The Merneptah Stele, also known as the Israel Stele, is the earliest known reference, outside of the Old Testament, to the existence of Israel (Alstrom and Edelman, 1985). It is a tome inscribed by Merneptah, an Egyptian king who conquered Canaan in the 12th century BC. Its significance lies in its mention of the nation or people of Israel in its coda, and as such has gained the title “The Israel Stele,” despite the nations’ relative unimportance in the overall text. In this paper, the examination of early Israel through the Mernaptah Stele will be discussed, as well as how this knowledge is gleaned from the structure of the stele.
Mentions of Israel in the Stele are very brief; it is only mentioned once, alongside Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon, all in the same stanza as states which were defeated by Merneptah in Canaan. “Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.” Its status as a defeated nation is evidenced by its description of being “bare of seed,” which was typical at the time for a conqueror to state of a conquered nation or people. However, the fact that Israel has twice as much mentioned of it than the other states is somewhat significant, as it implied some sort of significance, or at least a semblance of specificity where his actions regarding Israel are concerned (Alstrom and Edelman, 1985).
The particular stanza of the Merneptah Stele which mentioned Israel follows a very specific ring structure of rhythmic poetry, and reads as follows:
The princes are prostrate, saying “Peace!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu, Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon;
Seized upon is Gezer;
Yenoam is made as that which does not exist.
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Kharu has become a widow because of Egypt!
All lands together are pacified” (Ahlstrom and Edelman, p. 60).
The stanza is in a ring structure, meaning that the first and last couplets of the stanza are the most generalized, with the details becoming more specific as the text moves toward the center. The enemies of Egypt in general are outlined in the first and last parts, but in the middle there are specific territories named, particularly Israel.
One of the first things to be noticed is the potential assessment of Israel’s location, based on the coda in which Israel appears. Due to the structure of the coda, and the order in which the conquered nations are listed, it is reasonable to assume where Israel is located. Hatti is mentioned; at the time that meant Asia Minor and Syria. Kharu is meant to be the Egyptian parts of Palestine and Syria. From this we can say that Kharu and Hatti together are meant to be the whole Syrian-Palestinian region. By that same definition, Israel and Canaan can also be parts of the Palestinian area, splitting them up into two sections that make up the entirety of Cisjordanian Palestine. These segments move closer and closer into the Syria-Palestine region, demonstrating the structure by which one can infer the location of Israel (Alstrom and Edelman, 1985).
When discussing Israel, it seems evident that the stele is not talking about the nation of Israel, but of Israelites as a people; Egyptian hieroglyphs for Israel are the same ones that are used to describe foreigners, ones who do not belong to a particular nation. At the same time, it is probable that this particular usage carries no significance, since the author is not very discriminating between using determinatives for places and foreign people (Alstrom and Edelman, 1985).
There is reasonable evidence to believe that the Israel mentioned within this stele is, in fact, the premonarchic Israel mentioned in the Bible. Unless there is another entity that goes by that name at that time, it is entirely reasonable to assume that it means the nation of Israel, however, we are not entirely sure how Israel was formed during the time of Merneptah’s reign. What’s more, there might not have been one single tribe to make up the nation of Israel; all evidence points to the existence of a tribal confederation made up of many different tribes (Bimson, 1991).
The placement of the events of this stele in regards to the Exodus is a bit nebulous, but there is reason to believe that Merneptah’s conquering of Israel is one part of that event. In order to determine whether or not the Exodus and the events of the Merneptah Stele are the same thing, one needs to figure out what dates both events took place. If they match up, then they are indeed the same event. Egyptologists do believe that the Exodus happened while Merneptah was in power. An examination of another papyrus that was written to Merneptah, describing events such as the Shasu occupying the Crown lands in Goshen, which is where the Israelites were before the Exodus. As a result, they must have had the Exodus before this papyrus, which was written in the eighth year of Merneptah’s rule (Brown, 1917).
The Israelite exodus must have taken place between the fifth and eighth year of Merneptah’s reign, as the Libyans invaded Egypt in that fifth year, making conditions favorable for the Israelites to flee the land of Goshen. The frontier of that land would not be as well guarded, making it a prime opportunity to flee that the Israelites would have taken. Considering these factors, it is highly probable that the Israelite Exodus and the invasion of Libyan coincided with one another (Brown, 1917).
Perhaps the most important part of the interpretation of the Merneptah Stele is the line itself wherein Israel is mentioned – there are many translations of the line, but they all commonly equate to “Israel is desolated, his seed is shot” (Brown, p. 18). What this means is that the level of distress and conquering was so extensive that Merneptah ruined their cropland, so their ‘seed,’ or crop, is gone, or ‘shot.’ This added to their distress, for they could not make bread or support themselves in any way. Another way to interpret it is that the Israelites were so devastated that they would no longer have any descendants (offspring, or seed) (Brown, 1917).
There is only one other possible thing that the name Israel in the Merneptah Stele could refer to, and that is a personal name that has been attributed to several figures among historical texts of the time. However, using it in a collective sense as Merneptah did could only mean the nation of Israel. Referring to Israel as “it” when saying that “its grain” or seed is gone means that it could not be an individual, and it is rather unique when comparing this longer sentence with the other sentences about Canaan, with which Israel is most commonly connected in interpretations of this text (Hasel, 1994).
One thing to consider when interpreting the Merneptah Stele is that it might not be meant to be considered as an accurate historical portrayal of how things happened, but rather as a “victory song” for King Merneptah. The poetry inherent within the stele is evidence that it should not be taken completely literally, and as such there might be some embellishment on the part of Merneptah as to his accomplishments, or the placement and time of events. The triumph over the Israelites or any other Asian countries likely lie somewhere between real and figurative – the Libyan victory is presented as more and more proof that Merneptah is great, which is, in and of itself, the point of the entire stele (Hjelm).
Merneptah’s justification for taking out the Libyan chief is one of mythic proportions; he is merely evil, and the good pharaoh must eliminate him and raze his lands to the ground. This involves Israel, and that is one of the reasons why Merneptah made sure Israel’s seed was shot. This stele paints Merneptah as a vengeful, heroic figure who has completely control of fate, and possesses infinite power. He is a divine savior, and that context is how the razing of Libya (and Israel by extension) is justified (Hjelm, 2002).
What’s more, this is only one of an entire sequence of Merenptah centric records; in light of all of his conquests, he had them all written down in these steles. It should be noted that Israel stands for more than just a random name attributed to a people in this instance, but that the Israelites existed as a people and official presence in the area, as did Gezer, Yenoam and Ashkelon, lending them incredible legitimacy through the placement of Israel in the stanza of Merenptah’s stele (Kitchen, 2004).
Merneptah’s campaign to Canaan is directly correlated to the conquering of many lands in its vicinity, most notably Gezer and Ashkelon, as well as Israel. Merneptah’s reasoning behind this was to gain more land, and create an “Egyptian highway” throughout the Syria-Palestine area. Given his predecessor, Ramses II, and his rather lax foreign policy and tendency to remain uninvolved, Merneptah felt it necessary to make sure international trade routes were secured by annexing those territories in its way. This was what led to the military campaign that the Merneptah Stele talks about, moving all the way to Canaan (Singer, 1988).
While there is good reason to believe that Merneptah is referring to the state of Israel, there are just as many reasons to disbelieve its sincerity. For one, there is the aforementioned embellishment of his accomplishments for the sake of drama and poetry. It is possible that his encounters with Israel were exaggerated, and that he was most likely just boasting of his success against a good portion of the highlands, or mask its potential failure. Given the use of chariotry in the Song of Deborah, it can be inferred that Merneptah may have been boasting, as his chariots would not have been very efficient, due to the decision to leave out any mention of owning or conquering Israelite land holdings (Leuchter, 2010).
Discussing the origins of ancient Israel is a subject for great debate – the poetry found in the Merneptah Stele can be interpreted in a number of varied ways, and it is nearly impossible to find out the truth, given the lack of archaeological evidence. There are those who believe that the Merneptah Stele absolutely depicts Israel as a nation-state, and there are those who believe that the Israel of Merneptah’s time and the Israel found in the Bible are, essentially, two entirely different entities. This ambiguity is furthered by the fact that Canaan, as described, is incredibly ill-defined; all that is known is that it is some part of Egyptian Asia, and may or may not encompass Israelite territory, or the other lands the Merneptah conquered (Sparks, 1998).
It is reasonable to assume that the mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele is, in fact, the Israel of the Bible. Its location and date give us detailed clues as to where Israel originated, and its structure allows for an indication that the Exodus may have taken place at the same time as Merneptah’s Stele was written. Israel is most likely within Canaan, as a nomadic band of tribal conglomerates and not a nation state, as it would later exist. The meaning of the word ‘seed’ can be inferred to mean grain or crops, showing Israel’s status as an agriculturally based economy at the time of this stele being written. It also must have been large enough of a nation to merit mention in the reports of an Egyptian king, as he would be proud of conquering it (Hasel, 1994).
Ahlstrom, G.W., Edelman, D., "Merneptah’s Israel", Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44
Bimson, J.J., "Merneptah’s Israel and Recent Theories of Israelite Origins", Journal for the
Study of the Old Testament 49 (1991) 3-29.
Brown, Hanbury, "The Exodus recorded on the Stele of Menephtah", Journal of Egyptian
Archaeology 4:1 (1917) 16-20.
Hasel, M.G., "Israel in the Merneptah Stela", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental
Research 296 (1994) 45-61.
Hjelm, Ingrid, Thompson, Thomas L., "The Victory Song of Merneptah, Israel and the People of
Palestine", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 27 (2002) 3-18.
Kitchen, Kenneth, "The Victories of Merneptah, and the Nature of their Record", Journal for
the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2004) 259-272.
Leuchter, Mark, ""Why Tarry the Wheels of his Chariot"? (Judg 5,28): Canaanite Chariots And
echoes of Egypt in the Song of Deborah", Biblica 91 (2010) 256-268.
Singer, Ithamar, "Merneptah's Campaign to Canaan and the Egyptian Occupation of the Southern
Coastal Plain of Palestine in the Ramesside Period", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269 (1988) 1-10.
Sparks, Kenton L., Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake 1998) 94-124.