The Saga of Shebna

Wayne Jackson
An interesting archaelogical find may provide incidental confirmation of an Old Testament narrative.

In the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, prior to Sennachrib’s siege of Jerusalem, there was an ambitious official in the king’s service whose name was Shebna. Out of an inflated sense of prominence, perhaps fueled by ambition, Shebna had carved for himself a magnificent tomb from solid rock—a custom usually reserved for royalty. How he must have relished the day of his death!

When Isaiah learned of the deed, he approached the corrupt treasurer and rebuked him (this the only example in the book of Isaiah of an individual person being rebuked by name). The prophet informed Shebna that Jehovah would cast him into a far country, and there he would die; accordingly, the dignitary would have no use for his elaborate mausoleum. This exchange is found in Isaiah 22:15ff.

In 1953, archaeologist N. Avigad translated an inscription taken from the lintel of a rock tomb in Jerusalem (the fragment is now in the British Museum). Written in archaic Hebrew, the inscription reads:

This is [the sepulcher of] . . . yahu, who is over the house. There is no silver or gold here but only his bones, and the bones of his slave-wife with him. Cursed be the man who breaks this open.

The owner’s name is partially destroyed.

Many scholars believe, however, that this stone lintel is from the tomb of that Shebna who was rebuked by Isaiah (Blaikock 1983, 410; Cundall 1975, 380), for the following reasons:

  1. The style of script dates from the time of Hezekiah.
  2. The inscription mentions one who is “over the house” of the king, which conforms to the title of Hezekiah’s Shebna (cf. 22:15).
  3. What is believed to be a more complete form of the name is found in Nehemiah 9:4—Shebaniah, the last syllable being yahu (see above).

All of these factors make it “quite plausible” that this is a fragment from Shebna’s tomb (Mitchell 1988, 58). However, as noted above, though Shebna had this inscription made for his tomb, he was never to inhabit his rock-hewn home. Where ambitious men propose, God can dispose—and apparently such was the case with Shebna.

There is also an interesting afterthought pertaining to this episode. Shebna was replaced by Eliakim, who was given the “key of the house of David” with the absolute power to open and shut (22:22). The expression symbolically denotes the royal authority of his office.

Significantly, this language is borrowed by Christ and applied to himself in the book of Revelation (3:7). This, of course, is a clear affirmation of the kingly authority possessed by the Lord (cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20-23).

  • Blaiklock, E. M. 1983. Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. E. M. Blaikock and R. K. Harrison, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Cundall, A. E. 1975. Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. Merrill Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Mitchell, T. C. 1988. The Bible in the British Museum. London, England: The British Museum.