Meet Elihana Bat Gael, First Temple Era Woman of Valor

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast the understanding.” Job 38:4 (The Israel Bible™)

Who were Elihana bat Gael and Sa‘aryahu ben Shabenyahu? Two seals bearing these Hebrew names were uncovered in a large building dating to the First Temple period in excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out in the Giv’ati parking lot at the City of David, in the Jerusalem Walls National Park. “Finding seals that bear names from the time of the First Temple is hardly a commonplace occurrence, and finding a seal that belonged to a woman is an even rarer phenomenon,” the researchers say.

Seal bearing the inscription "to Sa'aryahu ben Shabenyahu" (Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
Seal bearing the inscription “to Sa’aryahu ben Shabenyahu” (Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

After nine years of excavating by the IAI, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and the City of David Foundation, archaeologists at the site succeeded in reaching the strata of ancient Jerusalem dating to the First Temple period where a surprise awaited them: the two seals inside a structure built of magnificent ashlars (hewn stones). The researchers believe that the well-constructed building was used as an administrative center.

According to archaeologists Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen, excavation directors on behalf of the IAI, “Personal seals, such as those of Elihana and Sa‘aryahu, were used for signing documents, and were frequently inlaid as part of a ring that was worn by the owner. In antiquity they designated the identity, genealogy and status of the owner of the seal.”

On the woman’s seal, which is made of semi-precious stone, appears the mirror-writing of “to Elihana bat Gael,” inscribed in ancient Hebrew letters. The female owner of the ring is mentioned here together with the name of her father.

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According to Dr. Hagai Misgav of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “Seals that belonged to women represent just a very small portion of all the seals that have been discovered to date. This is because of the generally inferior economic status of women, apart from extraordinary instances such as this. Indeed, the name Elihana does not appear in the Bible, and there is no other information regarding the identity of the woman, but the fact that she possessed a seal demonstrates her high social status.”

Seal bearing the inscription "to Elihana Bat Gael" (Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority
Seal bearing the inscription “to Elihana Bat Gael” (Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

Dr. Misgav adds, “Most of the women’s seal that are known to us bear the name of the father rather than that of the husband. Here, as in other cases, this might indicate the relatively elevated status of Elihana, which depended on her original family, and not on her husband’s family. It seems that Elihana maintained her right to property and financial independence even after her marriage and therefore her father’s name was retained; however, we do not have sufficient information about the law in Judea during this period.” The name Eliha is known from a contemporary Ammonite seal and is the feminine form of the name Eli, known from the Bible. The script appearing on the seal is remarkably similar to the script on Ammonite seals, and this might indicate the foreign origin of the artisan who carved the seal and possibly the foreign origin of Elihana, who apparently came from east of the Jordan River.”

The Book of Proverbs (31:13-23) states that an ideal wife is responsible for providing for the needs of her household when her husband is engaged in public and legal affairs at the city gate – “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands… Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.” An archive of documents preserved in the Judean desert from the time of the Second Temple indicates, among other things, the business of Babatha bat Shimon, a female land owner who had legal status. But, generally speaking, evidence of legal and financial independence in the bible and archaeology are rare.

The second seal that was exposed in the excavation was also in mirror-writing and bears the inscription “to Sa‘aryahu ben Shabenyahu.” The name Sa‘aryahu appears on a sherd from Arad, and means “God [answered] from the storm.” (see Job 38:1).

A general view of the site. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority)
A general view of the site. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority)