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The Merneptah Stele: Earliest evidence for Israel in Canaan?

April 21, 2011

Israel In Canaan

The Merneptah Stele is a pillar erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, recording his conquests in 13th century BCE Canaan.[1]  Among them, Merneptah records the Israelites, proving they were established in Canaan by then.[2]

Challenges

A minority of Biblical scholars have challenged the reading of the Merneptah Stele,[3] suggesting that it does not refer to the Israelites; representatives of this view include Gösta Werner Ahlström and Diana Edelman, [4] Thomas Thompson, [5] and Niels Peter Lemche.[6]

Scholarly Consensus

Rainey[7] has dismissed Ahlstrom and Edelman’s re-interpretation, and objected that they do not have the relevant training to read the inscription reliably.[8] Dever insists that the Stele ‘proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was a distinct ethnic group in Palestine before 1200, one that not only called itself “Israelite” but was known to the Egyptians as “Israelite.”’[9]

Whitelam acknowledges ‘It is well known that the Merneptah stela represents the earliest reference to Israel outside of the biblical texts’.[10] Oblath notes the stele ‘provides direct archaeological support for the early presence of Israelites in Canaan’.[11] Miller (II), states ‘The Israelite community may have been in Palestine before 1200 – the Merneptah Stele is evidence that it clearly was’.[12] [13]

Gottwald views the Merneptah Stele as part of the archaeological evidence demonstrating the authenticity of the Biblical description of the early Israelite population.[14] Long says ‘The text of the Merneptah stele portrays Israel as strong and associated with other powers and with major city-states of Canaan’. [15]

Miller and Hayes say the inscription ‘testifies to the existence of a population group, bearing the name “Israel”’. [16] Finkelstein and Silberman understand the Merneptah Stele as indicating ‘indicate that some group known as Israel was already in Canaan by that time’.[17]

Schley says ‘the Merneptah stele definitely identifies a non-settled group in Palestine as ‘Israel’ during the last decades of the thirteenth century’.[18] Long cites Edelman’s reference to acceptance of the Merneptah Stele as a reference to ‘some entity called Israel somewhere in Palestine in the late 13th century’, as part of a growing consensus on early Israelite history.[19]


[1] ‘The Merneptah Stele, also known as the Israel Stele, bears the oldest known written reference to Israel. Engraved with its current text in 1207 B.C.E., the 7.5-foot-high, black granite monolith was discovered in the ruins of Merneptah’s funerary temple in western Thebes in 1896. Most of its hieroglyphic text celebrates Merneptah’s defeat of the Libyans and their Sea Peoples allies in his fifth regnal year. The text’s last three lines, however, briefly mention a campaign into Canaan against the background of a pacified eastern Mediterranean political situation: “The rulers lie prostrate saying ‘Peace’; none raises his head among the Nine Bows [Egypt’s traditional enemies, by now a literary convention]. Plundering is for Tehenu [Libya]. Hatti is at peace. Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe. Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yano’am was made non-existent. Israel is laid waste, (and) his seed is not. Hurru [Canaan] is become a widow for Egypt. All lands are united in peace.” The mention of Israel appears slightly to the left of center in the second line from the bottom. The glyphs include determinatives—signs indicating a word’s category—that classify Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano’am as city-states; but the determinative attached to Israel identifies it as a people, apparently not yet possessing a distinct city.’, Shanks, ‘Questions & Comments’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[2]Merneptah stele (ca 1225 B.C.) obviously establishes the people of Israel in Palestine and shows that they were known by that name in the 13th century. (Though some see here instead a reference to Jezreel, rather than Israel, the reading ya-si-r-˒i-ra seems clearly to indicate Israel; see W. F. Albright, Vocalization of the Egyptian Syllabic Orthography [1934], p. 34.)’, Lee,

Israel’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised’, pp. 907-908 (1992).

[3] ‘Revisionist scholars who do not accept the traditional reconstruction of the early history of Israel attempt to dismiss the reference to Israel in this text.’, Mazar, ‘The Israelite Settlement’, in Schmidt (ed.), ‘The Quest for the Historical Israel’, p. 93 (2007).

[4] ‘Sadly, one must make passing mention here of an attempt by G. W. Ahlstrom and Diana Edelman† to interpret “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele as a geographical entity (namely the central hill country of Canaan), despite the hieroglyphic determinative indicating that it denotes a people or tribe, an ethnic entity. In addition, Ahlstrom wants to abandon the correct reading, “Israel is desolated, his seed is not” for his own concoction: “Israel is laid waste, his grain is destroyed.”’, Rainey, ‘Scholars Disagree: Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[5] ‘ Hjelm and Thompson stress the poetic nature of the inscription, and suggest alternative identifications for ‘Israel’.’, Satterthwaite, P., & McConville, G. (2007). Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 2: The Histories (188–196).

[6] ‘He contends that Merneptah’s Israel may be simply a geographical designation or a political designation of an ethnic designation.’, Shanks, ‘Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: from Solomon to the golden Dome’, p. 154 (2007).

[7] Professor Emeritus of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and expert in Semitic.

[8]The phrase concerning the destruction of seed is a well-known Egyptian idiom in which “seed” means progeny, just as in the various Biblical passages about the “seed” of Abraham. Sometimes the determinative in Egyptian hieroglyphics for “seed” is the male genitals. Even though that determinative is missing from “seed” in the Merneptah Stele, the idiom always refers to progeny. Ahlstrom and Edelman have simply demonstrated that Biblical scholars untrained in Egyptian epigraphy should not make amateurish attempts at interpretation. A final qualification: By this demonstration, I do not mean to say that the “Israel” of the Merneptah Stele necessarily includes or is the equivalent of the 12-tribe nation depicted in the Bible. Some of the later tribes arrived in Canaan from different directions and perhaps at different times. However, the Merneptah Stele leaves no doubt that an ethnic group called “Israel” did exist in 1207 B.C.E.’, Rainey, ‘Scholars Disagree: Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[9] ‘First of all, we have not only the biblical tradition that calls them Israelites, but we also have the Merneptah Stele that proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was a distinct ethnic group in Palestine before 1200, one that not only called itself “Israelite” but was known to the Egyptians as “Israelite.” That need not be the same as later biblical Israel; but the label “Israelite,” which I want to apply to these early Iron I sites, is not one that I invented. It’s attested in the literary tradition, both biblical and non-biblical.’, Dever, ‘How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite’, in Shanks (ed.), ‘The Rise of Ancient Israel’, p. 54 (1992).

[10]Whitelam, ‘The Identity of Early Israel: The Realignment and Transformation of Late Palestine’, in Exum,. Vol. 40: ‘The Historical Books’, The Biblical Seminar, volume 40, p. (1997).

[11] ‘Erected in the late 13th century B.C.E., the stele provides direct archaeological support for the early presence of Israelites in Canaan. It is also the earliest extrabiblical text to mention Israel.’, Oblath, ‘The Exodus Itinerary Sites: Their Locations From the Perspective of the Biblical Sources’, Studies in Biblical Literature, volume 55,  p. 10 (2004).

[12] ‘The Israelite community may have been in Palestine before 1200 – the Merneptah Stele is evidence that it clearly was. Perhaps it was present quite some time before 1200, in fact.’, Miller (II), ‘Chieftains of the Highland Clans: A History of Israel in the Twelfth and Eleventh Centuries B.C.’, The Bible in Its World, p. xiv (2005).

[13] ‘The Merneptah Stele is direct positive evidence that the term “Israel” was used for some entity in the highlands of Palestine in the parlance of Late Bronze IIb sources’, ibid., p. 2.

[14] ‘What does appear to be established by the Merneptah stela and the archaeology of the highlands is that a population of cultivators and herders, at least some of whom bore the name Israel, lived in the regions of Canaan where the state of Israel subsequently arose, and furthermore that the biblical characterization of this population as politically decentralized and socially linked in village and kin arrangements is authentic’, Gottwald, ‘The Politics of Ancient Israel’, p. 164 (2001).

[15] Long, ‘Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography’, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study Old Testament Series p. 505 (1999).

[16]Thus the inscription testifies to the existence of a population group, bearing the name “Israel” and possibly tribal in structure, living in Canaan about 1230 B.C.E.’, Miller & Hayes, ‘A History of Ancient Israel and Judah’, p. 68 (1986).

[17] ‘Second, and perhaps most important, the earliest mention of Israel in an extrabiblical text was found in Egypt in the stele describing the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah – the son of Ramesses II – in Canaan at the very end of the thirteenth century BCE. The inscription tells of a destructive Egyptian campaign into Canaan, in the course of which a people named Israel were decimated to the extent that the pharaoh boasted that Israel’s “seed is not!” The boast was clearly an empty one, but it did indicate that some group known as Israel was already in Canaan by that time. In fact, dozens of settlements that were linked with the early Israelites appeared in the hill country around that time.’, Finkelstein & Silberman, ‘The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts’, p. 57 (2001).

[18] ‘And contrary to Finkelstein’s assertion that ‘there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence that the Israelite settlement began as early as the 13th century B.C.’, the Merneptah stele definitely identifies a non-settled group in Palestine as ‘Israel’ during the last decades of the thirteenth century.’, Schley, ‘Shiloh: A Biblical City in Tradition and History’, p. 79 (1989).

[19] ‘In a recent volume of the Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament dedicated to the question of the emergence of Israel in Canaan, the volume’s editor, Diana Edelman, points to four areas of growing consensus: (1) that beginning in the Late Bronze Age and continuing through the Iron I period “population shifts and displacements” were taking place in Canaan, the net result of which was “the growth of new settlements in the Cisjordanian highlands”; (2) that “the Merneptah Stele indicates the existence of some entity called Israel somewhere in Palestine in the late 13th century”; (3) that “Israel is somehow to be related to the surge in small settlements in the highlands during the end of the Late Bronze – Iron I periods,” though “how this relationship is to be understood remains problematic”; (4) that “the biblical texts must be used with great caution in reconstructing the history of Israel’s origins and prestate conditions.”’, Long, ‘The Art of Biblical History’, p. 164 (1994).

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3 comments

  1. Wikipedia article seems to agree with G.W. Ahlstrom interpretation of “seed.”


    • Wikipedia is irrelevant.


      • Jonathan Burke fk.t bn pr.t =f



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