Excavations at Tel Lachish have unearthed two identical seal impressions that scholars believe may belong to the chief steward of King Hezekiah. Known from 2 Kings and the book of Isaiah, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah is mentioned as holding the “keys” to the royal house of David. He was also critical in conveying messages between King Hezekiah and Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib’s officials during the latter’s failed campaign to take Jerusalem in the late eighth century b.c.e. All totaled, Eliakim son of Hilkiah is mentioned nine times in Scripture.
The beautifully crafted seal impressions belonging to Eliakim were unearthed in 2014 during renewed excavations at Lachish, led by Hebrew University’s Yosef Garfinkel, Michael G. Hasel and Martin G. Klingbeil of Southern Adventist University. A report authored by the excavating archaeologists (as well as by Nestor H. Petruk) appeared in the May 2019 issue of Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, but has largely been overlooked in popular reporting.
The first of the identical impressions (otherwise known as a bulla) was discovered in situ inside a small juglet that was lying in a destruction layer left by King Sennacherib’s assault on Lachish. An identical bulla was found months later, after the earth surrounding the juglet was sent to Jerusalem to be wet sifted.
The destruction of Lachish, Judah’s second-most important city of the time, is well attested to in the archaeological record at the site (Lachish level iii), as well as on the Lachish wall reliefs at Nineveh where Sennacherib pictographically represented his conquest of the city. The Bible also details Lachish’s fall in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles and Isaiah. Thus, the seal impressions were found in the correct context to relate them to the biblical event.
However, as is often the case with seal impressions from 2,700 years ago, there is a small catch to connecting the bulla with Eliakim from the biblical account. The inscription doesn’t read “Belonging to Eliakim, son of Hilkiah.” Instead, it says, “L’lyqm yhwzrh,” anglicized to “Belonging to Eliakim, Yehozarah.”
According to the report, the relationship between the two names Eliakim and Yehozarah is most probably clarified by inserting “son of.” Often, seal impressions will contain a ben, “son of” element, but in several examples the element is absent but implied. The seal impression of King Hezekiah himself, discovered in Eilat Mazar’s 2009–201o Ophel Excavations, similarly reads “Hezekiah · Ahaz,” where “son of” is implied. Thus the Lachish bulla could be understood to say, belonging to Eliakim, [son of] Yehozarah”
The seal impression, then, doesn’t mention Eliakim’s father as Hilkiah, but as Yehozarah. So how could it belong to the biblical figure?
In their report, the excavators note that the name Yehozarah does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Yet it does appear on another seal impression that surfaced on the antiquities market in 1974. Although it wasn’t found in a controlled archaeological excavation, this Yehozarah impression is considered to be authentic by scholars and is dated epigraphically to the time of Hezekiah.
This bulla reads: “Belonging to Yehozarah, son of Hilkiah, servant of Hezekiah.”
Yehozarah appears only a handful of times in the archaeological record. The two Lachish bullae have Yehozarah as Eliakim’s father. And the antiquities market bulla has Yehozarah as the son of Hilkiah, who also just happened to be a servant to King Hezekiah.
Combining the two seal impressions, the scholars see three generations here: Eliakim, son of Yehozarah, son of Hilkiah. Thus, Hilkiah was actually the grandfather to Eliakim, not his immediate father. The Bible allows for such a jump in a generation, especially if the grandfather was more well known than the father himself—the biblical word for “son” is used in the same manner for a “grandson.” The researchers highlight numerous biblical examples of this, including Laban and the children of Leah and Rachel, Saul and Meribbaal, Nimishi and Jehu, Iddo and Zechariah (among others).
Further attesting to this special status of the name Hilkiah is the way in which it is used. Eliakim is nearly always mentioned with this “son of Hilkiah” appellation. The same is not true, however, for Shebna and Joah, individuals Eliakim is often mentioned alongside. “Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rab-shakeh …” (2 Kings 18:26; in fact, Shebna’s father is never mentioned in the biblical text). The Bible draws extra, repeat attention to the importance of Eliakim’s “father”—three times in this single chapter. Clearly, this is not a regular listing of a “father’s name.” It’s something unique that the Bible emphasizes.
Garfinkel, Hasel, Klingbeil and Petruk conclude their discussion this way:
Thus, it is possible that the bullae from Lachish presented here stem from the personal seal of Eliakim the royal steward in the time of Hezekiah (according to 2 Kings 18:18), son of Yehozarah (not mentioned in the Bible but on the bulla from the Israel Museum) and grandson of Hilkiah (also mentioned in 2 Kings 18:18).
The scholars also drew attention to the imagery (iconography) of the bullae. Impressed in the central register of the bullae are two beautifully crafted animal figures facing each other. These are identified as grazing does, which also features on two other seal impressions discovered at the site and from elsewhere in Judah during the same period. As the authors show, the grazing doe is predominately found in Judah, as opposed to the northern tribes of Israel.
Similarly, on the seal impression of Isaiah the prophet (discovered in Jerusalem alongside the Hezekiah bulla), Eilat Mazar identified the partially-preserved motif as that of a grazing doe, which is believed to symbolize prosperity. (Interestingly, this kind of imagery is found in the book of Isaiah—for example, in Isaiah 11:6; 13:14 and 35:6).
There have been many other unprovenanced bullae, likely from around the same period, that feature the grazing doe motif. Two of these can be directly connected to the reign of King Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah. As such, it’s possible that the grazing doe motif was related to those in religious service to the Judean monarchy throughout the long eighth-century service of Isaiah the prophet. “It stands to question if this persisting motif … is not an indicator for an intentional royal strategy to preserve a religious and political national identity,” the report states. This would fit well within the period of religious reform led by the Prophet Isaiah and supported by King Hezekiah.
Put together, both the inscription and the iconography on the bulla fit extremely well within the context of the biblical narrative. And while it’s impossible to be 100 percent positive that the seal impression belongs to Hezekiah’s royal steward, the evidence points to this being the case.
This discovery, then, brings to life the history of one of the most prominent personalities related to King Hezekiah. As recounted in Isaiah 22, Eliakim was not always in such a lofty position. Instead, he was destined to replace the disgraced Shebna, holding the keys to the royal house of David. Isaiah 22:20-22 state:
And it shall come to pass in that day, That I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah; And I will clothe him with thy [Shebna’s] robe, And bind him with thy girdle, And I will commit thy government into his hand; And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; And he shall open, and none shall shut; And he shall shut, and none shall open.