The Bible in the British Museum
“This is [the tomb of Shebna]yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and gold here, only [his bones] and the bones of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this.” (The wording in brackets is missing on the inscription and has been supplied.)
Last Sunday, I preached on Isaiah 22, which means it is time to return to my British Museum series. This inscription on the tomb of a royal steward in Jerusalem is in Room 57 of the Museum. It comes from Silwan, on a hillside above the Kidron Valley facing the old city of Jerusalem near the Gihon Spring. Though only a part of the name on the inscription remains, abundant evidence points to this as the tomb mentioned in Isaiah 22, the tomb of Shebna, the king’s steward.
15 Thus saith the Lord GOD of hosts, Go, get thee unto this treasurer, even unto Shebna, which is over the house, and say,
16 What hast thou here? and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock?
Location of the Tomb
The old city of David is on a hill mostly surrounded by higher mountains, but is bordered by two deep valleys, the Kidron Valley and Hinnom Valley. The Kidron Valley is to the east, lying between the old city and the Mount of Olives.
At the base of the Kidron Valley is the Gihon Spring. II Chronicles 32:3-5 describes how Hezekiah ensured that no water from this spring would be available to the armies of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, when they invaded. Instead, he built a tunnel (still seen today) to carry the waters into the city. This tunnel is mentioned in II Chronices 32:30 and II Kings 20:20.
Starting from the north and moving south down the Kidron Valley, on the left is the Mount of Olives, and on the right is Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount. Continuing on down the valley, on the right is the ancient city of David, and then on the left, southeast of the ancient city, is Silwan (also known as Siloam).
The royal steward’s tomb is one of about fifty in the side of the hill. Lower than the level of the ancient city, it is yet lifted well above the valley floor and the vital Gihon Spring.
The Tomb Itself
David Ussishkin said that here in Silwan, “Three magnificent tombs were defined as ‘Monolithic above-ground tombs,'” carved out of rock but above ground. One became known as the Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter, perhaps in part because it was originally topped by a pyramid. The royal steward’s tomb, now part of a house, also apparently had a pyramid. Ussishkin said the design showed evidence of Phoenician influence — and Nahman Avigad, in an article linked below, found hints of Phoenician influence in the inscription on the steward’s tomb.
Some scholars speculate that the Silwan tombs were the burying place of foreigners who served as high-ranking officials in the royal court at Jerusalem. The Phoenician elements, the pyramids, and the location outside the normal burying places of the Jews all point to something unusual.
The name “Shebna” is equivalent to Shebnayahu and Shebaniah, which are found in Scripture (multiple times in Nehemiah) and/or on various seals which have been found. The latter are called “theophoric” names, with a form of God’s name (“iah” or “yah” from Jehovah) embedded in a name to honour God or express trust in Him. A person could be called by either the shortened name or the theophoric name.
The name was fairly common. In the British Museum, also in Room 57, is a scaraboid seal bearing the name of “Shebna the son of Ah’ab.” The seal was found in a very interesting place for us — Lachish.
But whose tomb was this? The name on the inscription is only partial — and what we have is a theophoric ending, which could have come with many names. It could have been [Shebna]yahu, but is there any evidence it was?
We come to two interesting finds. Robert Deutsch describes (this picture is used by his permission) how two clay seal impressions discovered after two and a half millenia show that a royal official had written a letter to Lachish. That royal official, “Shebnayahu,” lived about the time of Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 BC, just when Isaiah rebuked Shebna “the treasurer” for building his tomb “on high,” in the same time period that a royal steward named yahu built an above-ground tomb high on the hillside above the Gihon Spring.
Note: Robert Deutsch was controversially prosecuted in the James Ossuary forgery trial. Whatever the motivations were for his prosecution, he was acquitted of all charges. I have no reason to question his integrity, and thus no hesitation linking to his website. His Shebnayahu article is excellent.
Was This Tomb Shebna’s?
Nahman Avigad, some 60 years ago, was the first to decipher the tomb inscription, and though he did not yet have the evidence of the Shebnayahu seal impressions, he pointed strongly towards Shebna as the yahu of the inscription, Shebnayahu. He cited most of the following in his article:
- The similarity with an inscription in Hezekiah’s tunnel (about 701 BC) indicates they were written in the same general time-period.
- Avigad cites eight men (seven in Scripture and one on a seal from Lachish) with the title “over the house” (royal steward) on the tomb inscription. Shebna (Isaiah 22:15) is the only known bearer of the title that fits the tomb.
- As noted above, the tombs may have been for foreigners, and there are hints of a Phoenician connection. Isaiah called Shebna “treasurer,” a word not used elsewhere in the Old Testament but common among the Phoenicians. The implication is that Shebna was either Phoenician or that Isaiah used the word dismissively as a way of saying Shebna was overly influenced by them.
- A foreigner who behaved well would have been welcome, but one who did not might thus receive Isaiah’s challenge: “What hast thou here?” — another clue perhaps indicating a foreign origin for Shebna.
- Both the tomb of Shebna and this tomb were built during the lifetime of the person intended to be buried there.
- This tomb was high, above the valley floor, and very visible, which fits Isaiah’s rebuke perfectly (22:16).
I’ll add a few other hints I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, from Scripture itself, that fit with this tomb being Shebna’s.
- Shebna’s father is unnamed in Isaiah. This is not necessarily unexpected, but its absence fits perfectly with the idea that he may have been a foreigner.
- The seal tell us Shebnayahu generally used a theophoric ending to his name. Isaiah’s use of “Shebna” (without that element) fits very well with the nature of his rebuke. The different variants of the name actually fit very well within the different contexts. As an official, Shebnayahu would want to use the theophoric ending to assert his Jewishness and loyalty, on his seal and on his tomb. As a prophet rebuking Shebna, Isaiah would want to strip that ending away as a way of further communicating that Shebna was not truly following Jehovah, and not under His blessing.
- One more clue which to me seems very strong is the tomb’s location overlooking the Gihon Spring — discussed just a few verses earlier in Isaiah 22:
7 And it shall come to pass, that thy choicest valleys shall be full of chariots, and the horsemen shall set themselves in array at the gate.
8 And he discovered the covering of Judah, and thou didst look in that day to the armour of the house of the forest.
9 Ye have seen also the breaches of the city of David, that they are many: and ye gathered together the waters of the lower pool.
10 And ye have numbered the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses have ye broken down to fortify the wall.
11 Ye made also a ditch between the two walls for the water of the old pool: but ye have not looked unto the maker thereof, neither had respect unto him that fashioned it long ago.
Isaiah is rebuking the Jews and prophesying of a coming siege. He speaks to their concerns about water, and specifically mentions the waters of Gihon and the actions they will take. Then, within five verses he is speaking of a tomb being built by a royal steward named Shebna — and here we have the tomb of yahu, built (in the exact same time period) by a royal steward overlooking those very waters, at the very time when we know there was a court official named Shebnayahu. (Of course, this mention of Gihon is only relevant if the first and last halves of Isaiah 22 are linked, which I hope to discuss in a follow-up article.)
It is impossible to prove absolutely that this tomb was made for Shebna, but the evidence is quite strong, and few really doubt that the Royal Steward of Silwan is the Shebna of Isaiah 22 — it would seem almost churlish to argue otherwise. If you stand in Room 57 of the British Museum and look at that inscription, it is very probable you are looking at a stone from a tomb Isaiah the prophet saw as he met Shebna in the Kidron Valley, looked up, and spoke the words of Isaiah 22. In any event, you are looking at a stone from a tomb which demonstrates conclusively that tombs matching Isaiah’s description were being built at the time Isaiah prophesied, in a location compatible with Isaiah’s prophecy.
Sources for the British Museum series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum