Move Along, Nothing Valuable Here
In the context of a discussion about if one can trust witnesses who are known to be transgressors, the Gemara brings up the case of Shebna, steward to King Hezekiah. He is described as a brilliant scholar who commanded a larger audience for his Torah teachings than did the king. Therefore, when Sennacherib of Assyria advanced on Jerusalem, Shebna thought that the decision to surrender was in his hands, since he had the majority on his side. This was not the case and he ultimately tried to surrender to Sennacherib himself, with his followers. God planned it so that he was locked out of the city alone and Sennacherib thought he was making a fool of him. Therefore, he tortured and killed him.
In the course of this story, the Gemara relates that Shebna was arrogant enough to build for himself a grave among the graves of the kings. The two parts of the story seem to be an attempt to explain the rather incongruous two parts of Isaiah chapter 22. In the first half of the chapter, the prophet talks about how Jerusalem is prematurely celebrating the defeat of Sennacherib, trusting in themselves and not in God. The second part of the chapter discusses Shebna who dug a grave for himself where he should not have.
ישעיהו כב (טו) כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי ה' צְבָאוֹת לֶךְ בֹּא אֶל הַסֹּכֵן הַזֶּה עַל שֶׁבְנָא אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבָּיִת: (טז) מַה לְּךָ פֹה וּמִי לְךָ פֹה כִּי חָצַבְתָּ לְּךָ פֹּה קָבֶר חֹצְבִי מָרוֹם קִבְרוֹ חֹקְקִי בַסֶּלַע מִשְׁכָּן לוֹ:
The Gemara goes into detail about the later verses but we want to know about the grave and about Shebna’s title. אשר על הבית is a term used for someone who is a high ranking official. Obadiah is the אשר על הבית for King Ahab for example. King Hezekiah seems to have had two of these functionaries, perhaps at different times: Shebna and someone named אליקים בן חלקיהו (Isaiah 36:22 and other places). That someone of this rank would dig himself a grave near the kings’ graves is not so strange; Isaiah seems to be angry at him not for his arrogance but for his disloyalty, as the Gemara relates.
In 1870, as part of a survey of the burial caves in the Kidron Valley
(Generation Word Bible Teaching)
the French archaeologist Charles Clermont Ganneau found an inscription. Part of it was broken but most of it was legible. It looked like this:
Translation: "This is ... [... ...] ...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."
Could this be the illicit grave of Shebna? Granted, the suffix yahu is a pretty common one in the Bible: Yirmiyahu, Yishayahu, Hizkiyahu. Also, Shebna’s name does not end with yahu. So what makes scholars think this is his grave? The key is the context of the verses in Isaiah and the title אשר על הבית. Adding yahu to a name is not unheard of in the Bible and it could be that Shebna was also known as Shebnayahu.
Besides the excitement of perhaps finding the grave mentioned by Isaiah, there is also the interesting inscription. The author wanted to make sure no one touched his remains. Therefore, he gave not one but two reasons to leave the grave alone:
Reason number one: No silver or gold here!!
Translation: remember those signs from the 80s advertising that there was nothing valuable in the car:
Reason number two: If you open the grave you will be cursed. People took curses very seriously in those days, perhaps more so than they took the commandment not to steal. So if you didn’t believe the author that there was nothing valuable in the grave, perhaps the curse would still deter you.
And why would you tamper with the grave in the first place? Because in Biblical times, Jews, like others, were buried with possessions. Who knows what one will need in the afterlife?
Did Shebna’s warnings work? Unfortunately for him and for archaeologists, no. The grave, like most graves was found empty, its possessions plundered centuries ago.