Yeb, cradle of feminism?
By Jill Kamil
Little is known of the vibrant Judaic community which already existed on the island of Elephantine when Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BC. What we do know, however, is that they had a Jewish temple to serve their religious needs.
This document attests that a woman could readily divorce her husband, with or without his consent. From other documents, we know that a woman could exercise this right by "standing up in congregation and merely declaring 'I divorce my husband'." Thus we learn that, at least in sixth century BC Yeb, Jewish women were not separated from their men in congregations, had property rights, and could take the initiative in and consummate a divorce simply by declaring publicly their intention. Mitbahiah must have done well in her investments, for other documents refer to the considerable fortune she lent to her father over the course of the next 13 years. In partial payment of his debt to his daughter, Masheiah deeded her a house he had acquired: "I give it to Mitbahiah, my daughter, in return for the goods which she gave me while I was an inspector of the fortress."
The extraordinarily progressive social mores of this ancient Judaic society are confirmed by subsequent documents concerning Mitbahiah. She in fact did divorce Jeremiah, and subsequently married Pi', an Egyptian official in Aswan, even temporarily adopting his religion. The Judaic community evidently disdained to recognise such a marriage, for none of the witnesses to the marriage contract had Hebrew (or Aramaic) names. The marriage lasted for what must have been little more than a honeymoon, and certainly less than 12 months, for Mitbahiah's next marriage was celebrated in the same year. Pi' paid quite a price for marrying a Jewish "princess". All of Pi's property was divided between them, but the property that was in Mitbahiah's name remained with her!
Interesting. I've wondered for some time what the divorce laws were like in Egypt generally during the fifth century B.C.E. Were the laws of the Elephantine Jews untypically liberal for women? Can anyone tell me?