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22. Jews In Exile

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Ackroyd says, “This glimpse of Jewish life elsewhere [Elephantine], and the rather tantalizing indications of its contacts with Jerusalem and Samaria, emphasize the importance of realizing how, in the whole period, the life of the Jewish community was not concentrated in one place.”1

The Jews at Nippur

Jeremiah advised the members of the golah about 594 B.C. to settle down in their new land, plant vineyards, marry off their children, pray for the peace of the city and otherwise decide that they will be in Babylon for a long time (Jeremiah 29:4-7). We get brief glimpses of the community in Ezekiel when the Elders come to him to inquire of the Lord, and other things. This indicates that the Jews were allowed to stay, perhaps in settlements, and to maintain Jewish leadership of some sort.

From the next century (under Artaxerxes I [464-424 B.C.] and Darius II [424-404]), comes a marvelous cache of some 730 tablets (presumed to be from Nippur according to Stolper).2 These are known as the Murashu documents, named after the head of a financial firm that was itself Babylonian. They are written in Akkadian cuneiform, often with Aramaic ink inscriptions. They come from the town of Nippur just south of Babylon. The names in the documents indicate that there were Persians, Medes, Egyptians and West Semites in this cosmopolitan town. The West Semites included Jews with such names as Hanani, Shabbatai and Jonathan. Several other Jewish names show up in the contracts.

There is no evidence of any discrimination against the Jews: they are charged the same interest rates, have the same type of careers, and some hold important positions. There was a tendency to take Babylonian names (perhaps as second names). This holds true for the royal family especially (cf. Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Mordecai, Esther). There may have been a tendency to use Hebrew names that fit into the Babylonian culture (e.g., theophoric names with “el”).

These Jews had become fully integrated into Babylonian society and, perhaps too well, fulfilled Jeremiah’s orders.3 These records constitute the most information we have on the period of Artaxerxes I and following.

Jews at Elephantine

The island of Elephantine lies at the southernmost part of the old Egyptian kingdom. It is situated opposite of the village of Aswan or Syene which is on the river bank. “The latter name [Syene] appears in Ezek. 29:10, 30:6 as indicating the southern border of Egypt; it probably should also be read in Isa. 49:12. The name Elephantine, translated from the Egyptian Yeb, probably refers to the importance of this area for the ivory trade, and the position of the island and of Syene are of great significance both for trade and for frontier control.”4 I am more inclined to think that the name Elephantine comes from the large black rock formations around the island that look much like elephants.

There are two major collections of papyri owing their provenance to this island: one became part of a private collection at the end of the nineteenth century that was only published in 1953. The other collection came from various sources and was published at an earlier date.5

In their letter to governor Bagohi of Judah, they indicate that their temple was in existence when Cambyses entered Egypt in 525 B.C. Their community could be much older since they are merely making their point that their temple was not torn down at that time.6 They describe their island home as a “garrison” (birtha, see Ezra 6:2). They were evidently employed as a foreign mercenary troop on the southern border of Egypt. They could have come to Egypt after the debacle on 586 B.C.; they could have come from one of the settlements such as came to Egypt with Jeremiah or they could have been an earlier movement.7

Perhaps one of the most interesting items to come from the Elephantine correspondence and records is the existence of a Jewish temple to the god Yaho. They also used Biblical terms for Yahweh: “the God of Heaven,” “Lord of hosts” (not in papyri, but on ostraca), and the one “who dwells (in Elephantine).” The temple was served by priests and offered sacrifice: “meal offering, incense, and holocaust.”

In discussing the question of why a temple would exist at Elephantine, Porten argues that there were two and perhaps three Jewish temples outside Jerusalem. The temple of Onias outside Leontopolis which was built by a disaffected Onias IV after the Maccabees had regained control of Jerusalem and rejected Onias from the priesthood. He fled to Egypt, and entered the service of Ptolemy VI. “He was placed in charge of a Jewish military contingent, established in the fortress of Leontopolis, and granted permission to erect there a Temple to the Lord wherein priests and Levites officiated.”8 Josephus says that Onias was motivated by Isaiah’s prophecy that an altar to Yahweh would be erected in Egypt (Isaiah 19:19).9 The second one is at Elephantine, which Porten argues, was built during the troubling times of Manasseh about 650 B.C. He even suggests that the Jews who fled Manasseh’s persecution would have gone because of his paganization of the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan temple (which Porten refers to as Jewish) was built during the transition from Persia to Alexander.10 He also believes the Tobiads had a temple as well. In each case there was a time of dissension, and the temple was connected with a fortress.

The people of Elephantine mixed with the local population, though the local people became Jews rather than vice versa. As one might expect, there was probably a fair amount of syncretism as indicated in the use of the pagan gods in vows.

The temple was torn down in 410 B.C. A letter was sent to Jerusalem appealing for help, but this letter was not answered according to a subsequent letter. The priests at Jerusalem failed to respond to the request for help (as one might expect from the new Jewish community in Jerusalem). However, subsequently, the civil governor (Bagohi) did grant permission to rebuild the temple but did not mention the holocaust offering which may be a compromise to which the Elephantine community acceded. No documents have been found dated after 399 B.C. Was the temple rebuilt? Did the priests of Knum, who had been hostile to them originally, tear it down later? Porten thinks it was rebuilt, but is not willing to assume a subsequent destruction.11

“To our lord Bagoas, governor of Judah, your servants Yedoniah and his colleagues, the priests who are in the fortress of Elephantine…Now your servants Yedoniah, and his colleagues, and the Jews, the citizens of Elephantine, all say thus: If it please our lord, take thought of this temple to rebuild it, since they do not let us rebuild it…And you shall have a merit before Yaho the God of Heaven more than a man who offers to him burnt offering and sacrifices worth a thousand talents of silver and (because of) gold. Because of this we have written to inform you. We have also set the whole matter forth in a letter in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat the governor of Samaria.”12


1P. R. Ackroyd, Israel under Babylon and Persia, p. 181.

2Matthew Stolper, Entrepreneurs and Empire. The book does not have much about the Jews, but it is a definitive work.

3M. D. Coogan, “Life in the Diaspora,” BA 37(1974):7-12. This summary of Murashu tablets comes from this article. For the original publication see H. V. Hilprecht and A. T. Clay, Business Documents of Murashu Sons of Nippur Dated in the Reign of Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.). See also Samuel Daiches (The Jews in Babylonia in the Times of Ezra and Nehemiah according to Babylonian Inscriptions, pp. 29-36) for a religious study of the proper Jewish names. His work is old but still helpful. According to him, Nippur in the Talmud represents Calneh. The River Kebar (Ezekiel) is at Nippur (p. 11).

4P. R. Ackroyd, Israel under the Babylonians and Persians, p. 279.

5Ibid., p. 279. For the Aramaic texts see F. Rosenthal, ed., An Aramaic Handbook, pp. 10 ff. See ANET, pp. 491 ff. for translation and see A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri.

6See my discussion above of O’Reilly’s thesis that it was the Babylonians who tore down the other temples, not the Persians.

7P. R. Ackroyd, Israel under the Babylonians and Persians, p. 280. For an excellent discussion of the various contacts between the Jewish people and Egypt, see B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine, pp. 3-19 and “Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine,” BAR 21 (1995) 55-67, 76-77.

8Ibid., p. 118.

9Josephus, Antiquities., XIII.3.1, 62ff.

10Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 116-122.

11Ibid., 294-298.

12ANET, p. 492.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History