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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A People Called Israel

A Non-Biblical Reference to a People Called Israel

IN THE Cairo Museum in Egypt, a granite stela commemorates victories of Pharaoh Merneptah. According to scholars’ estimates, this 13th son of Ramses II ruled between about 1212 and 1202 B.C.E.—toward the latter part of the period of the Judges in ancient Israel. The last two lines of Merneptah’s stela read: “The Canaan is plundered with every hardship. Ashkelon is taken, Gezer captured, [and] Yano‘am reduced to nothing. Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more.”

What is meant by the word “Israel” in this context? In hieroglyphic writing, some unpronounced signs, called determinatives, were added to the spelling to indicate the category to which the words belonged. The publication The Rise of Ancient Israel explains: “Attached to three of the four entities—Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam—is a determinative that tells us that they are cities. . . . The determinative attached to Israel, however, is for a people.”—Italics ours.

What is the significance of this text? Hershel Shanks, editor and author, answers: “The Merneptah Stele shows that a people called Israel existed in 1212 B.C.E. and that the pharaoh of Egypt not only knew about them, but also felt it was worth boasting about having defeated them in battle.” William G. Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology, comments: “The Merneptah stele tells us unequivocally: There does exist in Canaan a people calling themselves ‘Israel,’ and thus called ‘Israel’ by the Egyptians—who, after all, are hardly biblically biased, and they cannot have invented such a specific and unique people as ‘Israel’ for their own propaganda purposes.”

In the Bible, Israel is first mentioned as a name given to the patriarch Jacob. The descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons became known as “the sons of Israel.” (Genesis 32:22–28, 32; 35:9, 10) Years later, both the prophet Moses and the Pharaoh of Egypt used the word “Israel” when referring to these descendants of Jacob. (Exodus 5:1, 2) The Merneptah stela is the earliest known non-Biblical reference to a people called Israel.

- The Watchtower, July 15, page 24, 2006, WTB&TS

Merneptah Stele

Why was the Merneptah Stele a significant archaeological discovery? Merneptah was a Pharaoh who ruled over Egypt in the late 13th century B.C. The son of Ramesses the Great (Ramesses II), Merneptah was the fourth Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty.

The “Merneptah Stele” is the name given to a stone slab engraved with a description of Merneptah’s military victories in Africa and the Near East. It was discovered by renowned British archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Thebes in 1896.

The Merneptah Stele is significant to biblical archaeologists because it is the earliest extra-biblical reference to the nation of Israel yet to be discovered. The mention of Israel is very short; it simply says, “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Nevertheless, despite its brevity, the reference is very telling. It indicates that at the time the inscription was engraved, the nation of Israel was significant enough to be included by name among the other major city-states which were defeated by Merneptah in the late 13th century B.C. This implies that Israel was a major player in the region during the late 13th century, serving to corroborate to a degree the biblical narrative.

Because it remains the earliest known extra-biblical reference to the nation of Israel, the Merneptah Stele is also commonly known as the Israel Stele, or the Israel Stela (stela being another way to say and write stele). It is currently housed in the Cairo Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

The Merneptah Stele, which dates to about 1230 BC, was discovered in Thebes, Egypt in the late 1800’s. The Inscription contains a hymn and a list of the Pharaoh's military victories. The Nation of Israel is on the list of conquests, which scholars believe is the earliest reference to Israel outside the Bible.

The Merneptah Stele currently resides in the Cairo Museum, Egypt.