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Jeremiah’s Scribe and Confidant Speaks from a Hoard of Clay Bullae, Hershel Shanks, BAR 13:05, Sep/Oct 1987

jeremiah-by-michelangeloSeldom does archaeology come face to face with people actually mentioned in the Bible. When that happens, the discovery takes on a unique immediacy, touched with awe.

When a hoard of inscribed Hebrew bullae surfaced on the antiques market and was found to contain a bulla impressed with the name of Baruch, son of Neriah, known from the Bible as secretary and faithful companion to the prophet Jeremiah, the scholarly community was stunned.

That was more than ten years ago. Even now, however, the mysteries surrounding this hoard are as great as the revelations. So much is unknown about these little pieces of clay—so much that we intuitively feel should be knowable.

Like where they came from.

A bulla is a small lump of clay impressed with a seal that served as a kind of signature. Bullae were attached to ancient documents to secure them and to identify the sender. The backs of bullae often bear the impress of the papyrus on which the documents were written and the string with which the documents were tied.

The first four bullae in this particular hoard—a hoard that would ultimately number over 250—came to light in October 1975 in the shop of an Arab antiquities dealer in East Jerusalem. The four bullae were purchased by a collector who took them for evaluation to the leading Israeli expert on ancient seals and scalings, Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University.

That was only the first of many visits to Professor Avigad by a series of collectors who had purchased bullae from several Arab dealers—in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem and in the village of Beit Sahour. It was obvious to Professor Avigad that all the bullae had come from the same hoard: Bullae bearing identical seal impressions—made from the same seal—were found in the hands of different collectors who brought their purchases to Professor Avigad for evaluation. On several occasions, one lot of bullae contained a fragment that fit together with a fragment from another lot.

Apparently, the Arab villagers who found the hoard, either accidentally or as a result of illicit excavation, divided up the loot and sold their various shares to different antiquities dealers.

Eventually, a Jerusalem collector named Yoav Sasson acquired nearly 200 of the bullae. Another collector, philanthropist Reuben Hecht, who owns Haifa’s famous Dagon Tower and the shipping company associated with it, acquired 49 pieces. Hecht donated his collection to the Israel Museum, and Sasson made his collection available for scholarly publication. The entire collection has now been published by Professor Avigad in a beautiful volume entitled Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Israel Exploration Society, 1986).

Professor Avigad has wrung more information from these bullae than was imaginable—at least to this observer—but the mystery remains: Where was this hoard of bullae found? As we shall see, it is a question of some importance.

In contrast to the mystery as to where the bullae were found, the date of the bullae can be fixed with certainty. Usually, bullae that come on the market in this way are dated by the shapes of the letters in the script. Here, however, we have not one, but two, Biblical figures whose seals have been impressed in the bullae—and we know when they lived. In addition to Baruch, son of Neriah, the hoard contains the seal of King Jehoiakim’s son Yerah\me’el (Jerahmeel), who, together with two other police types, was sent to arrest Jeremiah and Baruch because of Jeremiah’s politically unpalatable prophecies (Jeremiah 36).
Jeremiah prophesied shortly before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., as well as during the Exile thereafter. Professor Avigad dates these bullae to the very end of the seventh century and the beginning of the sixth century B.C., just before Jerusalem’s conquest and destruction.

In the summer of 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia and the most powerful political figure in the entire world, crushed the Egyptian army at Carchemish and began to advance into Syria. It was clear that tiny Judah would be next on the line of march. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by the Assyrians (in 721 B.C.) and was no more. Judah was obviously no match for the Babylonians, who had assumed the position of world superpower after defeating the Assyrians. The Egyptian defeat at Carchemish made it plain that Judah was relying on a weak reed if she expected any protection from her alliance with Egypt.

For some time Jeremiah had been lashing out against Judah’s alliance with Egypt and had been predicting Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.

In the fourth year of the reign of King Jehoiakim (c. 605 B.C.), as the Bible tells us (Jeremiah 36:1), the Lord spoke to Jeremiah and instructed him to write his prophecies on a scroll. “Perhaps,” Yahweha told Jeremiah, “if the house of Judah hears all the disasters I intend to bring upon them, they will turn back from their wicked ways, and I will pardon their iniquity and their sin” (Jeremiah 36:3).

“So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote down in the scroll, at Jeremiah’s dictation, all the words which the Lord had spoken to him” (Jeremiah 36:4).

Jeremiah himself was in hiding, so he told his friend and confidant to take the scroll and read it aloud in the Temple on a fast day.

“Baruch son of Neriah did just as the prophet Jeremiah had instructed him, about reading the words of the Lord from the scroll in the House of the Lord” (Jeremiah 36:8).

When Baruch did this, it was reported to high officials at the king’s palace not far away. Baruch was sent for and was told to read the scroll to the palace officials. The officials, showing some courage, advised Baruch to go into hiding with Jeremiah.

The scroll—apparently confiscated from Baruch at the palace—was then taken to King Jehoiakim himself. Each time a few columns was read to the king, he would take those columns and burn them in the winter fire that was warming him.

Then the king ordered three courtiers, including his son Yerah\me’el, to go and “arrest the scribe Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah.” But the courtiers could not find the pair: “The Lord hid them” (Jeremiah 36:26).

When Jeremiah heard that the king had burned the scroll, he dictated to Baruch a second copy (Jeremiah 36:32). Then the Lord instructed Jeremiah to prophesy to King Jehoiakim:
“Thus said the Lord: You burned that scroll, saying, ‘How dare you write in it that the king of Babylon will come and destroy this land and cause man and beast to cease from it?’ Assuredly, thus said the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall not have any of his line sitting on the throne of David; and his own corpse shall be left exposed to the heat by day and the cold by night. And I will punish him and his offspring and his courtiers for their iniquity; I will bring on them and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem and on all the men of Judah all the disasters of which I have warned them—but they would not listen” (Jeremiah 36:29–31).

The hoard of bullae contained not only a seal impression of Baruch, son of Neriah, but also of King Jehoiakim’s son Yerah\me’el, who was sent on the unsuccessful mission to arrest Baruch and Jeremiah. Baruch’s seal impression reads as follows:

(Belonging to) Berakhyahu
son of Neriyahu
the scribe
whyrn ÷b

The inscription is in three lines, as printed above. A double line separates the first from the second and the second from the third line of text. The letters, in the old Hebrew script used in pre-Exilic Israel and Judah, are all clear and easily readable. A linear frame encloses the seal.

Baruch’s full name was apparently Berekhyahu, a fact not previously known. The common suffix -yahu in ancient Hebrew names, especially in Judah, is a form of Yahweh. Baruch means “the blessed.” Berekhyahu means “blessed of Yahweh.”

An equivalent form to -yahu is -yah, traditionally rendered as “-iah” in English translations. Neriah is really Neri-yah or Neriyahu.

Eighty of the 132 names represented in the hoard (many names appear more than once on the 255 bullae) include the theophoric element -yahu. Yerah\me’el’s bulla bears the inscription:
(Belonging to) Yerah\me’el
son of the king
ûlmh ÷b

Yerah\me’el’s seal is very similar to Baruch’s, except that it is in two lines, instead of three.

Baruch and Yerah\me’el are not the only important persons whose names appear on the bullae in this collection. They are the only two who are known to us from the Bible; but a number of other people whose seals are impressed on the bullae were important high officials. We know this because we have their titles—just as Baruch is identified as “the scribe” and Yerah\me’el is identified as the “king’s son.”

The “son of the king” or “king’s son” is itself an important position, equivalent to a title. Whether it actually refers to the king’s son, however, is a matter of debate. Some scholars believe that it does refer to the king’s physical son, both when we read of the king’s son in the Bible and on seals and bullae. (Incidentally, the title has now been found on four seals and on four other seal impressions.) Of course, in addition to his paternal tie, the king’s son played a significant role in the royal service.

Other scholars, however, argue that “son of the king” simply refers to the title of a high royal official unrelated to the king. Professor Avigad holds a middle position: His view is that the title was held by male members of the king’s family. Thus, while bearers of the title were of royal blood, they were not necessarily the king’s son in a literal sense. Of course, many scions of the royal family (king’s sons) held high official positions and used seals in the performance of their duties.

Another title that appears in this collection of bullae is “servant of the king.” The title is referred to in the Bible (2 Kings 22:12; 2 Chronicles 34:20) and is known from numerous seals and seal impressions. According to Professor Avigad, “This title was apparently a rather general one and was not indicative of the type of office held, beyond the fact that its holder was a high-ranking official of the circle close to the king.” Apparently, it was a somewhat lower title than “son of the king.”

One of the seal impressions in the hoard of bullae contains the name “’Elishamac, servant of the king.”
(Belonging to) ’Elishamac
servant of the king
ûlmh rb[[]

A man by the name of Elishama figures in the episode already described from Jeremiah 36. After Baruch read aloud the seditious scroll in the Temple, he was ordered to appear before high court officials at the palace where he again read the scroll dictated to him by Jeremiah. These officials, apparently somewhat sympathetic, or at least respectful of Jeremiah’s message, advised Baruch to go into hiding with Jeremiah. One of those officials is identified in the Bible as Elishama (Jeremiah 36:12).

Professor Avigad rejects the identification of the seal of ’Elishamac with the Elishama mentioned in this passage, because in the Bible, Elishama bears the title of scribe (“Elishama the scribe”), and on the bulla he is identified as “servant of the king.” I would not reject the identification so easily. Elishama may well have held more than one title. A scribe might also be the servant of the king.b We know that many people had more than one seal. Perhaps the seal impressed in the bulla reflected Elishama’s work as “servant of the king,” while in Jeremiah 36 where he is called “the scribe” he is listening to the work of another scribe, Baruch. Or the bulla may have been stamped with Elishama’s name at a different time in his life than the episode described in Jeremiah 36. In the course of his royal service, Elishama could well have occupied different positions at different times.

Still another official title contained on the bullae in this hoard is one “who is over the house,” as in “(Belonging) to ’Adoniyahu who is over the house.” Incidentally, ’Adoniyahu had at least two seals. The hoard contains three bullae stamped with his seals, two with the the same seal and one with a second seal. One of ’Adoniyahu’s bullae appears as follows:
(Belonging to) ’Adoniyahu
who is over the house
tybh l[ rva

The title “who is over the house” was reserved, as Professor Avigad tells us, for the highest office at the royal court after the king. In the Bible this title is held by the senior members of the royal bureaucracy (1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, 18:3). In the eighth century B.C., one Shebna held this position under King Hezekiah, until Shebna was reduced to the rank of scribe (Isaiah 22:15ff, 36:3; 2 Kings 18:18).

Finally, a unique seal impression in the hoard bears the title “Governor of the city” (sar ha-ir). Instead of the typical form, which would lead us to expect “(belonging) to x, governor of the city,” this seal impression contains only the title, not the name of the person who bore the title. Moreover, the title appears only in tiny letters enclosed in an oval (or cartouche, to use the scholar’s term). Most of the seal is taken up with two figures facing one another, in pseudo Assyrian style. Both are bearded, with long hair; and are dressed in long garments. One holds a bow and three arrows. The other has his right hand raised as if giving a blessing to the man with the bow and arrows. Based on parallels on Assyrian reliefs and cylinder seals, it would appear that the figure with the bow and arrows—he is depicted somewhat larger than the other man—is the king. The slightly smaller figure is probably the governor of the city. According to Professor Avigad, the governor is raising his hand to indicate his submission and loyalty to the king, a common theme in Assyrian glyptic art.

Since this seal did not bear the owner’s name, perhaps it was used by successive governors of the city, as a kind of seal of office. Although it was obviously used as late as the end of the seventh century B.C., it may have been carved in the first half of the century, during the reign of Manasseh, when Israel was a loyal vassal of Assyria and strongly influenced by her.

The title “governor of the city” is known from the Bible (Judges 9:30; 1 Kings 22:26; 2 Chronicles 34:8; 2 Kings 23:8). There it appears that the title was held only by rulers of capital cities. Accordingly, Professor Avigad concludes that this seal belonged to the governor of Jerusalem:
“The city [referred to in the seal impression] was surely the capital and not an outlying, secondary town, and the anonymous official was certainly the mayor of Jerusalem.”1

All of this leads us to ask what kind of documents these bullae secured and where the document collection was stored.
These bullae survived for the most part because they came from a site destroyed in a great conflagration. As Professor Avigad notes, “Bullae of dried clay do not generally survive in good condition in the presence of damp soil.” The fire that destroyed the documents to which the bullae were attached assured the preservation of the bullae, however, by baking the clay. The bullae were fired unevenly, with the result that they contain variations in color from reddish-brown to yellowish and shades of gray and black. Sometimes the clay was overfired, resulting in clay that is fragile and friable.

While none of the papyrus documents from this collection survived (although the impress of the payrus weave and of the string or cord that tied the documents can often be seen on the backs of the bullae), we know a great deal about how the bullae were used and how the documents were sealed and stored. Our evidence comes from the Bible and from other archaeological discoveries as well.

While no papyri sealed with bullae have survived from as early as the seventh century B.C. (the date of this hoard), a collection of Jewish documents from Elephantine (an island in the Nile in Upper Egypt) dating to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., was discovered largely intact with their bullae. The collection included letters, deeds of sale, marriage deeds and documents concerning finances. The papyri had been folded several times and tied with string, and then sealed with a single bulla.

In a cave in the Wadi Daliyeh near Jericho, some papyrus fragments from the fourth century B.C. were discovered in the 1960s.c There each document was sealed with several bullae. One document had seven bullae attached to seven strings that tied it.

One wonders whether this is the reason for some of the duplicate bullae in the hoard from the time of Jeremiah. The hoard contains several examples of two and four bullae stamped with the same seal. In one case, 14 bullae are stamped with the same seal: “(Belonging) to Neriyahu (son of) ’Asherh\ai.”

In addition, some people whose names are contained in the hoard had two, three and, in one case, six different seals.

The documents themselves were undoubtedly archival documents—important letters, permits, contracts and perhaps deeds for the purchase of land.

Which brings us back to the Book of Jeremiah. Chapter 32 of the Book of Jeremiah contains the clearest description we have of the way property was transferred in pre-Exilic Judah, including the preparation of the deed, its form and the steps taken to preserve it. Moreover, this description is not in reference to just any land, but to land purchased as a symbol of Jeremiah’s faith in God and a sign of his confidence that someday things would return to normal.

It was during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. Zedekiah, then king of Judah, had had Jeremiah arrested—confined in the court of the palace guards—because of his prophecies.

Then the Lord came to Jeremiah and told him that his cousin Hanamel would offer to sell Jeremiah a field Hanamel owned in Anathoth. Jeremiah, it was explained, had a kinsman’s right of redemption on the land. Just as God had said, Hanamel came to Jeremiah and offered to sell him the land. Apparently Hanamel was selling in despair, bereft of any hope for the future. The kinsman’s right of redemption (see Leviticus 25:25) was a kind of right of first refusal. Jeremiah bought the field in Anathoth for 17 shekel weights of silver (this was before coinage). Jeremiah, who one might suppose was in the depths of despair, thereby expressed his hope for the future. Jeremiah knew that God was instructing him to buy the land (Jeremiah 32:8). God was thus symbolically telling him that, beyond the impending tragedy, normal life would one day return to the land. As one commentator has stated: “In view of this passage, the authenticity of which is unquestionable, one need not ask whether or not Jeremiah held out hope for the future.”2
To memorialize the sale, a deed was signed, sealed and delivered, and then placed in storage. The Bible describes the transaction in some detail, which, as one might expect, was handled by Jeremiah’s faithful friend, Baruch.

“I wrote out a deed [says Jeremiah], sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance. I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, and gave the deed to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound. In their presence I charged Baruch as follows: Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘take these documents, this deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one and put them into an earthen jar, so that they may last a long time.’ For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land’” (Jeremiah 32:10–15)

The deed was in writing, witnessed and sealed. It was apparently a so-called double deed. There were two copies, “the sealed text and the open one.” The sealed text was rolled up and sealed with a bulla or bullae. The sealed text contained the original deed, and would be opened only in case of a judicial dispute concerning the contents. The open, unsealed copy was available for ready reference. It is not clear whether the open deed contained the entire text of the original or just an abstract of the provisions in the original.

Examples of documents in two copies are known from Elephantine, where the two texts were written on a single sheet of papyrus. One half of the sheet was then rolled up, tied with cord running through holes in the middle of the sheet, and then sealed. The other half was then loosely rolled but not sealed. In this way the sealed copy was protected against fraudulent alteration, while the open copy remained available for inspection. Similar documents from the third century B.C. have been found in Avroman in Kurdistan. Such documents were also used in Roman times when the closed, rolled-up portion was known as scriptura interior, and the open portion as scriptura exterior. In the Talmud, double documents are referred to as “tied deeds.” These deeds were common in the Hellenistic period as well.

In early Mesopotamia, scribes writing in cuneiform on clay tablets often enclosed the document in a clay envelope. The clay envelope bore on its outside a copy of the original document inside the envelope.
In order to, as it were, file the deed to the Anathoth land, Jeremiah instructed Baruch to put the copies “into an earthen jar so that they may last a long time” (Jeremiah 32:14).
This was apparently the method of storing important documents. The Elephantine documents were found in earthen jars, and so were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Of course, one can’t help wondering if one of the documents to which one or more of the bullae in this hoard was attached—perhaps the bulla bearing Baruch’s name—was the very deed transferring the field at Anathoth from Hanamel to Jeremiah. It’s possible, but there is no evidence either way.

There is an even more intriguing question, however—more intriguing because it is perhaps answerable: Where did this hoard of bullae come from?

If we knew, we could excavate and perhaps find other remains that might tell us more about the bullae and the documents that they originally sealed. We might also learn more about the people who sealed them, what kind of archive they came from and what relationship the archive had to the Jerusalem court.

The presence of so many bullae bearing the titles of high-ranking royal officials—from the king’s son to the governor of, according to Professor Avigad, Jerusalem—strongly suggests that this was a royal administrative archive or depository that originated in Jerusalem. Professor Avigad speculates that the archive was destroyed in the final conflagration that consumed Judah in 586 B.C.

According to the antiquities dealers through whose hands the bullae passed, the hoard was found about 44 miles southeast of Jerusalem, near Tell Beit Mirsim. As soon as this was learned, several archaeologists, including Professor Avigad, searched the area and located a hill near Tell Beit Mirsim that revealed traces of recent illegal digging, but not at a sufficient depth to suggest that this was the findspot of the bullae. Professor Avigad admits, however, that the search was “brief” and “not very thorough.”

Why wasn’t a more thorough search of the area conducted by the Department of Antiquities? Why didn’t someone offer $5,000 to the antiquities dealers and another $5,000 to any person who would anonymously lead the archaeologists to the findspot?

The answer will no doubt be that there was no money for this—or even enough to make a thorough search. But imagine the value of what could have been learned if the findspot had been located. The reward could easily have been paid from the antiquities that would surely have been uncovered.d Unfortunately, a petrifying inertia seems to characterize the archaeological establishment when faced with a problem like this. No one even thinks of trying to solve it, or weighs the cost against the likely benefits, or brings any imagination to the task.

So, in the end, we are left with speculation, with more or less likely possibilities.

Professor Avigad considers the possibility that the bullae may actually have been found in the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem, known as the City of David. Digging here, archaeologist Yigal Shiloh recently found a hoard of 51 bullae, contemporaneous with the hoard we have been considering. Shiloh’s bullae too were preserved by having been baked in a conflagration—the burning of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Professor Avigad rejects the possibility that his bullae came from the City of David because, he says, illicit diggers would probably have been quickly discovered if they had been digging in that well-observed area. (What if they had been digging in the basement of a house?)

So the bullae probably came from a site outside Jerusalem. Perhaps in anticipation of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the archive was removed to what was considered—incorrectly, as it turned out—a safer location.

We may close with one final question, a question about Baruch, Jeremiah’s friend, confidant and loyal supporter—Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary and recorder of his life and prophecies—Baruch the professional scribe:

Was he an official who bore this title as part of his royal administrative duties, or was he simply Jeremiah’s personal scribe?

Professor Avigad suggests this appealing scenario: From the Bible, we know that Baruch was of a noble family. His brother Seriah was a minister at King Zedekiah’s court and was sent on an important mission to Babylonia (Jeremiah 52:24). Baruch’s seal impressed on a bulla in this collection, which included so many important royal officals, suggests that at the time Baruch pressed his seal into this lump of clay, he too was serving as an official royal scribe. Later, Professor Avigad suggests, he left the royal employ and joined his friend Jeremiah in his struggle against the pro-Egyptian, anti-Babylonian foreign policy of the court. That struggle, alas, proved unsuccessful, and Jerusalem in all its glory was destroyed soon thereafter.

a. Yahweh is the common vocalization of the personal name of the Hebrew God represented in the Bible by four Hebrew consonants YHWH, referred to by scholars as the tetragrammaton.
b. Professor Avigad rejects the possibility because if ’Elishamac of the seal had also been a scribe, “It is unlikely that the royal scribe would put aside his own title for another, less specific one which did not reflect his function.”
c. See Paul W. Lapp, “Bedouin Find Papyri Three Centuries Older than Dead Sea Scrolls,” BAR 04:01, and Frank M. Cross, “The Historical Importance of the Samaria Papyri,” BAR 04:01.

1. Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), p. 32.
2. John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), p. 239.

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