Sobna (Shebna) the High Priest

 by

 Damien F. Mackey

 

 

What was Sobna’s former office, to which Eliakim had now succeeded? It is usually

given as Major-domo or its equivalent; but the Douay Isaiah 22:15 translates it in terms

that could only be referring to the high priesthood. Thus Isaiah is commanded: ‘Go … to

him that dwelleth in the tabernacle, to Sobna [Shebna] who is over the Temple …’.

The Latin Vulgate gives the words italicized here as ‘eum qui habitat in tabernaculo’.

 

 

Was Eliakim the High Priest?

 

There may be far more to King Hezekiah of Judah’s chief official, “Eliakim son of Hilkiah” (cf. 2 Kings 18:18; Isaiah 22:20, 36:3), than at first meets the eye.

 

Isaiah’s Oracle Re Eliakim

 

We encounter Eliakim son of Hilkiah in, for example, Isaiah 22, in what is regarded as the prophet’s ‘second oracle’ against the official, Sobna (or Shebna). Isaiah predicted that Sobna would be replaced by Eliakim. This must have taken effect at the time of King Sennacherib of Assyria’s Third Campaign invasion of Judah, since Eliakim was by then King Hezekiah’s chief minister. Sobna was now second to Eliakim. But the vital question is: What was Sobna’s former office, to which Eliakim had now succeeded? It is usually given as Major-domo or its equivalent; but the Douay Isaiah 22:15 translates it in terms that could only be referring to the high priesthood.

 

 

Thus Isaiah is commanded by the Lord: ‘Go … to him that dwelleth in the tabernacle, to Sobna who is over the Temple …’. The Latin Vulgate gives the words italicized here as ‘eum qui habitat in tabernaculo … praepositum templi …’. Moreover, Isaiah describes and praises Eliakim son of Hilkiah in words that indicate, not only the man’s great authority, but that could be taken also as a description of a high priest (vv. 21, 24):

 

‘He shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem

and to the House of Judah …. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars’.

 

“Vessels … bowls … jars”. “Father”: a strong word when it is considered that King Hezekiah himself was ruler over the House of Judah; but an appropriate title for a high priest, perhaps, who was in a sense ruler over even the king whom he would proclaim and anoint (cf. 1 Samuel 16:13). And in Eliakim’s case, with his having had to substitute for the king whilst Hezekiah himself was gravely ill (2 Kings 20:1), then the title, “father”, would take on an even more significant meaning.

Sobna, therefore, must formerly have been the high priest.

Furtther on, I shall attempt further to identify this Sobna – both biblically and historically.

 

Eliakim in the Book of Judith

 

Whilst the Book of Judith is pure history, it now, in its present form, takes a lot of decoding.

We are still in the reigns of kings Hezekiah of Judah and Sennacherib of Assyria, but at a later phase. The King of Assyria is rightly said to be ‘ruling over the Assyrians from his capital city of Nineveh’ (Judith 1:1), but, confusingly, he is named “Nebuchadnezzar”. This has prompted some would-be interpreters of the Book of Judith to try fitting the incidents described therein during the reign of Nebuchednezzar II ‘the Great’ of Babylon – which is about the worst possible choice of era for a massive victory by the Jews over an invading enemy!

Dr. Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute and author of the fascinating book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, has explained that the ancients commonly confused Sennacherib of Nineveh with Nebuchednezzar of Babylon.

And she has expertly argued that the famed ‘Hanging Gardens’ of antiquity were situated in Nineveh, and not in Babylon. Moreover, Dr. Dalley has been able to demonstrate (actually in situ) that the screw pump, famously attributed to Archimedes (C3rd BC), was already being used by the Assyrians about half a millennium earlier, at the time of Sennacherib.

 

 

Even more puzzlingly in the Book of Judith, neither King Hezekiah, nor any other king of Judah, is mentioned therein. Little wonder, then, that some commentators have looked to locate the Judith incident at a time when Judah was kingless (e.g. the Maccabean era).

Understandably, Eliakim had stood in for King Hezekiah during the latter’s 14th year of reign, when he was ill. Not so easily explained, though, is why Hezekiah will not figure during the second invasion, which, admittedly, did not penetrate beyond northern Israel (Judith’s town of “Bethulia”). This latter incident, most terrifying for Israel, would occur about a decade later than the first successful invasion by the Assyrians. We begin to read about it in chapter 2 of the Book of Judith. The King of Assyria will now send his commander-in-chief (here called “Holofernes”) to crush the western nations that had failed to assist him in a war of Assyria’s fought in the east.

As it turns out, though, not Israel, but the head of “Holofernes”, is what (like Satan) gets ‘crushed’.

The truth of the matter is that “Holofernes” had already ‘lost his head’ over the beautiful Judith some time before he would physically lose his head into her maid’s food basket (Judith 13:8-10).

 

 

The high priest (as now interpreted) Eliakim will re-emerge in biblical history in Judith chapter 4.

We meet him there as: “The high priest, Joakim”.

The name Joakim is linguistically interchangeable with Eliakim.

In case we may have any doubts, Joakim the high priest is otherwise named Eliakim in the Douay version of the Book of Judith (Eliachim in the Latin).

Instead of a king to stir up the people, as Hezekiah had done at the commencement of Sennacherib’s invasion (2 Chronicles 32:2-8) for his Third Campaign, Judith 4:6-7 introduces us to:

 

The high priest, Joakim, who was in Jerusalem at the time [who] wrote to the people of Bethulia and Betomesthaim, which faces Esdraelon opposite the plain near Dothan, ordering them to seize the mountain passes, since by them Judaea could be invaded …”.

 

Our Eliakim/Joakim, the high priest, is now fully realising the prediction of him by Isaiah, that he would “be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the House of Judah”.

Joakim even acts as Jerusalem’s defence organiser.

—————

 

St. Peter the High Priest

 

 

‘And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven’.

 

Matthew 16:18-19

 

We think that the commonly accepted connection of Isaiah 22 with Matthew 16 must surely become all the more significant if the prophet’s Oracle concerning “Eliakim son of Hilkiah” is understood to have been proclaimed in reference to a person who, not only of priestly descent, will rise to become the Divinely appointed high priest of Jerusalem.

Saint Peter, too, was Divinely appointed, by Jesus Christ himself, to be the new High Priest.

And, just as Eliakim was designated “father” (Hebrew, av: אָב), so do we Catholics refer to Peter and his successors as “pope”, from the Latin papa which means “father”.

Eliakim would be exalted over his predecessor, Sobna (about whom I am going to say more), who had been found to be unworthy and most presumptuous (Isaiah 22:15-19).

In like manner, Saint Peter was to replace the old Jewish high priesthood which had degenerated into whitewashed hypocrisy (Matthew 23:27), and which had orchestrated the murder of the Messiah.

 —————

 

 

Sobna and Eliakim in

the Assyrian Records?

 

If, as already claimed, Sobna had once been the high priest, then we should be able to identify him.

 

Sobna as biblical high priest

 

Prior to the 14th year of King Hezekiah of Judah, when we find Eliakim at the helm – and as high priest as already argued – the king’s high priest was one “Azariah the chief priest, from the family of Zadok” (2 Chronicles 31:10). This is all we hear of him.

Presumably this Azariah, being of the “family of Zadok”, hence an Aaronite (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), had been legitimately appointed.

Moreover, King Hezekiah was, at this particular time, fully involved in his great work of reform. So we might imagine that the high priest Azariah was thus a loyal Yahwist, and hence unsuitable to be the same as the unworthy Sobna (or Shebna).

But wait a minute.

King Hezekiah’s wicked father, Ahaz – whose works of apostasy his son Hezekiah was now busily undoing – had a high priest named Uriah, who was apparently involved right up to his neck in Ahaz’s Assyrian-inspired works of idolatry (2 Kings 16:10-11):

 

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction. So Uriah the priest built an altar in accordance with all the plans that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus and finished it before King Ahaz returned.

 

Vv. 12-15 continue with the narrative of the co-operation between Ahaz and his faithful lackey, before we read (v. 16): “And Uriah the priest did just as King Ahaz had ordered”.

Now, this “Uriah the priest” is precisely the sort of man who could be Sobna (Isaiah 22:18): ‘You shame of your master’s house’. And the name, “Uriah”, is compatible with “Azariah” (Hezekiah’s high priest) as we shall see (next section) from the compound form of it: Azuri. This tricky high priest – if we are correct in connecting Uriah-Azariah-Sobna – must have been chameleon-like in his ability to satisfy the idolatrous King Ahaz, but then survive to assist during the Yahwistic reform of King Hezekiah. However, Sobna was to be ‘called out’ by the great prophet Isaiah who was not easily fooled, who could read men’s hearts.

One reason for Sobna’s survival as high priest during King Hezekiah’s reform (which great work may have been heavily influenced by Isaiah himself, anyway) may have been due to the political mindset of Hezekiah and the high priest’s adaptability to it. It is thought that Uriah, as high priest to King Ahaz, may have made offerings on an altar dedicated to the Assyrian god, Assur. Ahaz was politically, as we have read, pro-Assyrian.

But Hezekiah, unlike his father, was pro-Egyptian. And this was anathema to Yahweh speaking through Isaiah (30:1-3):

‘Oh, rebellious children’, says the Lord,

who carry out a plan, but not mine;

who make an alliance, but against my will,

adding sin to sin;

who set out to go down to Egypt

without asking for my counsel,

to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh,

and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt;

Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame,

and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation’.

 

For now we are going to suggest that Sobna the high priest of King Hezekiah would attempt to throw off the Assyrian yoke established during the reign of Tiglath-pileser, and rebel against the mighty neo-Assyrian king, Sargon II.

 

Sobna as Azuri of “Ashdod”

 

“In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria,

came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it”

 

Isaiah 20:1

 

Sobna was now getting way too big for his boots, proud of his “chariots” (Isaiah 22:18) and cutting out for himself an elaborate tomb (v. 16): ‘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?’

This is thought to be Sobna’s tomb inscription.

 

© Trustees of the British Museum

 

It reads: “This is [the tomb of Shebna]yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and gold here, only [his bones] and the bones of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this.” (The wording in brackets is missing on the inscription and has been supplied.)

 

Instead of Shebna-yahu, I think that the original might have read Azri-yahu (i.e., Azariah). Most interestingly, the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser boasted of having received tribute from “Azriyahu of Yaudi”, generally thought by historians to refer to (but the chronology would be over-stretched) the great King Azariah (= Uzziah) of Judah.

Could it actually be an historical reference to our man, the high priest Azariah of Judah?

Isaiah 20:1 was the only reference known to King Sargon of Assyria down through the centuries, until the C19th AD advent of archaeology. In 1842, Emil Botta discovered the ruins of Sargon’s palace, in Khorsabad, on the north edge of Nineveh, with treasures and inscriptions showing him to have been one of Assyria’s greatest kings.

King Sargon was compelled to send his general (or Tartan) against the powerful Judean fort of Ashdod due to its revolt – a revolt instigated by the pro-Egyptian Jews against Assyria.

And guess by whom this revolt was led? By Azuri.

According to Sargon: “Azuri, king of Ashdod, plotted in his heart not to pay tribute. In my anger I marched against Ashdod … I conquered Ashdod, and Gath. I took their treasures and their people. My Tartan I set over them as governor”.

That was only a temporary appointment, because the Assyrians would place Azuri’s brother, Akhimiti, over Ashdod.

Notice those two names, Azuri, Akhimiti, and compare them with, respectively, Uriah/Azariah (Sobna) and Eli-akim (Akhim-iti).

If this reconstruction is on the right track, then the high priestly brothers, Zadokites, were in charge of the fort of “Ashdod”, which is the mighty stronghold of Lachish. (The coastal Ashdod is distinguished by Sargon as Asdudimmu, i.e., ‘Ashdod-by-the-Sea’). That would explain why Judith 4:6 specifically notes that: “The High Priest Joakim, who was in Jerusalem at that time”, perhaps meaning that Jerusalem was not his usual abode. Sobna rebelled against Assyria and was replaced (as Isaiah had foretold) by Eliakim – who was apparently this Sobna’s brother.

 

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