A Jewish Curse Text from Elephantine

Evidence of Yahweh worship from Late Period Egypt

Elephantine text

Elephantine cure text. Courtesy Religions Journal, Creative Common CC BY.

While the Hebrew Bible provides a great deal of information on ancient Israelite religion and Yahweh worship, there are very few extrabiblical texts that inform us about Israel’s religion prior to the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 BCE). According to Gad Barnea, a scholar of biblical history at the University of Haifa, a new text from Elephantine might finally provide a glimpse of how Israelite religion developed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

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A Curse at Elephantine

Dated by its script to the fifth century BCE, the tablet consists of 12 words, including a reference to the temple of Yahweh and one of the common epithets of Israel’s God, “the lion.” At first blush, the text reads as an unusual letter or correspondence regarding a tunic. Barnea contends, however, that upon closer examination, the true meaning of the text becomes clear. It was a curse tablet, very similar to curse texts that would become common a few centuries later in the Hellenistic period. These texts, which were typically written as curses against thieves, were left inside temples as a way of transferring the stolen property to the deity and thus turning the thief into a temple robber and liable to the wrath of the deity.

The small text, written in Aramaic on a pottery sherd (ostracon), was discovered during excavations on the island of Elephantine, near modern Aswan in Egypt. In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Elephantine was home to a thriving ancient Jewish community that had its own temple to Yahweh, priests, and sacrificial rituals. Barnea believes the ostracon may have originated from rituals performed in this temple.

“This ostracon gives us intimate and direct access to a cultic ritual as it was practiced in Jewish temples in the early Second Temple period,” Barnea told Bible History Daily. “Its short text was carefully crafted with poetic features and seems to have been a ‘template text’ used in cases of ‘curses against thieves.’”

After more than a century of research on various texts found at Elephantine, it is clear that its early Jewish community had beliefs and rituals that differed considerably from those recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Elephantine worship included polytheistic beliefs as well as a practices influenced by Egyptian religion. However, Barnea and other scholars suggest that the Elephantine community may have had much more in common with other Yahwistic communities of the time than the writers of the Hebrew Bible did.

The curse text also reveals new details of how Yahweh was worshiped differently on Elephantine. Within the text, a female figure is told to “command the lion.” According to Barnea, the female figure is most likely to be identified with a temple priestess who performed the cures ritual of dedicating the stolen item to the deity.. If correct, this would be the first known instance of a priestess within a Jewish temple performing cultic rituals. Barnea concludes, “This shows that women served in central cultic roles in Jewish temples at the time and there is no reason to believe that this reality was limited to Egypt. This was in all probability also the case in other Jewish temples, including Jerusalem, Samaria, and Babylonia.”

Read more in Bible History Daily:

An Early Israelite Curse Inscription from Mt. Ebal?

Roman Curse Tablet Uncovered in Jerusalem’s City of David


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?

Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History

The Egyptianizing of Canaan

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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