Previously, at Elephantine.

Author:Toorn, Karel van der

Among the various events in the life of the Jewish community of Elephantine, documented by papyri and potsherds covering the entire fifth century BCE, the destruction of their temple in 410 BCE has traditionally attracted most attention. Indeed, it has become its defining moment, and since we know about the event only through Jewish sources, the story is traditionally told from their perspective: pious Jews, loyal to the Persian authorities, victims of anti-Semitic violence at the hands of their Egyptian neighbors. Most historians realize that this is a very one-sided view, but it is not so easy to resist the lure of a familiar tale--another Jewish temple destroyed by their enemies. (1) This contribution is not an attempt to tell the other side of the story, but tries to put the events of 410 in historical perspective. The Egyptian aggression had been building during the years previous; one incident in particular had sparked their anger--the affair of the stolen stone.


Not long before the violent summer of 410 there was another incident at Elephantine, pitting Egyptians and Jews against each other. The cause of their clash was a precious stone. Jewish traders had acquired the piece expecting to make a good profit on its sale to a client in Memphis. As it turned out, the stone had been stolen from the Egyptian community on the island. After the boat with the commercial cargo had left Elephantine harbor, the Egyptians of the island discovered the theft and notified the authorities. They suspected the Jews of either robbery or receiving stolen goods. If Jewish traders had acquired the stone for commercial purposes, they were in fact engaged in buying and selling stolen property.

The conflict was initially dealt with by the local commander of the garrison at Syene. He went after the shipment and made sure the cargo did not reach Memphis. In addition, he ordered the detention of the main commercial agent of the business consortium and of the secretary-treasurer of the Jewish community. But the matter was too big to remain local. The Persian authorities in Memphis were informed and started an investigation. From that moment on, matters went from bad to worse.

The evidence for the reconstruction of the story consists of six letters. Letter No. 1 was written by Ma'uzyah son of Natan, secretary-treasurer of the Jewish community; he wrote to the community's presidium in the autumn of 411 (A4.3). Letters Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5 were all sent by Hosea son of Natan (A3.7, A3.6, A4.2, A3.8). Hosea was stationed in Memphis as representative and commercial agent of a Jewish business consortium from Elephantine. Hosea son of Natan sent letters Nos. 2 and 3 at the same time, the one to an influential client at Elephantine, the other to a junior colleague on the island. They preceded Ma'uzyah's letter to the leadership by about a month. However, since their implications become clear only in light of Ma'uzyah's message, the discussion of the evidence will deviate at this point from its chronological order. Letter No. 4 was written in early February 410 (in response to letters received on the 6th of the Egyptian month Paopi, ca. January 20, A4.2:15), and letter No. 5 on the 27th of Tybi (ca. May 10, A4.3.8:14). Unfortunately, letter No. 4, perhaps the most crucial piece in the file, is severely damaged. In fact, the name of the sender is lost. In view of its subject matter, though, Hosea son of Natan is a safe guess. Letter No. 5 is a cry for help, from Hosea son of Natan to Haggus son of Hodo, the recipient being related to Hosea by both commercial and family ties. The last piece in the file is a report by Yislah son of Natan to Yislah son of Gaddul, the sender writing from Thebes, the recipient a temple scribe in Elephantine. The bulk of the report consists of a detailed list of the Jewish men and women who had been arrested and a summary of what seems to be the end of the affair (A4.4). This letter No. 6 is the latest of the group, most likely sent in June 410. Two months later, the Egyptians troops would destroy the temple of Yaho.

None of the letters is dated by year. Fortunately, though, the most explicit letter has two references that imply a date after which and a date before which the matter must have developed (A4.3). (2) The post quern is the time of the mission of Hananyah to Egypt: "You know that Hnum has been against us since Hananyan came to Egypt until now" (A4.3:7). Hananyah's mission can be dated to 419 (see A4.1). The ante quern falls somewhere in the course of the year 410. By the summer of 410, Vidranga, the longtime garrison commander of Syene, had been promoted to the rank of frataraka 'governor' (A4.5:4, A4.7:5//A4.8:5). (3) His son Naphaina succeeded him as garrison commander (A4.7:7//A4.8:6). At the time the conflict about the stolen stone was in its early stages, Vidranga was still the garrison commander (A4.3:3). Two other letters from the file are dated by month and day. One was written in response to letters received by the end of January (A4.2:15); the other is dated around the middle of May (A3.8:14). Judging by the pace of the events, these dates must have fallen in the same year. Since the letters reflect a later stage in the developments, this must have been 410. Things had started in the second half of 411.

The three letter writers share the same patronym; each of them has a father called Natan. This might give the impression that they are brothers, but such is not the case. In fact, Natan is a very common name at Elephantine. Ma'uzyah son of Natan is from a scribal family, some of whose members served in the capacity of secretary of the Jewish community. His full lineage is Ma'uzyah son of Natan son of Ananyah son of Hosea son of Hodawyah. (4) The full lineage of Yislah son of Natan is Yislah son of Natan son of Gaddul son of Ba'adyah son of Gaddul. (5) Finally, Hosea son of Natan had a grandfather called Hosea and a great-grandfather called Sepanyah. (6) So in terms of family, the three letter writers were unrelated. All three came from the Jewish community at Elephantine and were involved, in one capacity or another, in the affair of the stolen stone.


In the presentation of the evidence, the letter of Ma'uzyah (A4.3) has been assigned No. 1, not by virtue of its presumed date, but because it is the one letter that illuminates the meaning of the others. (7) Chronologically speaking, the letter of Ma'uzyah comes after letters Nos. 2 and 3 and before letter No. 4; it was written in the autumn of 411.

(1) To my lords Yedanyah; 'Uriyah and the priests of Yaho the God; Mattan son of Yasobyah, Berekyah son of [NN]; (2) your servant Ma'uzyah. [May the God of Heaven seek after] the welfare of my lords [very much at all times; and] may you be in favor before (3) the God of Heaven. Now then, when Vidranga, the garrison commander, arrived in Abydos he arrested me on account of one precious stone which (4) they found stolen in the hands of the traders. Afterwards, Seha and Hor, the servants of 'Anani, pleaded with Vidranga (5) and Hornufi, with the help of the God of Heaven, until they set me free. And now, behold, they are coming there to you; you must pay attention to them. (6) Anything or any action that Seha and Hor might ask from you--you must be at their disposition, so that they will not find anything evil (7) about you. You know that Hnum has been against us since Hananyah came to Egypt until now. (8) Now whatever you will do for Hor, you will be doing for the ch[ancell]or (lb['lt]'m). Hor is an assistant of Hananyah (error for: 'Anani). You, bring out (zwlw) from our houses our possessions. (9) Give him whatever your hand finds; this shall not be a loss for you. That is why I am sending you (this message). He (10) said to me: "Send a written order ('grh) ahead of me (saying:) '[Bri]ng out ([zw]lw)! For a serious loss there is back-up in the house of 'Anani."' The way you will deal (11) with him will not be hidden from 'Anani. (12) [Address:] To my lords Yedanyah; 'Uriyah and the priests; and the Jews; your servant Ma'uzyah son of Natan. If it were not for the report of Ma'uzyah son of Natan to the leadership of the Jewish community, we would probably never have guessed the nature of the incident that caused all the trouble. Ma'uzyah makes it clear that it was all about a stolen stone. He refers to this stone as "one 'bnsrp." This was a stone of some sort ('bn is the common Semitic word for 'stone'), but of what kind exactly is a mystery. (8) Some commentators have adduced the Ugaritic abn srp (KTU 4.182:10) in comparison, translations of which run from 'semi-precious stone', (9) via 'red-dyed stone', (10) to 'alum'. (11) In view of all the concern caused by a single stone at Elephantine, it must have represented quite some value. It is unlikely therefore that the Aramaic term and the Ugaritic expression--separated by some 1000 years--refer to the same reality. The 'bnsrp that Ma'uzyah speaks of was both precious and pricy--a costly ruby or some other special stone, the element srp referring either to its color (red) or to the fact that it had been set in a piece of silver jewelry. (12) Whatever its precise nature, the stone was a very special item; its disappearance unleashed an animosity between Jews and Egyptians that so far had been dormant.

This precious stone had become a bone of contention between the Jews and the Egyptian community at Elephantine. Though the Persian garrison commander made the arrest, the real adversaries of the Jews were the Egyptians of the island. The Egyptian Hornufi, otherwise unknown, had come with Vidranga to identify the stone. When Ma'uzyah enjoined the Jewish community to cooperate fully with the search that Hor and Seha would be conducting, he reminded his readers of Hananyah: "You know that Hnum has been against us since Hananyah came to Egypt until now" (A4.3:7)...

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