Going Out in Style

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, British Museum

In Leviticus 21, the Bible discusses the laws of ritual purity for priests when dealing with the deceased. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband, for her he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.”

A number of the prophets in the biblical book Minor Prophets are critical of those flaunt their wealth in the face of poverty or who abuse the poor. The biblical prophet Isaiah continues in this tradition, in his criticism of an advisor to the king and this advisor’s plans for after his own death.

In 2 Kings 18, the king of Judah, Hezekiah, had an advisor named Shebna. “Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went to Hezekiah, with their clothes torn, and told him what the field commander had said.” In Isaiah 22, the prophet is critical of Shebna for his plans for an ostentatious tomb and warns of punishment heading his way. “This is what the Lord, the Lord Almighty, says: Go, say to this steward, to Shebna the palace administrator: What are you doing here and who gave you permission to cut out a grave for yourself here, hewing your grave on the height and chiseling your resting place in the rock? Beware, the Lord is about to take firm hold of you and hurl you away, you mighty man. He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you into a large country. There you will die and there the chariots you were so proud of will become a disgrace to your master’s house. I will depose you from your office, and you will be ousted from your position.”

The Royal Steward Inscription is an inscription that was discovered in Silwan, across from the ancient city of Jerusalem. The inscription reads “This [burials …]-iah, the royal steward. 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.”

The bulk of the individual’s name cannot be read, but it ends with the suffix showing it to be a theophoric name, containing God’s name. Some have suggested that the original name on the inscription was Shebnaiah, a variation of the royal steward Shebna mentioned in 2 Kings and in Isaiah, although this cannot be confirmed.

The Royal Steward Inscription is on display at the British Museum.