Excavators at Tel Beth-Shemesh recently announced the discovery of a small seal that shows a human figure possibly fighting a large lion. The seal was found in an 11th century B.C. context. In the Bible, Samson lived in the area surrounding Beth-Shemesh in this same general period. Judges 14 relates how he fought and killed a lion in the area then turned it into a riddle for the Philistines at his wedding feast. Are the seal and the story connected?
We cannot say. The excavation directors from Tel Aviv University suggest that, at most, the seal may reflect a regional story about a man fighting a lion. In the end, one’s interpretation depends largely on one’s assumptions. Those who dismiss the Bible’s veracity likely assume there is no connection between the seal and Samson. Those who accept the historical accounts in the Bible may be open to a possible connection. I take the latter view. An ancient story and an ancient seal, both set in the same period and place, seeming to depict a common event… it’s unreasonable to simply dismiss a possible connection. If someone did famously fight a lion, would people in the area commemorate it in some way?
Human and animal figures frequently appear together on ancient seals. A few years ago we found a seal at Khirbet Qeiyafa showing a human figure standing on top of a lion. That seal also contained Egyptian-related symbols. The new seal from Beth-Shemesh lacks other symbols, which *may* differentiate it to some degree. (I’m not an expert on ancient seals, so don’t take that as Gospel. Thousands of seals have been unearthed in the region of ancient Canaan.)
This seal could be unrelated to Samson, but at this point we just do not know. We may never know for sure.
A Ha’aretz article (log in required) about the discovery also mentions two structures from the same period that contain “enigmatic” installations. The article does not say if the seal was found in one of these structures. Is there a specific connection between the seal and the structures other than the time period? Perhaps more details will come out in the near future.
HT: Joe Lauer
Update: Dr. Dale Manor, Field Director of the Beth-Shemesh excavations, tells me the seal was not found in the shrine structures mentioned above, but in an adjacent square. This probably doesn’t help much in interpreting the scene since these tiny seals traveled easily. Still, its location may weigh in to some degree on our understanding of the picture.
Do I see what appears to be long hair on the human figure?
No one mentioned anything about it in any descriptions, so I assume it’s superficial scratching/damage. If such a detail were clear it would certainly increase media intensity.
It looks as if the man on the right is connected to the animal by some splayed lines. He might be, e.g., feeding a horse or leading it by a bridle. Also, it looks as though there’s something on the animal’s back.
If neither of these are correct then it is almost certainly a whale swallowing the prophet Jonah.
Jonah? Of course not! He was an Iron Age II guy, several centuries later than this seal. (Do I detect a note of sarcasm in your suggestion?) 🙂
The excavators have had a few weeks to analyze it. Will anything more be brought out by other scholars? Time will tell. I’ve not heard/read any discussion of a rope or bridle, but maybe it’s been brought up in a discussion thread somewhere. One thread I saw threw out the possibility of the tail/back leg actually being a snake. I don’t agree, but if they find another example of that that looks similar to this scene, it would be substantive evidence of the view. At the moment, it looks to me like a large 4-legged animal with a feline head and a prominent, powerful tail.
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