Egypt, Israel, and the Merneptah Stele

Egypt plays a central role throughout the Bible, and particularly in the foundational narratives of Joseph, the Israelite enslavement, and the Exodus of the Israelites. With the influence these narratives have on the shaping of not only of Judaism and the Jewish people, but on western culture and religion as a whole, one would expect to find ample evidence for the existence of Israel in Egypt during the Bronze Age. Yet, despite the centrality of these events, there is no direct evidence outside of the Bible to support the existence of Israel in Egypt.

However, as has often been noted, the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. There is much that is absent from the historical record in Egypt. Furthermore, there is actually indirect support for the existence of Semitic peoples and influence in Egypt during the Bronze Age that may or may not corroborate the accounts recorded in the biblical text. This indirect support includes the Amarna letters, Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus Harris, Beni Hassan tomb, Karnak reliefs, possibly the stele of Ramesses II, and various scarabs and inscriptions.

Although this evidence does not directly support the accounts recorded in the Biblical text, they do help establish credence for some historical details that may have been retained in the collective memory of Israel and later recorded in the Biblical accounts.[1]

EGYPTIAN EVIDENCE FOR ISRAEL

The issue of direct evidence all changes by Iron Age I, when the Israelites (or proto-Israelites)[2] are already settling in Canaan.

During this period we begin to find direct archaeological evidence for the existence of a particular people group, the early Israelites, in the central Judean hills, and the development of a uniquely ‘proto-Israelite’ material culture;[3] which includes enclosed settlements with ‘Four Roomed Houses,’ collared rimed pottery, hewn cisterns, terraced farming, and other material culture in addition to a unique ideology.

This is important because it establishes the reality of a people known as the Israelites in Canaan by the 1200’s BCE. Furthermore, cultures do not crop up overnight. So if one can find direct evidence for Israel in Iron I, it is quite plausible to assume the existence of the Israelites at least back into the Late Bronze Age.

MERNEPTAH STELE

The earliest and most direct reference we have to Israel outside the biblical narrative is the Victory Stele of the 19th Dynasty Egyptian king Merneptah.[4] Also known as the “Israel Stele,” it was erected in Thebes around 1210 BCE and records the victorious exploits of an Egyptian military campaign in Canaan, and lists specific enemies that were defeated. The Merneptah Stele is a black granite slab over 7.5 feet high,[5] and was discovered in 1896 in an expedition led by early archaeologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie. The particularly relevant portion of the Stele reads:

Plundered is Canaan with every evil;

Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;

Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;

Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;

Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!

All lands together, they are pacified.[6]

Whether the events described are fictive or real, what is clear is that by the 13th century BCE, a people called Israel existed, and that the king of Egypt not only knew about them, but felt it was worth boasting about their defeat.[7]

Additionally, the specific way Israel is mentioned is also significant. According to Hershel Shanks, “Unpronounced signs, called determinatives, attached to the place names in this section of the stele indicate that Ashkelon, Gezer and Yonoam were cities and that Canaan was a foreign land; the determinative for Israel, however, indicates that the term referred to a people rather than a place.”[8]

Archaeologist William Dever further explains[9] that the existence of the Merneptah Stele is of extreme importance and tells us four things:

  1. By 1210 BCE there existed in Canaan a cultural and political entity called “Israel” that was known to the Egyptians by that name.
  2. Israel was well enough established to be perceived as a threat.
  3. This Israel did not comprise of an organized state like others in Canaan, but was considered a loosely affiliated people group.
  4. Israel was not located in the lowlands, but in the more remote central hill region.

In summary, the Merneptah Stele contains a wealth of information, and is the earliest evidence we have outside the Bible for the existence of a people known as Israel in the 13th century BCE.

 

 


[1] Baruch Halpern, “The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality?” The Rise of Ancient Israel (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), 89-91.

[2] William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 194-200.

[3] William G. Dever, “How to Tell an Israelite from a Canaanite.” The Rise of Ancient Israel (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), 30.

[4] William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 118.

[5] Hershel Shanks, “Defining the Problems.” The Rise of Ancient Israel (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), 17.

[6] James B. Pritchard, Ed. The Ancient Near East (Princeton Press, 1973), 231.

[7] Ibid. Shanks, “Defining the Problems,” 18.

[8] Ibid. 18.

[9] Ibid. 206.

 

 

About Rabbi Joshua

I’m a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband … not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I’m just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Santa Monica, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin’ hot human rights attorney… and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.

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