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Offline MadDog  
#1 Posted : Saturday, October 22, 2022 5:06:07 PM(UTC)
MadDog
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12 Tribes of Israel on a Seal from Egypt?

Last week’s Thinker Update showed how archaeological evidence for worship of foreign gods and idols among ancient Israelites actually fits the picture painted by the Bible. This week’s update will apply that reality to cover an intriguing interpretation of an impression made by a cylinder seal found at Avaris. Could the symbols found on this seal be evidence that it belonged to Joseph’s family during their time in Egypt?

The find was uncovered from the ancient city of Avaris, modern Tell el-Daba, in Egypt’s northeast Nile delta. Excavations by the Austrian Archaeological Institute of Cairo at the site were conducted for several years in the 60s and then from 1975 onward until today. Manfred Bietak was the director of the digs from 1966 – 2009. In 1979 his team discovered an intriguing little cylinder seal on the floor level of the Middle Kingdom palace.

Seals were very common in the ancient world and were typically used to press into clay or some other soft substance to put an owners stamp on commercial and legal documents or products, and for tamper-proofing whatever was inside a container. Seals were often worn around the neck or as rings by officials or their representatives. They could bear a single image (as would be the case with a ring) that would require only a single push into the soft clay (bulla), or they could be in the form of a small cylinder that would be rolled on the clay to impress a longer sequence of images.

The fact that this seal was discovered in association with the Middle Kingdom palace is significant, because this was the period highlighted in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus when Jacob, Joseph and the first generation of Israelites lived in Egypt. This was before their exodus from that land under the leadership of Moses.


The city of Avaris below the city of Ramesses. (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)
In the film, David Rohl, Charles Aling and Bryant Wood pointed to a strong pattern of evidence matching the biblical account at Avaris. It was Rohl who had first come up with most of these connections. Avaris existed at the same location (at its southern edge) as the city of Rameses, mentioned in the Bible as the place the the family of Jacob settled, where they built store houses, and from where they later departed in the Exodus. However, Avaris existed several centuries earlier than when the city named Ramesses after Pharaoh Ramesses II would come into being during the New Kingdom.

The settlement of Avaris initially developed late in the Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty as a town of Asiatic (Semites from the area of Syria/Canaan) that was allowed by the Egyptians, since there were no fortifications built around it. The culture of the population was seen to match the Canaan/Syria area in multiple ways, such as the architecture, pottery, and burial positions used by the settlers.

The site also fits the Bible’s Exodus account because it quickly grew to one of the largest cities in the world of its day, before falling on hard times and partially evacuating at a time when Egypt’s power collapsed. Stunningly, at this point the former superpower of Egypt lacked the ability to defend itself, resulting in an occupation by the foreign Hyksos rulers from the north.

Evidence matching the career of Joseph at Avaris includes a palace built in an Egyptian style, but belonging to a Semitic official. This fits the rewarding of Joseph by Pharaoh in return for saving Egypt from the ravages of a 7-year famine. Pharaoh raised him to second in command over Egypt and gave him other rewards. The construction of the palace has been dated to either very late in the 12th Dynasty or early in the 13th Dynasty. In Rohl’s system, this would put it late in Joseph’s life.


The 12 pillars in front of the heart of the palace (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)


The 12 primary tombs behind the palace (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)
The palace had other interesting aspects; it initially contained 12 pillars at its entrance and had 12 primary tombs behind it. These fit the 12 sons of Jacob (who was also named Israel) who were the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. The primary tomb of the Semitic official was in the shape of pyramid, something unique at this time for a foreigner – again fitting the great rewards and honor given by Pharaoh to Joseph.


Semitic weapons, including daggers and axes, found at Avaris. (Credit: David Rohl)
Two of the 12 priminant graves in the palace garden contained ornate bronze belts and bronze daggers. This match the Bible’s description of the family of Jacob being one of the most wealthy and powerful clans in Canaan before coming to Egypt. The daggers also hearken to the incident in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi took their swords and killed the men of Shechem in revenge for the defilement of Dinah. This prompted Jacob to bless them as follows:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. – Genesis 49:5-7 (ESV)


Statue of the high Semitic official found in the shrine of the pyramid tomb and a digital reconstruction. (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)
In a shrine in front of the pyramid tomb, the remains of a colossal statue of the Semitic ruler were found – and he was depicted as wearing a multi-color coat. The bones of the person buried here were found to be missing. This again fits the promise made by Joseph’s family that they would take his bones with them when the left Egypt to return to the Promised Land.

A Reinterpretation of the Seal

Egyptologist, Manfred Bietak at Avaris in 2002. (Copyright 2002, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)
Linking the early phase at Avaris to the Israelites is not accepted by most scholars because it is thought to be too early (600 years prior) before the time of Pharaoh Ramesses II, when most date the Exodus. Examining an impression made by the seal, Manfred Bietak recorded this interpretation in his book on Avaris, “Impression from the cylinder seal depicting the north Syrian weather-god …” (see citation under the image at the head of this article).

In 1984, Edith Porada, a specialist in cylinder seals, published a 4-page paper* on this seal from Avaris. Her conclusions were similar to those of Bietak, calling the human figure “a Syrian weather god.” The most likely candidates in a mainstream view would be Ba’al or the Canaanite god El.

*(Porada, Edith. “The Cylinder Seal from Tell El-Dab’a.” American Journal of Archaeology 88, no. 4 (1984): 485-88. doi:10.2307/504736.)


Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron. (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)
Enter Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, a Torah scholar from Israel who has come up with an alternative interpretation of the seal. His provocative conclusion is that its symbols actually match representations of the 12 tribes found in the Bible as well as information from a rabbinical midrash. Details of his proposal can be read in his article, The Seal of Joseph in His Palace at Tell Ed-Daba.

Rabbi Bar-Ron has been impressed by the proposal of David Rohl and others for placing the Israelites at Avaris during the late 12th and 13th dynasties. And it was from an image in Rohl’s book Exodus – Myth or History? that he learned of the seal. While Rohl is not fully convinced of an Israelite connection, Bar-Ron believes the seal was crafted long after the passing of Jacob, and is likely the seal of Ephraim the son of Joseph – not of Joseph himself. In his view, as well as Rohl’s, Ephraim was the 13th dynasty vizier Iymeru the son of Ankhu (Joseph in this view). In Rabbi Bar-Ron’s view, the seal would then be depicting the prominence of the house of Joseph among the other tribes of Israel.

In his article, the rabbi writes, “Again, when freshly examining this bulla in the context of Israel’s traditions of its Patriarchal Period, it appears to bear a symbol for each the 12 tribes, mostly based on Jacob’s blessings to his sons (Gen. ch. 49).” He also uses information from Moses blessing Israel in Deuteronomy 33. A third source is the ancient midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 2,7 – this has descriptions for six of the tribes that seem to match symbols on the seal.

I will go through each of the symbols of the seal with some of Rabbi Bar-Ron’s views while sometimes comparing them to the conclusions of Edith Porada. The tribal fathers were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin.


The right-hand column of the seal impression.
Joseph: Bar-Ron begins with the right-hand column, top to bottom. He links the bull symbol with Joseph the father of Ephraim and Manasseh. In both Jacob and Moses’ blessings, Joseph is a fighting bull, with special emphasis given to his horns (Gen. 49,6, Deut. 33,17):

“…May these rest on the head of Joseph, on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers. A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox, with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Deuteronomy 33:16-17 (ESV)“…May these rest on the head of Joseph, on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers. A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox, with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Deuteronomy 33:16-17 (ESV)

The high placement, and prominence of the bull symbol on the seal fits the power of Joseph’s clan in Egypt, as well as among the tribes of Israel. Edith Porada notes in her article that the posture of this bull in its attacking position is unparalleled in other ancient art from Syria and Egypt.

Reuben: Rabbi Bar-Ronhe interprets the symbol under the bull as waves of unstable water.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn … Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!” – Genesis 49:3-4 (ESV)

Bar-Ron sees the position of this symbol under the bull as representing Reuben’s weakness, as the deposed firstborn of Jacob, compared to Joseph above him. Joseph was given the status of firstborn by Jacob, replacing Reuben, the actual firstborn. Edith Porada identifies this symbol as the common decorative architectural style called “guilloche,” which often looked like braided or interwoven ribbons with rounded spaces between them.

Levi: The next symbol down in the right column is a bird of prey in a hunting pose with its head on the right facing downward. The simplicity of the design on the seal makes this identification difficult, but Edith Porada compares the figure with other similar depictions on seals from Syria that are drawn in much more detail. She confirms that it is a type of bird. Rabbi Bar-Ron states that in the ancient Jewish Ḥabbani-Yemenite oral tradition, “Levi was symbolized by a high-flying vulture.”

Judah: The symbol at the bottom of the column is a lion.

“Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet …” – Genesis 49:9-10 (ESV)

Bar-Ron notes that the lion of Judah’s low position at the bottom of the seal fits the idea that the tribe of Joseph would have felt a need to show dominance over a rival tribe of whom leadership had been foretold. Judah was also the brother who came up with the idea to sell Joseph in the biblical account (Genesis 37,26-27).


The middle column of the seal impression.
God or god: The image on the top of the middle column is identified as deity figure by everyone in the debate. Porada represents the standard view in thinking that this is probably the weather god Ba’al, who is depicted similarly on other Syrian seals as standing on two mountain peaks. She believes the imagery would then suggest that he is the protector of the seafarers below him in the ship.

However, she says that despite some similarities with the depictions of other weather gods, “there are “considerable differences” between the weather god depicted on the Dab’a seal and such depictions in other Syrian examples. “There is no good parallel in Syrian art for a weather god in as lively a pose as the little figure from Dab’a,” she writes.

For Rabbi Bar-Ron, this may be an anthropomorphic (human-like) image of YHWH, the God of Joseph and the owner of the seal. The figure is standing on the peaks of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. The Bible’s account has the twin peaks of Gerizim and Ebal above the central location of Shechem, the significance of which was emphasized from the time of Abraham and throughout Israel’s history. “Shechem is the crown of Jacob’s inheritance,” Bar-Ron writes, “which he bequeathed to Joseph (Gen. 48,22), per his firstborn status. Mt. Gerizim remains sacred to the Samaritans until this day.” The Bible also uses language describing YHWH as a man of war:

The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name. – Exodus 15:3 (ESV)

Based on last week’s Thinker Update, either identification could fit for the Israelites in the generation following Joseph. Recall in that article Ezekiel’s admonishment of the Israelites in Egypt for their idol worship and also the fact that Aaron helped make the Golden Calf on Sinai.

Rabbi Bar-Ron also has an alternate interpretation that this could symbolize the tribe of Benjamin who was Joseph’s favorite brother and is said to dwell between the shoulders of God based on the Septuagint’s rendering of Moses’ blessing to Benjamin in Deuteronomy 33:12. (see Bar-Ron’s article for more information)

Dan: The next figure below is a snake.

“Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path …” – Genesis 49:17 (ESV)



Walls in Sakkara Egypt. (Copyright 2014, Patterns of Evidence, LLC.)

Simeon: The bottom figure in the center column in Rabbi Bar-Ron’s proposal is the gated walls of Shechem. He writes, “According to rabbinical legend (Bamidbar Rabbah 2,7) the flag of Simeon bore an image of Shechem (the walls thereof), which he and Levi destroyed. This midrash is likely to have been based on an earlier tradition. For what we see in the bulla is a wall with a niched façade, or with gates or false doors along it.” Examples of similar types of construction with niched and open walls can be seen at Sakkara, Egypt above.



The top and bottom of the left-hand column of the seal impression.

Asher: The symbols at the top of the left-hand column of the seal are partial due to damage. There might also be a missing symbol in this area (such as a partial view of Gad to the far left). Parado identifies the top-most symbol that can be seen as part of “the wing of a sun disk or of a bird with spread wings.” In contrast, Bar-Ron sees “the lower side of an olive branch with 8 leaves. Asher was the eighth child of Jacob.” He also inherited a region with plentiful olive groves.

And of Asher he said, “Most blessed of sons be Asher; let him be the favorite of his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.” – Deuteronomy 33:24 (ESV)

Naphtali: The section of the next image that can still be seen shows a creature that Bar-Ron thinks could be the head and neck of deer or antelope with its long ears. Porada believes it to be a goat, while others have different interpretations.

“Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives beautiful words.” – Genesis 49:21 (ESV)

Zebulun & Issachar: The image at the bottom of the column is a sailing ship. Porada believes it shows two persons rowing, indicated only by their heads. Bar-Ron favors the interpretation of a ship with the bounty of overseas trade therein depicted on the sails. While Jacob blessed these two tribes separately, Moses blessed them together with the bounty of the seas.

“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out, and Issachar, in your tents… for they draw from the abundance of the seas.” – Deuteronomy 33:18-19

“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 (ESV)

Certainly, this is enough for Rabbi Bar-Ron to claim that “this is none other than the signet seal of the House of Joseph from the Israelite sojourn in Egypt” If it was made by a craftsman from the family of Jacob and Joseph, they would likely have utilized the common imagery of the day for use in making the seal, that was then adjusted to fit the unique aspects of their family’s story.

In fact, Edith Porada writes that the overall simplified style of this seal has no Syrian counterparts, while also noting differences with any similar Egyptian depictions. She concludes that this seal from Avaris is, “carved in a style dependent on, but not belonging to, known Syrian cylinder seals and that it may be the product of a local seal cutter. This seal cutter probably worked in the eighteenth century B.C. [early 13th Dynasty] and selected motifs of special significance to his clientele.”

We may never know for certain the possible connection of this seal to the early Israelites. But even if new information casts doubt on that link, this is only one small (but potentially significant) artifact in the midst of a much larger pattern of evidence fitting the biblical narrative for the early Israelites in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. – Keep Thinking!

NOTE: For more details of Rabbi Bar-Ron’s proposal, go to his article, The Seal of Joseph in His Palace at Tell Ed-Daba.
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