“She shall take out, from straw to string, and go away wherever she pleases” - The women of Elephantine; an anomaly in the Ancient Near East?
The quote above comes from the marriage contract of Mibtahiah, daughter of Mahsehiah of Elephantine to Eshor her second husband. Mibtahiah could, if she decided to leave her husband, take out what she had brought into the marriage, and go where she pleased. The archives of Mibtahiah and her family make up nearly half of the papyri available to us from Elephantine.1 Did Mibtahiah go where she pleased? Yaron wrote that the position of women in Elephantine compared favourably with other communities in the Ancient Near East.2 This essay will consider how far this was the case. It will also explore how the community of Elephantine was influenced in its treatment of women by the cultures of the communities that surrounded it, looking for both similarities and differences. This will be facilitated by combining philology with history to try and give a wider perspective of the lives of the Elephantine women.
Women appear in the Elephantine archive in a range of documents, including marriage contracts, legal documents regarding gifts and grants of land, property and other items, loans, a document that appears to deal with a ‘phase of divorce’ or other litigation regarding withdrawal of personal items, and documents that detail the manumission of slave. 3 The Judean community at Elephantine existed under both Egyptian and then Persian rule, stating as they do in A.P. 12 of the Brooklyn Aramaic Papyri that their temple existed under the rule of the kings of Egypt.4 It is therefore reasonable to assume then that both Egyptian and Persian laws and culture may have had an affect on the lives on women in Elephantine. Annette Depla in her piece on women in Egyptian Wisdom literature bemoans how there are few documents that actually relate to the role of women or are written by women themselves.5 She attempts to create the lives of Ancient Egyptian women using material similar to that which is available from the Elephantine Aramaic archive. When considering the unique way in which women were treated there at Elephantine, one can only attempt to reconstruct women’s lives in much the same way Depla has done for Egyptian women. However, given the nature of the colony, that it was a mercenary community of a different ethnic group and therefore supposedly a different culture to that of its surroundings, makes it imperative to compare the archive of Elephantine with other documents available to the historian from the Ancient Near East.
The archive of material from Elephantine has been the subject of great study since its discovery in the nineteenth century. It is especially useful for the historian as the archive contains a range of documents that help illustrate everyday life in this military colony of Judeans in Egypt. 6 Every document has been subject to intense scrutiny, looking for clues as to how people lived in the Fortress town of Yeb. The work has thrown up some interesting anomalies in the way of life at Elephantine. Isolated from the rest of the Judean community, they appear to have had a radically different way of life in certain areas. 7 Ackroyd notes how the name of the god used in a Judean way in the documents appears to have lost the last letter in its name, rendering it in transliteration as YWH, rather than YHWH.8 He couples this with the work of the noted Bezalel Porten and Arthur Cowley to consider the possibility that the Judeans of Elephantine worshipped a range of female goddesses alongside YWH, including one that could be considered his consort.9 This is a drastic departure from the monotheistic nature of the Law as being practiced in Judea post Josianic reforms, especially when considered with the existence of a temple to YWH in the fortress at Elephantine, a direct contradiction of Deuteronomic law. 10There are also examples in the archive of vows sworn to local gods besides YWH, again from the archive of Mibtahiah encountered earlier. Mibtahiah seems to have had no qualms in swearing to the Egyptian goddess Sati, when entering into litigation with “Pia,… a builder of Syene”11
“About the suit which we undertook in Syene, a litigation about silver and grain and raiment and bronze and iron – all the goods and property – and the marriage document. Then an oath was imposed upon you and you swore them to me by Sati the goddess. And my heart was satisfied with that oath which you made to me about those goods and I withdrew from you this day and forever.”12
However, due to the fragmentary nature of much of the papyri, one can only go so far in extrapolating from the documents alone. One could hypothesize that the place of goddesses in the life of the Elephantine community may have had something to do with the ‘strange rights’ enjoyed by women in Elephantine. 13 Mibtahiah’s marriage contract as detailed in the title also provided for her in the case of divorce, again something very different from traditional Judean practice. Perhaps the women in Elephantine were regarded more highly because of the worship of goddesses in their community, rather than the purely patriarchal system of biblical and rabbinical Judaism.14 This speculation was considered unfounded by Porten, who drew many parallels between the lives of the Women of Elephantine, and the women of Judah, using mainly biblical examples, due to the lack of legal contracts to use in direct comparison. 15
Examining Proverbs 31:16 – 24, it is possible to compare the recorded actions of women from Elephantine with the ideal Judean woman.
“16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and maketh strong her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her lamp goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh for herself coverlets; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh linen garments and selleth them; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.”16
Proverbs is wisdom literature that is comparable to the literature used by Depla in her work on Egyptian women. In the Egyptian wisdom literature, the woman is dependant of the husband, someone who has to be actively cared for; however, the administrative documents examined by Depla show a degree on independence in household matters.17 Egyptian women worked along side men much in the same way the extract above places women in an agricultural setting where work would have been shared between the sexes.18 The woman of Proverbs is given independence in the domestic sphere, deciding what to purchase and sell to meet her family’s need, but the overall control clearly resides with the husband, as his reputation is based on his wife’s actions. When comparing Elephantine to these examples there are clear parallels between them. Mibtahiah in B30 engages in litigation over silver, grain, clothing, vessels and a document of wifehood. In B34, a woman named Jehohen borrows a small sum of money in her own right from Mesullam, son of Zaccur - a well known member of the Elephantine community. Women acting with such independence in Elephantine could easily be labeled with M.B. Crook’s description of the ideal woman of Proverbs 31, “A person of competence, of tireless industry in the supply and administration of a… household”.19 Looking specifically at property, in verse 16 of Proverbs 31, an ideal woman was able to buy and sell land as she sees fit. This is much the same as in Elephantine, where the archive contains records of bequests and grants of housing, and a grant of a life estate of usufruct to women, sale of housing by women and women exchanging inherited shares of property. 20 Therefore, certainly in the sphere of property, the women of Elephantine do not appear anomalous compared to other Ancient Near Eastern communities.
Examining the marriage contracts and fragments of marriage contracts available, they also show similarities with Judean practices. Alongside brides bringing a dowry, a type of bride price was paid to the father, called the mohar .21 In the marriage contract of Mibtahiah and Eshor, Eshor after declaring that Mibtahiar is his wife and he is her husband “from this day and forever” had the scribe write to Mibtahiah’s father Mahseiah;
“I gave you (as) mohar for your daughter Mibtahiah : [silver] 5 shekles by the stone(-weight)s of [the] king. It came into you and your heart was satisfied herein.”22
There is a similar construction in the marriage contract of Jehoishma to Ananiah son of Haggai.
“and I gave you (as) mohar (for) your sister Jehoishma 5 silver kar[sh].” 23 24
The payment of mohar is a practice that can be seen in Biblical law;
“16. And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.
17. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.”25
In these verses we see payments being made by a man in order to have a woman be his wife, like in the Elephantine contracts and indeed verse 16 has the man paying mohar after sleeping with a woman to whom he is not betrothed. This could be considered as parallel to the way in which Elephantine marriage contracts appear to have been written subsequently to the couple beginning married life merely formalizing an existing relationship. This idea is further supported by evidence noted Porten.26 The formula “she is my wife and I am her husband” echo a phrase in Hosea 2:2.27
“2 Plead with your mother, plead; for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband; and let her put away her harlotries from her face, and her adulteries from between her breasts;”28
Whilst this quotation shows a repudiation of a wife, it shows the negative use of a formula clearly established in Judah.
This phrasing can also be seen in another Elephantine document B23, a building grant.
“I came to you and you gave me the gateway of your house to build a wall there, that wall is yours.”29
It is similar in linguistic structure, but more importantly, it also covers an event that happened before the writing of the building grant, much in the way the marriage contracts available to us from Elephantine seem to have been written after the marriage has occurred, mentioning a child that can only be the offspring of the union.30 In both cases the legal document introduces events that precipitated the contractual obligations of the respective parties, showing a level of contractual obligation. This idea of contractual obligation in marriage is not surprising given how marriage was considered more economic than romantic in nature, more concerned with creation of new households and the transfer of property as was the norm in Judah, Egypt and other areas of the Ancient Near East. Mohar payments can be considered equivalent to the payment of shep en sehemet in Egyptian marriage contracts, a price or compensation for marrying the woman.31 The terms used in the dowry acceptance clause, the clause related to the mohar, and other clauses relating to selling, tyb lbbk and tyb lbby, being the same or similar do not necessarily mean women were considered an object of barter, but that the mohar is to marriage what the sale price is to sale: both are necessary considerations that establish the legal ground for the transfer of control/ownership , whether of land or wife.32
The major area, in which Elephantine differs from Judah, is in the case of divorce. The Talmud states that only a man can dissolve a marriage. He can only be divorced by his wife with his consent. 33 This is in direct contrast to what is found in the Elephantine marriage contracts;
"Tomorrow or the next day, should Mibtahiah stand up in an assembly and say: "I hated Eshor my husband" silver of hatred is on her head, and she shall place upon the balance scale and weight out to Eshor silver 6+1 shekels, 2 quarters and all that she brought in her hand she shall take out from straw to string and go away wherever she desires without suit or process."34
The Document of Wifehood between Mibtahiah and Eshor son Djeho
“ Tomorrow or (the) next day, should Tamut stand up and say: “ I hated my husband Ananiah,” silver of ha(t)red is on her head. She shall give to Ananiah silver, 7 shekels 2q (uaters) and all that she brought in her hand she shall take out from straw to string. 35
The Document of Wifehood between Tamut and Ananaihson of Azariah
“And if Jehoishm[a] hate her husband Ananaih and say to him “I hated you; I will not be to you a wife” silver of hatred is on her head (and) her mohar will be lost she shall PLACE UPON the balance scale and giver her husband Ananiah silver, 7 shekels,  q(auraters), and go out from him with the rest of her money and her goods and her property…and the rest of her goods which are written above.”36
Document of Wifehood between Jehoishma to Ananiah son Haggai
A clause has been added to the contract that enables the female party to stand in the Assembly or to claim publicly that she hates her husband and wishes to leave him. She is then able to do that, taking her dowry with her, and marry again as she pleases. The cause relating to the instigation of the end of marriage by the woman is similar to the clause for divorce by the male party except for the obvious reversal of names. In B36 and B41 the repudiation by husband and repudiation by wife clauses are exactly the same. 37Porten notes that the word shnah, (to hate) used in these passages may not actually mean “divorce” as we understand it today. 38 This does not mean that the clause in a marriage contract, that allows the woman to publicly claim to hate her husband, does not relate to the dissolution of a marriage. If Elephantine legal practice was influenced by Egyptian practice, as can be assumed, marriage contracts were formal documents that mainly recorded the transfer or exchange of property, instituted by marriage.39 Indeed, the marriage contract of Ananiah, son of Azariah and Tamut the slave girl of Meshullam, son of Zaccur, detailed in Porten and Yardeni B36, includes what can only be their child in one of the clauses, suggesting they had had a child before the marriage contract had been drawn up, and that the marriage contract was a mere formality.40 This is similar, then, to the Egyptian idea, where marriage as a social construct was instigated through co-habitation, and in the later period, documents were drawn up after the couple had had children. 41 The Egyptian terms taken to mean marriage include; “to establish a household”, “to enter a household”, “to live together”. 42In the Elephantine case, then, a woman leaving the husband would fit with Egyptian practice, where leaving the family home would be symbolic of a broken marriage, with the wife rejecting the husband. The Biblical homonym for shnah, to hate, and the cognate words in Akkadian (zeru) and the Egyptian synonym (mst), both used in marriage contracts, convey this sense of rejection. 43 Indeed from 500BCE onwards, Gay Robins notes evidence of women being able to initiate divorce in Egyptian culture, making such influence on Elephantine even more likely.44 Any differences between Elephantine and Judah are likely to be due to the Elephantine community absorbing the local practices of the surrounding area over time, rather than a conscious rejection of Judean practice. 45
In fact, the terminology used in the marriage contract has exact parallels in Egyptian marriage contracts and Babylonian marriage contracts. Returning to Mibtahiah’s marriage contract, the phrase “shall take out from straw to string and go away wherever she desires without suit or process.” is of particular interest. 46 This phrase, effectively freeing the woman from all obligations, has parallels in other Ancient Near Eastern legal systems. 47 In Hammurapi’s Law Code, c.1700BCE in Document LH 172, it states that a widowed woman who was not provided with a marriage settlement receives her dowry and an heir’s part to her husband’s property. She was able to leave the household of her husband, and “a husband of her choice shall marry her”. 48 These clauses again free the women from all obligations. Shalom E. Hertz finds similarities in the Neo-Babylonian marriage contracts.
“… fifteen contain legible divorce clauses. The phrasing of this clause is different from its Old Babylonian counterpart. A typical one reads: “Should PN1 divorce PN2 and take a second (wife), he will pay her 6 minas of silver, and she may go wherever she pleases." 49
“She shall… go away wherever she desires” from the Elephantine marriage contracts and “She may go wherever she pleases” are similar enough in phrasing to indicate that the Elephantine community were influenced by Neo-Babylonian legal practice. Whilst LH 172 and the Neo-Babylonian marriage contracts greatly predate the Elephantine marriage contracts, the similarities are not surprising, considering that the Judean mercenary community of Elephantine were serving the Achaemenid administration at this time. Such Babylonian legal tradition would have influenced the administration, much as the Egyptian practice influenced the Elephantine Judeans.
However, it is not only in the dissolution aspect of marriage that Elephantine practice differed considerably from Judean practice. Whilst Elephantine is clearly mainly patriarchal in structure, like the practice of Judeans detailed in the Bible, a range of people are involved in marrying off their female dependents. In B36 a slave girl is given in marriage by her master. In B41 an adoptive brother gives away his adoptive sister, who was the daughter of the aforementioned slave girl and only a half sister. In B6.4 mother and bridegroom haggle over the daughter. The latter especially shows how women in Elephantine were perhaps considered more equally than in Judean society. Whilst clearly the norm was for the most senior male relative to give the female dependant in marriage, there seems to have been no legal difference in the, albeit fragmentary, contract where a mother is the major party in the marriage contract of her daughter. This too could show an Egyptian influence on Elephantine practice, with women at Elephantine being held in the same regard legally as men, as noted by Swidler.50
Much of what has been written about the women of Elephantine makes them seem like they were anomalies in the Ancient Near East. They have focused on the one major difference in the field of divorce or the end of marriages, where women were given equal footing to instigate proceedings and in monetary reparations. This is indeed different from both Judean and Egyptian practice, the two cultures expected to have the most influence on Elephantine practice. In Judah, men only could instigate divorce proceedings, and in Egypt, only men paid divorce fines.51 Nevertheless, other practices related to women and marriage had similarities, such as the bride bringing a dowry, and the payment of some sort of bride price to the bride’s father. The women of Elephantine did have some level of independence and were able to control their own destinies up to a point, for example controlling property and borrowing money in their own names. It seems more likely that social status had more do to with the level of freedom afforded to Elephantine women than the community absorbing much of their host culture. Some cultural crossover is likely , and evident given the political environment of the era, but the historian should be aware that the Elephantine archive is very limited in its scope, particularly concerning women. Mibtahiah clearly had more opportunities that Tamut, as she was the daughter of an established member of the community, whereas Tamut was a slave marrying into a free family. Tamut’s dowry was considerably less, and her ties to her master remained even though she was married into a new family.52 Women were also linked to their husband’s rank, which would have had much influence on how far they could control their own lives.53 Therefore, in many ways the women of Elephantine were not completely different from other women in the Ancient Near East, but were only anomalies in certain areas. The fragmentary character of the material available makes it difficult to assess for certain exactly how novel these differences were, or indeed, how normal they were for the women of Elephantine.
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