Home » Blog » Theology » Tracing the Covenant Ark IX – Mercenaries of Murderous Manasseh and Egypt’s Elephantine Island

Tracing the Covenant Ark IX – Mercenaries of Murderous Manasseh and Egypt’s Elephantine Island

Start at Part 1.  Back to part 8. This is part nine of a talk I gave at Beit Yeshua in January 2017, or at least I got through what I could in the time limits available, and what I did get through was well received.  (The above image is, I understand, the partially excavated Jewish Temple on Elephantine Island – image from here.)

If we think about it, that passage clearly implies that the ark had been removed from the Temple – that the Levites had been carrying it out on their shoulders – the only hint in the bible that the ark left Solomon’s Temple.  Is there any reason why this would have happened?  Well, if we turn back a chapter, to chapter 33, we see the account of the reign of King Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, who was the immediate successor of the godly and reforming king Hezekiah.  Like many of the kings of Judah in the preceding and following times, he turned to idolatry, but what is significant is the detail of exactly what Manasseh did, because he went further than anyone before him.  He didn’t just set up altars to other gods in the Temple courts, in the outer places, but he actually put something in the Temple itself – which I take to mean, in the Holy of Holies or perhaps the Holy Place, but most likely the Holy of Holies.  It is called an image in 1 Chronicles 33, and an Asherah pole in 2 Kings 21.  2 Kings 21 also tells us that Manasseh spilled a huge amount of innocent blood, filling Jerusalem ‘end to end’.  The bible doesn’t tell us what precisely happened, but it was obviously a big deal, and I suspect that what happened was that Manasseh brutally put down a revolt that started when he put the image in the Temple, and that the faithful priests and Levites who had been empowered and supported by Manasseh’s father and predecessor, removed the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple at that point.  They would want to get the ark completely away from Manasseh’s power, which would mean removing it from the nation completely.  They must also have recognized the repeated prophecies being made that Jerusalem was doomed to destruction because of Judah’s idolatry.  Where did they go?  The bible doesn’t tell us, but at about this time an actual Jewish temple was built in Egypt, on the island of Elephantine.  In the late 19th Century papyri documents from a significant Jewish community were found that mentioned this temple, and it has been at least partially excavated in the 20th century.   The community was apparently likely a border military outpost of some sort, probably against the Nubian kingdom from what is now Sudan, and it is likely that Manasseh himself despatched troops as part of an anti-Assyrian alliance between Judah and Egypt.  The documents mostly came from when the Persians ruled, but the Temple had been around before that.  It was situated next to a Temple to an Egyptian ram-headed god, which must have caused problems, since for at least some of the time the Jews sacrificed rams and sheep and goats at their temple.  Indeed, the Jewish Temple was destroyed or severely damaged at least twice, the first time quite possibly by the worshippers of their neighbouring Temple.  When the Persians invaded, they destroyed Temples, but left the Jewish one alone.  After the Persians were defeated and left, the Jewish temple was again attacked in a vicious anti-semitic attack.  At other times, though, the Egyptians and Jews lived in peace and intermarried even. Eventually, the Temple was abandoned, and some of it taken over by the next door Egyptian temple.  From the documentation, it seems that at least some of the Jews there worshipped a goddess deemed the wife of Yahweh, too, and the documents indicated that, at least in the late 5th Century BC, women had a role of some sort in the Temple.  In addition to the Egyptian Temples, Aramean Temples were built by Aramean mercenaries there too.    However, we must ask ourselves a question.  What would cause a Jewish community to build a Temple and carry out sacrifices there, in a gentile land.  After all, in Babylon they had synagogues, but no Temple.  However, it would make perfect sense if the ark of the covenant was there.   One of the documents found actually refers to Yahweh who dwells in the Temple on Elephantine, which would also fit well with the ark being there.  On the other hand, we should note there are other possible explanations.  One is that the Jewish community at Elephantine built the Temple there to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 19.19 that there would be a pillar to the Lord erected at the border of Egypt.  Another point to note is that later, at the time of the Maccabees, many Jews went with one Onias from Judah to Egypt and built a Temple there, so a temple is not necessarily evidence the ark of the covenant is present.  However, we do have the strong Ethiopian tradition, and the writer of ‘The Sign and the Seal’ talked to an elderly priest who mentioned an ancient tradition that their people had journeyed from Egypt.  I have seen at least one writer speculate that the reason why Josiah opposed Pharaoh in the battle that led to his death may have been to try and get enough control to get the ark back.  It could even be that Pharaoh’s claim that God sent him on his mission, which 2 Chronicles 35.22 affirms was the case, was from a communication from the Temple in Elephantine – speculative, but intriguing.

Part 10