Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Terumah 5764/ February 28, 2004

 

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

THE MISHKAN, A JEWISH PARALLEL FROM ANCIENT EGYPT

 

Dr. Stephen G. Rosenberg,

Hebrew and Jewish Studies,

University College, London

 

The Mishkan, as decribed in Parashat Terumah, has always been viewed with some suspicion as an over-elaborate construction for a portable wilderness shrine, which had to be ready to be erected and dismantled at short notice in the desert environment. Bible critics have tended to see it as a literary reconstruction, in miniature, of the proportions and furniture of the Solomonic Temple. Nevertheless they admit that a Tabernacle of some kind stood at Shiloh and that David had a portable tented shrine (Tehillim 132:7) that, so to speak, bridged the hiatus between the destruction of Shiloh and the building of the first Temple (F.M.Cross, The Priestly Tabernacle in the Light of Recent Research, in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, HUC. 1981, pp.169-180). Some scholars have suggested that an early Ohel Moed, or Tent of Meeting, was incorporated into Solomon's Temple - taking literally the verse that the Cohanim brought the Ark and the Ohel Moed into the new Temple (1 Kings 8:4).

 

Remarkable testimony of the general form and layout of the original Mishkan has appeared in the last few years at the site of a Jewish military colony in Elephantine Island, in southern Egypt. It has been known from papyri, found some 100 years ago at Elephantine and nearby Aswan, that a group of Jewish mercenaries, in the pay of the Egyptians and later the Persians, guarded the southern border of Egypt at the first cataract of the Nile in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. They lived there with their families and had their own temple. Their date of arrival is not known but they were already well established when Cambyses II of Persia conquered Egypt in 525 BCE.

 

Evidence of the colony is attested to by judicial and family documents in Aramaic, which list property and marriage contracts, and describe the colony's temple ( 'egora, or shrine) where sacrifices were offered to YHW (Yahu). One well-known document, known as the Passover papyrus, sets out instructions to the colony, in the name of Darius II, to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread on 14th Nisan and to drink no beer for seven days. It is dated to the year 419 BCE. Another papyrus records the wanton destruction of the temple by the Egyptian priests of the nearby temple of Khnum in 410 BCE. Happily permission was given for it to be rebuilt four years later ( B.Porten, Archives from Elephantine, the Life of an ancient Jewish Military Colony, 1968).

 

Since the discovery of some of the papyri in 1893 and the publication of others in 1911, expeditions mounted by German, French and Italian teams, both before and after WW1, have searched for the Jewish temple, but without success. In 1969 a German team started work at the southern end of Elephantine Island with the aim of identifying the town and its Egyptian temples over the centuries from the earliest times to the Roman era (W.Kaiser, Elephantine, the Ancient Town, 1998, Cairo). Their excavations uncovered the Aramaic or Jewish village of the 27th Dynasty, the early Persian period, which equates to that of the Jewish colony. Eventually in 1997 they found, at the heart of this village, a rather special piece of tiled flooring, much superior to that of the mud-brick houses around. They identified this as the floor of the Jewish temple, which was confirmed by the location given in the documents researched by Bezalel Porten ( op.cit). Parts of the walls of the temple and the surrounding courtyard were identified, but a large section of the western end of the site had been lost because of the land falling away, due to erosion or subsidence.

 

According to the excavators, the temple shrine appears to be 6m. wide by at least 12m. long, and the courtyard some 24m. wide by at least 40m. long. In Egyptian or royal cubits, this would make the shrine about 12 cubits wide by 24 or more long; and the courtyard 48 cubits wide by at least 80 long. In both cases the original full length is unknown, due to the fall in the ground. These dimensions are surprisingly similar to the Torah description of the Mishkan, 10 cubits by 30, and the Hatzer, or courtyard, 50 cubits by 100. Contrary to expectation, the temple was quite unlike our picture of the Solomonic Temple but closely similar to the Mishkan, as described in Parashat Terumah.

 

No altar was found, but there is literary evidence for animal and, later, cereal sacrifices. The altar may have stood in the area of ground that had fallen away. The documents tell us that the shrine had a roof of cedar wood and five stone-lined doorways with bronze hinges, and this evidence, together with the recent archaeological discoveries of the German team, led by Cornelius von Pilgrim, have enabled the author to produce a tentative reconstruction, as below.

 

 

 

( reconstruction of the Jewish Temple at Elephantine, by Stephen Rosenberg)