On November 25, 407 B.C.E., Yedaniah ben Gemaria, the leader of the Jewish community of Elephantine Island, in Upper Egypt, wrote to the governor of Judea requesting permission to rebuild the his community’s temple. It had been destroyed three years earlier by the Jews’ neighbors.
The letter, written in Aramaic on papyrus, was part of an archive connected to Yedaniah that was unearthed a century ago on the island. In it, we learn that the Jews had “built this temple in the fortress of Yeb in the days of the kingdom of Egypt,” and that “when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it [already] constructed” (translated by A. Cowley). “Yeb” was the Aramaic name for Elephantine Island, which is in the middle of the Nile River, near Aswan.
Cambyses II was the Persian emperor who conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. The Judean colony in Elephantine apparently started as early as a century before that, at the end of the seventh century B.C.E., according to the historian Joseph Modrzejewski.
By the fifth century, the Jews in Yeb were in the military service of the Persian governor of the region, and they and their families had their own colony on the island. What is surprising from the letters is the revelation that they also had a temple, where they offered up not only grain and incense to Yahweh, but also animal sacrifices.
This contradicts the explicit commandment in the Torah, in Deuteronomy 12, limiting such live offerings to “only where God chooses to establish his name,” namely, to Jerusalem. Hence, there would likely have been only antipathy among the priests of the Jerusalem Temple for the plight of their counterparts in Egypt.
Ram-god versus lamb sacrifices
“Antipathy” would be a kind word for what their Egyptian neighbors on Elephantine evidently possessed for the Jews and their temple. The Egyptians worshiped Khnum, the ram-god who oversaw the waters of the Nile, and they would not have approved of the lamb sacrifices carried out by the Jews in their sanctuary. When they rebelled against their Persian rulers, in 410 B.C.E., the Egyptians took advantage of the opportunity to destroy the temple of “Yahu,” as Yahweh was called locally.
By 407, when Yedaniah wrote – addressing himself to both Bagohi, the governor of Judea, and to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria -- the uprising had been suppressed and its perpetrators punished. But the Jews of Yeb were still waiting for permission to rebuild their temple.
“We have sent letters to our lord when this catastrophe happened to us,” wrote Yedaniah, “and to the high priest Yehochannan and his associates, the priests in Jerusalem; and to Ostan, the kinsman of Anani; and the Judahite elites,” but, he continued, “They have never sent us a letter.” So, he wrote, for the past three years, “we have been wearing sackcloth and fasting, making our wives as widows, not anointing ourselves with oil or drinking wine. Furthermore, from then until now, in the seventeenth year of Darius the king [407 B.C.E.], no grain-offering, incense, or burnt-offering has been sacrificed in this temple” (translation by Bible scholar and editor K.C. Hanson).
Yedaniah requested approval to proceed with reconstruction and permission to resume “grain-offering, incense and burnt-offering in your name.”
Yedaniah was shrewd in appealing to the Persian authorities in Judea, rather than trying again with his coreligionists at the Jerusalem Temple. Indeed his note elicited the response he was seeking, more or less. In a joint memorandum from Bagoi and Delaiah, he was granted the authority to rebuild, and also to “offer the meal offering and the incense upon that altar just as formerly was done.”
Conspicuously missing was mention of burnt offerings. As Modzrewski notes, “The high priest of Jerusalem would henceforth have the unique privilege of presiding over this rite, and the ministers of the god Khnum were to be spared what they conceived of as an offense.”