Tracking Down Shebnayahu, Servant of the King
by Robert Deutsch

"Cursed be the man who will open this," warns an inscription that was placed over the entrance to a tomb on a cliff overlooking Jerusalem. The tomb was discovered in 1870 by the French diplomat and archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, who was unable to read the inscription. He chiseled it out of the rock and sent it to the British Museum, where it still resides.

The name of the occupant has mostly been lost, except for the theophoric ending "-yahu," but he is described as being "over the house." In a 1953 article, the great epigra-phist Nahman Avigad convincingly demonstrated that this tomb belonged to Shebnayahu, or Shebna, the steward in King Hezekiah's palace whom Isaiah castigates for having an elaborate tomb hewn for himself, "an abode on the cliff" (Isaiah 22:15-17).

In Isaiah 22 the prophet rails in God’s name against the excesses of the officials in King Hezekiah’s palace. Among those he singles out is Shebna, the steward who is “in charge of the house [palace]” (Isaiah 22:15):

What have you here and whom have you here,
That you have hewn out a tomb for yourself here?—
O you who have hewn your tomb on high;
O you who have hollowed out for yourself an abode on the cliff.
The Lord is about to shake you, fellow.
(Isaiah 22:16–17)

In 1870 the famous French diplomat, scholar and archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau excavated a partially destroyed tomb high up on the cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley and the City of David in Jerusalem. Over the entrance to the rock-cut burial chamber was an inscription that, unfortunately, he was unable to decipher.1

He cut the inscription out of the rock and sent it to the British Museum, where it is still on display.

In 1953 the great Israeli epigraphist Nahman Avigad managed to decipher the indistinct letters: “This is [the sepulcher of ...] -yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and gold here but [his bones] and the bones of his slave-wife with him. Cursed be the man who will open this.”2

Was this the tomb of Shebna the high court official mentioned in Isaiah who is, literally, “over the house” or in charge of the palace (often identified as the treasurer) and who was castigated by the prophet for building himself such an elaborate tomb on the cliff?

To answer the question, you must know that the name Shebna was quite common. It had several different forms—by the addition of the theophoric -yahu (Shebnayahu; 1 Chronicles 15:24) or -ya (Shebnaya; Nehemiah 9:4), both of which refer to Yahweh, the Israelite God—in addition to Shebna (Isaiah 22:15). They are all the same name. And besides the Shebna, Shebnayahu and Shebnaya mentioned in the Bible, we know of several others whose names have appeared on seals and bullae (clay seal impressions), ostraca and even on handles of storage jars. The name means “Pray, God (Yahweh) return.”

Avigad’s brilliant 1953 article argued (based on a suggestion of Yigael Yadin) that this tomb was the tomb of Shebna/Shebnayahu mentioned in Isaiah, even though the first part of the name is missing and only -yahu is preserved. He was able to date the inscription to the time of King Hezekiah (716–686 B.C.E.) by comparing the letters to those in the Siloam Inscription discovered in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Almost all scholars have accepted Avigad’s argument.

In 1966–1968 Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, then of the Hebrew University (and later of Tel Aviv University), renewed excavations at the famous site of Lachish.3 Located in the Judean foothills (the Shephelah) about 25 miles north of Beer-Sheba, Lachish was the most important city in Judah after Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign. It was destroyed in 701 B.C.E. by the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib on his way to laying siege to Jerusalem. Sennacherib was so proud of his victory at Lachish that he decorated the throne room of his palace in Nineveh with huge reliefs depicting his victory and Judahites being led away to exile.

Another link in the chain. During Yohanan Aharoni’s 1966–1968 excavations at the site of Lachish in the Judean Shephelah, a young area supervisor named Volkmar Fritz uncovered a rich hoard of pottery (including the juglet in the photo), six inscribed shekel weights and an ostracon, all of which had probably been stored on a shelf that collapsed in antiquity. Inside the juglet Fritz found 17 lumps of clay that turned out to be bullae, or clay seal impressions, many of which bear Hebrew inscriptions.

Because it was so important, the 30-acre tell of Lachish has been frequently excavated, first in 1932–1938 by the British archaeologist J.L. Starkey with the assistance of G. Lancester Harding and Olga Tufnell.4 The excavations came to a sudden end in 1938 when Arab marauders murdered Starkey on his way to the dedication of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, now the Rockefeller Museum. Then came Aharoni’s excavation mentioned above. After more than a decade, the trowel was taken up again by David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, who supervised a major excavation of the site between 1973 and 1994, solving some of the major questions about the site.5

The find of special interest here was made by Aharoni’s expedition. A young area supervisor named Volkmar Fritz, who later became a prominent archaeologist and Biblical scholar (he has written for this magazine and passed away in 2007 at the age of 69), was excavating in a Lachish storeroom when he struck gold, so to speak. On the floor of the storeroom, Fritz found six inscribed shekel weights (weighing four and eight shekels), an ostracon (a kind of ancient notepaper with writing on a piece of broken pottery) and a rich hoard of pottery. Aharoni speculated that the pottery had been stored on shelves that collapsed in antiquity. After a juglet had been photographed in situ, Fritz lifted it for registration and packing. When he emptied it of the dirt inside, he felt some small clay lumps. When the 17 lumps were cleaned and examined, they turned out to be bullae that had been used to seal documents. For some reason they had been collected and placed in the small cylindrical juglet. On the back of the bullae were impressions of the papyrus documents they had once sealed—even impressions of the string that tied the documents, over which the seal was impressed into a clay lump. On the front of some of the bullae were Hebrew inscriptions.1

One of the seals was inscribed in two lines and included the name Shebnayahu and also the word ha-melekh (“the king”), indicating that this Shebnayahu was somehow connected to the royal family. Unfortunately, a third of the bulla is missing from the lower right edge. From the letters that survived, the archaeologists could not tell just what the relationship of this Shebnayahu was to the king. If the part of the missing right edge (remember that Hebrew is written from right to left) said ben, it would be the “son” of the king. But if it said eved (“servant”; even senior royal functionaries were denominated “servants of the king”), then this could be the same Shebna/Shebnayahu castigated by Isaiah, whose tomb had been found by Clermont-Ganneau and identified by Nahman Avigad.

Signed, sealed, delivered. In antiquity, seals were small carved stones or gems used as instruments of identification, authority and security. When sending a letter, an official would roll or fold up the document and tie it with string. He then placed a wet blob of clay over the knot and pressed his seal into it, thus marking it with his official signature and ensuring the security of the contents until the letter reached the intended recipient.

We have numerous examples of seals and bullae from antiquity. In most cases they are no longer with the documents they protected; often these were destroyed in fires that burnt away the papyrus and string but baked and thereby preserved the bullae (the string marks are visible on the back of this bulla).

All Aharoni could do at this point was write that the Shebnayahu on this bulla from Lachish was probably the son of the king “or” the servant of the king. Even one more letter on the right edge of the bulla would be determinative. If it were a nun, then the word would be ben, “son.” If it were a dalet, it would be eved, “servant.”

The puzzle remained unsolved for 42 years. Aharoni has long since passed away. Then in 2007, another bulla stamped with the same seal surfaced on the Jerusalem antiquities market. A simple examination leaves no doubt that it is an impression of the same seal as the Lachish bulla. It, too, is broken off at the right edge. But on this bulla, part of an additional letter to the right of ha-melekh, “the king,” has survived: a dalet! The word before ha-melekh ended in a dalet. The word was eved, “servant.” The seal that made this impression belonged to “the servant of the king”!

There are a few extant examples of bullae in use, such as this fifth–fourth-century B.C.E. document from Elephantine, Egypt.

The last piece of the puzzle involves the date. The Lachish bulla was found in Level II, which was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. Level III (below it) was destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. This means that the finds from Level II date between 701 and the early sixth century B.C.E. Within this period of about a century, we have two clues that enable us to be more specific: the juglet in which the bulla was found and the form and stance of the letters of the inscription. Both the shape of the vessel and the paleography of the inscription date to the late eighth or the early part of the seventh century B.C.E., making it contemporaneous with the Siloam Inscription in Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the inscription over the entrance to Shebna’s tomb.7

Thus, the Shebnayahu seal impression found at Lachish can now be positively identified as belonging to the “servant of the king,” who is very probably the same person against whom Isaiah prophesied and whose tomb still overlooks the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. He probably sent a letter from King Hezekiah’s court written on papyrus to an official at Lachish. After wrapping the papyrus letter in string, he placed a blob of clay on the string and stamped it with his seal. What the letter said, we will never know.


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