The Biblical prophet Isaiah served in the kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and most famously, Hezekiah. Isaiah had messages of judgement to deliver to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah, the kingdom of Israel and the surrounding nations. On occasion, Isaiah’s messages were directed to specific individuals. For example:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord, Jehovah of armies, says: “Go in to this steward, to Shebna, who is in charge of the house, and say, ‘What is your interest here, and who is there of interest to you here, that you hewed out a burial place here for yourself?’ He is hewing out his burial place in a high place; he is cutting out a resting-place for himself in a crag.” (Isaiah 22:15, 16)
So who was Shebna and how did he earn this rebuke? Shebna was “in charge of the house“, that is, he was evidently in charge of the palace of Hezekiah. So he had a very prominent position in the kingdom, second only to the king. Yet, rather than pay attention to his duties to the king and the kingdom, he pursued selfish interests. He built a prominent tomb, a tomb fit for a royal, “in a high place“, highly visible to others.
Where was this tomb? The approximate area of the tomb is well known. Only the kings of Judah were buried within the walls of Jerusalem (specifically in the City of David). Everyone else was buried outside of the city. Across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, directly across from the old City of David, generations of aristocratic families carved their burial caves. It seems that aristocrats like Shebna wanted to have their tombs as near as possible to the burial places of the kings.
The area where the kingdom of Judah’s aristocratic families preferred to build their tombs has been built over by the Palestinian community of Silwan (see pictures above). This is not new, the community has been there for centuries. Some of the ancient tombs have been incorporated into the homes, turned into cellars or used as storage rooms. Archeologists have been able to survey approximately 50 of these ancient tombs in Silwan. Some of these tombs can be easily seen in pictures of the community. Their entrance-ways have been carved meticulously, their architectural plans precise and the stonework of the highest quality. A few of these even l have remnants of their ancient Hebrew inscriptions.
In 1870, a French archeologist name Charles Clermont-Ganneau was examining these ancient tombs and surveyed a partially destroyed tomb high up on the cliff. He discovered an inscription that he was unable to decipher so he cut it out of the rock and sent it to the British Museum in London (where it remains to this day). Part of the inscription is lost to us. What could be recovered reads: This is [the grave of] [… …]yahu, who is over the house. There is no silver or gold here, only … [his bones] … and the bones of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this.”
Unfortunately, the name is partially destroyed but what has survived is informative. Names ending “iahu” or “yahu” are called “theophoric” names. These are names that embed the name of a god, in this case, the name of God. In Hebrew the name of God contained the 4 consonants, YHWH. The vowel sounds have been lost to us but it is speculated that the name may have been pronounced Yahweh or Yahowah (commonly pronounced Jehovah in English). The shortened form of the name is Yah or Jah. That is what is included in the theophoric ending of this name. A persons name could be spelled with or without the theophoric ending. So what was the first part of the name from the inscription, the part that was destroyed?
In an 1953 article in a archeological journal¹, a prominent epigraphist (Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions, especially ancient inscriptions) named Nahman Avigad convincingly demonstrated that the name on the inscription originally read “Shebnayahu”, and referred to Shebna, who was over King Hezekiah’s palace. The name fits perfectly into the missing area of the inscription, better than any alternative names with theophoric endings that he tried. Today his conclusion is widely (although not universally) accepted.
Avigad compared the tombs inscription with the writing found on the wall of Hezekiah’s tunnel. By comparing the letters and writing styles of the inscription found in the tomb with those found in the tunnel, he established that both were written during the reign of Hezekiah. So the timing is right, but is there any evidence that Shebna ever used the theophoric name Shebnayahu?
Two clay “bullae” or clay seals have been discovered that contain the name Shebnayahu. One of these official seals was discovered in Lachish, the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah. Several lines of evidence from the excavation lead to the conclusion that the clay seal is contemporaneous with the inscription in Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the inscription over the entrance to Shebna’s tomb. So the timing is right.
The second seal with the name Shebnayahu was discovered in an antiquities market in 2007. This bullae was clearly impressed by the same seal. When combined it is possible to read the entire impression. It reads, “Shebnayahu servant of the king”. So we have a royal official named Shebnayahu who was contemporaneous with Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah who probably sent a letter from King Hezekiah’s court, sealed it with his stamp and sent it to an official at Lachish. The Bible account shows that although Shebna was stripped of his role as palace steward after Isaiah’s reproof, he remained in the kings service. Years later when the Assyrian spokesman demands Jerusalem’s surrender, Hezekiah’s new palace steward Eliakim, goes out to meet him. He does not go alone, Shebna is at his side as secretary to the king. (Isaiah 36:22) So it is no surprise that official correspondence from Shebna should be found in Lachish.
Today the tomb where the inscription was discovered still exists but has been incorporated into one of the homes in Silwan. Regarding Shebna, we don’t know how the prophecy concerning him was fulfilled. It may have been that he learned his lesson and changed his ways. If Isaiah 22: 17 and 18 was fulfilled literally than Shebna was eventually exiled to a foreign land, never to return. If that was the case, then the grand tomb outside of Jerusalem was never even occupied by Shebna. It may have become someone else’s tomb instead or even remained empty, a reminder of the folly of pride and vanity.
¹ Nahman Avigad, “The Epitaph of a Royal Steward from Siloam Village,” Israel Exploration Journal 3 (1953), pp. 137–152, Pls. 8–11.
Silwan Inscription. (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons
All other photos by the author.