Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (Nehemiah 2)

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When Nehemiah began rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in 445 B.C., he met with strong resistance from three individuals named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. Although Nehemiah din not record their titles, we know from extra-biblical evidence that they were rulers of adjoining areas (cf. Nehemiah 2:9-10):

  • Sanballat: Sanballat was the governor of Samaria, the province north of Judah. We know, in fact, of three men by this name who ruled Samaria at different times. A 407 B.C. papyrus letter from Elephantine in Egypt mentions the Sanballat of Nehemiah’s time. Written to the governor of Judah, requestingpermission to rebuild the ruined temple at Elephantine, it states: “All these things in a letter we sent in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah sons of Sanballat governor of Samarai.” It appears that at this time, 38 years after Sanballat’s confrontation with Nehemiah, Sanballat’s sons were acting on behalf of their aged father. A coin and a bulla (seal impression) from the mid-fourth century B.C., inscribed with the name of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, were discovered in a cave in the wilderness of Judah. This particular Sanballat was likely the grandson of Nehemiah’s Sanballat. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus mentions a third Sanballat, who was ruling Samaria in 332 B.C. and was perhaps the great-grandson of the Sanballat who opposed Nehemiah.
  • Tobiah: The Tobiah family was well known in the third century B.C. as powerful Jewish aristocrats living in the Transjordan. Papyrus letters of an Egyptian official named Zenon, dating from around 260 B.C., mention a wealthy landowner, businessman and taxcollector named Tobias (an alternative spelling of Tobiah) in the province of Ammonitis. Ruins of the Tobiah family’s palatial estate from the second century B.C., mentioned by Josephus, have been excavated 18 km west of modern Amman, Jordan. The family name is inscribed above two entrances to rock-cut halls on the estate. The Tobiah of Nehemiah’s acquaintance appears to have been governor of the province of Ammon, east of Judah in the Transjordan.
  • Geshem: An inscription found in north-western Arabia from the time of Nehemiah reads, “Geshem son of Sahr and Abd, governor of Dedan.” A silver offering bowl uncovered in the eastern delta region of Egypt from the late fifth century B.C. bears the same name, stating, “That which Kainu son of Geshem king of Kedar offered to Hanilat.” Since Dedan and Kedar were tribal nations occupying the eastern desert, including Syria, northern Arabia, Sinai and northern Egypt, Geshem must have been a powerful ruler who controlled a vast area.



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