Jehoishma Daughter of Ananiah: The Life of a Totally Normal Ancient Person
Almost all of those people were born, lived and died without any trace of their existence surviving to the present day.
But Jehoishma, however unlikely, was not one of them. First, many details of her life were recorded on important legal documents and kept securely in one place. Second, she was fortunate enough to live in Elephantine, a rocky outcrop of an island in the middle of the Nile River in southern Egypt at the first cataract. The air there is very dry and the average annual rainfall is zero. As a result, her documents survived for 2,300 years before they were rediscovered.
Elephantine in the fifth century was a cosmopolitan community populated by a bewildering variety of people from all across the Persian Empire. The island marked the southern border of the province of Egypt and was fortified and garrisoned by a number of Persian military units. Arameans, Caspians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Khorazmians, Medes and Persians all mingled in the region, bought homes, intermarried, and raised families. Elephantine served as a trading post, a waypoint for traders bringing products such as gold and ivory from the interior of Africa to markets in Egypt. By the river, the famous Nilometer measured each year’s annual flooding of the Nile, allowing the authorities to estimate the agricultural yield for the year.
There was a settlement of Jews there too, who had arrived after 586 BC when Judah was devastated by the Babylonians. Economic collapse followed, and many Jews migrated to other regions in search of a new life. With the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, they built a new temple to YHWH in Elephantine and performed sacrifices there.
Jehoishma’s father was a Jewish man named Ananiah son of Azariah. We do not know where or exactly when he was born. He first appears in history in 449 B.C., when he got married.
His bride was an Egyptian woman named Tapamet. She was a slave owned by an Aramean named Meshullam, who lived in the town of Syene on the east bank of the Nile across from Elephantine. Tapamet’s father was named Patou, but nothing more is known about him. Was she born free? Born a slave? Was her father forced sell himself and his family into slavery when they became destitute? We can only wonder.
What has survived to attest to their marriage is a contract, what would in later be called at ketubah in Talmudic times. It was written in Aramaic and drawn up by a professional scribe on August 9, 449 B.C. Because Tapamet was a slave, Ananiah contracted the marriage with her owner rather than her father. Meshullam did not set Tapamet free, rather, if either Tapamet or Ananiah died he would inherit half their joint property. What property they had was not much. All the property Tapamet brought to the marriage was a single dress, a mirror, a single pair of sandals, a tray, and half a handful of balsam oil and six handfuls of castor oil.
At the time the contract was written, Ananiah and Tapamet already had a son named Pelatiah. He was also legally a slave, and if Ananiah divorced Tapamet he would revert to Meshullam’s ownership. Were Ananiah and Tapamet married in an ancient shotgun wedding? Or was the contract drawn up after they had already been married for some time? Would Meshullam have parted with a slave without first drawing up a contract? Was their son’s name, which means “YHWH rescued” in Hebrew, chosen with some special significance in mind? We can only wonder.
Ananiah was an employee of the temple to YHWH at Elephantine as his father had been before him, responsible for the day to day maintenance of the buildings and its furnishings. Tapamet too seems to have converted to a follower of YHWH, for she is also described in some documents as a “servant of YHWH” in the same manner as her husband.
Roughly twelve years later, the couple had a daughter they named Jehoishma, meaning “may YHWH listen.” With a growing family and an improving economic situation, they needed to move, and on September 14, 437 Ananiah bought a house from a soldier named Bagazushta and his wife Ubil, a couple of Caspian ethnicity. They did not actually own the house they were selling, but had claimed it once it was abandoned. Under Egyptian law, one could claim abandoned property by living in it for three years. Wisely, Ananiah had a clause added to the contract that specified that if the original owners sued to regain their property Bagazushta would refund the purchase price.
The house was falling apart. Its walls were sound, but the roof had caved in, which is probably how Ananiah was able to buy it for the very low price of fourteen shekels of silver. But it was home, and after three years had passed and his claim to the property was secure Ananiah the proud owner deeded half the main room to Tapamet. “I, Ananiah, gave it to you in love,” read the deed. Pelatiah and Jehoishma would inherit the room – the house was to be kept in the family and passed down from generation to generation.
But there was a legal problem with her inheriting the house: Jehoishma and her mother were still slaves. As Meshullam neared the end of his life, he decided to release them from their bondage. On June 12, 427 he had a document drawn up which would emancipate both Tapamet and Jehoishma upon his death, with the stipulation that the two of them would support Meshullam’s only son Zaccur “as a son or daughter supports his father.” Zaccur became Jehoishma’s adopted brother. Other than this obligation, he said to Tapamet “you are released to the shade of the sun. And so is Jehoishma your daughter, and another person does not have right to you and to Jehoishma your daughter, but you are released to God.”
That house was where Jehoishma grew up. Across the street lay the temple of YHWH, Ananiah’s workplace. Their next-door neighbor on the other side of the east wall was a Caspian soldier named Shatibara, the father of Ubil who used to live in the house. To the east lay the royal treasury. Thanks to this description, archaeologists have been able to locate the buildings.
To the south lay the Egyptian temple to the god Khnum. By this time, there had been a temple to Khnum on Elephantine for 1,700 years. Often depicted with a ram’s head, Khnum was the god of the Nile flood. The Nilometer was built in his temple, and sacred rams roamed in his temple. Of course, across the street Jehoishma’s father facilitated the slaughtering of sheep as burnt offerings to YHWH, an act which probably horrified the priests of Khnum.
One of those priests, a man named Hor, soon moved in across the street from Jehoishma and her family. One can easily imagine rising tensions in the close confines of the neighborhood, but Jehoishma soon had other things on her mind. In 420 BC she was betrothed to be married to a Jewish soldier named Ananiah son of Haggai, who was garrisoned on the island.
Because she was still beholden to the service of Zaccur, Ananiah ben Haggai had to ask Zaccur for permission to marry Jehoishma and paid her bride price or mohar of ten shekels to him rather than to her father. “I came to you in your house and asked you for the lady Jehoishma by name, your sister, for wifehood,” read the document. “And you gave her to me.”
In July, her father had expanded the house and added a second story. In preparation for her marriage, Ananiah deeded the upstairs bedroom of the house to her, along with half the courtyard and the stairway. In October, her marriage contract was drawn up by a scribe.
The improvement in the fortunes of Jehoishma’s family is evidenced by the amount of property she brought into her marriage. In addition to part of the family house, she brought 78.125 shekels worth of property, including:
- 22.125 shekels of silver.
- Three new wool dresses, one with fringes and one striped, worth 12, 10 and 7 shekels. One was worth almost as much as her father had paid for their house (14 shekels).
- A new woolen shawl worth 8 shekels, a linen skirt worth 1 shekel, a new linen garment worth 1 shekel, and two old garments worth a total of 2.5 shekels. Most of Jehoishma’s dresses measured 6 by 4 cubits, which must indicate the total amount of fabric used in making them since Jehoishma was undoubtedly not over nine feet tall! Using the Egyptian royal cubit of 52.5 cm (20.8 inches) and dividing by half would make her dresses 157.5 cm (5 feet 1 1/2 inches) long from top to bottom.
- A bronze mirror worth 1 shekel, a bronze bowl and cup each worth 1.25 shekels, and another cup and jug worth half a shekel each.
- Bronze utensils, a clothes chest made of palm leaves, two jugs, a case made of papyrus reeds with alabaster inlays, five ladles, a wooden jewelery box, and a pair of Persian leather sandals.
- Two handfuls of oil, four handfuls of olive oil, one handful of scented oil, and five handfuls of castor oil (used as perfumes). A handful was a unit of measure corresponding to 0.733 liters (3 cups).
If Ananiah were to divorce Jehoishma, he would have to pay her the value of the property she brought into their marriage – 78.125 shekels – and she would also keep all of her things. If Jehoishma were to divorce Ananiah, she would only have to pay 7.5 shekels and still retained her property. Divorce would be automatically initiated if Ananiah took another wife or if Jehoishma took another husband. If Ananiah died childless, Jehoishma would inherit all of his property. Shut out was Zaccur, who signed away his right to reclaim any of the presents he gave Jehoishma.
For the next ten years, Jehoishma and Ananiah lived in the house peacefully, but tensions within the community were rising. In July or August of 410, they boiled over. The priests of Khnum conspired with Vidranga, the Persian commander of the region to wipe out the temple of YHWH. A large bribe was paid to Vidranga, and he sent his son Naphaina to lead Egyptian troops from Syene to Elephantine where they broke into the temple, tore down its gateways, looted its gold and silver fittings and basins, and burned it to the ground.
There is no indication that any other building was destroyed in the pogrom, but the effect on the Jewish community must have been chilling. The men and women of the community mourned in sackcloth and fasted. They abstained from wine and using perfume on a regular basis for the next three years.
Justice from the Persian authorities was forthcoming. Vidranga was dismissed from the imperial service and forfeited his illicitly-gained property. The leaders of the riot were executed.
Nevertheless there was a long delay as Persian authorities refused permission to rebuild the temple which was the object of the riot. Permission was not granted until sometime in 407, after Jewish community leaders had prevailed upon the governors of Judah and Samaria to recommend that the temple be rebuilt, but with the stipulation that it would only be used to offer grain and incense, not burnt offerings of livestock.
Rebuilt it was, and the community continued on. On November 25, 404 an elderly Ananiah son of Azariah set up a document to give Jehoishma the rest of the house upon his death. “Just as she supported me while I was old of days – I was unable to use my hands, and she supported me – also I gave it to her at my death.” Sixteen months later, he updated the document to give it to her outright. But the neighborhood was different now. To the east of the house there was a protecting wall, to the north Shatibara’s house had been taken over by the priests of Khnum and was being used as a shrine. A man named Hor, gardener of the temple of Khnum, now lived across the courtyard. Next door, two Persian brothers named Parnu and Mrdava bought houses, and nearby two Egyptian brothers named Pahe and Pamet, both boatmen, took up residence.
Political change was coming too. In 404, an Egyptian nobleman in the Nile Delta named Amyrtaeus took advantage of a political crisis in Persia to lead a revolt against Persian rule. A Persian army sent to re-take Egypt was defeated, and Persian garrisons such as that at Elephantine were cut off. It seems likely that the Persian garrison, of which Jehoishma’s husband was a part, negotiated some sort of resolution. The community continued on, but starting in 400, documents from the Jewish community in Elephantine began to be dated by the regnal years of Amyrtaeus instead of Artaxerxes II.
In 399, Amyrtaeus himself was overthrown and murdered in a revolt by Nepherites, who became the new Pharaoh. The last document from Elephantine dates from October 1, 399: a letter sent from someone in the Nile Delta informing the people in Elephantine of the coup. What happened to the Jewish community after that is not known. The last we hear of Jehoishma is in December of 402, when her husband bought the last room of the house which they did not own from her parents. He also contracted and paid back a loan of grain that month.
And there it ends. We do not know what became of Jehoishma, whether she had children, or whether she passed her house down to them. We do not know how long the Jewish community of Elephantine hung on in the new political order. Documents from the final years show a community under pressure: several contain complaints that members of the community have had their homes burglarized, their family members attacked, their crops stolen, and their servants assaulted.
Then she disappeared from history, until some locals were digging in the ruins 2,300 years later and uncovered her family archive. The papyri were sold to American Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour in 1903, and his daughter donated them to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City upon her death in 1953. It was not until 1998 that archaeologists uncovered the remains of her house along with the temple of YHWH.
And there you have it. Jehoishma was in many ways a totally normal ancient person. But thanks to the random nature of historical preservation, we know so many details about her life – her marriage, her house, her money, her dress size – that many other women in ancient Egypt also experienced whose records are lost to us.
And yet, Jehoishma was also a totally unique person. No one else among the forty million or so subjects of the Persian empire shared her exact life experiences of birth, family, marriage, place of residence or property. Others had their own unique lives as part of thousands of other communities. They had their own experiences, their own ordinary days, their own wonderful and tragic life events. All unique, all unlikely, all nevertheless normal.
Most people alive will never write their autobiography. Most of us will not do anything unique enough in history to justify writing one, or anyone else writing a biography of us, because few people would want to read it. What then is the record of our lives? For most people, aside from their tombstone the lasting memory of their lives are recorded in the legal documentation they generated: their birth certificate, marriage license, deeds to land, citizenship records, wills, and death certificates – precisely the same types of documentation that recorded the details of Jehoishma’s life.
For anyone who has researched their genealogy past living memory, this is likely all that they know about the lives of a large percentage of their ancestors.
In the 21st century, however, with growing access to the internet and the rise of social media, more people document their daily lives than ever before. Facebook has 1.23 billion users. If it were a country, it would be the world’s second-largest. An archaeologist working with the remains of the Digital Age in the year 4415 will be confronted by an overwhelming amount of data about the everyday lives of normal individuals, such that even defining “normal” could only be done through averaging the data.
With the ancient world we have far less data and are therefore able to generalize more freely. But occasionally, someone like Jehoishma comes back from the depths of time to remind us that we are still generalizing about the life experiences of millions of ordinary unique people.
 Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1968), 28-30.
 The migration of Jews to Egypt is mentioned in Jeremiah 41:16-44:30, and the Elephantine colony is also mentioned in Isaiah 49:12.
 Document B36, in Bezalel Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 205-211; Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 142, 205-208.
 Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 200-201.
Ananiah’s title was lehen, a cognate of the Akkadian lahhinu known from Neo-Assyrian documents. Tapamet was identified as a lahenah, the feminine form of lehen. B45 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 246.
 B37, B38 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 212-218.
 B39 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 220-222.
 B37, B38 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 212-218; Cornelius von Pilgrim, “Tempel des Jahu und ‘Straße des Königs’ – Ein Konflikt in der Späten Persesrzeit auf Elephantine,” 303-317 in Egypt – Temple of the Whole World, edited by Sibylle Meyer (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 308.
 Werner Kaiser, Elephantine: The Ancient Town (Cairo: German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo, 1998), 27-38; Stephen G. Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67, No. 1 (March 2004): 8.
 B40, B41 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 223-236; Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 62-72, 87-94.
 B20-B22 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 145-150; Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 284-291.
 B43-B45 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 237-251.
 B45-46 in Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 246-253.
 Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 294-297.
 Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 1-2; von Pilgrim, “Tempel des Jahu und ‘Straße des Königs’,” 303-317 in Egypt – Temple of the Whole World.
Image Sources: © Todd Bolen/BiblePlaces.com (http://www.bibleplaces.com/aswan.htm); Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/3488/Marriage_Document/set/0b57252eac1505a84ded07a9a040c176); Olaf Tausch/Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assuan_Elephantine_Chnumtempel_17.JPG); Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/60729/Freedom_for_Tamut_and_Yehoishema/); Graphic by Author, based on Von Pilgrim, “Tempel des Yahu und Strass de Koenigs,” 308; Johan Addicks/Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egyptian_sculpture_IMG_0573.JPG); Photos © Christopher Jones 2012-2014; Claude Valette/Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KhnoumTempleElephantine.jpg); Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/60728/Ananiah_Gives_Yehoishema_a_House/); Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/60732/Receipt_for_a_Grain_Loan); Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/60732/Receipt_for_a_Grain_Loan).
Article © Christopher Jones 2015.