A Dutch scholar argued recently that a large opal signet in the Israel Museum was the official seal of the infamous Queen Jezebel. Could it be true?
Jezebel, according to a series of stories in 1-2 Kings, was a Phoenician princess who was married to the Israelite king Ahab, who ruled from about 869-850 B.C. She is charged with promoting the worship of Baal, and best known for an ongoing conflict with the prophet Elijah.
The large signet, pictured here from an image appearing on the Reformatorisch Dagblad website, has been known for at least 40 years. The seal’s tantalizingly large size and elaborate iconography suggest that it belonged to someone who was wealthy and powerful — and the inclusion of the consonants yzbl suggests that the someone could be Jezebel.
Unfortunately, the seal was not discovered in a legitimate archaeological excavation, but was dug up by looters and sold on the antiquities market, where it was documented by Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad in 1964. Avigad was hesitant to identify the seal’s first owner: “Though fit for a queen, coming from the right period and bearing a rare name documented nowhere other than in the Hebrew Bible, we can never know for sure.”
Marjo Korpel, the researcher mentioned above, is more confident. She is a specialist in Ugaritology, or the study of the people and language of ancient Ugarit, a Phoenician city contemporaneous with much of the biblical period, as well as being a Protestant minister. Korpel argues that the seal’s symbolism, size, shape and presumed time period make it highly likely that the seal belonged to Jezebel.
To make her case, Korpel must restore two letters to a broken area of the inscription, is indicated in the proposed restoration that can be seen at the Katholiek Nederland website. Hebrew seal inscriptions typically begin with the letter lamed, transliterated as l, which can mean “belonging to.” And, the biblical spelling of Jezebel’s name begins with an aleph (transliterated by an apopstrophe).
Thus, Korpel restores l’ to the broken part of the seal, giving us l’yzbl, “belonging to Jezebel.”
Not so fast, says Christopher Rollston, in an article posted on the American Schools for Oriental Research website.
Rollston, who teaches at the Emmanuel School of Religion, is an epigrapher, or student of ancient inscriptions. He points to indications such as the “recumbent bet (the letter that grows from the line at the bottom left corner of the inscription) and the angular lamed (behind the falcon’s tail, at the lower right) as evidence that the inscription comes from a period at least a century after Jezebel.
Rollston also finds it striking that the inscription includes no patronymic, or reference to one’s father, as is common on many seals. In this case, one might expect it to say “daughter of Ethbaal.” He notes other contemporary names that include the letters yzbl, and suggests that multiple letters could have been squeezed into the broken area at the top, giving more possibilities than Jezebel for the owner.
Did the large opal signet hang from the neck of Queen Jezebel and seal orders for the murder of Hebrew prophets? With no knowledge of the location or stratigraphy of the site where it was dug up, it is unlikely that we will ever be certain.
Even so, it’s a fascinating thought.