The Sabbath in Africa
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
About 586/587 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. A number of Jewish people were taken captive, but many remained in the land of Judah. The Babylonian king set up a governor named Gedaliah to rule the land on his behalf. Some of the Jewish people rejected this idea and killed Gedaliah. Out of fear, many Jewish people fled to Egypt. This occurred despite the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah not to go to that place (see Jeremiah chapter 42). As the book of 2 Kings reads:
“In the seventh month, however, Ishmael son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, who was of royal blood, came with ten men and assassinated Gedaliah and also the men of Judah and the Babylonians who were with him at Mizpah. At this, all the people from the least to the greatest, together with the army officers, fled to Egypt for fear of the Babylonians.” (2 Kings 25:25-26).
The archaeological record confirms the Bible! One place that these Jewish people settled was called Elephantine island in the southern part of the country we call Egypt today (at times this area was ruled by other nations). While there, they built a Temple to God where sacrifices were made. This was likely an attempt to re-establish the Temple worship that was interrupted in the days of Nebuchadnezzar.
Among the archaeological findings that confirm the Jewish presence on Elephantine are papyri (which is a type of paper made from a plant in Egypt) and ostracon (pieces of pottery with writing on them). These findings contain a variety of details from the community including marriage contracts, information about daily life, and references to the Biblical Sabbath. These findings are of paramount importance in that they give evidence that this Jewish community did not forget the Sabbath.
The Elephantine Ostracon
The Elephantine Ostracon is a series of pottery shards found on Elephantine Island in the early twentieth century. They date to about 475 BC and belong to a Jewish community who had migrated there sometime beforehand (likely in connection with the Babylonian conquest of Judea, which happened not long after Josiah’s reign). Elephantine Island is located in modern-day southern Egypt. Several pieces of pottery refer to the Sabbath.
“Greetings Yedanyah! She has been put in jail, and orders have been given that she is not to be provided with bread and water. […] Ahutab has […] to me, except […] the Sabbath day. If Natan has not been taken captive there, let him come over to where I am, so I can go grind [meal (?)]. Also send me […]. And I will write […]. Do not (?) […] (Lindenberger, p 40).
“Greetings Ahutab! About this bread – eat it until tomorrow (Friday).* There is still an ardab of flour left here.” *The text note says that the Aramaic word used is ‘rwbh and it can mean the eve of the Sabbath (ibid, pp 41, 51).
“Greetings Yislah! Look, I’m sending you the vegetables tomorrow. Get there before the boat comes in – on account of the Sabbath – so they won’t be spoiled. I swear to God, if you don’t, I’ll kill you! Don’t trust Meshullemet or Shemayah to take care of it. Trade the barley for me. Try to get a lamb…I swear to God, if you don’t, you’ll have to pay the bill yourself!
As for the…you sent in exchange for the wine, I have sent it all on to them (?). If Meshullement doesn’t get here, what will you say? May we see each other soon!” (ibid, p 46)
“To […]yah: Greetings! May YHH [of hosts] bless you at all times. When the [shipment] or Wahpre son of […] arrives, send me […] and a lamb (?), and some salt […] before the Sabbath.
[I am having] Meshullam [bring you] some fish […], and [having] Beadi [bring] three big (?) […]. I am giving it to him today […] cut up (?) […]” (ibid, p 49).
Bezalel Porten describes a fourth ostracon that reads, “I am going and will not come until the eve (of the Sabbath)” (Porten, 117). He also noted that the name Shabbethai was used at that time, which is a refers to a baby born on the Sabbath. At the very least, these references to the Sabbath show that the Jewish people at Elephantine kept track of the Sabbath day.
Lindenberger, James M. Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. Edited by Kent Harold Richards. Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1994, pp 40-51.
Porten, Bezalel. “The Religion of the Jews of Elephantine in Light of the Hermopolis Papyri.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, 1969, pp. 116–121. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/543317. Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.