SEAL (Heb. hôthām, seal, signet, tabb‘ath, signet ring, hātham, to seal, Gr. sphragizō, katasphragizomai, to seal). 1. Literal sense. A device bearing a design or a name made so that it can impart an impression in relief on a soft substance like clay or wax. When the clay or wax hardens, it permanently bears the impression of the seal. The discovery by archaeologists of thousands of seals reveals that their use goes back to the fourth millennium b.c. and that they were used throughout the ancient civilized world from Mesopotamia to Rome. They were made of a variety of hard substances like limestone, metal, and all kinds of precious stones. Originally they took the form of a cylinder with a hole from end to end for a cord to pass through, but this was gradually superseded by the scarab (beetle-shaped). Some were carried by cords hung from the neck or waist; many were cone-shaped and were kept in boxes; but most were made into finger rings. Every person of any standing had a seal. The best ones were engraved by skilled seal cutters and were works of art. The designs were of a great variety of objects—deities, people, animals, birds, fish, plants, and combinations of these. Many of the seals bore inscriptions giving the name of the owner or of his overlord and his profession or office. Many seals with biblical names have been found—among them Hananiah, Azariah, Menahem, Micaiah, Jotham, Nehemiah, and Gedaliah. Excavations in Palestine have produced hundreds of jar handles bearing seal impressions, some with the place of manufacture and personal names (perhaps of the potter).

SEAL. An ancient device, usually a signet ring or cylinder seal engraved with the owner’s name or with some design, used to seal goods, show ownership, attest documents, or impress an early form of trade-mark.


The following words are tr. “seal” or “signet” (sometimes “ring,” KJV):

a. חָתַם, H3159, to seal, to affix seal (Deut 32:34; Job 9:7; Isa 8:16; et al.); terrifies (Job 33:16).

b. חוֹתָם, H2597, a seal or signet ring (Exod 28:11; Jer 22:24; Hag 2:23; et al.).

c. חֹתֶ֫מֶת, H3160, a signet ring (Gen 38:25).

d. עִזְקָה, H10536, a signet ring (Dan 6:17).

e. טַבַּ֫עַת, H3192, (from a word meaning sink down), a signet ring (Gen 41:42; Num 31:50; Esth 3:10; et al.).

f. σφραγίς, G5382, a seal (Rom 4:11; 1 Cor 9:2; Rev 5:1; et al.).

g. σφραγίζω, G5381, to seal (Matt 27:66; John 3:33; 2 Cor 1:22; et al.); have delivered (Rom 15:28).

h. κατασφραγίζω, G2958, sealed (Rev 5:1).


Stamp seals.

Glyptic art (engraving or carving of seals or gems) flourished in the ancient Near E from the 4th millennium b.c. down to the end of the Pers. period in the 4th cent. b.c. Through the medium of these seals, one knows a great deal about the people of those days, the way they dressed, and their religious ideas. Seals often supply an indispensable witness to the developing thought of the ancients when other evidence is lacking. The first seal was prob. a development from the amulet which was worn as a charm. The earliest type of seal was an engraved gem or bead, flat, which produced a copy of itself by pressing it to soft clay; these were called stamp seals. In earliest times it was prob. felt that some of the seal’s protective power would be transferred to the impression. The stamp seal was virtually discarded in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the 3rd millennium in favor of the cylinder seal and came into use again only at the end of the 8th cent. b.c., when it again gradually became more common and by Hel. times had replaced cylinder seals altogether.

Cylinder seals.

The cylinder seal prob. began as little more than tiny clay spools scratched by twigs in attempts to depict a god, an animal, or perhaps a flower. The design would leave its impression when rolled on wet clay. Cylinder seals first appeared in Mesopotamia during the Uruk period of the Protoliterate Period (before c. 3000 b.c.) and were of a high quality. In all periods good and bad craftsmanship are found; the Jemdet Nasr seals are decidedly inferior to the artistry of the preceding Uruk period. The cylinder seal remained the most popular type of seal until the middle of the 1st millennium b.c. The cylinder seal reached Egypt in the 3rd millennium but since the most common writing material there was papyrus, it was not so well adapted to the cylinder for sealing documents, so the Egyptians preferred the stamp seal in a scaraboid form.

Many materials were used as cylinder seals, from baked clay to lapis lazuli, gold, silver, carnelian, blue chalcedony, rock crystal, pink marble, jasper shell-core, ivory, glazed pottery, wood haematite (an iron ore, Babylonian aban shadi). Care was exercised in the choice of stone from which the seals were cut, as some stones were considered “unlucky.” A list of lucky and unlucky stones was compiled. The seal cutter ordinarily used stones which were readily available, except for lapis lazuli which was imported from Persia, Afghanistan, or India, and shells which were brought from the Persian Gulf.

Seals of softer material could easily have been cut with flint. For the harder materials such as agate or quartz a harder tool was required. It is most likely that coarse corundum was used for this purpose. All the early seals were undoubtedly incised by hand. The earliest seals were incised with geometric patterns, prob. representations of a totem or some magical object. Religious scenes, animals and flowers, epic scenes from myths and scenes from everyday life, boating scenes, banquets, and ritual marriage also figured prominently in the designs. Most of the scenes or designs of Mesopotamian seal cylinders usually have a religious meaning. When writing was invented the seal often incorporated the owner’s name; such inscrs. began to appear in the middle of the Early Dynastic period (3000-2340 b.c.). Soon afterward the owner’s title or rank and his father’s name began to appear, and by the Akkad. period (2340-2180 b.c.) a space was often left by the seal cutter for adding the purchaser’s name. Sometimes a declaration of loyalty to a god or king was included in the inscr. Seals have been unearthed in such quantity at sites through SE Europe and the Near and Middle E from Greece and Egypt through to Iran that the general dating of seals is now undisputed (at least within two or three centuries), though sometimes it is difficult to decide the exact period or even country of origin, particularly those from regions bordering Mesopotamia. Herodotus recorded that every Babylonian gentleman “carries a seal and a walking-stick” (Book I, 195). More than 6000 cylinder seals from the ancient Near E have been published, from sites such as Ur, Eshnunna, and Khafaji on the Diyala River; and from the ancient Assyrian military capital of Kalhu, the Biblical Calah (modern Nimrud).

The cylinders were hollowed by using a copper tool with emery, revolving it by hand or with the aid of the string of a bow. The seal was worn suspended by a cord about the neck or on the wrist or attached by a pin to some part of the owner’s garment. Graves with skeletons having cylinders tied to the wrist have been found.


The scarab (as well as the amulet) was one of the most distinctive contributions of Egyp. glyptic art; it is a type of the stamp seal, and is better adapted to papyrus, the principal writing material used in Egypt, than the cylinder seal. The beetle was venerated in Egypt, the dung beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) being the emblem of resurrection and continual existence. The Egyptians saw the sun rolling like a great ball across the sky and observed the beetle carrying its food or sometimes laying its eggs in animal droppings which it rolled into a ball. The Egyptians believed that the sun-god Ra, who at dawn was Khepera, took the form of a beetle at noon and from this belief evolved the symbol of the beetle as an emblem of eternal life. It was only natural that the scarab should develop as the most distinctive form of the seal among the Egyptians. Scarabs were usually made from stea-schist, fibrous steatite, or schist, sometimes from quartz, carnelian, jasper, black obsidian, or limestone and bore cartouches (symbols or designs cut in the scarab) and were often coated with glaze. The scarab thus came to be used as a man’s signature. Scarabs were set in seal rings with a swivel type of bezel rim or mounted in the Rom. fixed fashion. Reference is made to Pharaoh’s signet ring which he gave to Joseph (Gen 41:42); undoubtedly this was a scarab and served as Joseph’s authority for transacting the king’s business. Scarabs were used to stud pectorals, crowns, and bracelets. Every pharaoh had his own scarab, often two. One gave his throne name and the other his name before ascending the throne. Cartouches of the principal pharaohs have been identified so that when they are found in diggings of ancient cities or in tombs, they are quite useful in establishing the dates of the material surrounding them. Egyptian scarabs were carried by traders and soldiers to the entire Mediterranean and Mesopotamian ar eas and have been invaluable in the dating of finds.

It became customary to bury scarabs with the dead; they were placed in the bandages of the mummy. Heart scarabs, three or four inches long, were placed where the human heart had been removed as part of the mummification process, or at the throat, engraved with the 64th ch. of the Book of the Dead which contained a spell imploring the heart of the deceased not to betray him in the judgment before Osiris. Later a number of scarabs were placed about the body. Toward the end of the eighteenth dynasty large heart scarabs were engraved in commemoration of significant secular events.

One of the most famous scarabs is the huge pectoral scarab of Amenhotep III (c. 1406-1370 b.c.) which was uncovered during the Lachish excavations. It contains in eight parallel lines of hieroglyphics the record of a lion hunt in the tenth year of the reign of Amenhotep III (Amenophis) and Queen Tiye.

Jar handles.

Though the principal use of seals was for signing documents, they were also used to make safe for shipment jars containing valuable papers or goods. A piece of cloth was placed over the neck of the bottle, soft clay was smeared on top of the binding cord, and the seal was then pressed into the wet clay. The unbroken seal was evidence that the merchandise was intact upon arrival. In Judea the seal was imprinted as a record of ownership on clay jar handles which were not yet hardened; this practice was not commonly used in Israel. There is also evidence that stamped jars were used for collecting taxes paid to the king, usually in wine or oil. Four groups of impressions on jar handles of the 5th and 4th centuries have been found: (1) The three consonants of the word Yehud (Aram. spelling of Judah) in old Heb. characters together with a monogram consisting of a cross with a circle around it; such seals prob. had official significance; (2) a circle with a star incised within it and the letters of Jerusalem in old Heb. characters between the points of the star; (3) the letters of the name Yehud on a round or oval stamp-seal with no further decoration written in early Palestinian Aram., suggesting that in this period the older manner of writing was being replaced by the newer Aram. characters; (4) seals found at Tell en-Nasbeh, containing the letters msh whose meaning is still a mystery.



The earliest seal developed from an amulet and therefore maintained some of the amulet’s magical power. The seal would deter anyone from breaking open the sealed object for fear of the evil that might overtake him. Later the unbroken seal served as evidence that the object being protected had not been tampered with. When Daniel was cast into the lion’s den, the king sealed the den with his signet and those of his lords (Dan 6:17). The tomb of Jesus was made secure by sealing the stone (Matt 27:66).

Indication of ownership.

The earliest method, as far as one knows, to distinguish a person’s property was by use of the seal; this kind of seal has been found in Neolithic settlements in Mesopotamia. The seal was engraved with a design or mark distinctive to the owner.

Authentication of documents.


Seals were used to impress an early form of trademark, as, for example, on pottery before firing. This was practiced in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3000-2340 b.c.) at Susa, and for many centuries in Syria and Pal. Judean jars bearing the stamp lammelek, “to the king,” may have been the identifying mark of the royal workshop that produced them.


Seals seem to have been used in community rites, esp. in the annual New Year Festival when the kings of Assyria and Babylonia sought the blessing of the gods and prosperity for the nation, and the gods in solemn assembly determined their destiny for the ensuing year. Large seals inscribed with the names of gods and kings have been found in the main temple of Babylon. The impressions of divine and royal seals have been found affixed to religious covenants.

Significant seal discoveries.

A serious study of seals began in the 1880s with the work of J. Ménant. Pioneer work of cataloguing was done by William H. Ward and Louis Delaporte. More recent comprehensive work has been done by H. Frankfort and A. Moortgat. The most valuable seals are those that carry cuneiform inscrs. as well as designs.

Of great interest is the lapis lazuli seal of Queen Shub-ad (c. 2500 b.c.) which was thrown into her tomb after all her other treasures and her court had been buried sacrificially with her.

Of more particular interest is the development of the seal in Israel and Judah. The first Israelite-inscribed seals that can be dated with certainty are from the dynasty of Jehu (842-815 b.c.). Israelite seals are prob. adaptations of Canaanite or Phoen. work, the latter in turn being adaptations of the Egyp. scarab seal. They show a mixture of Egyp. and Syrian influence; seal designs include the lion, young bull, cherub (winged lion with human head), the griffin (a bird-headed, winged animal), and the four-winged cobra. Also included are the ram, fighting cock, gazelles, and a standing human figure, as well as more complex scenes, sometimes drawn from non-Israelite traditions. Seals have shed new light on the Israelite system of taxation and the ability of Israelite artists. Seals and other objects show that the artistic level of Judea was higher in the 6th cent. than that of Greece. Seals from Judah which became more common in the 8th cent. and are very numerous in the 7th and early 6th do not contain any combinations of names with Baal as was quite common in Israel. A typical Palestinian seal was of the stamp type, round or oval, with a convex top. In the inscribed face a double line divided the surface. Above it was the name of the owner and below was the name of the owner’s father.

Typical of the many seals unearthed by archeologists is one found at Megiddo on the plain of Esdraelon in 1904. Dating from the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 775 b.c.), it is made of jasper and bears the image of a roaring lion with the words, “of Shema, the servant of Jeroboam,” the words “the seal” or “the property” being understood at the beginning of the inscr. From the same period the personal seals of two of King Uzziah’s officials have been found, each calling himself “the servant of Uzziyau” (Uzziah); one of the men was named Abiyau (Abijah) and the other was Shebanyau (Shebaniah). There is also a seal which belonged to King Jotham of Judah (742-735 b.c.).

Two jar handles found at Debir and one at Beth-shemesh, dating from the end of the monarchy, were all made from the same original stamp seal bearing the inscr., “Belonging to Eliakim, steward of Yaukin.” These seal impressions indicate that between 598-587 a person named Eliakim was steward (na’ar), or overseer, of the crown property of Jehoiachin while the latter was in captivity in Babylon and that this property was maintained intact and was not transferred to Zedekiah when he succeeded Jehoiachin.

A beautiful seal was found at Tell en-Nasbeh (Mizpah?), eight m. N of Jerusalem with the inscr. “To Jaazaniah, servant of the king.” It prob. refers to a Judean royal official of Gedaliah mentioned in 2 Kings 25:23, and would be dated after 587 b.c. during the governorship of Gedaliah, appointed by Nebuchadnezzar over Judea after the fall of Jerusalem (Jer 40:5, 8). The seal is incised with the figure of a fighting cock, perhaps borrowed from Egypt.

A seal of Darius the Great (522-486) shows the king in a two-wheeled chariot between two date palms. The charioteer is driving over one lion; the king stands with bow in hand ready to shoot another lion standing on his hind legs. The winged disk is depicted at the top center of the seal, along with the letters of the god Ahura Mazda. At the left is a trilingual cuneiform inscr. containing in Old Pers., Elamite and Babylonian the words, “I am Darius the great king.”

Figurative usage.


W. H. Ward, The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia (1910); W. M. F. Petrie, Scarabs and Cylinders (1917); H. Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (1939); W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1942); E. Porada, ed., Corpus of Ancient Near Eastern Seals, I (1948); H. Frankfort, Stratified Cylinder Seals from the Diyala Region (1955); M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 133-136; E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in OT Times (1956), see index; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1957), 159, 160, 197, 198, 202, 203; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 125, 126; D. J. Wiseman, Cylinder Seals of Western Asia (n.d.).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(substantive chotham, "seal," "signet," Tabba`ath, "signet-ring"; Aramaic `izqa’; sphragis; verb chatham, (Aramaic chatham); (sphragizo), (katasphragizomai, "to seal"):

I. Literal Sense.

A seal is an instrument of stone, metal or other hard substance (sometimes set in a ring), on which is engraved some device or figure, and is used for making an impression on some soft substance, as clay or wax, affixed to a document or other object, in token of authenticity.

1. Prevalence in Antiquity:

The use of seals goes back to a very remote antiquity, especially in Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus (i.195) records the Babylonian custom of wearing signets. In Babylonia the seal generally took the form of a cylinder cut in crystal or some hard stone, which was bored through from end to end and a cord passed through it. The design, often accompanied by the owner’s name, was engraved on the curved part. The signet was then suspended by the cord round the neck or waist (compare the Revised Version (British and American) "cord" in Ge 38:18; "upon thy heart .... upon thine arm," i.e. one seal hanging down from the neck and another round the waist; So 8:6). In Egypt, too, as in Babylonia, the cylinder was the earliest form used for the purpose of a seal; but this form was in Egypt gradually superseded by the scarab (= beetle-shaped) as the prevailing type. Other forms, such as the cone-shaped, were also in use. From the earliest period of civilization the finger-ring on which some distinguishing badge was engraved was in use as a convenient way of carrying the signet, the earliest extant rings being those found in Egyptian tombs. Other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians, also used seals. From the East the custom passed into Greece and other western countries. Devices of a variety of sorts were in use at Rome, both by the emperors and by private individuals. In ancient times, almost every variety of precious stones was used for seals, as well as cheaper material, such as limestone or terra-cotta. In the West wax came early into use as the material for receiving the impression of the seal, but in the ancient East clay was the medium used (compare Job 38:14). Pigment and ink also came into use.

2. Seals among the Hebrews:

3. Uses of Sealing:

(1) One of the most important uses of sealing in antiquity was to give a proof of authenticity and authority to letters, royal commands, etc. It served the purposes of a modern signature at a time when the art of writing was known to only a few. Thus Jezebel "wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal" (1Ki 21:8); the written commands of Ahasuerus were "sealed with the king’s ring," "for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse" (Es 8:8,10; 3:12).

(2) Allied to this is the formal ratification of a transaction or covenant. Jeremiah sealed the deeds of the field which he bought from Hanamel (Jer 32:10-14; compare Jer 32:44); Nehemiah and many others affixed their seal to the written covenant between God and His people (Ne 9:38; 10:1 ).

(3) An additional use was the preservation of books in security. A roll or other document intended for preservation was sealed up before it was deposited in a place of safety (Jer 32:14; compare the "book .... close sealed with seven seals," Re 5:1). In sealing the roll, it was wrapped round with flaxen thread or string, then a lump of clay was attached to it impressed with a seal. The seal would have to be broken by an authorized person before the book could be read (Re 5:2,5,9; 6:1,3, etc.).

(4) Sealing was a badge of deputed authority and power, as when a king handed over his signet ring to one of his officers (Ge 41:42; Es 3:10; 8:2; 1; Macc 6:15).

(5) Closed doors were often sealed to prevent the entrance of any unauthorized person. So the door of the lion’s den (Da 6:17; compare Bel and the Dragon verse 6:14). Herodotus mentions the custom of sealing tombs (ii.121). So we read of the chief priests and Pharisees sealing the stone at the mouth of our Lord’s tomb in order to "make the sepulchre sure" against the intrusion of the disciples (Mt 27:66). Compare the sealing of the abyss to prevent Satan’s escape Re 20:3). A door was sealed by stretching a cord over the stone which blocked the entrance, spreading clay or wax on the cord, and then impressing it with a seal.

(6) To any other object might a seal be affixed, as an official mark of ownership; e.g. a large number of clay stoppers of wine jars are still preserved, on which seal impressions of the cylinder type were stamped, by rolling the cylinder along the surface of the clay when it was still soft (compare Job 38:14).

II. Metaphorical Use of the Term.

On the analogy of the rite of circumcision (see above), the term "seal" (sphragis) was at a very early period applied to Christian baptism. But there is no sufficient ground for referring such passages as Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2Co 1:22 to the rite of baptism (as some do). The use of the metaphor in connection with baptism came after New Testament times (early instances are given in Gebhardt and Lightfoot on 2 Clem 7:6). Harnack and Hatch maintain that the name "seal" for baptism was taken from the Greek mysteries, but Anrich and Sanday-Headlam hold that it was borrowed from the Jewish view of circumcision as a seal.

See Mystery.

D. Miall Edwards