The Merneptah Stela

What is it?

The Merneptah stela is an Egyptian monument constructed to glorify the achievements of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), the successor to Ramesses II. It is, specifically a 7.5-foot-high basalt monument, written in hieroglyphics, set up at Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes to celebrate his victory over Libyan immigrants during the fifth year of his reign (1207 or 1219 depending upon the dating adopted), boasting not only this success, but celebrating a broad conquest of Asiatic peoples.  It is now housed in the Cairo museum.

What does it look like? 

What does it say?

The last stanza of the inscription reads as follows:

 The princes are prostrate, saying: "Mercy!"
  Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu;
Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon;
seized upon is Gezer;
Yeno`am 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;
everyone who was restless has been bound
by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt;
Be-en Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re;
mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, given life
like Re every day.  (see ANET, pp. 376-378.)

For a picture, transliteration of the stela, and a conservative appreciation of its significance for the 'origins of Israel' debate click here.

What is it to do with the Karnak reliefs?
For several years the 'Ashkelon wall' at Karnak had been connected to the campaigns of Ramesses II.  However, in the 1970s Frank Yurco challenged this assumption when he perceived connections between these reliefs and the Merneptah stela, particularly the latter's mention of Ashkelon.  A comparison of the scenes on the wall with the locations mentioned in the stela led Yurco to the conclusion that the wall provided a visual account of battles mentioned on the stela.  If Yurco is right, then there is a visual depiction of the people Israel on the Karnak depiction of  peoples and chariots.  (Though according to Rainey's hypothesis they are depicted in the panel where the shashu are being carried off, bound,  to Egypt.

Yurco's hypothesis is rejected by other scholars, such as D.B. Redford and currently the connection of the stela with the Karnak reliefs is under discussion.

Why is it significant?
The Merneptah stela, In its final stanza, gives us the first non-Biblical reference to a community known as 'Israel' which, in the past, has been widely acclaimed as the first extra-biblical witness to the Biblical 'ancient Israel'.  John Bright, for example.  claimed:   ‘This is the earliest reference to Israel in a contemporary inscription, and it shows that Israel was present in the land at that time’ (History of Israel 1981;114), though he did add the significant note that it may refer to a pre-Mosaic Israel other than the exodus group.  W.G. Dever states 'For me, the Merneptah Stela is a terribly important inscription because it entitles me to use my term "proto-Israel" for the earliest settlers in Canaan in the 12th and the 11th centuries B.C.  If these people were already known to the Egyptians, then I think the term is a valid one.  And I would not hesitate to use even the term Israelite for the earliest settlers'  ('Is This Man a Biblical Archaeologist?  BAR interviews William Dever. Part One' BAR  1996, pp. 36).

However, such claims rest upon an assumption that the 'Israel' (if it is to be translated as 'Israel') referred to in the stela has a connection with the Israel of the Bible.   In recent publications, and in some older works, it has been noted that the relationship between the Israel of the stela and the biblical Israel is a crucial and complex issue, if indeed there is any relationship whatsoever:

What are the issues?

The translation 'Israel' and other options
There are some lone voices calling for new interpretations. A. Nibbi believes it can be translated as 'the wearers of a sidelock' (Canaan and Canaanite in Ancient Egypt Hawskworth: Becardo 1989;101) and that it refers to a Libyan within Egypt.
The main alternative to translating the Egyptian term as 'Israel' is to translate as Iezreel or Jezreal.  O. Margalith's 1990 article notes that the Egyptian s can be understood as a Hebrew z and argues that the stela is referring the Jezreal valley.  In its favour this would be consistent with the other place names mentioned in the stanza.  Against this view, Margalith has to explain why the scribe has used the determinative for 'people' rather than 'city'.  And his wish to translate the Egyptian s  as a Hebrew z has been criticized by Hasel.

In contrast,  there are many scholars who translate as 'Israel' - probably the majority.  However, there is considerable disagreement regarding who that 'Israel' might be.  W.G. Dever, T.L. Thompson and I. Finkelstein believe this is a socioethnic entity, existent in the Canaanite highlands that can be referred to as 'proto-Israel'.  N.P. Lemche, R.B. Coote argue that this Israel is a nomadic tribal grouping of people, whilst L.E. Stager believes it refers to a sedentary grouping.  Meanwhile, W.H. Stiebing Jnr. speaks of a semi-nomadic tribal group within Canaan, but is unwilling to ethnically identify such a group. (Out of the Desert?  Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest  Narratives 1989;50-52)

The determinative
The determinative is an Egyptian indication of the kind of thing being described.  Thus when the cities Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano`am are mentioned, the determinative sign for a foreign city/land of the hill-country is used.  When 'Israel' is mentioned the determinative is a sign made up of a male and female person, three strokes for plural, and the throwstick which indicates foreign.  The use of this determinative for describing the thing that 'Israel' is, indicates that the scribe thought of them primarily as a foreign people, rather than a land.

Some scholars have urged caution  against reading too much into this determinative.  J.A. Wilson refers to the ‘notorious carelessness of Late-Egyptian scribes and several blunders of writing in this stela’ ('Egyptian Hymns and Prayers' In J.B. Pritchard (ed.) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 1955;378).  Ahlström  expresses a similar caution when he questions whether  ‘the scribe knew what he had to report’  in his discussion of the stela ( ‘The Origin of Israel in Palestine’.  S.J.O.T.  2, 19-34 1991;22 ).  We should not assume that the scribe always knew firsthand the peoples and cities of which he wrote. It may be that the scribe had no personal knowledge of this 'Israel' which he was to include in the inscription, and opted for the gentilic.  We do not know.   There is always the possibility that the determinative is merely a ‘scribal guess’ . On the other hand, Hasel asks that we take the determinative seriously and argues that it is 'precarious methodologically' to dismiss the contrast which are, typically 'uniquely important making their own significant points' ('Israel in the Merneptah Stela' 1994;52). This is important for Hasel since it contributes to his view that 'Israel is a socioethnic entity with a socio-political structure distinguished from that of city-states and other entities mentioned in this unit' (1994.53).

The ring structure of the stanza and the  geographical location of Israel
A 'ring structure' is a literary mirroring technique whereby the outer verses of the stanza mirror each other, working towards the centre of the stanza.  Ahlström and Edelman, proposed the following ring structure - the letters A and A1  B and B1, C and C1,  D, D1 and D2 indicate the verses that mirror each other:

The princes are prostrate, saying "Peace!"          A
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.

Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;         B
plundered is  Canaan with every evil;           C
carried off is Ashkelon;                               D
seized upon is Gezer;                                 D1
Yeno`am is made as that which does not exist;  D2
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;              C1
Kharu is become a widow because of Egypt!       B1
All lands together are pacified;                     A1
everyone who was restless has been bound
    by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt;
    Be-en Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re;
    Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, given life
    like Re every day

If the detection of a ring structure within the stanza is correct,  then this might aid our understanding of Israel and its geographical location, for Israel is seen as a mirrored verse of the reference to Canaan.   Ahlström and Edelman therefore conclude that the two  complimentary sections of Cisjordan Palestine are inferred -  Canaan labels the coast and the  lowlands, whilst Israel represents the highlands.
As for the use of the gentilic - they are aware that it may be a scribal error, but alternatively it could provide an 'accurate record of Israel's primary association with the hill-country's population,  which has been used here to represent its geographical sense as well, paralleling the  Canaan...[by a scribe who]... did not know of any specific geographical term for the  hill-country of Palestine... but that did know that a group of people called Israel lived  in  this area' ('Merneptah's Israel'  J.N.E.S.  44, 1985;61).

However, detection of a ring structure has been severely criticized by J.A. Emerton in his review of Ahlström's Who Were the Israelites? (1988), whilst others have identified a different ring structure within the stanza (including Ahlström himself).  For a review of other possibilities and his own particular modification, see Michael G. Hasel who locates Israel at the centre of the ring structure together with the less powerful entities Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano`am, meaning that Israel is ' a socioethnic entity within the region of Canaan in the same way in which the three city-states are sociopolitical entities in the same geographical region.  It follows that Israel, identified by the determinative for people, is a socioethnic entity powerful enough to be mentioned along with major city-states that were also neutralized' (1994;51).

His/its seed is no more
The Egyptian prt is usually translated as either 'seed' or 'grain'.  Hasel provides a helpful guide to the semantic range of this term as grain/fruit, and descendants/offspring.  He concludes, on the basis of Egyptian warfare literature, and the general evidence that the Egyptians used fire as a military weapon to destroy fields, cities, settlements, stores of grain, that prt is best understood as 'grain'. The stanza thus indicates that Israel's food supply has been cut off.

Hasel believes this reference to grain enables us to comment further upon the entity Israel as an agricultural, sedentary entity occupying the rural settlements of the Canaanite highlands, possibly including elements of animal husbandry (1994;52-4).

Merneptah's Israel and Biblical Israel

Yet even if we were to concede that a people known as Israel existed in the late thirteenth century B.C.E. perhaps located in the Canaanite highlands, this does not, in turn, mean that we have located the Biblical 'ancient Israel'.  While there are those scholars who understand Merneptah's Israel as a socioethnic entity that connects, to a greater or lesser exent with the ancient Israel of the Bible (see, for example, R.B. Coote [1990], W.G. Dever [1992a and b], B. Halpern [1992]) there are those who make much less of the stela's reference. Thus, while I. Finkelstein (1991, 1995), N.P. Lemche (1988) T.L. Thompson (1992), N. Na'aman (1994) refer to the stela, they do not see that there is an inevitable and necessary connection with the ancient Israel of the Bible.  And there are those (see, for example, Coote & Whitelam [1997], P.R. Davies [1992]), who robustly challenge the view that the stela's reference has anything  to do with the ancient Israel of the Bible.  Indeed to discuss the biblical Israel in the same terms as Merneptah's Israel is to connect too completely different phenomenon - a historical entity and a storyworld community.

Such reminders reinforce a comment made by Noth who had earlier stated 'It is...impossible to say with any certainty what the "Israel" referred to here actually was in the Palestine of c.1225 B.C.' (1950, E.T., 3).
Further Reading:

G.W. Ahlström  (1986) Who Were the Israelites? Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns
G.W. Ahlström (1991) 'The Origin of Israel in Palestine' S.J.O.T. 2, pp. 19-34
G.W. Ahlström (1993) 'The History of Ancient Palestine from the Palaeolithic Period to Alexander's Conquest Sheffield Academic Press
G.W. Ahlström and D.V. Edelman (1985) ‘Merneptah's Israel’ J.N.E.S.  44,   pp. 59-61
R.B. Coote (1990) Early Israel: A New Horizon Fortress Press
R.B. Coote (1991) 'Early Israel' S.J.O.T. 2, pp. 35-46
W.G. Dever (1992a) 'Israel, History of) Archaeology and the Israelite 'Conquest' Anchor Bible Dictionary
III, pp. 545-558
W.G. Dever (1992b) 'How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite' in H. Shanks The Rise of Ancient Israel Biblical Archaeology Society
P.R. Davies (1992) In Search of Ancient Israel Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1992
D.V. Edelman (1992) 'Who or What Was Israel? B.A.R. 18/2, pp. 72-73
J.A. Emerton (1988) 'Review of Who Were the Israelites' V.T. 38, pp. 372-3
I. Finkelstein (1991) 'The Emergence of Israel in Canaan:  Consensus, Mainstream and Dispute' S.J.O.T. 2,  47-59
I. Finkelstein (1995) 'The Great Transformation: The 'conquest' of the highlands frontier and the Rise of the Territorial States in T.E. LevyThe Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land Leicester University Press pp. 349-365
I. Finkelstein & N. Na'aman (eds) (1994) From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel Israel Exploration Society
B. Halpern (1992) 'The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality? in H. Shanks The Rise of Ancient Israel Biblical Archaeology Society pp. 86-113
Michael G. Hasel ‘Israel in the Merneptah Stela’  B.A.S.O.R.  296, 1994  pp. 45-61
D.C. Hopkins (1985) The Highlands of Canaan Almond
D.C. Hopkins (1993) 'Pastoralists in Late Bronze Age Palestine: Which Way Did They Go?' Biblical Archaeologist 56, pp.  200-211
O. Margalith (1990) 'On the Origin and Antiquity of the Name "Israel"' Z.A.W. 102, pp. 225-237
A. Mazar (1990) Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 BCE Doubleday 
A.S. Rainey (1991) 'Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites? Rainey's Challenge'  B.A.R. 17/6, pp. 54-61, 91-92
D. B. Redford (1986) ‘The Ashkelon Relief at Karnak and the Israel Stele’ I.E.J. 36,   pp. 189-200
D. B. Redford (1992) 'Merenptah' The Anchor Bible Dictionary IV pp. 700-701
A.R. Schulman (1987) 'The Great Historical Inscription of Merneptah at Karnak: A Partial Reappraisal Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt 24, pp. 21-34
L. E. Stager (1985a) 'The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel' B.A.S.O.R. 260, pp. 1-35
L. E. Stager (1985b) ‘Merneptah, Israel and Sea Peoples’  E.I.  18,  pp. 56-64
K.W. Whitelam 'The Identity of Early Israel: The Realignment and Transformation of Late Bronze-Iron Age Palestine' J.S.O.T. 63, pp 57-87
J.J. Yurco (1986) 'Merenptah's Canaanite Campaign' J.A.R.C.E. 23,  PP. 189-215
J.J. Yurco (1990) '3,200 year old picture of Israelites found in Egypt' B.A.R. 16/5, pp. 20-38
J.J. Yurco (1991) 'Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites?  Yurco's Response' B.A.R. 17/6, pp. 54-61, 92-93