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Corruption in the Palace

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I have just posted two articles at Res Biblica on the book of Isaiah.  The first is on Isaiah 22:15–25, which narrates how Isaiah is instrumental in the demotion of the king’s chancellor Shebnah and how Eliakim takes his place.  The second part of this section from Isaiah is the background for the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” mentioned in Matthew 16:19.

Relevant for the title of this blog is the oracle addressed to Shebnah, the first part of which (16) is the ground for his demotion (19), and later his death in exile (17–18)

16What have you to do here and whom have you here, that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself, you who hew a tomb on the height, and carve a resting-place (mishkan) for yourself in the rock?
17Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, 18and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there shall be your splendid chariots, you shame of your master’s house.
19I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station.

Matthew Henry calls this a reproof on account of Shebna’s vainglory, and for good reason, an exegete wonders how vainglory could be punished with exile (see the New Jerome Biblical Commentary in loco).   There is more to the accusation of a tomb hewn in a rocky high place and splendid chariots (v.18) than pride and vanity.  In my article, I suggest corruption.  Shebnah has been enriching himself in office and can be categorized among the administrative officials whom Isaiah denounces in his Woe Oracles.  This association is justified because of the title used for Shebnah here, “Strong Man” (geber) listed among those upon whom Isaiah pronounces his woes (5:22, giborim listot yayin).  Shebnah’s tomb which archaeologists have unearthed at the Kidron Valley, is carved into the mountain, something that only the really rich can afford.  This together with his chariots and — by implication — the horses which were imported from Egypt distinguished him as a wealthy man.  Isaiah’s denunciation numbers him among those who have become wealthy in office, something not difficult to imagine given the chancellor’s authority.  This authority and power can be inferred from verses 20–24 about the glory of the chancellor that will be given to Eliakim

21I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. 24 And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.

I have explained the title “father” as a mark of prestige and honor (see the article linked above).  Interesting is the power of the keys (22) which denotes an absolute authority in the king’s household:  even the king won’t eat his breakfast unless the chancellor opens the supply room.  The Woe Oracles describe what this kind of authority and power can lead to.  I don’t even have to repeat here the oft-quoted phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  Shebnah became wealthy in office, perpetuating the injustice and oppression characterizing the royal administrative offices.  It was for this reason that he merits death in exile.

Even Eliakim will not be spared the fate of Shebnah.  In verse 25, a note is added about his downfall:

In that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a sure place will give way; and it will be cut down and fall, and the burden that was upon it will be cut off, for the LORD has spoken.”

The phrase “peg that was fastened in a sure place” (25) recalls the “peg in a sure place” in verse 24, a metaphor for the place of honor that Eliakim will have among his own kin.  Because of his “glory” as chancellor, his family and relatives will be clinging to him, sharing in his privileges.  It is because of the household that Eliakim too will have his downfall.


Originally posted 2008-08-11 02:53:27. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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