Her material legacy is small — an oval-shaped semi-precious stone less than an inch across, engraved with 12 ancient Hebrew letters — but it speaks volumes.
It speaks so loudly because the 12 letters — written backwards so they would make a positive imprint when pressed into soft wax or wet clay — signify “leElihana bat Gael,” which we would translate as “belonging to Elihana daughter of Gael.”
And why is that so significant? Because ancient Hebrew seals bearing women’s names are rarer than hen’s teeth. This seal was found in a controlled archaeological dig in a part of Jerusalem called the “City of David” — and it dates to the First Temple period.
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the find, from a dig that started nine years ago in a parking lot near the Arab village of Silwan. The level archaeologists are assigning to the First Temple period was reached more than 30 feet beneath the surface. The seal, along with another one belonging to a man named Sa‘aryahu ben Shabenyahu, was found in the remains of a substantial building constructed of impressive ashlars (shaped stones) that the archaeologists believe was an administrative center.
The First Temple period, which extended from Solomon’s construction of the temple in the 10th century to its destruction in 587 BCE, is typically thought of as a very male-dominated culture. Elihana’s seal, however, which may originally have been set into a ring, testifies to the reality of a woman who would have been able to own property and conduct business. Seals could be used to seal contracts or letters, or to mark property such as large jars used for storing wine, grain, oil, and other goods.
With the Martha Stewart Marshall month of preaching (February) and International Woman’s Day (March 8) fresh in our memories, it’s good to be reminded that women of substance and influence are not a new phenomenon. In Elihana’s day, it would have been even more difficult than today for a woman to gain respect in the marketplace, but evidently, like the industrious woman of Proverbs 31, she succeeded.
Blessed be her memory.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.