Tombs Cut in the Rocks

Several hundred Iron Age tombs have been found in the hillside opposite the City of David .  Most are just simple burial chambers carved into the rock with a raised bench inside where the body was laid.  All that is visible from outside is the square opening to the chamber.   However, two tombs have been discovered that were more elaborate.  The first of these is the tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Although difficult to spot among the tightly packed houses of Silwan, the tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter (aka.The Silwan Monolith) is a truly impressive tomb – probably one of the best preserved structures from the 1st temple period.   The tomb takes its name from the very Egyptian looking beaded cove that encircles the outer edge of its roof.  Apparently it was originally crowned with a pyramid.

One of these tombs preserves a lengthy Hebrew inscription (now in the British Museum) that may have an interesting connection with the prophet Isaiah:

“This is the tomb of… ]yahu who is over the house. No silver or gold is here but (his bones) and the bones of his Amma. Cursed be the man who opens this.”  (1)

Based on the identification of this tomb with an overseer of the house, and the fact that the tomb is one of the more elaborate Iron Age tombs in Silwan, it is quite likely that this tomb is the one mentioned by Isaiah,

Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him:   What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock?  (Isa 22:15-16)

So why was Isaiah so critical of Shebna’s tomb?   Was it because it was a symbol of vanity?   Some indication that this may be the case is found in the prophet’s criticism of Shebna for traveling about with ‘glorious chariots’ (lit. – chariots of his glory).   But it is also possible that the elaborate tomb of Shebna was influenced by Egyptian ideas about death and the afterlife.

It is interesting to consider that many of the greatest monuments surviving today are tombs.  Think: the Pyramids, Petra, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Terracotta Warriors, the Taj Mahal…  I don’t think the prophet Isaiah would have approved.

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