Analysing “the seal” metaphor in Judeo-Christian literature

0

Michael LaPine, USA

In the 1980s the meaning of “Seal of the prophets” moved from the inter-Islamic polemics to the academic circles with Yochanan Friedman’s Finality of Prophethood in Sunni Islam (1986) and Gedaliah Strouma’s groundbreaking work “Seal of the Prophets” The Nature of a Manichean Metaphor (1986). Both writers used Arabic and Near-eastern literature to posit an understanding aligned with Ahmadiyya Muslim beliefs. 

More recently Uri Rubin’s The Seal of the Prophets and finality of prophecy  (2014) sought to counter Friedman and Strouma by defending the Orthodox understanding of the “Finality of the prophets.” Neither camp sought to use the extensive Hebrew literature available to back up their claims. 

The question that has not been asked up to this point is: How would a seventh century Jew understand the term “Seal of the Prophets”? Does the title denote the Prophet’s greatness or merely assert Muhammadsa as the last prophet? 

Our contention is that the term “Seal of the prophets” can be understood in the Judeo-Christian context to denote greatness; there is rich usage of the term in Jewish literature. 

There are two words to denote “seal” in the Hebrew Bible – the word khatamחוֹתָם occurs 2,368 times in the bible. Another word for seal is tabat which occurs 49 times. Khatam and tabat have the same cognates in Arabic and both words are found in the Quran. 

The New Testament uses the Greek word sphargizo (σφραγισάμενο) for “seal”. Marjo Korpel, (seal, signet ringwww.otw-site.eu/KLY/kly.php) provided a thorough summary of the word “seal” in near-eastern literature. The Bible uses the term both literally as well as metaphorically. Seals are mentioned in the bible as items of authentication. They are also used to close up things such as a wine cask. A letter is sealed as a means of authentication. (1 Kings 2:28) 

A person can be referred to as “a seal” in a metaphorical sense as we shall see. 

Kopel’s study shows how the cognates in the Semitic languages share the same literal and non-literal usages. Ancient Israel shared with the general Mesopotamian culture the use of seals for practical purposes. (Cylinder Seals in Ancient Mesopotamia – Their History and Significance, 2 December 2015 World History Encyclopedia) Archaeologists have found seals throughout the Middle East too. Seals served various roles for authenticating documents and merchandise, etc. A wine barrel had the seal of the manufacturer and a diplomat wore a ring with the name of his royal sovereign engraved on it.

In an illiterate culture, seals had the function of ensuring the commoner knew what item belonged to what person. The Torah illustrates how common seals were in Middle Eastern culture. A seal of gold was placed on the high priest’s forehead. (Exodus 28:36) In Parsha Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23) there is the infamous meeting between Judah and his daughter in law Tamar. During their negotiation, Judah asked Tamar what he could provide as collateral. Tamar replies “your seal your chord and the staff you carry.” חֹתָמְךָ‭ ‬וּפְתִילֶךָ‭, ‬וּמַטְּךָ. (Genesis 38:18)

The story about a woman seducing her father-in-law is shocking to the modern reader of sacred literature but Jewish tradition saw a different message. The sages believed that the passage has messianic implications and that Tamar was speaking with divine inspiration. The “seal” was a foreshadowing of the Davidic line of Kings that would come from Judah. The chord of Jacob referred to the Sanhedrin that would rule Israel and the staff would be the Messiah himself. (Genesis Rabbah 85:9) 

In ancient times the king’s emissaries were recognised by a seal that was adorned on a ring or necklace. The midrash writers understood the use of seals in this context, hence their messianic interpretation of the Tamar story. The Jerusalem Talmud also makes an interesting comparison between a prophet and a sage using the analogy of a royal emissary. The Rabbis argued that, unlike a sage, a prophet must produce to prove their truthfulness in the form of a sign or miracle. 

Another example is The Song of Songs (Shir ha shirim) which is a book rich in metaphorical language about the union between a man and a woman. The language of intimate love is interpreted as Israel’s love for God. A well-known metaphorical use of the term in Songs 8:6 reads “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” Here the lover is madly in love with her bridegroom. She compares herself to a seal placed on the heart and arm of her lover. In ancient times people wore seals on a necklace or ring. The lover in the poem calls herself a seal in the sense that she desires to be precious to her beloved. 

The Hasidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries had much to say on Songs 8:6. The Rebbe of Slonim saw each of the two seals as standing for Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba. (Show me the path of lifewww.yeshiva.co/midrash/4054) The two seals expressed the need for man to have both love and fear of God. The first seal represented the need to repent with the heart and the second the need to follow the commandments. The Alter Rebbe (founder of the Chabad dynasty) gave a more esoteric explanation for the two seals. The Rebbe used language of intimate love to discuss the metaphysical interactions between God and man in the metaphor of union between a man and woman. The two seals, one protruding and the other receding were contrasted with one another. 

In Kabbalistic thought, the devotee has to make bitul (rid oneself of ego) in order for the divine to penetrate the soul. (The Song of Songs: Abulafia and the Alter Rebbehttp://thejewishreview.org/articles/?id=124)

R Zvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (Bnei Yissachar) uses the metaphor in Shir ha shirim 8:6 to discuss God’s closeness to the Jewish people. Israel is as close to God as a seal on a document. Once the seal is stamped on paper the impression cannot be removed. The ring’s bezel is permanently stamped with the Jeweler’s signature. The Bnei Yissacar cites an analogy made in the Zohar about the seal’s impression which is pertinent to our discussion.  

When the Jews complete the reading of the Torah on the holiday of Simchat Torah, the reading is then sealed. (Chotmin means both complete and seal.) 

The first letter of the Torah is “bet” בְּ and the last letter is ל “lamed.” Bet and lamed make “leiv” ( לֵב) which means “heart.” The Zohar notes that when the Torah reading is completed we are sealing the Torah and HaSHem (God) to our heart. (Shimini Atzeres-Simchas Torah: “Sealed” www.jewishpress.com/judaism/holidays/shmini-atzeres-simchas-torah-sealed/2019/10/20/)

The Jewish mystics, famous for their gematria speculations, pointed to a special connection between the heart and seal. For them, each letter is a separate word in itself. So, when we take the word “lamed “(The spelling of the Hebrew letter) we have both letters that are “revealed” in the word leiv and other words hidden inside it. Hence, “l” is revealed in leiv but the mim and dalet are hidden inside “leiv.” In the word “beis” the “bet” is revealed but the letters yud and saf are hidden. To summarise, the two revealed letters (“lamed” and “beis”) spell the word leiv (heart) as we saw earlier. But the hidden letters (mimdaletyud and sa) together have a total value in gematria of 454. The number 454 is the same gematria as the word “seal”. When the Torah reading is completed, God is stamping the reader’s hearts with His blessings. (Ibid)

Torah observance is predicated on understanding the use of seals. A Jewish male is to regularly have don tefillin (prayer amulets) on his head and arms. The Rashbam connects the Torah commandment in Deuteronomy 6:8 to Shir ha shirim 8:6. The Rashbam explained that the commandment to don tefillin is a way to wear the Torah. (A sign and reminder of great things By Simon M Jacksonhttps://mizrachi.org/parasha/tefillin-a-sign-and-reminder-of-greater-things/

The Torah itself describes the “ot” אוֹת (signs of God. Deut 6:8) that are bound as a commandment. On the wearing of fringes on the four corners of the garments, the Sefer Chinuk comments that the commandment is to “carry the seal of the Master” on one’s clothes. (“You Shall Make for Yourself Twisted Threads” – The Commandment of Tzitzit, Mitzvah Studies, www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4287674/jewish/You-Shall-Make-for-Yourself-Twisted-Threads-The-Commandment-of-Tzitzit.htm )

Circumcision is referred to as the seal of the covenant, or the seal, or Abraham in Judeo-Christian literature. (Romans 4:11) The Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) has the petition to God about the practice as “Your covenant which you sealed out in flesh.”

Circumcision is even considered essential to enter paradise. “All of Israel who are circumcised will come into Paradise” a midrash reads. Being sealed with the name of God is mandatory. According to the sages, God placed His Name El-Shaddai אֵל‭ ‬שַׁדַּ (Almighty) on the body of the Israelite. The “shin” is placed on his nose, the dalet on the hand and Yod on the area circumcised. (Tanhuma Tsav 14) 

The Pietists of Ashkenazi and the Rabbis of Castile once taught that the “seal” of circumcision was what enabled the Torah to come down from heaven. In their view, the revelation at Sinai would not have occurred if it was not for Israel being circumcised. 

Christianity saw the concept of sealing as a display of one’s authentic standing to God. (Ephesians 1:13) Early Christian authorities saw the sealing in the new covenant as a fulfilment of the sealing that existed in the new covenant. The Apostle Paul said circumcision was no longer needed because baptism was the seal that bonded God to man. A Christian priest, Melito of Sardis, in reviewing the Passover, saw the eating of the Passover lamb as the culmination when Israel was sealed by God. The bishop also saw the firstborn of Israel sealed by the lamb’s blood put on the doors. Those not sealed with the blood were doomed. (The Peri Pascha Attributed To Melito Of Sardis: Setting, Purpose, And SourcesBrown Judaic Studies)

These concepts of sealing entered Jewish folklore and mysticism naturally. Seals are found in common folk practices in the form of amulets. They contain the names of God or angels. The names of God and the different permutations of the tetragrammaton explain the creation of the world in the speculation of the kabbalists. The Sefer Yetzirah says that the six extremities of the world are “sealed” by a permutation of the divine name. Isaac of Acre, in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, noted that the stability of the world depends on the function of the divine names. The sealed letters act to secure the world from dissolution.  

The Bible and usage of “seal”

We now turn to the bible for the metaphorical usage of seals. The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians commonly made seals from clay. A stamp was used to impress the clay onto the desired item to display ownership. Clay is shapeless by itself and the stamp was used to form the clay into a discernable image. The book of Job uses the imagery of sealing to discuss the creation of the world after the prophet challenges God on the seeming injustice of His authority. On the creation of the earth, we read, “The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.” (Job 38:14)

Just as clay was initially unformed so was the shape of the earth before God’s intervention. It is only with God’s creation that earth takes on a beautiful form like that of a garment. The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud saw in this verse proof that mankind will be resurrected in the same clothes that they were buried in. (Narrative and Document in the Rabbinic Canon: The Two Talmuds, p. 118. in reference to J Ketubot 12:3 and Y Kilayim 9:3 )

Hebrew literature and “seal”

We find in Hebrew literature the seal metaphor used in reference to humanity. We will see examples of “seal” used in reference to specific persons. Jewish writings use seal imagery to discuss the uniqueness of mankind in general. The book of Ezekiel contains the earliest reference to an individual referred to as a “seal.” Ezekiel mentions the blessings given to the King of Tyre and how the sovereign would be punished for his misuse of the blessings. God told the King that “you were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.” (Ezekiel 28:12) 

The Hebrew term “Khotam takenit” is not clear so there is no consensus of meaning. (“Seal of Resemblance, Full of Wisdom, and Perfect in Beauty”: The Enoch/ Me†a†ron Narrative of 3 Enoch and Ezekiel 28 , University of British Columbia, www.marquette.edu/maqom/ArbelMetatron.pdf

Khotam takenit is translated as “Seal of the Sum [similitude]” by some authorities. What does “seal of the Sum” mean? Rabbi Crecas Hasdai, a 12th-century philosopher stated in his Or Adinoi that the “Seal of the Sum” is man himself. Man is the seal of the sum because he is gravened from all parts of the universe.” Man is thus the microcosm of the entire creation. These conceptions of humans are well known in Jewish mystical literature. 

The Hebrew writings testify to the spiritual status of persons as God’s seal.  Recall the story of Zerubabe ben Shetiel, a descendent of King Solomon. Initially, Solomon’s descendants were cursed (Jeremiah 22:28-30) due to the apostasy of Solomon’s grandson, Jeconiah. God told Jeconiah that his descendants would be cursed forever. The misunderstanding of the biblical prophecy has implications for both Christianity and Judaism as Jesus Christ is a descendent of Jeconiah. What is missed is the fact that Jesusas is a decedent of Jeconiah through Zerubabel. When the Jews returned from Persia, after the exile, they were tasked with rebuilding the holy temple. Zerubabel contributed great efforts to start the project. Haggai informed Israel of God’s acceptance of Zerubabel. “O Zerubabel, my servant, the son of Sheealitel, said the Lord, and will make you as a seal; for I have chosen you, said the Lord of Hosts”. God tells the prophet Haggai (Haggai 2:23) that Zerubablel is God’s seal.

Biblical prophecy attributes the “seal” with being chosen by God. The mark of servanthood is also significant. God thus informs Israel that the curse on Zerubablel’s ancestors was abrogated. The Malbim understood Zerubabel as the whole focus of Creation and its seal “tachlit ha-veriah ve-hotamah.” We found a similar understanding by the Rabbis of the Ezekiel reference.   

In the fourth century BC, Judaism went through a transformation via Greek culture and there were serious attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy with Hebraic religion. Philo Alexander, a 1st-century philosopher, was the most well known of these persons. Philo took terminology from Greek philosophy such as the ideas of Plato and tried to apply it to Judaism. Philo believed that only an intermediary realm of ideas could explain the interaction between man and God. The logos was named as one of the most important ideas for the intermediary to explain how God created the world and revealed His will to mankind. Philo needed Hebrew to express this Greek concept so he used “seal”: “The Word of Him who makes it is Himself the seal, by which each thing that exists has received its shape” (Fug. 12; cf. Som. 2.45). So the Logos was the seal of the universe. In fact, Philo used the term seal for many of these “ideas.” (Were Jews made in the image of God? Christian Perspectives and Jewish Existence in Medieval EuropeStudies in Medieval Jewish Intellectual and Social History P. 68)

For the ancient Judeo-Greeks, everything was made to a pre-determined pattern based on the ideas in the mind of God and “seals” were used to designate these metaphysical entities. Jewish thinkers drew heavily from Philo’s exegesis by the time of the Tannaim (200 AD). 

The extensive use of the metaphorical seal was well established by the time of Prophet Muhammadsa

The “Seal of Adam”, a term developed by Rabbis of the Ammoriac period is proof of Philo’s direct but unacknowledged influence. The sages asked the question of why God created man alone. The conclusion was to “tell us the greatness of the Holy One Blessed be He; a person makes many coins with a single seal and they are all similar to one another. But the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first, and not one of them is like another.” (Sanhedrin 38a) 

The rabbis reasoned that just as coins are stamped with one seal, God created the progeny of Adam from their forefather who served as the initial seal of mankind. Job 38:14 was used as the proof text for this reasoning but Bendoz-Rizak sees the influence of Philo in his analogy of the “seal” and “coin” in relation to God making the soul. Bendoz-Rizak’s explanation is plausible but we provided enough material to prove that the seal metaphor was established during the time of the biblical writers. 

The Talmud teaches that the “Seal of God is truth.” (Shabbat 55a, Yoma 69b. Also see Midrash: Genesis Rabbah 8:5) For the rabbis “Truth” is reserved for God alone. A story is related in which the sages of the Great Assembly prayed for an end to idolatry and God sent down a piece of paper with the word “Truth.” Rav Hanina concluded that the “Seal of God is Truth.”  The Kotzker Rebbe once asked why, of all the names of God, was “Truth” given the seal? The answer is simple. A seal is something that cannot be counterfeited because there is only one. Anything in the world can be copied except for the truth. Whatever is a copy can only be a mere imitation. For religious purposes, the Kotzker Rebbe taught that imitation is the worst act. Rebbe Reb Bunim once noted that authors put their name in front of the book and likewise God placed his name – Truth – in the first chapter of the Torah. In the first verse of the Torah, the last letters of the first three words are tetalif and mem. This spells out God’s name אמת “Emet” (Truth) (Seal of God is Truthwww.aish.com/tp/b/insights-on-the-torah/Seal-of-God-is-Truth.html)

Samaritans and “seal”

The term “Seal of the prophets” does occur in the Samaritan religion. A Samaritan text refers to Moses as such, “By your life, O Apostle of God, remain with us a little longer! By your life, O Seal of the prophets, stop with us a little longer.” (Memar Marqa V. 3) What does “the Seal of the Prophets” mean to the Samarians? A faithful Samaritan informed me in private correspondence that the term means “chosen.” Being “chosen” is of course the attribute assigned to the seal in Haggai as we saw above. 

Conclusion

We mentioned the “Seal of Abraham” in relation to the circumcision of the covenant. The Hasidic masters saw another motif in Abraham’s designation. Abraham is the forefather of three faiths. The five daily Islamic prayers are not complete without the mention of the name Ibrahim in the benedictions on the Holy Prophetsa. The benedictions on the Prophetsa (durood) remind the person during supplication of the blessings bestowed on Abraham and his people and to seek those blessings for the folk of Muhammadsa. How fitting is it to close with a teaching from the Bnei Yisscachar on why Abraham is called the “seal” of blessing? The Hasidic master stated:

”We say in the daily prayer, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob,’ but we conclude the blessing by mentioning only Abraham – Barukh atah Hashem magen Avraham [“Blessed are You, O Lord, shield of Abraham”]. What do we learn from this? Our father Abraham was famous for his deeds of Gemilut Hassadim (hosting guests and mercy towards God’s creatures). He, therefore, merited that his name is the ‘seal’ of the blessing.” 

Early Hebrew literature used the metaphor of “seal” extensively. The fifth-century sage, Rabbi Tanhuma was called the “Seal of Midrashim” because of fame in compiling traditional Jewish teachings. The leading Orthodox rabbi of the 19th century, Moses Schrieber, was honoured with the title Hatam Sofer (Seal of the scribes) because of his defence of traditional Judaism against the Reform movement. No one holds the Hatam Sofer to be the last scribe! 

We would not expect someone well versed in the Judeo-Christian tradition to understand “Seal of the prophets” any differently. 

No posts to display

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here