Multi-Dimensional Yahwism: The Case of the Persian Period Judaean Community in Elephantine

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By: Gard Granerød

When reading Jewish literature from the Second Temple period (the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods) in light of Nehemiah 8, one gets the impression that the Torah (the Books of Moses)—in one form or another—was the common spiritual denominator accepted by all branches of developing Judaism. But questions concerning the background, date of composition, and provenance of Ezra–Nehemiah remain unsolved. How should we assess the biblical texts as historical sources? Do they primarily reflect the viewpoints of their authors or also historical occurrences?

One important set of Judaean text betrays no knowledge of a “book of law of Moses” (or other sacred writings, for that matter), the Aramaic documents from Achaemenid Egypt, documenting the Judaean community in Elephantine (Jeb in Aramaic). In the fifth century BCE Judaeans in Elephantine were a garrison community under Achaemenid Persian command, controlling Egypt’s traditional southern border close to the First Cataract of the Nile.

Map showing location of Elephantine.

Map showing location of Elephantine.

View from the east bank of the Nile, looking north (down river) towards Elephantine Island.

View from the east bank of the Nile, looking north (down river) towards Elephantine Island.

The documents are written in Aramaic, an important lingua franca of the Achaemenid Empire. The major discoveries were made in the last part of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century. The corpus is made up of private and communal letters, legal documents, lists, literary texts, and various inscriptions on potsherds (ostraca).

What was their history and religious practice? There are many competing theories about the background and origin of the Judaean community in Elephantine. What seems clear is that both individuals and the community as a whole had a distinct Judaean identity, especially vis-à-vis the Egyptian environs but also (perhaps to a lesser degree) vis-à-vis other non-indigenous groups such as Aramaeans.

For example, in the last decades of the fifth century BCE the community explicitly presented itself as Judaean when writing to the governors of Judah and Samaria. Moreover, when a certain Hananiah, whose authority apparently derived from King Darius II, imparted to the community instructions concerning a religious feast (probably the Feast of Unleavened Bread and perhaps the Passover), he addressed the community as “the Judaean garrison.” Therefore, irrespective of its origin, in the fifth century BCE the community was regarded and regarded itself as Judaean – among other things.

Passover letter.

Passover letter.

The documentary sources do not permit reconstruction of the community’s early history but it is possible to extract one important narrative regarding the foundation of the community’s first temple to their deity YHW (“Yahu”?). In a petition for support from Judah and Samaria to rebuild their destroyed first temple, the community leaders outline the history of that temple of their chief god YHW. Around 410 BCE Egyptian troops and a Persian official named Vidranga caused the first temple to be destroyed for unknown reasons. A possible explanation is that the temple hindered free passage in a public thoroughfare near the temple of the Egyptian god Khnum, “the Lord of Elephantine.”

Map of Elephantine temples.

Map of Elephantine temples. Illustration was created by Christopher Jones/Gates of Nineveh blog.

Reconstruction of the Judaean temple, after a drawing by Stephen Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67 (2004): 4.

Reconstruction of the Judaean temple, after a drawing by Stephen Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67 (2004): 4.

According to the narrative, the Judaeans claimed that the YHW temple was built “during the days of the Egyptian kings,” that is, before the Twenty-Seventh (Persian) Dynasty that commenced with the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE. The narrative also claims the Persians spared the first temple of YHW at the same time as they allegedly the temples of the Egyptian gods. In the negotiations with the governors of Judah and Samaria for support to rebuild the temple, the latter decreed that the (second, rebuilt) temple of YHW should be built “on its site” as it was “formerly.”

Request regarding the rebuilding of a temple at Elephantine.

Request regarding the rebuilding of a temple at Elephantine.

The temple was devoted to the deity YHW, who in one text is given the epithet “the god who dwells in Elephantine.” It seems clear that the Judaeans in Elephantine identified YHW of Elephantine with YHWH (“Yahweh”) of Jerusalem (and probably YHWH of Samaria, too). For one, their petition to the governors of Judah and Samaria and priests and nobility of Jerusalem reveals an idea of a Yahwistic oecumene or doctrine of religious cooperation. Second, the designation used for their most important religious specialist was khn (“priest”), the same word used in Jerusalem.

But another characteristic of the religious practice of the Elephantine Judaeans is that they were not monotheists. For instance, oaths sworn in a court reveal that the Elephantine Judaeans recognized deities other than YHW. To what extent other deities were actually worshipped is another question. Yet, the enigmatic “Collection Account” suggests that the Judaean community collected silver not only for YHW but also for the deities Eshembethel and Anathbethel. Further, the epithet “god/lord of heaven” could be used for YHW both in the context of Achaemenid officials and within the context of the Judaean community itself.

According to contemporary royal Achaemenid inscriptions, the dynastic god Ahuramazda could be presented as the creator of heaven. Thus it is possible that the Elephantine Judaeans attempted to identify YHW with Ahuramazda in a way comparable to how Judaeans in the Babylonian diaspora more than a century earlier attempted to identify YHW(H) with the Babylonian dynastic god Bel-Marduk. In a recently published Āl-Yāḫūdu document from 552 BCE, for example, we meet a Judaean official called Bēl-šar-uṣur (“O Bel, protect the king!”). Two years later, he was referred to as Yaḫu-šar-uṣur, (“O Yahu, protect the king!”).

Finally, a major characteristic of Judaean religion in the Aramaic texts from Egypt is that they do not reflect Biblical writings. Possible overlaps represented by words such as “Sabbath” and “Passover” need not be explained as vague hints of knowledge of any proto-version of a biblical text. Quite on the contrary, the facts that the Judaeans in Elephantine had their own temple of YHW and even tried to get support from Jerusalem in their struggles for to rebuild their second temple strongly suggest that they were totally ignorant of the so-called cult centralisation reflected in Deuteronomy 12. The two literary works that may have had some sort of authority among the Elephantine Judaeans were the wisdom literature called Words of Aḥiqar and the Aramaic version of King Darius’s Bisitun Inscription.

What do the Judaeans in Elephantine inform us about the history Judaean religion? First, they complicate the “canonized history” of Israelite religion, epitomized by Nehemiah 8 and the idea of Yahwist cult centralisation. Even late in the fifth century BCE the god YHW(H) was worshipped in several places, including Elephantine in southern Egypt. Second, the religious practice of the Elephantine Judaeans suggests that the emergence of a Scripture-based Yahwism—the “victorious” form of Yahwism in the succeeding Hellenistic and Roman periods—was not universally accepted even as late as in the last part of the Persian period.

Third, together with other epigraphic evidence such as the recently published documents of the Judaeans deportees from the Babylonian settlement Āl-Yāḫūdu (“Judahtown”)/Āl-Yāḫūdāya (“Town of the Judaeans”), the Aramaic documents from Achaemenid Egypt bring the student of the history of Judaean religion closer to realities “on the ground.” Until modern period these were only shadows, unmentioned in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Elephantine was located on the southwestern border of the Persian Empire. Nevertheless, strategically important Elephantine was hardly peripheral. Elephantine’s Judaeans knew the names of the priests and governors of Jerusalem, Judah and Samaria, with whom they were in contact. A journey from Elephantine to Jerusalem took approximately one month. This is important, especially in light of the status the Bible ascribes to figures such as Ezra and Nehemiah, who travelled from Babylon to Jerusalem, an odyssey of some four months (Ezra 7:9; Ezra 8:31–32).

In the end, Elephantine brings us closer to many aspects of the religio-historical realities in Jerusalem and shows that Yahwism in the Persian period had many more dimensions than are reflected in the biblical literature.

Gard Granerød is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, MF Norwegian School of Theology (Oslo).

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References used and items for further reading

Granerød, Gard. “‘By the Favour of Ahuramazda I Am King’: On the Promulgation of a Persian Propaganda Text among Babylonians and Judaeans.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 44 (2013): 455–480.

Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 488. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016.

Porten, Bezalel, and Ada Yardeni. Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt. 4 vols. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Department of the History of the Jewish People, 1986–1999.

Porten, Bezalel, et al., eds. The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change. 2nd rev. ed, DMOA 22. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Sachau, Eduard. Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer jüdischen Militär-Kolonie zu Elephantine. 2 vols. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1911.

Kraeling, Emil Gottlieb Heinrich. The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. from the Jewish Colony at Elephantine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.

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1 Comments for : Multi-Dimensional Yahwism: The Case of the Persian Period Judaean Community in Elephantine
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