The Elephantine community (Jeremiah 43)

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Illustration: The Elephantine Papyri

The island of Elephantine is situated along the southern border of Egypt, near modern-day Aswan. This site functioned as an important military outpost throughout its long history. While its soldiers were usually Egyptian, other ethnic groups, including Jews, were periodically stationed at this garrison. By the time Persian rule commenced in 525 B.C., not only were there a Jewish community in Elephantine but also an established, thriving temple to Yahweh. We learn from Jeremiah 43 that a portion of the Jews of Judah fled to Egypt before the Babylonian invasion. Some scholars assume that a fragment of this group became the source of the Elephantine Jewish population. Others argue for a much earlier immigration of Jews to the area.

Evidence indicates that the Elephantine temple was a fully functioning sanctuary that performed animal sacrifices. Although this temple existed alongside temples to Egyptian gods for over a century, the priests of Khnum, the ram god, convinced the Egyptian authorities to have the temple destroyed in 410 B.C. (apparently because the Jewish practice of sacrificing sheep was offensive to the worshippers of Khnum). Soon thereafter the Jewish colony ceased to exist.

The knowledge we posses of this small, ancient community comes through a series of papyri found in the region. The majority of these texts are written in Aramaic, the international language of the Persian empire. While these documents reveal much concerning the daily life, customs and legal system of these people, most important to us are the archives of letters written between the Jews of Elephantine and the Jews of the region known as Palestine. In these letters the Elephantine community requested and gained permission and aid to rebuild its temple. It remained unclear, however, whether that goal was ever accomplished.


 

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