It was at a party sponsored by the University of Paris in June 1984. We were chatting about nothing in particular when a friend of my husband’s mentioned that he had recently seen some Phoenician antiquities at the home of a Paris collector, more specifically a beautiful ring containing a seal that appeared to have a Semitic inscription on it. I was surprised and at first doubtful; I knew that seals with West Semitic inscriptions are usually found alone, not with the ring in which they were mounted in antiquity. Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to get in touch with the collector. By this time, my husband’s friend had left Paris, without having introduced me to the collector. It took me quite some time to arrange an appointment with him, but finally the day arrived. As I drove to his flat, I wondered if it would be worth the effort. Probably a forgery or something late, I thought.

The collector lived in a luxurious flat that was like a small antiquities museum.

When he finally brought out the ring, I was stunned. The ring indeed encased a seal with a Semitic inscription on it. The collector was unaware of how exceptional this seal was. By the form of the letters on the seal, it could be dated to the seventh century B.C.

Seals from this period are not unusual; but still encased in the original silver ring, they are surely unusual. Moreover, the decorated ring was in extraordinary condition—after nearly 2,600 years.

The bezel, in which the seal was set, is surrounded by a double cable circle (Picture). The base of the bezel is decorated with a dotted line composed of granules, bordered with two cable-circle lines. On both sides of the ring, adjacent to the bezel, is a triangular area in which there are five knobs, surrounded by a cable circle, in the local tradition. This description must be considered somewhat provisional because unfortunately the ring has not been cleaned—and the owner will not permit it to be cleaned.

The band of the ring is large (0.9 of an inch in diameter); no doubt it was made for a man’s finger.

The seal in the ring is made of dark blue agate with a light blue vein.

On the seal is a three-line inscription—in reverse letters, as is usual, so that the letters will read properly when impressed in a lump of clay. The inscription was very carefully incised in the agate stone. Two straight, parallel lines fill each of the two spaces between the three lines of the inscription—as is common on these seals. Two parallel lines also run around the rim of the seal, although these are partly obscured by the ring that holds the seal. The ragged edges of the ring’s bezel reveal only part of the lines running around the edge of the seal.

The type of script incised in the seal is what scholars call paleo-Hebrew. This is the script used by the Israelites before the Babylonian Exile, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 506 B.C. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile a half-century later, they adopted the so-called square Hebrew (or Aramaic) script still in use today.a

In certain respects, this seal is just what we would expect. The paleo-Hebrew script, the three-line inscription separated by parallel lines and enclosed in an oval of parallel lines, the lack of any decoration (either human or animal figures or designs) and even the text itself—all are typical. The inscription begins with the Hebrew letter lamed—literally “to,” but meaning “belonging to”—indicating the seal’s ownership. Then the name of the seal’s owner, the name of his father and the status or occupation of the seal’s owner.

One unusual aspect of this seal has already been noted. The second extraordinary aspect of this seal is the name of the owner’s father, H|ilqiyahu. Ancient Hebrew names were almost always compressed sentences with recognizable meanings. The name H|ilqiyahu contains two word-elements. The second, -yahu, is a form of the Israelite God Yahweh. So, in scholarly terms, the name is theophoric; that is, it contains the name of a god as an element. (Eshbaal, the name of King Saul’s son, contains the theophoric element “Baal.”) The root h\lq means “to divide, to apportion.” So the entire name means something like “Yahweh is my portion.”

A similar analysis can be made of the name of the seal’s owner, H|anan. This is a diminutive of a name like H|ananyahu, which means “Yahweh has favored.”

In the English translation of the inscription—”(Belonging) to H|anan, son of H|ilqiyahu, the priest”—it is unclear whether the priest is H|anan or H|ilqiyahu. From other seals, however, we know that it is H|anan, the seal’s owner, not his father H|ilqiyahu, who is being identified as a priest. The last word, kohen, “the priest,” designates the function of the owner of the seal, H|anan, and not of his father, H|ilqiyahu. That this is a seal of a priest also makes this seal unusual; only one other seal of an Israelite priest has ever been recovered.b

But what is particularly tantalizing about this inscription is the name H|ilqiyahu. H|ilqiyahu is the name of an important Biblical personage, spelled Hilkiah in English Bibles.

Hilkiah was high priest during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (639–609 B.C.). In the 18th year of Josiah’s reign (622/21 B.C.), Hilkiah found in the Temple “a scroll of the Torah (teaching or law)” (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chronicles 34:14). Scholars almost universally agree that the scroll Hilkiah “found” was a part of the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy which, at that time, had been recently edited, or redacted. This “discovery” of Deuteronomy initiated Josiah’s famous religious reform. After the scroll was read to Josiah, the king himself went to the Temple and read it to the people—“the entire text of the covenant scroll” that Hilkiah had found. Josiah then solemnized a new covenant with the Lord: that the people “would follow the Lord and observe His commandments, His injunctions, and His laws with all their heart and soul; that they would fulfill all the terms of this covenant as inscribed upon the scroll. And all the people entered into the covenant” (2 Kings 23:3). The high priest Hilkiah and other priests then removed from the Temple objects made for Baal and other gods, and burned them.

Could the Hilkiah referred to on our seal be the high priest Hilkiah who is credited with discovering the Book of Deuteronomy?

There are several reasons to believe it is, although certainty will surely elude us.

First, the date of the seal suggests this possibility. The seal is dated by the shape of the letters. In this respect, the letters on this seal are quite close to the letters on the famous Siloam inscription, which was found in the Siloam Tunnel that King Hezekiah of Judah dug in about 705–701 B.C. in preparation for the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib (see 2 Chronicles 32:2–4; 2 Kings 20:20). This tunnel brought water from the Gihon Spring, outside the city wall, to a pool inside the walls of Jerusalem; visitors to Jerusalem can still walk through this tunnel.c The similarity in the shape of the letters on the Siloam Inscription might seem to point to Hezekiah’s reign rather than Josiah’s reign, more than 50 years later, for the date of our seal. But anyone familiar with ancient Hebrew inscriptions knows that the writing of the inscriptions on seals is often archaized—that is, deliberately written in an older style. So the inscription on our seal may well be as late as the latter part of the seventh century B.C.

Assuming that our seal dates to Josiah’s reign, it is very likely that it comes from the Temple in Jerusalem, where Hilkiah “found” the Book of Deuteronomy. The form “H|ilqiyahu” indicates an origin in the southern kingdom of Judah, rather than in the northern kingdom of Israel. In the northern kingdom of Israel, the theophoric element of the Hebrew God Yahweh was compressed to “-yah,” rather than “-yahu.” If the seal had come from the north, the name would probably be H|ilqiyah, rather than H|ilqiyahu. Accordingly, we may conclude that it came from Judah.

If it came from the kingdom of Judah in the late seventh century B.C., no doubt it came from a priest who served in the Jerusalem Temple, because after Josiah’s religious reform, that was the only place where Yahweh’s veneration was permitted. All other offering sites were destroyed in the Josianic reform.

H|anan, the priest mentioned in our seal, probably belonged to a sacerdotal family, as was traditional. Accordingly, his father H|ilqiyahu was very probably a priest too.

Although H|anan is identified as a kohen, or priest, he could well have been a high priest; for kohen can mean “high priest” as well as “priest.” In the Pentateuch, for example, Aaron and his successors, Eleazar and Phineas, who are high priests, are often referred to simply as “priests.”

The roster of high priests referred to in 1 Chronicles 6:13 and 9:11 lists Azariah, rather than H|anan, as successor to H|ilqiyahu. This roster was probably written only in the fourth century B.C. or later, making errors quite possible. But even if the list is accurate, it may well be that Azariah was H|ilqiyahu’s eldest son, who therefore served as his successor. H|anan may have been a younger son of H|ilqiyahu, who served as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, but not as high priest. In either event, the H|ilqiyahu of the seal would be the same H|ilqiyahu mentioned in the Bible.

By this time the reader may be wondering whether our seal may be a fake. The thought of course occurred to me too, even as I drove to the collector’s home for my first view of the seal. After examining the letters under a magnifying glass, however, I was convinced that all the incisions of the letters were old ones. Nevertheless, just to be safe, we had the seal examined by an expert from the Hôtel Drouot and by an expert from the Cabinet des Médailles de la Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Moreover, the collector himself had previously shown it to another expert in Near Eastern seals. All confirmed that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the seal as well as of the ring.

The more difficult question concerns the provenance of the seal. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it was found. The likelihood is that it was recovered not far from Jerusalem, either accidentally or in an illicit excavation. But this is mere conjecture. All I have been able to learn from the seal’s owner is that it was bought somewhere in the Near East in 1980 and then taken to Paris.

My greatest regret is that the present owner will not allow the seal to be removed from the ring. Some seals are inscribed on both sides, and I cannot help but wonder what is on the other side of this seal.

a. See Jonathan P. Siegel, “The Evolution of Two Hebrew Scripts,” BAR 05:03.

b. The other seal was found at Samaria and bears the inscription “Belonging to Zechariah, priest of Dor.” see Nahman Avigad, “The Priest of Dor,” Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ) 25 (1975), pp. 101–105. In addition, a bulla of unknown provenance, bearing the impression of a seal of the high priest Jonathan has been found; it dates from the second century B.C. (Avigad, “Bulla of Jonathan the High Priest,” IEJ 25 (1975), pp. 8–12). This bulla has now been acquired by the Israel Museum.

c. See Dan Cole, “How Water Tunnels Worked,” BAR 06:02.