Signet is the rendering in the A.V. of חוֹתָם, chotham (Ge 38:18; Ex 28:11,21,36; Ex 39:6,14,30; Jer 22:24; Hag 2:23), or חֹתֶמֵת,. chothemeth (femrn. of the same, only in Genesis 38:25), a seal, as elsewhere rendered; and of the Chald. עזקָא, izkd, the same (Da 6:17 ); both so called from being engraved; also of σφραγίς, Tob. i, 22; Ecclus. 17:22; 32:6; 49:11; Bel 11; 1 Macc. 6:15, a seal, as elsewhere rendered.
The importance attached to seals in the East is so great that without one no document is regarded as authentic (Layard, Nin. and Bab. p. 608; Chardin,
Voyages, v, 454). The use of some method of sealing is obviously, therefore, of remote antiquity. Among.such .methods used in Egypt at a very early period were engraved stones, pierced through their length and hung by a string or chain from the arm or neck, or set in rings for the finger. The most ancient form used for this purpose was the scarabmaus, formed of precious or common stone, or, even of blue pottery or porcelain, on the flat side of which the inscription or device was engraved. Cylinders of stone or pottery bearing devices were also used as signets. One in the Alnwick Museum bears the date of Osirtasen I, or between 2000 and 3000 B.C. Besides finger-rings, the Egyptians, and. also the Assyrians and Babylonians, made use of cylinders of precious .stone or terra-cotta, which were probably set in a frame and rolled over the document which was to be sealed. The document, especially among the two latter nations, was itself often made of baked clay, sealed while it was wet and burned afterwards. But in many cases the seal Consisted of a lump of clay, impressed with the. seal and attached to the document, whether of papyrus or other material, by strings. These clay lumps often bear the impress of the finger, and also the remains of the strings by which: they were fastened. One such found at Nimrfiud was the seal of Sabaco, king of Egypt, B.C. 711, and another is believed by Mr. Layard to have been the seal of Sennacherib, of nearly the same date (Birch, Hist. of Pottery, i, 101, 118; Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt. ii) 341, 364; Layard, Nin. and Bab. p. 154-160). In a somewhat similar manner doors of tombs or other places intended to be closed were sealed with lumps of clay. The custom prevalent among the Babylonians of carrying seals is mentioned by Herodotus, i, 195, who also notices the seals on tombs, ii, 121; Wilkinson. i, 15; ii, 364; Mt 27:66; Da 6:17. The use of clay in sealing is noticed in the book of Job 38:14, and the signet-ring as an ordinary part of a man's equipment in the case of Judah (Ge 38:18), who probably, like many modern Arabs, wore it suspended by a string from his neck or arm. (See Song 8:6; Gesenius, p. 538, 1140; Robinson, i, 36; Niebuhr, Descr. de l'Arab. p. 90; Chardin, loc. cit.; Olearius, Travels, p. 317; Knobel, on Genesis 38, in Exeg. Handb.) The ring or the seal as an emblem of authority, in Egypt, Persia, and elsewhere, is mentioned in the cases of Pharaoh with Joseph, Ge 41:42; of Ahab. 1Ki 21:8; of Ahasuerus, Es 3:10,12; Es 8:2; of Darius, Dan. loc. cit.; also 1 Macc. 6:15; Josephus, Ant. 20:2,2; Herodotus, iii, 128; Curtius, iii, 6, 7; 10:5, 4; Sarndys, Travels, p. 62; Chardin, ii, 291; v, 451, 462; and as an evidence of a covenant in Jer 32:10,44; Ne 9:38; Ne 10:1; Hag 2:23. Its general importance is denoted by the metaphorical use of the word (Re 5:1; Re 9:4). Rings with seals are mentioned in the Mishna (Shabb. 6:3), and earth or clay as used for seals of bags (viii, 5). Seals of four sorts, used in the Temple, as well as special guardians of them, are mentioned in Shekal. v, 1.
Among modern Orientals the size and place of the seal vary according to the importance both of the sender of a letter and of the person to whom it is sent. In sealing, the seal itself, not the paper, is smeared with the sealing substance. Thus illiterate persons sometimes use the object nearest at hand their own finger, or a stick notched for the purpose-and, daubing it with mink, smear the paper therewith (Chardin,. v, 545; 9:347; Arvieux, Travelsi p. 161; Rauwolf, Travels, in Ray, ii, 61; Niebuhr, loc. cit.; Robinson, i, 36). Engraved signets were in use among the Hebrews in early times, as is evident in the description of the high-priest's breastplate (Ex 28:11,36; Ex 39:6), and the work of the engraver as a distinct occupation is mentioned in Ecclus. 38:27.
There seem to have been two kinds of seals in use among the Hebrews. A notion appears to exist that all ancient seals, being signets, were rings, intended to be worn on the hand. But this was by no means the case; nor is it so now in the East, where signet-rings are still, probably, as common as they ever were in ancient times. Their general use of seals was very different from ours, as they were employed not for the purpose of impressing a device on wax, but in the place of a sign manual, to stamp the name of the owner upon any document to which he desired to affix it. The name thus impressed had the same legal validity as the actual signature, as is still the case in the East. This practice may be illustrated by a circumstance which occurred in the last days of George IV. When he became too ill to affix his sign manual to the numerous documents which required it, a facsimile was engraved on a stamp, by which it was in his presence impressed upon them. By this contrivance any one may give to any paper the legal sanction of his name, although he may be unable to write; and the awkward contrivance to which we resort in such cases, of affixing a cross or mark with the signature of an attesting witness, is unnecessary. For this purpose the surface of the seal is smeared with a black pigment, which leaves the figure of the body of the seal upon the paper, in which the characters appear blank or white. The characters required are often too large or too many to be conveniently used in a signet-ring, in which case they are engraved on a seal shaped not unlike those in use among ourselves, which is carried in the bosom, or suspended from the neck over the breast. This custom was ancient, and, no doubt, existed among the Hebrews (Ge 38:18; Song 8:6; Hag 2:23). These seals are often entirely of metal (brass, silver, or gold), but sometimes of stone set in metal. As an appendage thus shaped might be inconvenient from the pressure of its edges, the engraved stone was sometimes made to turn in its metal frame, like our swivel seals, so as to present a flat surface to the body. (See below.)
If a door or box was to be sealed, it was first fastened with some ligament, over which was placed some well compacted clay to receive the impression of the seal. Clay was used because it hardens in the heat which would dissolve wax and this is the reason that wax is not used in the East. A person leaving property in the custody of strangers-say in one of the cells of a caravansary-seals the door to prevent the place from being entered without legal proof of the fact. The simplicity of the Eastern locks, and the ease with which they might be picked, render this precaution the more necessary. Sometimes a coarsely engraved and large wooden seal is employed for this purpose. There are distinct allusions to this custom in Job 38:14; Song 4:12.