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Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine? Bezalel Porten, BAR 21:03, May-Jun 1995.

Elephantine Temple PapyrusWas the Ark of the Covenant taken from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of King Manasseh in the seventh century B.C.E. to an island called Elephantine in the Nile River? Was it housed there in a Jewish temple much like the one King Solomon built?

These are the contentions of Graham Hancock in his bestseller, The Sign and the Seal- The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant.1 According to Hancock, more than two centuries later the Ark of the Covenant moved on from Elephantine on the Nile to Ethiopia, where it still resides in a “secluded sanctuary chapel” in Axum.2

A former writer for the London Economist, Hancock is an excellent researcher who understands what he reads. His contention about the Ark’s temporary stop at Elephantine, therefore, bears looking at. If it proves to be incorrect, or overly speculative, at least we will learn a lot about a fascinating Egyptian island and the cache of ancient Aramaic texts discovered there.

One item is not speculative, however. There was a Jewish temple on Elephantine in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., where sacrifices, including animal sacrifices, were offered. Regardless of what else may be said of Hancock’s arguments, this much is factual.

We know this not because archaeologists have dug up remnants of the Jewish temple on the island, but because it is referred to in an extraordinary hoard of documents known as the Elephantine papyri.

The saga of their discovery reads almost like a 19th century novel. It begins with a character named Charles Edwin Wilbour, an American journalist who managed the New York Transcript, a major daily. Exactly why, at the age of 38, he left for permanent exile, we will probably never know. It could have had something to do with a city printing contract steered his way by Boss Tweed; trouble may have been in the wind. In any event, in 1874 Wilbour left for Paris, where he studied Egyptology with the great Gaston Maspero. Maspero called Wilbour “the friendliest Yankee I know.” The American Egyptologist John A. Wilson described Wilbour as “a fine figure of a man, large, broad-shouldered, with a fine brow, a well-sculptured nose, and that wonderful white bib of a beard reaching down to the second button of his waistcoat.”3 By the late 1880s, Wilbour was a regular visitor to Egypt, with his own sailing dahabiyeh,a named “Seven Hathors” after Egyptian goddesses of fortune. Each winter he would escape the Paris cold, plying the Nile, visiting excavations, copying inscriptions and collecting fine antiquities for modest prices. Wilbour obtained some of his choicest finds around the First Cataract of the Nile at Aswan, opposite the island of Elephantine.b One text, published by Maspero, describes how the Twelfth Dynasty pharaoh Sesostris I (c. 1971–1928 B.C.E.) cut a channel 260 feet long, 34 feet wide and nearly 26 feet deep through the Nile cataract above Elephantine.

Wilbour also discovered the famous “Famine Stela” on the island of Sehel at the First Cataract. Written in the second century B.C.E., it tells how the Third Dynasty king Djoser assigned the Elephantine god Khnumc a stretch of land to relieve a seven-year famine. The echo of the Joseph narrative in Genesis is evident.

In early 1893, Wilbour acquired some papyri from “3 separate women at different times,”4 according to his notebook entries for January and February of that year. Also included in the cache were fragments in an envelope on which he wrote, “Is not this authentic Phenician [sic]?” Wilbour showed the fragments to a distinguished Biblical scholar, the Reverend A. H. Sayce, who had often traveled with Wilbour; Sayce correctly identified the piece as Aramaic. Wilbour died in 1896 without having done anything with the hoard he had purchased from the “3 separate women.” After his death, it was shipped back to the States in a trunk, along with his other finds. That trunk rested in a New York warehouse until the death of his daughter Theodora in 1947, and then went to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. Only at that time, after the finds had lain unexamined for more than 50 years, did scholars learn that Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri—which included the fragments in the envelope that Sayce had identified as Aramaic.5 (Aramaic is akin to Hebrew, one of a number of northwestern Semitic languages. It was the language of Aram [Syria] and the lingua franca of the Assyrian and Persian Empires.)

The next acquisition of an Elephantine papyrus was made by Sayce himself. A bachelor and Oxford professor, Sayce also regularly sailed the Nile in his own dahabiyeh. While docked at Elephantine in early 1901, he was led by what he called his “lucky star” to an ancient mound where some natives were digging sebakh, the local nitrate-rich fertilizer. Sayce could see some papyrus fragments and ostraca mixed with the fertilizer,d which he proceeded to “rescue” from what he felt would have been certain oblivion. Upon his return to Oxford he presented them to the Bodleian Library. They turned out to be three rolls that actually constituted a single Aramaic papyrus. This manuscript was published in 1903 by Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley, who characterized it as “the longest and most continuous text of the kind hitherto published.” It was a loan contract involving at least one Jew, dating to the fifth century B.C.E.

The great acquisition, however, was made in 1904 when two British philanthropists, Lady William Cecil and Mr. (later Sir) Robert Ludwig Mond, separately acquired a total of 10 rolls. Lady Cecil and Mond had intended to ship the documents to a British institution, but Howard Carter, the Englishman who was then serving as inspector general of the Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte, prevailed upon them to turn the texts over to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. One papyrus, however, did find its way into the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

The Cecil-Mond papyri were published in record time (1906) and in large folio format by Sayce and Cowley. The two scholars had been given two versions of the findspot of the papyri—one on Elephantine and the other at Aswan. In their publication, Sayce wrote, “That this latter was the true story [i.e., Aswan] seems to admit little doubt.” This was a critical error. If Sayce had looked further at Elephantine, he might well have succeeded in discovering more texts.

In 1904 natives showed the findspot on Elephantine to Otto Rubensohn of the Königlichen (today Staatlichen) Museen in Berlin. Rubensohn soon organized an archaeological expedition to the site. There, on New Year’s Day 1907, he uncovered, just below the surface, three major documents relating to a Jewish temple at Elephantine. The texts were promptly forwarded to Berlin, where they were unrolled by the master conservator Hugo Ibscher and their contents promptly published by Eduard Sachau. Rubensohn and his colleague and successor Friedrich Zucker then went on to discover many more Aramaic papyri at the site, including 19 letters, 18 contracts, nine lists and accounts, a copy of the Behistun (alternatively, Bisitun) inscription of Darius the Great (522–486 B.C.E.), a 14-column work of ethical and wisdom literature known as Words of Ahiqar, as well as numerous fragments and inscriptions on potsherds, wood and stone. The whole collection was brought out in 1911 in large format, with excellent commentary by Sachau.6

Wilbour’s dozen rolls and several fragments that were locked in a trunk in a New York warehouse for half a century were published by Emil Kraeling after finally being opened. Most of these documents constituted the family archive of Anani, to be discussed later. It took Kraeling, who published the lot in 1953, about the same time it took Sachau to publish the much larger German lot nearly a half century earlier.

Both archives contain several house conveyances that mark property boundaries by delineating the four adjacent buildings. One building bordering several houses was an ’egora. In the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Bible, the word refers to an open-air altar. But that is hardly what the word meant in a fifth-century B.C.E. Jewish neighborhood on Elephantine. One scholar suggested it might be a synagogue. It turned out not to be a synagogue or an open-air sanctuary, but a cedar-roofed Jewish temple in which animal sacrifices were offered.

In 1961, with the help of some of the house dimensions that were given, I was able to come up with a reconstruction of the temple. Oriented toward Jerusalem, the temple measured 60 cubits long and 20 cubits wide—the same dimensions as Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6-2).
This was the Elephantine temple where—according to Graham Hancock—the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon’s Temple was taken before moving on to Axum, where it supposedly remains to this day.

The claim that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia is an old one, and, as BAR’s reviewer noted, in this respect Hancock presents “little that is new.”e Contrary to the Ethiopian tradition, however, Hancock argues that the Ark went first to Elephantine in Egypt, arriving in Ethiopia only in the fifth century B.C.E.

The mystery of the Ark stems from the silence of the Bible after we are told that it was placed in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8-6). Nowhere in the Bible, neither in the account of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 587/6 B.C.E. (2 Kings 25), nor anywhere else, is there an indication of the fate of the Ark. Subsequent Biblical allusions are obscure (for example, 2 Chronicles 35-3); Jeremiah sees no role for the Ark in the Jerusalem of the future (Jeremiah 3-16). Over the years, its curious disappearance has given rise to a great deal of speculation.

Not unexpectedly, Hancock rejects the Ethiopian legend that Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon, brought the Ark to Ethiopia. Hancock concludes that the Ark was removed by Temple priests during King Manasseh’s reign (c. 687–642 B.C.E.), because Manasseh placed an idol and pagan altars in the Temple (2 Kings 21-2–7). In this, Hancock has the support of prominent Biblical scholar Menahem Haran, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Unlike Hancock, however, Haran refuses to speculate as to what may have happened to the Ark after it was removed from the Temple, although observing that during Manasseh’s reign the entire country “was not a safe place for those who were loyal to the worship of Yahweh.”7

According to one Ethiopian tradition, the Ark did not arrive in Ethiopia until after 470 B.C.E. This left Hancock with about a 200-year gap between its removal in Manasseh’s reign and its arrival in Ethiopia—which he accounts for, at least in part, by the Ark’s sojourn in Elephantine.

An Ethiopian Jewish priest now living in Jerusalem told Hancock about a tradition of his people that they had lived in Egypt before coming to Ethiopia. It was this that suggested to Hancock that the Ark had been taken first to the settlement of Jews in Egypt by the priests who would not allow it to be defiled by Manasseh’s blasphemies. And the Jewish temple on Elephantine fit the bill!

Hancock’s argument is not impossible. It is simply too speculative. He writes as a journalist, not as a historian. The remainder of this article will illustrate the difference between the two. I will not prove that it could not have happened, only that Hancock has not met the standards of professional historians in contending that it did happen, or even that it was likely to have happened.

Hancock notes quite correctly that the Elephantine temple, oriented towards Jerusalem, was apparently built in imitation of the Jerusalem Temple. Both had the same dimensions and both had a cedarwood roof. From this Hancock concludes that the Elephantine temple was “probabl[y]” built to house the Ark. “Probable” is much too strong a word here. “Possible” would be more accurate.

Another factor that intrigues Hancock is that animal sacrifice was practiced in the Elephantine temple. In about 620 B.C.E., King Josiah instituted a religious reform (it was Josiah who removed Manasseh’s idol from the Temple and burned it in the Kidron Valley [2 Kings 23-6]). Josiah, as part of his religious reform, abolished animal sacrifice everywhere but in the Jerusalem Temple. Nevertheless, animal sacrifice continued at the Elephantine temple. Hancock concludes that the priests of the Elephantine temple considered the presence of the Ark adequate justification for the continuance of animal sacrifices, despite the ban that had issued from Jerusalem. But this is begging the question. There is no reason to assume any pre-existent link between sacrifices and the presence of the Ark.

The more important point, however, is Hancock’s contention that the Jews of Elephantine believed that “Yahweh resided physically in their temple.”8 For this, he relies on certain religious terminology in the papyri, and that’s where he gets into trouble.

Hancock notes that “a number of papyri” speak “in no uncertain terms” of YHWH as dwelling in Elephantine.9 Actually he can refer only to a single papyrus, not a number of them. That papyrus, a contract for the sale of a house, does indeed refer to “YHWf the God who dwells in the fortress of Elephantine,”10 and we shall treat that document below.

The main source for our knowledge of the Elephantine temple is a draft letterg (or file copy), dated November 25, 407 B.C.E., written by Jedaniah son of Gemariah, leader of the Jewish community on Elephantine, and his priestly colleagues to one Bagohi, the governor of the Persian province of Yahud (Judah) in Jerusalem (see the sidebar “Dear Jerusalem- Priests Petition to Rebuild Their Temple”).h While the name Bagohi is Persian (Persia ruled most of the Near East at that time), Bagohi may well have been Jewish, since the other governors of Judah during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. all seem to have been Jews.11 Jedaniah begins by flattering Bagohi with blessings and, at the end, appeals for help. The letter displays a keen awareness of Aramaic rhetorical style and is replete with the requisite epistolary formulae. The Jews of Elephantine have had a traumatic experience. Their temple has been destroyed.

The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 B.C.E. during Manasseh’s reign. A fair implication from the historical documents,i including the Bible, is that Manasseh sent a contingent of Jewish soldiers to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664–610 B.C.E.) in his Nubian campaign and to join Psammetichus in throwing off the yoke of Assyria, then the world superpower. Egypt gained independence, but Manasseh’s revolt failed; the Jewish soldiers, however, remained in Egypt. Herodotus reports that in the reign of Psammetichus, garrisons were posted at Elephantine, Daphnae and Marea.12

Perhaps as an accommodation to the Jews in Egypt who served as a buffer to renewed Assyrian control of Syro-Palestine (and also to consolidate their loyalty), Psammetichus permitted the Jews to build their temple. The Jews were not the only ones to benefit. The Aramean soldiers on the mainland at Aswan were also allowed to erect temples to their gods—Banit, Bethel, Nabu and the Queen of Heaven.13 According to the above-cited letter of Jedaniah, the Elephantine temple was constructed sometime before the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C.E.- “During the days of the kings of Egypt [i.e., when Egypt was independent] our forefathers built that temple in the Elephantine fortress and when Cambyses [the Persian ruler who conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E.] entered Egypt, he found that temple built.”14

But the Jews needed more than permission from the Egyptian ruler to build a temple. According to Israelite tradition, foreign soil was impure soil. From Joshua to the prophets to the Babylonian exiles,15 it was understood that cultic activities should not be performed outside the land of Israel. When the cured Aramean leper Naaman wanted to worship YHWH in his homeland, he took with him two mule-loads of Israelite earth (2 Kings 5-15ff).

So what would be the Jewish justification for erecting a sanctuary in Egypt? Hancock suggests the reason was that during the reign of Manasseh, priests from the Jerusalem Temple had brought the Ark with them.

Somewhat disingenuously, Hancock quotes me as follows in support of his view-

“Manasseh’s reign was accompanied by much bloodshed (2 Kings 21-10–16) and it may be surmised that priests as well as prophets opposed his paganization. Some of these priests fled to Egypt, joined the Jewish garrison at Elephantine, and there … erected the Temple to YHW.”16
Hancock then notes that “Porten nevertheless remains puzzled by the fact that a Jewish temple could have been built at Elephantine at all.”17

Hancock thus indicates that I had simply left open the question as to why the Jews of Elephantine felt free to build a temple.

Hancock is wrong, however. I did explain what I thought the likely justification was. And the reason had nothing to do with speculation that it was to house the Ark. My explanation was in the part of my text that Hancock omitted from the quotation and that he replaced with three dots to indicate the omission. Let me repeat the quotation, replacing the ellipsis with the complete text, putting the part that Hancock omitted in italics-

“Manasseh’s reign was accompanied by much bloodshed (2 Kings 21-10–16) and it may be surmised that priests as well as prophets opposed his paganization. Some of these priests fled to Egypt, joined the Jewish garrison at Elephantine, and there inspired by Isaiah’s prophecy of a pillar to the Lord at the border of Egypt, erected the Temple to YHW.”

Isaiah uttered five eschatological oracles about what will be “on that day” when the “Lord will smite Egypt.” The third oracle states, “On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border” (Isaiah 19-19). Elephantine is on Egypt’s border. Isaiah’s prophecy may well have inspired the Elephantine Jews during the oppressive years of Manasseh’s reign. I conjectured that a sacred pillar to the Lord, in fulfillment of this prophecy, may have stood in the adytum [innermost sanctuary] of the Elephantine temple, just as a sacred pillar was placed in the adytum of the temple to Yahweh that archaeologists have excavated in Arad.j

In short, 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. I believe the justification was the passage from Isaiah predicting the erection of a pillar to the Lord at the border of Egypt.

From the letter to Bagohi as well as from other documents, we know what went on in the Elephantine temple before it was destroyed. Since the temple has been destroyed, Jedaniah writes, “meal offering, incense, and burnt offering [that is, animal sacrifice] were not offered in that temple.”18 The burnt offering (Hebrew olah) was one of the two major sacrifices practiced in Israel from earliest times.

We also have some idea of what the temple was like from the description of what was destroyed- The temple’s stone pillars and five gateways were demolished; the cedarwood doors, roof and other fittings were burned (this is the source of our knowledge that the Temple had a cedarwood roof); and gold, silver and other objects of value were looted.19

The temple was destroyed in 410 B.C.E. by Egyptian priests of the ram-god Khnum and their allies in connivance with the local Persian governor, an evil man named Vidranga.k In Jedaniah’s letter, he recalls that when the Persians conquered the country all the Egyptian temples were overthrown, but no damage was done to the Jewish temple. The implication is clear- Vidranga and the Egyptian priests had acted without authority in destroying this venerable Jewish religious establishment.20 The Jews of Elephantine mourned the destruction of their temple; donned sackcloth; fasted; abstained from sexual intercourse, anointing and wine; and prayed for the downfall of those responsible. Finally, YHW, the Lord of Heaven, answered their prayers- Vidranga had been punished by his superiors and his property confiscated; it is even possible that he was executed.21

The Jews of Elephantine, the letter to Bagohi goes on to say, now need help (or permission) to rebuild their temple.

One may wonder whether the Egyptian priests of Khnum would not also have looted or destroyed the Ark if it had been in the Elephantine temple. Hancock does not stop to ask this question. Moreover, if the Ark had in fact been in Elephantine, would the Jews have needed permission of the Jerusalem authorities to rebuild the temple? And would the Jerusalem authorities have hesitated, as they did, in giving permission? Hancock does not address these questions either.

The letter we have been discussing was not the first that the Jews of Elephantine had addressed to the Jerusalem authorities. It refers to at least one other such letter, and perhaps more, that, alas, had gone unanswered. The Jews of Elephantine now write also to the authorities in Samaria asking for help.

The earlier letters may have been sent by the regular postal service. Jedaniah’s letter to Bagohi, however, was delivered to Jerusalem by personal messenger, perhaps by Jedaniah himself.
Jedaniah promises that if the Jerusalem authorities give permission to rebuild the temple at Elephantine, the Elephantine Jews will pray for Bagohi “at all times.”22 If Bagohi helps to achieve the rebuilding of the Elephantine temple, he “shall have a merit (tsedakah) before YHW the God of Heaven more than a person who offers to him burnt offering and sacrifices worth a thousand talents of silver.”23

Whether the Jewish community of Elephantine received a written reply to this letter is not known. Probably the response was oral, perhaps brought back by the messenger who delivered the letter to Jerusalem. Some response is reflected in a difficult first-person memorandum by Bagohi of Jerusalem and Delaiah of Samaria, written on an already torn piece of papyrus, and corrected by erasures and marginal and supralinear additions (see the sidebar “Dear Jerusalem- Priests Petition to Rebuild Their Temple”).24

The Jerusalem authorities had doubtless faced a dilemma. A negative answer would have given comfort and support to the Elephantine Jews’ enemies. A positive answer would have compromised Jerusalem’s cultic centrality. The Jerusalem authorities apparently opted for a compromise- Permission to rebuild was given, but no longer were burnt offerings (animal sacrifices) to be offered. According to the memorandum, the Jews were to speak before the Egyptian authorities about the “Altar-house of the God of Heaven which was built in Elephantine the fortress … to rebuild it on its site as it was formerly and the meal-offering and the incense they may offer on that altar just as formerly was done.”25 Thus, the offerings were limited to cereals and incense. (Interestingly, the prophet Malachi, speaking in the name of the Lord, rejects a blemished offering at the restored Jerusalem Temple [Malachi 1-8], and notes that incense and meal offerings are made to the Lord “from one end of the earth to the other” [Malachi 1-11]. If from “one end of the earth to the other,” certainly such offerings are kosher at Elephantine.) Under this compromise, even though Josiah’s reform had centralized all cultic worship in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem governor was willing to concede that the Elephantine temple, which preceded that reform and existed outside the land of Israel, was legitimate—but in a limited way. Blood on the altar was to be allowed only in Jerusalem.

Yet if the Ark were in Elephantine, wouldn’t the Jerusalem authorities have allowed burnt offerings? Again, this is a question Hancock does not ask. Indeed, Hancock contends that the presence of the Ark at Elephantine provided the original authorization to offer animal sacrifices. If true, the Jerusalem authorities’ refusal to allow animal sacrifice in the rebuilt temple certainly militates against Hancock’s contention that the Ark was there.

That animal sacrifice was forbidden is reflected in still another document in the archive, a draft of a letter (or file copy) to a high Persian official seeking authorization to rebuild the temple (see the sidebar “Dear Jerusalem- Priests Petition to Rebuild Their Temple”).26 If such authorization is granted, the temple would be rebuilt as before, except, however, that “sheep, ox, and goat shall not be made there as burnt-offering but (only) incense and meal-offering.” The Jews also agreed to pay for the Persian permission- “an amount of silver [the amount did not survive] and a thousand ardabs of barley.” (That’s a lot of barley, enough to feed about 540 men for a month.)

Not until 1953 did we learn of the probability that the Elephantine temple was rebuilt. That was when the documents recovered by Wilbour in 1893 were published following the death of his daughter and the opening of the trunk in the New York warehouse. Wilbour’s hoard contained a private archive of a minor temple official named Ananiah son of Azariah. He was nicknamed Anani and that is what we shall call him; it is difficult not to be on familiar terms with him after reading his archive.l

In one of the documents in this archive (a “document of wifehood”), Anani identifies his wife Tamet as an Egyptian slave belonging to Meshullam son of Zaccur. Tamet brings a miniscule dowry to the marriage, but the document reveals haggling over even this (see the sidebar “A Scholar at Work- Marriage Contract Mystery Ends Happily Ever After”). The document of wifehood is dated August 9, 449 B.C.E.

Twelve years later, on September 13, 437 B.C.E., Anani takes title to a house. It is a piece of abandoned property acquired from a Caspian couple, but Anani nonetheless treats it as an estate that he parcels out in stages over the course of the next 35 years, first to his wife Tamet, then to his daughter and finally to his son-in-law. And although it was not much as property goes, it was strategically located—with the Persian royal treasury on the east and the Jewish temple on the west.
Three years later, after fixing up the house (and perhaps after the birth of their daughter), Anani bestows upon Tamet a room in the house. In this document, there is no change in the neighbors to the house. Both the royal Persian treasury and the Jewish temple are still there.

Almost seven years later, on June 12, 427 B.C.E., Meshullam (the slavemaster of Tamet) in his old age makes a testamentary change (to take effect at his death) in the status of Tamet and her daughter. Tamet is freed and their daughter, formerly the daughter of a slave-wife, becomes Meshullam’s adopted daughter- “I released you as a free (person) at my death … you are released from the shade to the sun … you are released to God.” To which mother and daughter respond, “We shall serve you as a son or daughter supports his father, in your lifetime.”

Still seven years more and the daughter marries; on July 11, 420 B.C.E., Anani gives the daughter (and presumably her husband) the use of a room in the house. In addition, this daughter of a slave even receives a generous dowry of 78 shekels from her adoptive brother Zaccur (the son of her slavemaster Meshullam).

Then for 16 years the archive is silent. In 410 B.C.E. the Elephantine temple was destroyed, as we have seen. On November 25, 404 B.C.E., Anani makes a bequest in contemplation of death in which he assures his daughter that, although she is not to receive immediate title to the property, Anani is indeed “giving” it to her to take effect, however, only upon his death. By this time, there have been some changes in the neighbors. One neighbor’s house is no longer there, but adjoining it is “the house of the shrine of the god.” On another side is “the protecting wall that the Egyptians built; that is, the way of the god” where the royal Persian treasury had been.

On March 9, 402 B.C.E., again after the destruction of the Elephantine temple in 410 B.C.E., Anani gives his daughter immediate full rights to the room to which he had previously given her only the right of use. From the delineation of the boundaries of the house, we now learn that the “protecting wall which the Egyptians built” has not replaced the treasury but adjoins it “wall to wall.”
What appears to have happened is that sometime after Anani’s first bequest in 420 B.C.E., when the royal treasury still bordered his house,27 the Egyptians cut a swath away from the treasury and built a protecting wall on either side of this “divine way” that led to the newly erected “house of the shrine of the god,” doubtless associated with the Egyptian cult of Khnum. Whenever that event occurred, it was memorable enough to warrant specific mention in a legal contract.

Finally, on December 13, 402 B.C.E., Anani and his wife Tamet sell the house to their son-in-law. The Temple of YHW still lies to the west.28 By this time Anani and his wife have been married for 47 years. In this document, she is no longer “Tamet, the handmaiden” of Meshullam (her slavemaster) but Meshullam’s “main beloved” and “the one who belongs to his inner chamber.” She is then given a glorious history to enhance her present status. More importantly for our purposes, in the opening lines, she is designated “servitor of YHW the God dwelling (in) Elephantine the fortress.”29

In previous documents Anani had been designated “servitor of YHW in Elephantine.” In this final document the scribe applies the title to Tamet and inserts the word “dwelling”- Instead of referring to YHW in Elephantine, we now have YWH dwelling in Elephantine. Is this an indication that by this time, in 402 B.C.E., the Jews had rebuilt their House of YHW that lay across the street? From this document, it would appear so.

Hancock heavily relies on the fact that, as he says, “a number of papyri speak of [YHW]—in no uncertain terms—as ‘dwelling’ there.”30 In fact, the papyri speak of this only once; there are not “a number of papyri.” And this single document is dated after the destruction of the Elephantine temple in 410 B.C.E. If it proves anything, it proves that YHW continued to dwell at Elephantine when the Elephantine temple had probably been rebuilt. If the “dwelling” of YHW was the Ark, as Graham Hancock claims, it survived the destruction of 410 B.C.E.

But, more fundamentally, it does not follow that if God is said to dwell in Elephantine, his Ark is there. Hancock argues that “The Elephantine Jews frequently spoke of the deity dwelling in their temple as ‘the Lord of Hosts.’” Since this term “was frequently used in connection with the Ark,” Hancock concludes that the Ark must have been in Elephantine.31

First, the phrase “the Lord of Hosts” is used not “frequently,” but only two or three times. And the word dwelling, as we have seen, is used only once—and then after the Elephantine temple had been destroyed. The term “Lord of Hosts” occurs approximately 75 times in the contemporaneous books of Haggai, Zechariah 1–8 and Malachi without reference to the Ark. Simply because the epithet “Lord of Hosts” is used is no indication as to the location of the Ark. In Ezra 7-15, YHWH (the Israelite God) is said to “dwell” in Jerusalem even after the Temple has been destroyed and the Ark has disappeared.

To summarize, Manasseh’s revolt against his Assyrian overlords may have led him to an alliance with Egypt. In that connection, he most likely dispatched a contingency of Jewish soldiers to Egypt. At the same time, his profanation of the Jerusalem Temple and his harsh repressive policies may well have resulted in the flight into Egypt of disaffected Jerusalem priests. Both the soldiers and the priests eventually found their way up the Nile to Elephantine. There, under Egyptian tutelage, they built a temple to YHW.

The notion that these fugitive priests spirited the Ark away from Jerusalem to rescue it from the clutches of Manasseh is nothing but bald speculation; it is not historical reconstruction. None of the evidence cited to support this unscholarly speculation holds up under careful scrutiny.

The phrase “the dwelling of YHW(H),” which appears in a single document from Elephantine, does not indicate that the Ark dwelt there. As we know from Ezra, YHWH dwelt in Jerusalem even after the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by Zerubabbel and dedicated on March 12, 515 B.C.E. (Ezra 6-15). He dwelt all over.

Similarly with the offering of incense and burnt offerings at Elephantine- They were offered all over, as Malachi implies, not just where the Ark was located.

Nor is there any connection between the epithet “Lord of Hosts” (which is used in reference to YHW at Elephantine and countless times in the Bible in reference to YHWH), on the one hand, and the located.

Nor is there any connection between the epithet “Lord of Hosts” (which is used in reference to YHW at Elephantine and countless times in the Bible in reference to YHWH), on the one hand, and the location of the Ark of the Covenant, on the other.

The fact that a Jewish temple was built at Elephantine may be explained by Isaiah 19-19- “In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border.” The Elephantine temple may have been authorized pursuant to this prophecy, but there is absolutely nothing in the Bible or anywhere else to suggest that it was built to house the Ark of the Covenant.

a. Popular on the Nile, dahabiyehs are large lateen-rigged houseboats capable of operating in shallow waters.

b. In the papyri, the island is called Yb (= Egyptian bw, “Elephant Land”). The name Elephantine may derive from the fact that ivory was transshipped there from Nubia.

c. The ram-god Khnum was the god of Elephantine.

d. An ostracon is a broken potsherd that served as writing material in Israel, Egypt and elsewhere.

e. Ephraim Isaac, “Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?” BAR 19-04.

f. The tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh), the name of the Israelite deity, never appears at Elephantine. In the papyri, the regular form of the divine name is written YHW; in the ostraca, the divine name is YHH. It appears that this abbreviated version of the divine name was confined to vernacular usage, while sacred writings used the form YHWH.

g. TAD A4.7. The letter, although well preserved, contains many erasures, corrections, words inserted above the line, and so on. The writing appears to have been transcribed hastily compared to other documents in the collection. Another fragmentary copy of this letter was also found (TAD A4.8). The date of the letter is determined by using the conversion table in R.A. Parker and W.H. Dubberstein’s Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.–A.D. 75 (Providence, 1956).

h. A similar letter (that has not survived) was addressed to the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria.

i. Especially the letter of Aristeas. See Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Mission to Alexandria,” Bible Review, August 1989.

j. See Ze’ev Herzog, Miriam Aharoni and Anson Rainey, “Arad—An Ancient Israelite Fortress with a Temple to Yahweh,” BAR 13-02.

k. The reason for the destruction remains a question. See my discussion in Archives from Elephantine (Berkeley, CA- University of California, 1968), pp. 284–289.

l. This archive was newly collated and restored by the paleographer Dr. Ada Yardeni and myself in 1987 and published in 1989 with English and Hebrew translations and full-size hand copy (TAD B3.1–13).

1. Graham Hancock, The Sign and the Seal- The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant (New York- Crown, 1992), pp. 438–442.

2. For BAR’s review, see Ephraim Isaac, “Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?” BAR 19-04.

3. John A. Wilson, Signs and Wonders upon Pharaoh (Chicago, 1964), p. 101. His book is the source for the information on Wilbour.

4. Emil G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (New Haven- Yale Univ. Press, 1953), p. 10.

5. Kraeling, “New Light on the Elephantine Colony,” Biblical Archaeologist 15 (1952), p. 53, fig. 3; Abraham Joseph Sachs, “The Answer to a Puzzle,” Biblical Archaeologist 15 (1952), p. 89.

6. Eduard Sachau, Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer jüdischen Militärkolonie zu Elephantine (Leipzig, 1911).

7. Menahem Haran, apud Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, p. 423.

8. Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, p. 439.

9. Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, pp. 439–440.

10. See Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt Newly Copied, Edited and Translated into Hebrew and English (Jerusalem- Academon, 1986–1993; distributed by Eisenbrauns- Winona Lake, IN), vol. II, B3.13-2. All quotations of Elephantine texts are taken from this series known as TAD- TAD A=vol. I; TAD B=vol. II; TAD C=vol. III.

11. Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine (Berkeley, CA- University of California, 1968; revised editon, Leiden- Brill, forthcoming), p. 290.

12. Herodotus, History II.30.

13. TAD A2.1-1, 2.2-1, 2.3-1, 2.4-1.

14. TAD A4.7-13–14.

15. Joshua 22; Hosea 9-3ff; Amos 7-17; Jeremiah 16-13; Ezekiel 4-13; Psalm 137.

16. Porten, Archives, pp. 119–120.

17. Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, p. 441.

18. TAD A4.7-21–22.

19. TAD A4.7-9–13.

20. TAD A4.7-6–9; 13–14.

21. Archives, pp. 287–288; TAD A4.7-15–17.

22. Archives, p. 114; TAD A4.7-23–26.

23. Archives, p. 115; TAD A4.7-27–28.

24. TAD A4.9.

25. TAD A4.9.

26. TAD A4.10.

27. TAD B3.7-6–7.

28. TAD B3.12-18–19.

29. TAD B3.12-3, 11, 24.

30. Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, pp. 439–440.

31. Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, p. 440.

1 Comment on "Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine? Bezalel Porten, BAR 21:03, May-Jun 1995."

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  1. Paul Webb says:

    Brilliant! I love your stuff! I’m doing similar research and have a couple of items from the Elephantine papyrus which might mirror the perfect image of your research! But hey, you doing fine without any input! As I said, brilliant work!

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