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Fisseha Tadesse Feleke

A Sanctuary in the same Measure: Jewish Temple in Egypt

In this paper, I will inquire into the conditions that account for the fact that, whereas the

exiled Jewish communities in Babylon and elsewhere were left with no, or a merely virtual, little

sanctuary, the Jewish community in Elephantine had a real temple that closely resembled the

Temple of Jerusalem.

The exile of Jews, which followed upon the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the

Temple, was an epoch-making event. Hence, the often-assumed periodization of Jewish history

as Pre-exilic, Exilic, and Post-exilic. In reference to the Temple, a distinction is made between

the First and Second Temple Judaism. When characterizing those periods, scholars often rely on

Biblical sources, and they frequently tend to paint a unitary picture. The location for both the

First and Second Temples is indeed the same: Jerusalem. However, if we inquire in the

Scriptures about what happened in the interim period (during exile, that is) in regards to the

abode of God, we may find hardly any account other than that which Ezekiel describes in terms

of “a little sanctuary,” “a reduced sanctuary,” or “a sanctuary of some measure,” located

nowhere but in God himself.

However, the development of the Jewish religion is quite complex and a historical

reconstruction of that development requires exploration of a lot more data than is supplied by the

Scriptures. Regarding the house of God, the Aramaic Papyri which were discovered in

Elephantine offer some crucial evidence. They provide a definitive proof for the existence in that

period of a Jewish community and a temple in Elephantine, which temple I would venture to

describe as “a sanctuary in the same measure,” “an undiminished sanctuary,” or “a great
sanctuary,” at least for a time, in contrast to Ezekiel’s metaphor: “a temple in some measure,” “a

reduced temple,” or “a little sanctuary.”

To begin with, let me briefly describe the general significance of a temple. In Genesis

28:17 we hear Jacob saying: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of

God, and this is the gate of heaven.” In fact, Jacob did not build a temple right then right there,

except that he vowed to do so and he called the place Bethel, as we may gather from the

following verses. Nonetheless, we learn from this how he conceived the place of his encounter

with God: that it is “an awesome place,” distinguished from ordinary places; that it is “the house

of God,”, a place where the Lord resides, where God dwells; and that it is “the gate of heaven,”

meaning, that it provides earthly humans with access to heaven. The temple is more or less the

material realization of such a conception: an awesome place of encounter with God, an abode of

God, heaven on earth. Entirely in line with this, Hundley, in his “Gods in Dwellings: Temples

and Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East,” describes the temple as “the locus of presence

and interaction,” and “a mixing of worlds—in effect, heaven on earth” (2013: 131).

“Dwelling,” or rather “indwelling,” is a key term in this regard. We read in Deuteronomy

that Moses blesses Joseph “with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him

who dwells (‫ )שֹׁ כְ נִ֖י‬in the bush” (Deut. 33:16). It says in Ex. 24:16, “The glory of the LORD dwelt

(‫ )וַיּ ְשׁ ֹ֤ ֹכּן‬on Mount Sinai…” Furthermore, God officially commands that a sanctuary be built for

his indwelling: “And let them make me a sanctuary (‫)מקְ ָ֑דּשׁ‬, that I may dwell in (‫ )וְ שׁכַנְ ִ֖תּי‬their

midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle (‫ = מּ ְשׁ ָ֔כּן‬place of

indwelling) …” (Ex. 25:8). As far as the biblical tradition is concerned, the tabernacle was

accordingly made, and a temple was eventually erected in Jerusalem, the first ever for Israel.

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As Hundley shows, the purpose of the erection and maintenance of the Jewish temple is

in the main not unlike that of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the above-mentioned book,

Hundley speaks of the ideology of Syro-Palestinian Temples, under the purview of which the

Israelite material may actually be included. He says: “Like their ancient Near Eastern analogs,

Syro-Palestinian temples aimed to mix worlds, situating the divine in the midst of human

habitation and appropriately mediating human access to the resident deity” (2013: 125).

It can be easily deduced from this, that a separation of worlds, that of the human and of

the divine, has been presumed. In an article which he considers to be “a distilled version” of his

aforementioned book, Hundley in fact notes that, in the ancient mythology, the gods were

perceived to dwell “in realms outside of the human experience” (2015:203). He gives examples:

- in Egyptian mythology, human and divine originally dwelt together, yet evil in

creation (attributed to human rebellion or Seth) precipitated the gods’ withdrawal

from the human sphere

- The Bible likewise envisions a short-lived original intimacy in the garden of Eden

- In Mesopotamia, separation was built into the fabric of creation.

The temple is meant thus to be a place where this separation is overcome and contact with the

divine is secured. Hundley views the temple as “a necessary complement” to omens and oracles.

He states thus, “While omens and oracles typically served as divine-to-human communication,

divine service in the temple served as human-to-divine interaction, thereby enabling two-way

conversation” (2015: 204). Yet, there are important differences between (and within) cultures of

the Ancient Near East and I would like to focus on what is unique to the Jewish religion.

In the temple or outside it, a two-way conversation is indeed a characteristic feature of

Israelite religion: “Yahweh had not chosen his people as a mere dumb object of his will in

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history, but for converse with him,” so van Rad (355). Although, it should be borne in mind that

the two partners—Israel and her God—cannot be considered as standing on the same footing!

Israel is aware that her God is at once far and near, transcendent and immanent. To highlight but

one significant difference between the Israelite religion and that of the rest of the Ancient Near

East cultures, whereas regular service in the temple of those cultures consists “primarily in the

care and feeding of the gods in the forms of their images” (Hundley, 2015:209), Israel’s self-

reliant God can confidently say:

“Do I eat the flesh of bulls

or drink the blood of goats?

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,

and perform your vows to the Most High,

and call upon me in the day of trouble;

I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Ps. 50:13-15).

There is no doubt here as to who the needy among the two partners is: it is always the human

party. There may in fact be certain terms in the biblical texts that may suggest the contrary, but

Porten accurately perceives that “the Israelite sacrificial cult was not meant to provide deity with

his daily sustenance. Rather it was designed to secure the blessing of YHWH for the one(s)

offering the sacrifice” (1968: 114).

Let me add a few more points again on the original situation of the presence of God in the

temple and its attending circumstances as generally practiced in Ancient Near East. According to

Hundley, there are two major stages in this regard: the installation of the divine presence and the

maintenance of that presence, the integral elements of which are “cult image” and “sacrifice.”

The presence of God within the temple, as Hundley puts it, “often was concretized in a cult

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image, which served loosely as a divine body to which the divine essence was symbiotically

joined” (2015: 205). He further notes that not only was it necessary to construct cult images “in

ways suitable for and pleasing to the divine,” but also priests should develop “elaborate rituals to

overcome or transcend the human element and make these statues suitable vessels” (2015:208).

Once the cult image is carefully constructed, the necessary ritual developed, and the divine

presence is thus activated, what remains is to maintain the continuity of the presence. For that, a

regular service which involves sacrifice and offerings is established. Hundley mentions in this

regard “the mouth opening element of the ritual” practiced in Egypt as well as Mesopotamia,

which gives “the statue mastery over the basic human functions of eating, drinking, and smelling

so that it could enjoy human offerings” and creates “a need for such offerings that had to be

satisfied regularly in order for the statue to be fully functional” (2015:210).

Referring to Ex. 31:2-11, Hundley draws a parallel with the biblical account of the ark,

rightly admitting though, that it is not an exact match (2015: 208). Indeed, the ark played an

important role in the activation and maintenance of divine presence, guiding the people in their

desert wandering. As Porten rightly observes, “When the ark was permanently established in

Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem… YHWH became known as the one ‘who dwells in

Jerusalem/Zion’” (1968:107).

Now fast forward to the end of the First Temple era: Israel sinned and king Manasseh in

particular defiled the Temple, to the extent that “he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah,

as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them” (2 Kings

21:3). This he did nowhere but in the midst of the Temple itself! Due to this, we may be entitled

to infer that the carved image of Asherah, which Manasseh introduced into the Temple, “was put

in the place of the ark and the cheribum” and that “it was probably through him that the ark was

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removed” (Haran: 51, 58). As Haran observes, Manasseh’s action appears to have been the

“exact reversal” of what Solomon had done, namely, “the carrying of the ark by Solomon into

the inner sanctum” (50). As a result, God let Jerusalem fall and the Temple be destroyed.

What happened then to the people? The short answer is that a good number of them were

deported and they were left to redefine their place under the new Babylonian (and later, the

Persian) sky.

By the rivers of Babylon, the exiled Jews began to realize that it indeed was “evil and

bitter” for them to forsake the LORD their God, as Jeremiah said (2:19). Yahweh’s temple being

now very far from them and their claim to Yahweh equally distant, let alone singing, a regular

service to maintain the presence of the divine in a permanent place was rendered impossible. The

Psalmist seems to lend the best expression of their mood at the beginning of their new reality,

when he says:

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors

required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land? (Ps. 137)

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Envious at their captors, their feet were thus almost gone, and their steps had well-nigh slipped in

the course of their sojourn as exiles. They could not fully understand the condition into which

they were thrown until they finally returned from captivity and went into the sanctuary of God

again (Ps. 73:3,17). This is the picture of the exiles portrayed by the Psalmist.

By forsaking the Lord and having provoked him unto anger, Isaiah too says, “they are

gone away backward” (1:4). So radically unsettled as they were, they indeed seem to have found

themselves in a similar situation of a stage way back in their history, where they were wandering

in the wilderness. And therefore, the divine presence became once again mobile and, as Ezekiel

puts it, God himself became a sanctuary (11:16).

Ezekiel in fact envisioned an ideal sanctuary, a fully functioning and ritually pure one,

but that would only be reestablished in Jerusalem and after the return of the captives (Ezek. 43 -

48). In the meantime, however, “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off

among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them

as a little sanctuary (‫ )לְ מקְ ָ֣דּשׁ ְמ ַָ֔עט‬in the countries where they shall come” (Ezek. 11:16). It is

important to note here that the phrase “‫ ”מקְ ָ֣דּשׁ ְמ ַָ֔עט‬has been translated variously as “little/small

sanctuary” “reduced sanctuary,” “a sanctuary for a little while,” or “a sanctuary in some

measure” (Keck, 210f; Porten: 1968:116). The word “‫”מ ַָ֔עט‬
ְ basically signifies smallness and may

refer to duration of time as well as matters of degree. Following Paul Joyce et al, Keck takes it in

the later sense, i.e., as a matter of degree and uses the expression “a sanctuary in some measure”

as a translation of the phrase “‫( ”מקְ ָ֣דּשׁ ְמ ַָ֔עט‬ibid. italics mine). For Heck, the metaphorical

sanctuary is qualified “‘in some measure’ because by nature it does not possess the cultic

accoutrements that complete the worship of Yahweh, and no cultic rites minister to it” (213). She

refers in this regard to Frank Cross who suggests also that “‫”מ ַָ֔עט‬
ְ was “a gloss added ‘in the

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interest of the primacy of the Jerusalem temple’” (ibid.). Furthermore, as Porten notes, the term

was later “understood by rabbinic exegesis to mean synagogue (Meg. 29a)” (1968:116).

In any case, the point to be borne in mind here is that there was no physical sanctuary.

And the paradox is: how could it be spoken of a sanctuary where there was none in actual fact?

Recalling Isaiah’s prophecy that “they are gone away backward,” which I mentioned above, it

may be surmised that tradition could provide the way out of the paradox, namely, by providing

an analogy. Along this line, Heck was able to consider the appearances of God to Ezekiel

independently of a physical sanctuary as homologous to the pre-Tabernacle appearances of

God’s glory ‘out in the open.’ The similarity is indeed striking: “The Glory’s action revealed that

God was present with the post-Exodus wanderers even before the Tabernacle was available, and

the Glory’s action also reveals that God is present with the exiles even when the Temple is no

longer available” (215).

However attractive, the “conceptual link” that Heck claims Ezekiel has made seems

nonetheless to be less a practical understanding than a theological construction of the condition

of his lived experience and that of his fellow sojourners in exile. Captivity, with all its trying

attendant circumstances, was the real condition that determined the lived experience of Ezekiel

and his fellow sojourners in exile. I think with the vision of “a little sanctuary” Ezekiel might

have hit upon the idea of synagogue, but the condition of captivity was so adverse that it was not

realized until later in the history of Jewish religion.

Let me now turn to Egypt. Thanks to the Aramaic documents found in Elephantine, it

may surely be said that the condition of life for the Jewish community in the Fortress of

Elephantine looks markedly different! To date, there is no clear evidence in the sources as to

exactly when the Jewish community in Elephantine began to flourish, but the Aramaic papyri

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have enough information to determine their exceptional Sitz im Leben at the time. Porten

considers three distinct periods (ranging from 735 to 609) as the first possible settlement of the

Jews in Egypt (1968: 15). Furthermore, based on political as well as religious considerations, he

suggests “that the Elephantine Jewish community was established during the reign of Manasseh,

i.e., ca. 650,” and “that the Jewish Temple was also built during his reign” (1968: 119). Roughly

coinciding thus with the time when Yahweh practically departed from the Temple at home, i.e.,

from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

If Porten’s consideration mentioned above is right as I think it is, forced deportation is

therefore out of question as a reason for the Jewish community to move to Egypt and settle at the

Fortress of Elephantine. Whatever the circumstances, they seem to have embarked on their

journey willingly, taking with them their lyres, so to say, unlike those who hung them up on the

willows by the rivers of Babylon.

Particularly, if disgust at the defilement of the Temple of Jerusalem through Manasseh

was at least one of the reasons for them to leave their homeland, it is likely that they would have

planned the erection of a pure sanctuary in the land they would go to, even before they set off on

their journey. They would have taken time to collect and bring with them all the necessary

material for the rituals, so that they would be able to establish the temple at Elephantine as soon

as they reached there.

Now in the literature on Jewish community in Elephantine, emphasis is laid on their

status as a socio-military unit. They are considered to be “primarily made up of soldiers and their

families” (Granerod, 24). The key term here is “‫חילא יהודיא‬,” which is rendered in English as

“Jewish garrison” (A4 1). In fact, “‫ ”חילא‬is often taken in military sense, though it has a variety

of other connotations as well. Even if “‫ ”חילא יהודיא‬was taken to mean “Jewish garrison”

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unequivocally, and the Jewish community in Elephantine might have fulfilled some sort of

military task, that can only show their status from the perspective of the Persian power structure.

It may not necessarily represent the community’s self-understanding of who they were.

For instance, one of the two documents in which the phrase appears (the Letter on

Passover and Unleavened Bread), has to do with Persian authorities’ injunctions regarding

calendar and it was addressed to Jedeniah and his colleagues:

]... ‫[אל] אחי ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנניה ב[ר‬
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[To] my brothers Jedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother

Hananiah… (A4 1:1, 10 )

But in the address of the long letter regarding the Temple, Jedeniah indicated that this same

people—i.e., his colleagues—were “the priests who are in Elephantine the fortress”

‫אל מראן בגוהי פחת יהוד עבדיך ידניה וכנותה כהניא זי ביב בירתא שלם‬

To our lord Bagohi governor of Judah, your servants Jedaniah and his colleagues the

priests who are in Elephantine the fortress (A4.7)

Elsewhere, they were also referred to as “priests of YHW the God”

… ‫אל מראי ידניה אוריה וכהניא זי יהו אלהא‬

To my lords Jedaniah, Uriah and the priests of YHW the God... (A4.3)

Therefore, it can be safely assumed from this that the original Jewish settlers at Elephantine

might have been primarily made up of priests, or priests-cum-soldiers. In any case, even in the

eyes of their Persian lords, their religiosity was not separable from their Jewish identity

(ethnicity). Furthermore, the documents provide clear evidence that they were established

settlers owning properties and not mere sojourners in exile.

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This more or less stable condition of their life would have called for a permanent

presence of their God in their midst in the actual temple which they built from the beginning, not

for a utopian hope of an ideal sanctuary. Even when the Temple of Jerusalem was restored, there

is no indication that they wanted to go back home. Rather, they seemed to be content with what

they had. Even when it was destroyed in 410 BC, they initiated correspondence with the

authorities and secured its restoration. Following the expulsion of the Persians, it must have been

in fact abandoned, but it was not destroyed immediately. A team of German archaeologists

excavated the area and found the tile of the temple covered with animal dung. For which reason

Rosenberg suggests another phase of the temple when it “was used as a stable, presumably in an

act of deliberate desecration” (9).

When it was standing, the Temple in Elephantine might in fact have been smaller in size

than the Temple in Jerusalem; in Porten’s estimation, it was “situated in a courtyard measuring

sixty by twenty” (1968: 110). Yet, as far as its function is concerned it resembled the one in the

mother land, it indeed must have been an undiminished, great sanctuary, a sanctuary in the same

measure as the Temple of Jerusalem.

Considering the restrictions made later regarding the types of offerings allowed to be

made (only meal offerings and incense), some would think it was a little less in significance than

the temple at home in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Graham Hancock in his “The Sign and The

Seal” dared to suggest that it could even be a little more important, as he holds “the view that the

Ark could have been lodged in the Elephantine Temple — and, indeed, that its presence on the

island could have been the reason for the building of that Temple in the first place” 440). He

further maintains that in the end the Jewish community took the ark with them and went further

south to Ethiopia where they became fathers of the black Jews. However, Porten believes that

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“Hancock’s placing the Ark in the Elephantine temple as a justification for its construction does

not hold up. It is possible, but the evidence is very soft” (Porten: 3). But this is a topic for

another occasion.

Works Cited

Hancock, Graham, The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the

Covenant. New York: Crown, 1992

Keck, Elizabeth, “The Glory of Yahweh in Ezekiel and the Pre-Tabernacle

Wilderness,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Vol 37.2 (2012): 201-218

Hundley, Michael, Gods in Dwellings: Temples and Divine Presence in the

Ancient Near East. Atlanta: SBL, 2013.

----“Divine Presence in Ancient Near Eastern Temples” Religion Compass 9/7

(2015): 203–215

----"Sacred Spaces, Objects, Offerings, and People in the Priestly Texts: A

Reappraisal” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 132, No. 4 (2013), 749-767

Porten, Bezalel, Archives from Elephantine, the Life of an Ancient Jewish

Military Colony. Berkeley: London: University of California, 1968.

---- “Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?” Biblical Archaeology Review 21 (3),

(1993) 54-67 Online: http://cojs.org/did_the_ark_stop_at_elephantine-_bezalel_porten-

_bar_21-03-_may-jun_1995/ Accessed 27 March 2018

Porten, Bezalel and Yardeni, Ada, Textbook of Aramaic Documents from

Ancient Egypt (Volumes 1-4) (TAD-E) 1986, 1989, 1993, 1999. Electronic text

hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 1.3

Rosenberg, Stephen G., “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine” NAE 67, no 1

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(2006) 4-13.

Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology. Vol. I, Trans. D. M. G. Stalker,

New York: Harper and Row, 1962

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