The Royal Steward Inscription (7th c. BCE)

The Royal Steward Inscription (7th c. BCE)

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

Already during the First Temple period, the rocky terrain on the eastern edge of the Kidron Valley was used as a burial place for the nobility of Jerusalem. Three burial caves in this region were found with ancient inscriptions. Burial cave No. 35 contains what has come to be known as the “Royal Steward Inscription” or the “Shebna Inscription.” This is due to the mention of a royal steward of Judah who may possibly be identified with the Shebna mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 22:15), though this identification is not certain. The inscription is dated to around the year 700 BCE on the basis of its palaeographic similarity to the script of the Siloam tunnel inscription, the provenance of which is just across the valley (Aḥituv 2008, 44). The main inscription in burial cave No. 35 reads as follows:

Royal Steward Inscription
© The Trustees of the British Museum under

Original Text

𐤆𐤀𐤕 [𐤒𐤁𐤓𐤕 𐤔𐤁𐤍]𐤉𐤄𐤅 𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤏𐤋 𐤄𐤁𐤉𐤕. 𐤀𐤉𐤍 𐤐𐤄 𐤊𐤎𐤐. 𐤅𐤆𐤄𐤁

𐤊𐤉] 𐤀𐤌 [𐤏𐤑𐤌𐤕𐤅] 𐤅𐤏𐤑[𐤌]𐤕 𐤀𐤌𐤕𐤄 𐤀[𐤕]𐤄 𐤀𐤓𐤅𐤓 𐤄𐤀𐤃𐤌 𐤀𐤔𐤓

                                                                                           ð¤‰ð¤ð¤•ð¤‡ 𐤀𐤕 𐤆𐤀𐤕

Transcription with Audio (Ancient Script)

Ancient ScriptHistorical PronunciationTranslation

𐤆𐤀𐤕 [𐤒𐤁𐤓𐤕 𐤔𐤁𐤍]𐤉𐤄𐤅

ˈzoːt [qabuːˈrat ʃaban]ˈjaːhuː

‘This is the tomb
of Shebanyahu’

.𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤏𐤋 𐤄𐤁𐤉𐤕

ˈʔiʃr ˈʕal hab-ˈbajt

‘who is in charge
of the house’

𐤀𐤉𐤍 𐤐𐤄 𐤊𐤎𐤐. 𐤅𐤆𐤄𐤁

ˈʔajn ˈpuh ˈkasp wa-zaˈhab

‘there is no silver
and gold here’

𐤊𐤉] 𐤀𐤌 [𐤏𐤑𐤌𐤕𐤅]

ˈ[kiː] ˈʔim [ʕaṣamoːˈtaw]

‘but only
his bones’

𐤅𐤏𐤑[𐤌]𐤕 𐤀𐤌𐤕𐤄 𐤀[𐤕]𐤄

wa-ʕaṣaˈmoːt ʔamaˈtuh ʔi[tˈt]uh

‘and the bones of his
servant (f) with him’

𐤀𐤓𐤅𐤓 𐤄𐤀𐤃𐤌

ʔaˈruːr haʔ-ʔaˈdam

‘cursed be
the man’

𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤉𐤐𐤕𐤇 𐤀𐤕 𐤆𐤀𐤕

ˈʔiʃr jipˈtaħ ˈʔit ˈzoːt

‘who opens
this (tomb)’

Transcription with Audio (Modern Script)

Modern ScriptModern PointedTranslation

זאת [קברת שבנ]יהו

זֹאת [קְבֻרַת שְׁבַנְ]יָהוּ

‘This is the tomb
of Shebanyahu’

.אשר על הבית

.אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבַּיִת

‘who is in charge
of the house’

אין פה כסף. וזהב

אֵין פֹּה כֶּסֶף. וְזָהָב

‘there is no silver
and gold here’

כי] אם [עצמתו]

כִּי] אִם [עַצְמֹתָו]

‘but only
his bones’

ועצ[מ]ת אמתה א[ת]ה

וְעַצְ[מֹ]ת אֲמָתֹה אִ[תֹּ]ה

‘and the bones of his
servant (f) with him’

ארור האדם

אָרוּר הָאָדָם

‘cursed be
the man’

אשר יפתח את זאת

אֲשֶׁר יִפְתַּח אֶת זֹאת

‘who opens
this (tomb)’

Commentary

שבנ]יהו

The name of the deceased is only partially preserved due to a break in the stone. The theophoric ending יהו- is all that remains. Because of the dating of the inscription and the phrase אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבַּיִת ‘the one who is over the house’ (see below), it has been suggested that this ending may be part of the name שְׁבַנְיָהוּ ‘Shebaniah’, which would be the longer form of שֶׁבְנָא/שֶׁבְנָה ‘Shebnah’. Note that the longer form is attested in 1 Chronicles and Nehemiah: e.g., שְׁבַנְיָ֛ה ‘Shebaniah’ (Neh. 9:4; see also Neh. 9:5, 10:5, 10:11, 10:13, 12:14); וּשְׁבַנְיָ֡הוּ ‘and Shebaniah’ (1 Chr. 15:24).

Further support for the identification of the deceased with the Shebna of Isaiah 22 is found in the words of Isaiah directed to Shebna (see Aḥituv 2008, 47): מַה־לְּךָ֥ פֹה֙ וּמִ֣י לְךָ֣ פֹ֔ה כִּֽי־חָצַ֧בְתָּ לְּךָ֛ פֹּ֖ה קָ֑בֶר חֹצְבִ֤י מָרוֹם֙ קִבְר֔וֹ חֹקְקִ֥י בַסֶּ֖לַע מִשְׁכָּ֥ן לֽוֹ׃ ‘what right do you have here and whom do you have here that you have hewn for yourself a tomb here, one who hews in a lofty place his tomb, carves in the rock a dwelling place for himself’ (Isaiah 22:16).

אשר

The original pronunciation of the word אֲשֶׁר is debatable. On one hand, it likely comes from an earlier Semitic nominal form */ʔaθaru/ (for the etymology of שֶׁ and אֲשֶׁר, see Huehnergard 2006). However, the Greek transcriptions of Hebrew in the Secunda write this word as εσερ, the Latin transcriptions of Hebrew in Jerome write it as eser, and the Samaritan Hebrew reading tradition has an initial [eː] vowel in [ˈʔeːʃɑr]. This suggests that it may have been a segholate (i.e., *qiá¹­l pattern) noun at an early stage of Hebrew, something like */ʔiʃr/. Although this is not commonly cited as a likely reconstruction of this word, Secunda scholars like myself and Yuditsky (2017, 217) support it. Its lack of mention in wider scholarship may be due to lack of familiarity with the Greek and Latin transcriptions of Hebrew and the Samaritan tradition.

אשר על הבית

The phrase אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבַּיִת ‘the one who is over the house’ is a sort of title, referring to the “prime minister of the country” (Aḥituv 2008, 46). Note that this title occurs numerous times in the Bible (1 Kgs. 16:9, 18:3; 2 Kgs. 10:5, 18:18, 18:37, 19:2; Isa. 22:15, 36:3, 36:22, 37:2). If the name of the deceased is indeed שְׁבַנְיָהוּ, as noted above, then this inscription likely refers to the Shebna mentioned in Isa. 22.15: כֹּ֥ה אָמַ֛ר אֲדֹנָ֥י יְהוִ֖ה צְבָא֑וֹת לֶךְ־בֹּא֙ אֶל־הַסֹּכֵ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה עַל־שֶׁבְנָ֖א אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הַבָּֽיִת׃ ‘thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the house’ (Isa. 22:15).

אין פה כסף וזהב

The mention of a lack of gold or silver in the tomb is intended to disincentivize any tomb raiders from robbing the tomb. The concern with tomb raiders is echoed again in the ארור האדם ‘cursed be the man…’ phrase toward the end of the inscription.

כי] אם [עצמתו]

The phrase כִּי אִם ‘but (rather)’ is common in Biblical Hebrew but only attested twice in early Hebrew inscriptions. It is also attested in the Lachish letters with a similar meaning: אינ֯[נ]י שלח שמה את הע[ד הימ] כי אמ·בתסבת·הבקר [י]ב֯[א] ‘I am not sending the witness there (right now), but rather at the turn of the morning he will come’ (Lachish 4:9).

ועצ[מ]ת

Note that this word has been phonologically transcribed as */wa-ʕaṣamoːt/ with a vowel in between the ṣade and the mem against the Tiberian tradition. As a segholate noun (i.e., עֶצֶם ‘bone’), the plural form exhibits the insertion of an */a/ vowel: i.e., עֶצֶם ← עֲצָמוֹת from */ʕaṣm/ → */ʕaṣamoːt/. In the Tiberian tradition, this */a/ vowel is deleted due to syncope. At an earlier period, however, it was likely still preserved.

אמתה א[ת]ה

From a linguistic standpoint, note that the 3MS possessive suffix is indicated by a final heh. This is likely because it developed in conjunction with the final vowels as follows: (1) */bajtu‑hu(ː)/ ‘his house’ → (2) */bajt‑uh/ → (3) */bajt-o(h)/ → (4) */bajt‑oː/ (see Lambdin and Huehnergard 2000, 53). Note that in stages 1, 2, and 3 of the development, the heh was consonantal and thus still pronounced. As such, the suffix was probably realized as */-uh/ or */-o(h)/ in the present inscription: i.e., */ʔamat-uh/ or */ʔamat-o(h)/ and */ʔitt-uh/ or */ʔitt-o(h)/. Alternatively, one could argue that it had already shifted to */-oː/ but that a more conservative orthography was still used.

From a cultural perspective, it is worth noting that although the term אָמָה is often used as the female counterpart to עֶבֶד ‘servant’, it is here probably referring to the spouse of the deceased. According to Aḥituv (2008, 46), this relationship was of the nature outlined in Exod. 21:7–11, in which a maiden was sold by her father for the express purpose of getting married.

ארור האדם אשר יפתח את זאת

Note the vav mater in the passive adjective אָרוּר ‘cursed’ to indicate the long /uː/ vowel. This appears to be the only mater lectionis in the entire inscription.

As noted above, this phrase ‘cursed be the man…’ is a warning against those who might raid the tomb. Such warnings are common on tombstones in all periods of epigraphy in ancient Israel.

Bibliography:

Aḥituv, Shmuel. 2008. Echoes From the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions From the Biblical Period. Jerusalem: Carta. Pages 44–48.

Avigad, Nahman. 1953. “The Epitaph of a Royal Steward From Siloam Village.” Israel Exploration Journal 3 (3): 137–52.

——. 1955. “The Second Tomb-Inscription of the Royal Steward.” Israel Exploration Journal 5 (3): 163–66.

Huehnergard, John. 2015. “Biblical Hebrew Nominal Patterns.” In Epigraphy, Philology, and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, edited by Jeremy M. Hutton, and Aaron D. Rubin, 25–64. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. 2000. The Historical Grammar of Classical Hebrew. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University.

Layton, Scott C. 1990. “The Steward in Ancient Israel: A Study of Hebrew (ʾašer ʿal-Habbayit) in Its Near Eastern Setting.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (4): 633–49.

Suchard, Benjamin D. 2020. The Development of the Biblical Hebrew vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology. Leiden: Brill.

I must also thank Jo Ann Hackett, who trained me in Northwest Semitic Epigraphy. Of course, any errors in the above are my own.

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