Sunday, 2 February 2014

Terry Hampton on Shebna

In 1994, Terry Hampton penned a series of articles for "The Pilot" called "It's in the Bible but." dealing with names that were somewhat obscure mentioned in the Bible, of whom the average reader would know little. Terry, with his interest in archaeology, decided to write articles to tell the readership more about them. They are wonderful lively little pieces and really capture Terry's distinctive voice.
Shebna by Terry Hampton (1994)
I think that this name will cause some head scratching amongst our readers. Perhaps some keen Bible student at either St Paul's or St Ouen's will immediately shout "Eureka," but will not, trust like Archimedes, run naked through his locality. (For those who have vaguely heard of Archimedes but are not sure what the mathematical genius was on about, he was reported as behaving in this very odd fashion when he made a great discovery as he entered his bath. What he discovered I leave to you, O gentle reader, to find out in your turn!)
So, who was Shebna? To find out his place in the Bible, you -will need to turn to the book of the prophet Isaiah, Ch 22 v15. The prophet is sent with a message to Shebna who is over the household." He had made himself a large rock tomb, a tomb on the height. "But he will.lose everything, and another will replace him in the royal household." Clearly Isaiah thought that Shebna had grown too big for his sandals and his come-uppance was about to take place.
So what do we know about this man who serviced King Hezekiah (he of the Siloam tunnel fame) round about the year c.701 BC?
Until 1870 we had no extra-Biblical details of Shebna at all. Then, an old friend we have met before in connection with the Moabite stone, the French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, discovered a tomb lintel. On it was Hebrew writing of three lines, and it was found on the east side of the Kidron valley overlooking Jerusalem. Unfortunately, a fair-sized chunk was missing, which made its decipherment very difficult. The original was taken to England and now resides in the British Museum.
The Israeli Museum that we visited in May of this year has to make do with a copy, and Professor Meshorer said to me with a smile, "We would like to have the original back from you one day!"
So, for almost one hundred years, the stone inscription was unreadable. Then a brilliant Israeli epigrapher (the skills of deciphering in ancient languages) called Nahman Avigad, got to work on the Shebna stone. He "filled in the gaps" and came up with this translation of the 8th century script: "This is (the sepulchre of. . ) yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and no gold here but (his bones) and the bones of his slave wife with him. Cursed be the man who will open this."
It was a brilliant piece of work done in 1953 and has been accepted as the nearest we shall get to a full decipherment. It appears then that this high-flying palace official's full name was SHEBNAYAHU, and this name has turned up on seals of the 8th century BC. He seems, in fact, to have had several posts under King Hezekiah, because as well as the Isaiah reference [Chapter 22] to be over the house" (the same Hebrew word is used on the Inscription) Shebna was also a secretary or Scribe (2 Kings 18:18] who talked to the Assyrian attackers in the great seige of Jerusalem in 701 BC. He is also called"treasurer" in Isaiah 22. (He sounds a bit like Cardinal Wolsey who was also a great gatherer of titles, posts, and loot!)
If you remember earlier articles about tombs, and especially the famous Egyptian ones, you will remember that it was usual to try and safeguard the tomb from grave robbers by writing a curse above the tomb. But either the robbers couldn't read it, or didn't read it, and didn't believe it, because they seem to have gone merrily on their way and cleared out many a tomb that today's archaeologists would give a great deal to know what was put inside the tomb at the time of death.
It is also interesting to note that Shebnayahu had a slave wife. And as she was buried with him, he obviously cared for her. The bones, you may remember, were gathered together after a time, and put into ossuaries, i.e. chests made of limestone with the name of the deceased carved on them.
So, if it is Shebna of Isaiah 22, we have one more person who is mentioned in the Bible and archaeology has found evidence of them. And does Shebnayahu have anything to say to us so many centuries later? 1 think he does, He was a man of wealth and power who Isaiah clearly thought was "feathering his own nest," and we still have examples of that daily in our papers and on TV. But he was also a proud man, and Jesus talks about "Blessed are the meek," He also spent a great deal on a splendid tomb for himself and his slave wife and this poses the question, "What am I leaving behind; what memorial would I want?" A splendid Jersey granite tomb or, and far better, many special memories of acts of love, caring and joy, in the minds of many people.
As Peter Marshall, the Scots Chaplain to the American Senate, once wrote, "The true test of the worth of a life is, 'How much shall I be missed,' What matters is not our duration of life, but our donation to life." What will your donation be?

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