the broken-off part of the seal originally contained these two letters.3
In short, the name Jezebel appears exactly as it should: L’YZBL, or “Belonging to Jezebel.”
There are additional reasons to believe that this Jezebel is the queen who figures so prominently in the Bible.
Of course, the seal does not contain her father’s name or the addition “queen.” The unusually large size alone, however, suggests a very wealthy, influential person. The winged sphinx, winged sun disk and especially the falcon are well-known symbols of royalty in Egypt. The female Isis/Hathor crown on the winged sphinx (symbol for the king) suggests the owner to be female. The graceful Egypto-Phoenician style points to someone who apparently loved this type of art, a circumstance tallying with the fact that Jezebel was a Phoenician princess (1 Kings 16:31).
The double uraeus (cobra) at the bottom is a typical symbol of queens with prominent roles in religion and politics from the 18th Egyptian dynasty onward. Especially the Egyption queen Tiye seems to have functioned as a model for later queens. Often she is represented wearing the Isis/Hathor crown or the crown with double uraei. So, independent of the name of the owner, the iconography definitely suggests a queen. Although other individuals used the same symbols to indicate their closeness to the throne, no other seal uses them all.
Another, slightly more complex argument suggests that this is Queen Jezebel’s seal: Her name is a quote from the Baal myth. Jezebel means “Where is his Highness (=Baal)?” The name of Jezebel was suitable for a princess like the daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal because it identified her with the goddess ‘Anat (the Canaanite parallel of the Egyptian goddess Isis/Hathor), the beloved of Baal. It is this goddess who is addressed by the highest god, Ilu, in the above quote from the Baal myth. As Avigad recognized, the name Jezebel was rare in Phoenicia. It is probable that only princesses (who would eventually become queens) were named Jezebel.
In the Ugaritic Baal ritual, the queen represented ‘Anat, who had to revive her beloved husband Baal. Similarly the pharaoh at his death was identified with Osiris, and it was Isis who had to restore him to life with the help of her sister Nephtys. These two goddesses were often represented as uraei. By including the two cobras, the ankh symbol and the horned sundisk on her seal, Jezebel wanted to characterize herself as the revitalizing force behind the throne.
From her Phoenician point of view, she had every right to aspire to such a (semi-)divine status. Similar ideas are found in Phoenician inscriptions. The Phoenician king is called “consort of Astarte,” ‘Anat’s twin-sister. In an Aramaic inscription, a queen describes herself as the wife of the god Bel (Baal). According to Ezekiel 28:2, 9 the king of Tyre imagined himself a god. It is well known that in Israel, too, the divine nature of kingship was sometimes recognized (e.g., Psalm 2:6f., 45:7 [Hebrew verse 8], 110).
The seal attests to her aspiration for a divine status, and this may well have been what sparked the ire of the Biblical descriptions of her.
Finally, the form of the letters on the signet, especially the Y, is Phoenician or imitates Phoenician writing.4 The L also appears to be ancient Phoenician.
In short, I believe it is very likely that we have here the seal of the famous Queen Jezebel.
For further details, see Marjo C.A. Korpel, “Seals of Jezebel and Other Women in Authority,” Journal for Semitics 15 (2006), p.349 (www.sasnes.org.za/SASNES_Journal_for_Semitics.htm. PDF available from www.otw-site.eu/en/news-en.php). A revised scholarly version of the article will appear in Ugarit-Forschungen 38 (2006), publication 2008, titled “Queen Jezebel’s Seal.”
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