Nehemiah 2:17-19 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (ESV)
Many of the Jews who survived the destruction of Jerusalem and were not deported to Babylon sought refuge from the Babylonians in the land of Egypt. Some of the Jews settled in Elephantine (ancient Abu, or Yebu), an island in the Nile River in southern Egypt. A group of late 5th century BC papyri documents were discovered on the island in 1907-8. Written by a Jewish community, the stash included letters, divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other legal and business matters.
One letter is of particular note. The “Petition to Bagoas” is a letter written by Yedaniah bar-Gemariah on November 25, 407 BC (the 17th year of King Darius) to Bagoas, the Persian governor of Judea, asking for assistance in the rebuilding of a Jewish temple in Elephantine that had been damaged by Egyptian priests in the community. On the reverse side at the very end it mentions another letter that had been sent to the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria: “We have also set forth the whole matter in a letter in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. Furthermore, Arsames (the Persian satrap) knew nothing of all that was perpetrated on us. On the twentieth of Marheshwan, the seventeenth year of Darius the King.”
It’s interesting that these Jews even had a temple since God said sacrifices could only be made in Jerusalem (Deut 12:10-14). Strangely enough, the religious authorities in Jerusalem seem to have approved of it because we have a letter from them giving the Jews in Elephantine permission to offer grain and incense offerings, and to repair the temple (while no permission was given for animal sacrifices, the Jews offered them anyway).
- The Petition to Bagoas confirms the historical accuracy of Nehemiah’s account regarding the leadership of Samaria during the middle of 5th century BC.