The earliest reference to Israel outside the Bible is found in the Merneptah Stele, an ancient inscription in which Merneptah, an Egyptian pharaoh, describes his conquests of Canaan. Merneptah said that Israel was one of the people he conquered. Merneptah’s Stele is dated to c. 1210 B.C.
Recently, three scholars, Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, published an article in which they say that a broken statue pedestal contains a hieroglyphic that should be read “Israel.”
Two articles have come to my attention dealing with this inscription. The first article was published in the Fall 2005 issue of Bible and Spade. Below is an excerpt from the article:
Two recent articles provide additional support for the Biblical model for Israel’s entry into Canaan. The first deals with another apparent reference to Israel in an Egyptian text (Görg 2001). A column base fragment, now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, is inscribed with a portion of a name list. The surviving names are Ashkelon, Canaan and a third name that is only partially preserved. Görg interprets the third name as Israel. He dates the inscription to the reign of Ramesses II, earlier than the Merenptah Stela.
Even more important is the fact that Görg maintains, based on the spellings, that the names were copied from an even earlier name list from around the time of Amenhotep II, who ruled ca. 1453-1419 or 1427-1401 BC, depending upon which Egyptian chronology one uses. This is earth-shattering with regard to the date and nature of the Israelite entry into Canaan! If Görg is right, it would place Israel in Canaan at about the time of the Biblical date for the Conquest. But, like nearly all important archaeological discoveries, there is an element of uncertainty about Görg’s conclusions. Since the name of Israel is only partially preserved, and the spelling is slightly different than on the Merenptah Stela, there is room for doubt. To date, however, no one has challenged Görg’s interpretations.
The second article is a brief reference to the hieroglyphic inscription published in Bible History Daily. The article concludes by saying that “[if] Görg, van der Veen and Theis are right, their discovery will shed important light on the beginnings of ancient Israel.”
The links to the two articles are as follows:
Associate for Biblical Research: “Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Conquest.”
Bible History Daily: “Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel?”
There is no doubt that this is a significant discovery. If the reading of the inscription proves to be correct, then we have another archaeological evidence that will shed light on the origins of Israel.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary