by R. Dr. Joshua Berman
Why Does King Hezekiah’s Seal Bear an Egyptian Winged Sun God?
Hebrew University archaeologists created a stir last week announcing the discovery of a seal bearing the name of the Hezekiah son of Ahaz, the first time a seal bearing the name of a Judean king had been found in the environs of the Temple Mount and City of David. But for some, the discovery gave pause: in the center of the seal is a winged image of the disc of the sun. The Bible however (2 Kgs. 18:1-8; 2 Chr 29-32), credits Hezekiah with cleansing the Temple of impurity and of removing a variety of idolatrous sites from across the countryside. The presence of the winged sun on Hezekiah’s seal seemed to unearth a less than pious monarch.
Or does it? The truth is that the winged sun on the seal in no way refutes the biblical account of Hezekiah’s reforms.
Sun and Wings in the Bible
It is true that the winged sun is a symbol of an ancient Egyptian deity. However, both the sun and the motif of protective wings are de rigueur symbols across the ancient Near East. In fact, we find them amply attested within the Bible itself, in both profane and sacral references. The sun is a metaphor for strength, as seen at the end of the Song of Devorah, where the prophetess proclaims that Hashem’s faithful will “rise as the sun to the zenith of its strength” (Jud 5:31). Wings are a symbol of protection, as seen in Ruth’s proclamation to Boaz, “I am Ruth your handmaiden; spread now your wing over thy maidservant (Ruth 3: 9). It is no surprise therefore, that each of these images can describe Hashem, as well. Hashem is likened to the sun in Ps. 84:12: “For Hashem is a sun and a shield.” Any number of verses speak of his protective wings, as in Boaz’s praise of Ruth (Ruth 2:12): “You have come to take shelter under His wings” (cf. Deut 32:11; Ps. 36:8, 57:2, 61:5, 91:4). The sun as an image of strength, and wings as an image of protection did not belong to any one culture. In fact, the winged sun is found as an image of both kings and deities across the ancient Near East.
The image of the winged sun is clear in Hezekiah’s seal. Less clear is what it precisely symbolizes. Is the sun here a representation of Hashem, as per Ps. 84:12? Or,perhaps, the might of Hezekiah himself? Who offers protection, symbolized by the wings – again, God, or his servant the king? Perhaps the symbol conflates king and God. It is difficult to say. What is clear is that the symbol in no way suggests that Hezekiah worshipped an Egyptian deity. Were that case, the very name on the seal would read “Hezek-Amun”, or “Hezek-Re.” “Hizki-yahu” leaves no doubts as to this monarch’s loyalties.
Graven images of the Sun
It is one thing to accept the clear evidence that the Bible is comfortable describing God’s attributes through the images of the sun and wings. But to contemporary sensitivities, the notion that these things could be engraved by a saintly king is harder to grasp. Is this not forbidden?
The key verse here is Ex 20:20: לא תעשון אתי אלקי כסף ואלקי זהב לא תעשו לכם ,“You shall not make with/for me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves and gods of gold.” The midrashic and Talmudic literature to this verse derives many prohibitions. According to one opinion we are forbidden to draw celestial entities such as the sun and the moon. Another opinion, however maintains that the prohibition pertains solely to angelic creatures (cf. Mechilta to Ex. 20:20). Curiously, nowhere across midrashic and Talmudic literature is the express prohibition of drawing an image of God Himself, although this is rendered prohibited by later descisors. Anyone who has visited the synagogues of Poland can attest to the wide spectrum of interpretation that this verse has had within halachic sources. Synagogues that remain in Sephardic lands show no representations whatever, much in line with Muslim sensitivities on the issue. Foreign religious influence, it turns out, can sometimes work le-chumrah!
Many medieval commentators, however, sought out the simple meaning of the verse. For some, (Rasa”g, Ibn Ezra, Seforno) the verse prohibits creating images to be used as intermediaries in the service of Hashem. For others (Rashbam, Hizkuni) the verse prohibits the production of images of God at all, for any purpose, though this restriction, on the level of peshat, would presumably pertain solely to images made of gold and silver.
I raise this discussion not with the intent of surveying the full history of halachic interpretation to this verse, and certainly not with the aim of offering halachic guidance on the question today. Rather, I raise it with an eye toward how this verse may have been understood by a pious Judean king in the 8th century BCE. The simple meaning of Ex. 20:20 would seem not to limit such a king from employing these images. While the Rambam (Avodah Zarah 3:9) adopts the gemara’s conclusion forbidding a graven image of the sun such as that found on Hezekiah’s seal, the debate in the gemara may reflect a longstanding difference of opinion on the understanding of this verse. Its normative interpretation in Hezekiah’s day may have been closer to the opinion in the gemara that prohibits only the images of angelic beings. If that was the case, the seal may represent in visual form what the Bible expresses in words: that some combination of God and his chosen king offered strength and protection symbolized through the sun and wings.