A collection of document seals (bullae) has been unearthed near present-day Jerusalem. (credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
And the people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been dedicated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps. – 2 Chronicles 31.6 (ESV)
A recent archeological discovery has confirmed the close relationship between the people of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, despite distinctly different governments. Ortal Chalaf and Dr. Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority have unearthed dozens of seals made of clay in the City of David National Park, near present-day Jerusalem.
Reported in the Times of Israel and on the Authority’s own website, this trove of clay seals was preserved (though the documents to which they were affixed did not survive) when the Babylonians burned Jerusalem to the ground and carried its inhabitants into captivity in 586 B.C. The flames, according to the archeologists, fired the seals as in a kiln, preserving them while surely destroying the documents they were originally created to secure.
“The seals attest to the existence of the letters and their senders,” says the Authority.
An interesting revelation about the senders, who were probably clerks in the government, is that not all the names were necessarily from the southern kingdom of Judea—whose capital is said in the Old Testament to have been Jerusalem. While early seals tend to display images that tell who the senders are, later seals carry common Judean names written in early Hebrew script. Many of these names are also found in the Bible. Even more interestingly, names identified with the northern kingdom of Israel are engraved on these seals discovered in the southern kingdom.
Besides verifying the authenticity of the biblical text, what might this mean?
A Little Background
In the biblical narrative, after conquering and living in the land of Canaan for several centuries, the Israelites who had been organized as a loose confederation of tribes demanded a king like the nations around them (see 1 Samuel 8). After the reigns of the first three kings: Saul, David and Solomon, Israel split in two. This happened after Solomon’s son, who was from the tribe of Judah, refused to ease the burdens of the state on its citizens that Solomon had imposed to pay for his massive building programs and expansion of government (see 1 Kings 12).
The tribes of Judah and Benjamin ended up following the son of Solomon and this became the southern kingdom of Judah. The other 10 tribes became the northern kingdom of Israel, which saw several different ruling families and was often in conflict with Judah.
More than 200 years after the split, the northern kingdom of Israel, because of its sins, was completely defeated by Assyria. Many of its people, especially the elite, were taken off to captivity in Assyria or else scattered to other territories in the empire (see 2 Kings 17: 5-8).
Did some Israelites move south?
There has been a long debate over whether refugees from Israel made their way into Judah. There seems to be evidence from within the biblical text that the two nations, though often at odds, retained close ties and faced many of the same problems.
“Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. Judah also did not keep the commands of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. And the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had cast them out of his sight. – 2 Kings 17: 18-20 (ESV)
Furthermore, there is evidence in the Old Testament that at least a remnant of Israel’s population escaped to the southern kingdom of Judah. This comes at least partly from the mention of Israel in Judah’s history in the Book of Second Chronicles. In one passage, the two peoples were said to be worshiping together.
And the people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been dedicated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps. – 2 Chronicles 31:8 (ESV)
Later, a remnant of Israelites is mentioned as contributing, along with all Judah, to the house of the Lord.
They came to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him money that had been brought into the house of God, which the Levites, the keepers of the threshold, had collected from Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin and from the inhabitants of Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 34:9 (ESV)
Again in the same book, Israelites were mentioned among those who participated in the re-instatement of the Passover celebration as decreed by Judah’s King Josiah in Jerusalem.
No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, in Jerusalem. In the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah this Passover was kept. – 2 Chronicles 35:18-29 (ESV)
Besides these scriptures that speak of Israelites being among the people of Judah, we now have archeological evidence of the presence of people from the northern kingdom living in Judah between 720 and 586 BC. During this period, the southern kingdom still existed while the population of the northern kingdom had been displaced by people from other countries that the Assyrians brought in to occupy what would be considered Samaria.
And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Septarvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of the cities of Samaria and lived in its cities. – Kings 17: 24-25 (ESV)
This passage confirms that the Assyrian army had emptied the country. A majority of the population was taken into captivity. It is, however, reasonable to assume that, with the close relationship between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom, some Israelites sought refuge in Judah. Now, with the finds of the seals, reported by the Times of Israel, there is hard evidence that they did.
Compared to a pottery shard, the size of a document seal found at the recent excavation. (credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
Since the names on these seals represented government officials, usually scribes, it appears that some of these refugees of Israel rose to high position within the Judean dynasty.
As the Times reports: “These names are part of the evidence that after the exile of the Tribes of Israel, refugees arrived in Jerusalem from the northern kingdom, and found their way into service positions in Jerusalem’s administration,” say archeologists Chalaf and Uziel. “Furthermore two names that appear on one seal (Achiav and Menachem) were kings of Israel.”
Dr. Joe Uziel holds in his hand several document seals discovered during an archeological dig near Jerusalem. (credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
Finally, the discovery of official seals at a site associated with the ancient city of Jerusalem further establishes that the city was the administrative capital of the Judean kingdom 2,700 years ago, a fact disputed by some today.
According to the Times, “Bullae (the seals) have been discovered in large quantities in the City of David over the past 40 years, says Dr. Uziel, citing past excavations performed by Yigal Shilo and more recent ones under Roni Reich and Eli Shukra. As a whole, said Uziel, they are ‘another indication of the well-developed administrative system in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Temple period’.”
Once again, a current archaeological find supports the historical biblical account and gives us greater confidence in the whole of the scriptures because of new light being shed on individual passages.