The Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele is an important archaeological discovery because the name “Israel” appears in the Stele. This is the first time the name “Israel” appears outside the Old Testament.

The information below was taken from the article on the Merneptah Stele published in Wikipedia:

The Stele

The Merneptah Stele-also known as the Israel Stele or the Victory Stele of Merneptah-is an inscription by the ancient Egyptian king Merneptah (reign: 1213 to 1203 BC) discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes, and now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The text is largely an account of Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their allies, but the last 3 of the 28 lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt’s imperial possessions. The stele is sometimes referred to as the “Israel Stela” because a majority of scholars translate a set of hieroglyphs in line 27 as “Israel.” Alternative translations have been advanced but are not widely accepted.

The stela represents the earliest textual reference to Israel and the only reference from ancient Egypt. It is one of four known inscriptions, from the Iron Age, that date to the time of and mention ancient Israel, under this name, the others being the Mesha Stele, the Tel Dan Stele, and the Kurkh Monolith. As a result, some consider the stele to be Flinders Petrie’s most famous discovery, an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.

The Inscription

The inscription deals with Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans, but the last 3 of the 28 lines shift to Canaan:

The princes are prostrate, saying, “Peace!”
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

The “nine bows” is a term the Egyptians used to refer to their enemies; the actual enemies varied according to time and circumstance. Hatti and Hurru are Syro-Palestine, Canaan and Israel are smaller units, and Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are cities within the region; according to the stele, all these entities fell under the rule of the Egyptian empire at that time.

The Interpretation

It is not clear, however, just who this Israel was or where they were located. The reference to Israel in the stele has spawned two major schools of thought. The traditional schools of thought identify the ‘Israel’ in the stele with the Biblical Israel. However, the inquiries of the miminalist school of thought which doubts the biblical narrative’s antiquity have impacted on the interpretation of the stele.

For the “who”, if those depicted on the battle reliefs of Karnak are the Israelites, then Merneptah’s Israelites are therefore Canaanites, because they are depicted in Canaanite costume; if, on the other hand, the Karnak reliefs do not show Merneptah’s campaigns, then the stele’s Israelites may be “Shasu”, a term used by the Egyptians to refer to nomads and marauders.

Similarly, if Merneptah’s claim to have destroyed Israel’s “seed” means that he destroyed its grain supply, then Israel can be taken to be a settled, crop-growing people; if, however, it means he killed Israel’s progeny, then Israel can be taken to be pastoralists, i.e., Shasu. The normative Egyptian use of “wasted, bare of seed” was as a repeated, formulaic phrase to declare victory over a defeated nation or people group whom the Egyptian army conquered and had literally destroyed their grain supply in the specific geographic region that they inhabited.

Michael G. Hasel, arguing that prt on the stele meant grain, suggested that “Israel functioned as an agriculturally based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century BCE” and this in some degree of contrast to nomadic “Shasu” pastoralists in the region. Others disagree that prt meant grain, and Edward Lipinski wrote that “the “classical” opposition of nomadic shepherds and settled farmers does not seem to suit the area concerned”. Hasel also says that this does not suggest that the Israelites were an urban people at this time, nor does it provide information about the actual social structure of the people group identified as Israel.

Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson writes that “this name in the Merneptah inscription of the late thirteenth-century might conceivably understand it as the name of a region, in polarity with the clearly geographical name: Canaan.” Also, “The group “Israel” … are rather a very specific group among the population of Palestine which bears a name that occurs here for the first time that at a much later stage in Palestine’s history bears a substantially different signification.” For, “References to the Merneptah stele are not really helpful. This text renders for us only the earliest known usage of the name ‘Israel.'” So, “to begin the origins of biblical Israel with Merneptah … on the grounds that we have extra-biblical rather than biblical attestation is willful. These texts are, mirabile dictu, even less relevant than the biblical traditions.”

As for its location, most scholars believe that Merneptah’s Israel must have been in the hill country of central Canaan, but some think it was across the Jordan, others that it was a coalition of Canaanite settlements in the lowlands of the Jezreel valley (the potential Israelites on the walls of Karnak are driving chariots, a weapon of the lowlands rather than the highlands), and others that the inscription gives very little useful information at all.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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