The Merneptah Stele—also known as the Israel Stele or 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.12 The text is largely an account of Merneptah's victory over the Libyans and their allies, but the last few lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt's imperial possessions, and include the first probable instance of the name "Israel" in the historical record.2
The stele was discovered in 1896 by Flinders Petrie in the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. Petrie called upon Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philologist in his archaeological team, to translate the inscription. Spiegelberg was puzzled by one symbol towards the end, that of a people or tribe whom Merneptah (also written Merenptah) had victoriously smitten--"I.si.ri.ar?" Petrie quickly suggested that it read: "Israel!" Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct.1 "Won't the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie. At dinner that evening, Petrie who realized the importance of the find said: "This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found." The news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English papers.1
Now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, the stele is a black granite slab, over 3 meters (10 feet) high, and the inscription says it was carved in the 5th year of Merneptah of the 19th dynasty. Most of the text glorifies Merneptah's victories over enemies from Libya and their Sea People allies, but the final two lines mention a campaign in Canaan, where Merneptah says he defeated and destroyed Ashkalon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel. Fragments of a copy were found in the temple of Karnak, across the Nile from Thebes, and it is possible that some reliefs in the Karnak temple illustrate the events on the stele, but the suggestion is controversial. The stele provides the first probable instance of the name Israel in the historical (or more accurately, archaeological) record, and the only such reference before the mid-9th century BCE.2
Egypt was the dominant power in the region during the long reign of Merneptah's predecessor, Ramesses the Great, but Merneptah and his own successor, Ramesses III, faced major invasions. The problems began in Merneptah's 5th year (1208), when a Libyan king invaded Egypt from the West in alliance with various northern peoples. Merneptah achieved a great victory in the summer of that year, and the inscription is mainly about this. The final lines deal with an apparently separate campaign in the East, where it seems that some of the Canaanite cities had revolted. Traditionally the Egyptians had concerned themselves only with cities, so the problem presented by Israel must have been something new - possibly attacks on Egypt's vassals in Canaan. Merneptah and Ramesses III fought off their enemies, but it was the beginning of the end of Egypt's control over Canaan - the last evidence of an Egyptian presence in Palestine is the name of Ramesses VI (1141-1133) inscribed on a statue base from Megiddo.3
The bulk of the inscription deals with Merneptah's victory over the Libyans, but the last few lines shift to Canaan:4
- The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
- Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
- Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
- 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.5 Hatti and Hurru are Syria/Palestine, Canaan and Israel are smaller units, and Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are cities within the region; according to the stele, all are, or should be, under Egyptian control.6
The line which refers to Israel is:
While Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are given the determinative for a city - a throw stick plus three mountains - the hieroglyphs that refer to Israel instead employ the throw stick (the determinative for "foreign") plus a sitting man and woman (the determinative for "people") over three vertical lines (a plural marker):
This "foreign people" sign was typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic tribes, as opposed to settled city-dwellers. The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is formulaic, and often used of defeated nations - it implies that the grain-store of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.8
The stele was found in Merenptah's funerary chapel in Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital on the west bank of the Nile. On the opposite bank is the Temple of Karnak, where the fragmentary copy was found. In the 1970s Frank Yurco announced that some reliefs at Karnak which had been thought to depict events in the reign of Ramesses II, Merenptah's father, in fact belonged to Merenptah. The four reliefs show the capture of three cities, one of them labelled as Ashkelon; Yurco suggested that the other two were Gezer and Yanoam. The fourth shows a battle in open hilly country against an enemy shown as Canaanite. Yurco suggested that this scene was to be equated with the Israel of the stele. While the idea that Merneptah's Israelites are to be seen on the walls of the temple has had an influence on many theories regarding the significance of the inscription, not all Egyptologists accept Yurco's ascription of the reliefs to Merneptah.9
While alternatives to the reading "Israel" have been put forward since the stele's discovery - the two candidates being "Jezreel", a city and valley in northern Canaan, and a Libyan tribe - most scholars accept that Merneptah refers to "Israel".10 It is not clear, however, just who this Israel was or where they were located.11 For the "who", if the battle reliefs of Karnak show the Israelites, then they are depicted in Canaanite costume and Merneptah's Israelites are therefore Canaanites; 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 marauderers.12 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.13
For the "where", most scholars believe that Merneptah's Israel must have been in the hill country of central Palestine, 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.14
- Drower 1985, p. 221.
- Redmount 1999, p. 71-72, 97.
- Drews 1995, p. 18-20.
- Sparkes 1998, p. 96-97.
- FitzWilliam Museum
- Smith 2002, p. 26.
- In the original text, the bird (a swallow) is placed below the t sign (a semicircle) but for reasons of legibility, the bird is here placed next to the t sign.
- Redmount 1999, p. 97.
- Killebrew 2005, p. 155.
- Hasel 1998, p. 195-197.
- Davies 2008, p. 90.
- Whitelam 2007, p. 26, fn.16.
- Killebrew 2005, p. 154.
- Moore and Kelle 2011, p. 115-116.
- Davies, Philip R. (2008). Memories of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Drews, Robert (1995). The End of the Bronze Age. Princeton University Press.
- Drower, Margaret (1985). Flinders Petrie: A life in Archaeology. Victor Gollancz.
- Hasel, Michael G. (1998). Domination and Resistance: Egyptian Military Activity in the Southern Levant, 1300-1185 BC. BRILL.
- Killebrew, Ann E. (2005). Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity. Society for Biblical Literature.
- Ralph W. Klein, Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor of Old Testament 1983-2008. "The Merneptah Stela". Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Retrieved 17 January 2011.
- Moore, Megan Bishop; Kelle, Brad E. (2011). Biblical History and Israel's Past. Eerdmans.
- Nestor, Dermot (2010). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel. Continuum.
- Redmount, Carol A. (2001). "Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt". In Mchael D., Coogan. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Oxford University Press.
- Smith, Mark S. (2002). The Early History of God. Eerdmans.
- Sparks, Kenton L. (1998). Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity. Eisenbrauns.
- Whitelam, Keith W. (1997). "The Identity of Early Israel: The Realignment and Transformation of Late Bronze-Iron Age Palestine". In Exum, J. Cheryl. The Historical Books. Continuum.
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