The Bible in the British Museum
In an earlier article, I looked at the Tomb of the Royal Steward in Silwan, just across the Kidron Valley from the ancient city of David in Jerusalem. (If you missed that article, this one builds on it significantly so you may want to read it first.) In this article, I’d like to focus less on the artefact itself, and more on the Biblical context of Isaiah 22, which almost certainly refers to this exact tomb.
“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.”
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?
Why is this passage here? Why did God choose to speak of this man and his tomb?
A major theme (some would say “The” major theme) of the Book of Isaiah is that God, and God alone, is to be trusted.
The first five chapters introduce to us a nation which has gone away from its God. It is to be a light to the nations (2:1-5), and still will be, but not because of its own goodness, for it has grown very wicked. Thus, among many similar passages, we see this:
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.
How can this nation become what God says it will be? How do we reconcile the promises of glory and peace (such as 2:1-5) with the declarations of judgment? This section of Isaiah ends with darkness, sorrow, and despair as God proclaims judgment on His wicked people.
Isaiah 5:25, 30
25 Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
30 And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
The last verse spoke of darkness, sorrow, and judgment. Chapter 6 provides the answer to the questions. The people may be corrupt, and bringing judgment on themselves, but God is still on His throne. He may judge, the people may even go into exile, but He is not done with them. His messenger still will go to them, even though they won’t hear, and He will preserve a remnant and restore a nation.
This restoration spoken of in chapter six, the rescuing of the nation, will not come with foreign help. Ahaz, threatened by enemies, considers buying Assyrian help. God says this is not the solution. The Assyrian king will be an oppressing enemy, one God will use to judge Ahaz for his unbelief. There is no help in Assyria, and God will judge Assyrian pride.
Isaiah also looks past the coming troubles of the Assyrian connection and the Babylonian captivity, in verses such as Isaiah 7:14, prophesying our Lord’s virgin birth, and Isaiah 9:6, speaking of a Son to be born — Messiah, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace. The people may have chosen darkness, but God is going to send light.
God said Judah should not fear the confederacy of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, for He will judge them for their pride. They should not rely on Assyria, for the Assyrians are wicked and proud, and God will judge them.
Nor should Judah fear or rely on other nations. They also are under God’s authority, they also are full of pride and arrogance, and He will judge them. The first nation to whom He turns His attention is Babylon — and in addressing Babylon, He speaks of the spirit which drives their pride and folly. Thus, in chapter 14:12-14, we have the great “I wills” of Lucifer. The spirit of “I will” is the spirit of the nations — a spirit pervading God’s description of the nations in the coming chapters.
The Spirit of the Nations in Jerusalem
As we come to Isaiah 22, any Jewish reader would have been saying, “That is right, that is the way the nations are, and God will deal with them.” But now, God brings it home to Jerusalem — that same spirit is here in Jerusalem. Judah will be invaded, Jerusalem besieged, and they will take precautions about the waters of the Gihon Spring (verse 9), but they will not look to the Lord who made the water or repent of their sins (verses 11-13).
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.
12 And in that day did the Lord GOD of hosts call to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth:
13 And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.
It is in this context that Isaiah rebukes the “treasurer,” the king’s steward, Shebna. The prideful spirit of the nations is in Jerusalem, and Shebna has proudly built himself a tomb in a Phoenician style, high on the sides of the Kidron Valley in full view of the ancient city of Jerusalem.
Isaiah is not simply writing about one person who was a trifle over-inflated and decided to build an important-looking tomb. He is also writing about a nation, a nation which was to follow the Lord but has adopted the arrogance of other nations. Shebna’s tomb perfectly illustrates the problem — a showy tomb of foreign design, constructed by a very high court official, built to be seen from the ancient royal city. The spirit of the nations, the proud spirit of “I will,” had taken hold in Jerusalem. Shebna was simply a very visible example of the problem which had spread throughout the city and the nation.
That is why Shebna’s tomb drew the attention of the prophet. It represented all that had gone wrong in Judah and Israel. They had adopted foreign gods, false practices, immoral behaviour, and the wicked pride that so often drives such behaviour. Perhaps that is also the reason the Mighty God preserved this tomb inscription — to serve as a warning for His people almost three millennia later.
What Happened to Shebna?
What We Know for a Fact
17 Behold, the LORD will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee.
8 He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country: there shalt thou die, and there the chariots of thy glory shall be the shame of thy lord’s house.
God told Shebna that he would be taken into captivity and that he would die in a far country. He would not be buried in the tomb he had prepared.
1 Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.
2 And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army.
Both Scripture and Assyrian records tell us the Assyrians captured many cities of Judah, including Lachish, the second city in the kingdom. Those captured were taken far away and lived out their often-short lives as slaves. Isaiah’s description of Shebna’s fate fits perfectly with what we know happened to those living in the cities Sennacherib captured — and Sennacherib invaded soon after Isaiah 22 was written.
Did Shebna end up at Lachish when the city fell? Is that how Isaiah’s prophecy of his captivity in a far country was fulfilled?
Shebna the Son of Ahab
This pink scaraboid seal bears the name, “Shebna the son of Ahab.” It would make an impression of the bearer’s name in a clay seal for a letter or other document.
Did it belong to Shebna the royal steward? Perhaps. We don’t know his father’s name, and “Ahab” is interesting. After evil King Ahab of Israel, perhaps few Jews would have used that name (though Jeremiah 29 tells of one that did). As mentioned in my earlier post, Shebna the steward may have been Phoenician, and Ahab of Israel married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel. Perhaps the name “Ahab” was not unpopular among the Phoenicians. It might not be surprising if the father of Shebna the royal steward were a Phoenician named Ahab.
Notably, this scaraboid bearing the name “Shebna” was found in Lachish, and dates from very near the time of Shebna the royal steward — the time when Sennacherib captured Lachish and took the prisoners away as slaves, the fate Isaiah prophesied for Shebna.
The time may not be exactly right. It was found in a layer of debris from the destruction of Lachish 100 years later, when Nebuchadnezzar invaded — but there are many ways a small item from Sennacherib’s time could have ended up where this scaraboid was found.
Shebna the royal steward certainly wrote letters to Lachish, as mentioned in the last post. Did he go to the kingdom’s second city on a mission of importance, only to be trapped by Sennacherib’s army? If so, when the city fell he would have become a slave. Any personal items, such as an insignificant little scaraboid (only about half an inch across), would likely have been lost, left behind in the rubble of the city.
Perhaps it was buried, and not seen again until archaeologists found it in the 1930s. Maybe someone picked it up and set it aside, only to be lost and buried when the city fell again to Nebuchadnezzar some 100 years later. Or maybe it belonged to a completely different man named Shebna who lived around the same time period.
Did it belong to the same Shebna? Was “Shebna the son of Ahab” also “Shebna the royal steward,” who built a tomb above the Gihon Springs? Perhaps not. Perhaps the only way we could ever know would be if an artefact turns up naming the father of Shebna the royal steward.
Paying for Pride
The original owner of the scaraboid really doesn’t matter. Even if there is no connection between the son of Ahab and Isaiah’s Shebna, the juxtaposition of the name (Shebna), the location (Lachish), and the time period gives an interesting reminder. It was all too real for Jews, even high court officials to end up as slaves in a far country — just as Isaiah had prophesied of Shebna.
Shebna may have thought he was safe. Hadn’t Isaiah prophesied that Judah would survive the Assyrian invasion? Wasn’t he the royal steward? If Judah was going to make it through, certainly he, the royal steward, would be safe. Not only was Shebna among a people whom God had said He would protect, he was in a high position, respected, powerful.
But proud rebellion against God always comes with a cost. Even if you are among Christians, even if you have the honour and respect of God’s people, a haughty spirit will bring you to a day of reckoning.
Erecting showy monuments to yourself never ends well, of whatever material they are made and wherever you build them.
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