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The Earliest Archaeological Reference to the Israelites

The Stele of Merneptah was discovered in 1896 at Thebes. It is dated to his 5th year and refers to “Israel” as one of the entities in the region of Canaan that Merneptah boasts of having destroyed. This implies that Israel was already a significant entity in the land at this time (even though Merneptah falsely claims to have defeated it).

Since the time of its discovery, it has been viewed as the earliest reference to the people of Israel outside the Bible. (But see the last section below.)

Ramesses II reigned from 1279-1213 BCE and his son Merneptah reigned from 1213-1203. (All dates are approximate.)

Archaeology has shown that Ramesses II was responsible for building a vast city called Pi-Ramesse (perhaps alluded to at Ex. 1:11). This building activity would have required vast amounts of laborers and brick. Many believe he was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites in the first chapter of the book of Exodus. His death at 2:23 would have made Merneptah the Pharaoh at the time of the plagues and Yam Suf.

The pertinent section of the Stele reads:

Not one lifts his head among the Nine Bows.

Destruction for Tehenu! Hatti is pacified;

Canaan is plundered with every evil;

Ashkelon is taken; Gezer is captured;

Yanoam is made non-existent;

Israel lies desolate; its seed is no more;

Hurru has become a widow for To-Meri;

All the lands in their entirety are at peace…

Comments:

It is ironic that in this first reference to the people of Israel, our people are (falsely) described as having been destroyed! (The name “Israel” for an individual is known long before the Merneptah Stele.)

Admittedly, the actual reading in the Stele is: ysri3r (in Egyptian hieroglyphs). The Egyptian dialect at that time did not have an “L” sound; both the “R” and “L” sounds were written with the Egyptian “R.” (The Philistines are referred to as prst in Egyptian inscriptions from this era.)

The Stele was probably constructed after a successful military expedition into Eretz Yisrael by Merneptah’s forces (perhaps led by Merneptah himself).

Nine Bows, etc.: One scholar has written: [T]he “Nine Bows” are the traditionally hostile neighbors of Egypt; the Tehenu are one of the Libyan peoples; Hatti is the land of the Hittites, now Asiatic Turkey; Ashkelon and Gezer are two southerly Canaanite towns; Yanoam is a town in the north of the country; Hurru, the land of the Hurrians, who are the Biblical Horites, is an Egyptian term for Palestine and Syria.” To-Meri is another name for Egypt.

Canaan: This may be another term for Gaza, and not the land of Canaan.

Seed: The Egyptian word can mean either human seed or grain. If the meaning is “grain,” the implication may be that Israel was no longer a military threat to Egypt.

 

The Stele’s Relevance
To The Date of the Exodus

If the Exodus was followed by a 40 year period of wandering in the desert, and all of the Israelites entered Israel in the same stage, it would be impossible for Merneptah to have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus (=plagues, etc.), since, on the simplest reading of the stele, there was already an entity called Israel in the land of Canaan in the 5th year of his reign.

One solution is to postulate that some Israelites never went down to Egypt, and that these are the Israelites referred to by Merneptah. There is perhaps some evidence in Tanach for such an approach. See, e.g., I Chron. 7:20-24. The events described here imply that Ephraim and his sons and daughter were living in Israel, not Egypt.

Other solutions view the Israelites referred to by Merneptah as Israelites who left Egypt before the enslavement began, or who were enslaved but left Egypt in an earlier wave. Rabbi Hertz took the first of these approaches. Here are his comments at p. 395:

  • [If the reference in the Stele is to Israelites] then it refers to the
  • settlements in Palestine by Israelites from Egypt before the Exodus…
  • From various notices in I Chronicles we see that, during
  • the generations preceding the Oppression, the Israelites did not remain
  • confined to Goshen or even to Egypt proper, but spread into the
  • southern Palestinian territory…When the bulk of the
  • nation had left Egypt and was wandering in the Wilderness, these Israelite
  • settlers had thrown off their Egyptian allegiance. And it is these settlements
  • which Merneptah boasts of having devastated during his Canaanite
  • campaign. There is, therefore, no cogent reason for dissenting from the…
  • view that the Pharaoh of the Oppression was Rameses II, with
  • his son Merneptah as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

If we view the entity “Israel” in the Stele as representing the body of Israelites who came out of Egypt in the main Exodus, the matter of the determinative sign used for “Israel” becomes significant. The name “Israel” is marked with a determinative sign that differs from the determinative sign used for all the other city-states and lands in this section. All of the others are accompanied by the determinative sign for city-state/land/region. In contrast, “Israel” is accompanied by the determinative sign for “people.”

This could mean that the people of Israel were viewed as having arrived in Israel only recently and as having not yet settled down. This interpretation of the sign would support the view that the Exodus occurred only shortly before the time of the Stele, i.e., in the 13th century BCE. For example, Nahum Sarna writes: “[I]t may be concluded that… [at the time of the Stele] the people of Israel were located in Canaan, but had not yet settled down within definable borders. Its presence there was of recent origin, so that the Exodus would have taken place in the course of the thirteenth century BCE.” Exploring Exodus, p. 13.

For more on the Stele of Merneptah, see M. Hasel, “Israel in the Merneptah Stela,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 296 (1994).

 

A Possible Reference to “Israel” Which May be Earlier

The details of this relief on a pedestal are in the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2:4 (2010). The article (available online) is titled: “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687.” The article has three authors, one of whom is Manfred Görg. Görg had previously written in German about this pedestal in 2001. The more thorough 2010 article is in English, and based on better readings of the relief.

On this pedestal, we have a name similar to “Israel.” Like the Merneptah Stele, the name is in the context of references to Ashkelon and Canaan. This suggests that the name here is probably a reference to “Israel.” But it is spelled with an Egyptian letter that has a “shin” sound. (The Merneptah Stele had the “sin” sound, matching the שׂ of ישׂראל. Of course, the “sin” and “shin” sounds are not that different. Also, Israel is called “Yeshurun” a few times in Tanach.)

Unlike the Merneptah Stele, there is no name of any king on this relief. It has been suggested that it dates to the 13th century BCE. But there are certain archaic elements to all its place name spellings. For this reason, it has been theorized that it may have been copied from something written perhaps 200 years earlier. If so, we would have a reference to a people called “Ishrir” (=Ishril) in Eretz Yisrael near the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. This would have major ramifications for the date of the Exodus if the reference would be to the main group of Israelites who had been enslaved in Egypt.

P.S. The location “Mei-Neftoach” is mentioned at Josh. 15:9 and 18:15. It has been suggested that this name derives from Merneptah. (I thank Rabbi Richie Wolpoe for pointing this out to me.)


I can be reached at [email protected] issue of the date of the Exodus is a complex topic. I wrote about it at seforimblog.com in 2011. The article is no longer formatted properly there. But I can send my original article to anyone who asks.

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