Name of Another Biblical Figure Identified

It’s always exciting to hear of the discovery of another name in an archaeological setting that also appears in the Bible. In this case, it is a bullah that bears the name of Nathan-melek. The archaeological context and the writing style place the bullah at about 600 BC, give or take 25 years or so. A man by this very name, and in this place at this time, is known from the Bible.

And Josiah did away with the horses which the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the official, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.” (2Ki 23:11)

It is very common for bullah like this to give the family lineage of the person to whom the seal belonged, e.g. “Jacob son of Adonijah.” In this inscription no such lineage is given. The inscription simply says “belonging to Nathan-melek, servant of the king.” Perhaps no lineage is given because he was so well known that none was needed.

You may be wondering what a bullah even is. A bullah is a piece of clay that has been stamped by a seal. They were typically used to seal documents. A record of some sort, usually a legal document of some kind, would be written in ink on a sheet of papyrus; the papyrus would then be rolled up and sometimes folded over, tied with a string, and a lump of clay placed on the knot. The clay would then be impressed with a small stone seal that identified the owner. The inscription on the seal would have to be written in reverse so that it would read correctly when impressed on the clay.

Bullah of “Nathan-melek, servant of the King”

These bullae are always quite small, as can be seen in this photo. They are often smaller than an adult thumbnail. The seals were just as small, of course. It would take a very good set of eyes and a steady hand to carve the words onto the tiny stone that was used to make the seal!

If you are curious about the Hebrew inscription itself, here is an explanation.

Close-up view of the bullah of Nathan-melek.

Hebrew reads from right to left, so we begin at the upper right. The first letter looks like a slanting L, and is the letter lamed. Here it is a preposition, meaning “belonging to.” The next three letters make up the name “Nathan.” The first and last letters are identical (the letter nun); the middle letter looks something like an X. If you were  to tilt it, it would look much more like our letter “t,” which is what it is [this letter could be a hard “t” or a soft “th”]. The last three letters are still covered with some dirt, but spell out the second part of his name, “melek.” Keep in mind that the only letters are consonants; vowels have to be supplied in these inscriptions.

The second line begins with the word “servant.” The first letter looks something like an O; it is the letter ayin. It is followed by “b” and “d,” making up the Hebrew word ‘ebed, “servant.” The fourth letter is the letter “h,” functioning here as the article, “the.” The last three letters are identical to the last three letters on the top line and spell out the same word, melek, “King.” The second line, then, gives the title of Nathan-melek, “servant of the king.” This is a title that was used for high officials in the royal court, which the Nathan-melek in 2 Kings 23:11 certainly was.

Excavations south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the bullah of Nathan-melek was discovered.

Given the coincidence of the name, title, approximate date, and place on this bullah, it seems reasonable to conclude that it came from the personal seal of the official mentioned in 2 Kings 23:11. How cool is that!

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