The Merneptah Stele: Proof Ancient Egypt Knew of the Israelites

March 30, 2024

 

The top of the Merneptah Stele includes a carving of Merneptah receiving a sword from the god Amun, but it is the text of the stele which is most fascinating. Source: Alyssa Bivins / CC BY-SA 4.0.The Merneptah Stele, also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah, in considered to be one of the most significant archaeological artifacts ever discovered in ancient Egypt. Carved during the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, this stele provides crucial insights into the political, military, and cultural landscape of the late 13th century BC.

Its inscription, composed in hieroglyphs, communicates Merneptah’s military victories and campaigns, including the earliest known reference to the people of Israel outside of biblical texts. This makes it a pivotal piece of evidence for scholars studying ancient Israelite history.

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The Victories of Great Merneptah Etched in a Stele

The Merneptah Stele was discovered in 1896 by the renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor). It was found in Merneptah’s mortuary temple within the ruins of the ancient city.

The stele itself is made of black granite, standing at approximately 3.1 meters (10 feet) in height. Its inscriptions are deeply carved and well-preserved, offering valuable information about the political and military achievements of Merneptah’s reign.

Carved with intricate hieroglyphic texts, the Merneptah Stele details Merneptah’s military campaigns in Canaan, Libya, and other regions during his fifth year of rule. The top portion of the stele features a depiction of the god Ptah, while the inscriptions below narrate Merneptah’s conquests and victories. The text boasts of the pharaoh’s triumph over various enemies, including the people of Israel, to whom Merneptah claims to have “laid waste” in Canaan.

The Merneptah Stele: Proof Ancient Egypt Knew of the Israelites

Statue of Merneptah, whose victories are recorded on the stele (Tangopaso / Public Domain)

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Merneptah Stele is exactly that reference to Israel, marking the earliest known extra-biblical mention of the Israelites in ancient Egyptian records. The inscription refers to Israel as a people or group residing in Canaan during the late 13th century BC. This discovery is of immense importance to historians, biblical scholars, and archaeologists, providing tangible evidence for the existence of Israel as an entity in the ancient Near East.

The Ancient Enemies of Mighty Egypt

Scholars have offered various interpretations of the significance of the Merneptah Stele and its mention of Israel. Some view it as confirmation of the biblical narrative regarding the Israelites’ presence in Canaan during this period, aligning with accounts found in the Hebrew Bible.

Others suggest that the mention of Israel as a defeated entity implies a significant presence or threat to Merneptah’s rule, indicating that they were already established as a distinct people in the region. Even more important is the detailed mention of all the enemy states that Merneptah warred against and, apparently, subdued:

“The princes are prostrate, saying ‘Peace!’
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tjehenu;
Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Asqaluni;
Seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made non-existent;
Israel is laid waste—its seed is no more;
Kharru has become a widow because of Egypt.
All lands together are pacified.
Everyone who was restless has been bound.”

In this snippet, Merneptah lists his conquered foes.  Tjehenu refers to the Libyan tribes;  Hatti refers to ancient Hattusa; Canaan was a Semitic-speaking civilization of Southern Levant;  AsqaluniGezer, and  Yanoam were all important trade cities of the region; and  Kharru refers to the Hurrian peoples.

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The Merneptah Stele: Proof Ancient Egypt Knew of the Israelites

Closeup of the Merneptah Stele with the reference to “Ysrir” (“Israel”) (Darer101 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

To understand the Merneptah Stele fully, it’s essential to consider the historical context of ancient Egypt during Merneptah’s reign. He ascended to the throne around 1213 BC, inheriting a powerful empire from his late father, Ramesses II.

At the time of his ascension, he was already 70 years old. Merneptah faced numerous challenges, including threats from neighboring powers and internal unrest. His military campaigns aimed to consolidate Egypt’s control over its territories and protect its borders from external incursions. And they were very much successful, as the stele indicates as well.

A Pharaoh Who Defied His Foes

The discovery and decipherment of the Merneptah Stele have had a profound impact on our understanding of ancient Near Eastern history. It serves as a crucial piece of evidence for scholars studying the origins of ancient Israel and its interactions with neighboring civilizations. Additionally, the stele sheds light on the military and political strategies employed by ancient Egyptian rulers to maintain control over their vast empire.

Ultimately, the Merneptah Stele stands as an enduring testament to the military achievements of Pharaoh Merneptah and provides invaluable insights into the ancient Near Eastern world of the late 13th century BC, literally carved in stone for all time. Its mention of Israel represents a pivotal moment in biblical and archaeological scholarship, offering tangible evidence for the existence of the Israelites in Canaan during this period.

The Merneptah Stele: Proof Ancient Egypt Knew of the Israelites

The Merneptah Stele in full (Alyssa Bivins / CC BY-SA 4.0)

As one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the late 19th century, the Merneptah Stele continues to captivate and inform researchers seeking to unravel the complexities of ancient Egypt and its neighboring civilizations. Without it, many historical facts would remain lost for ever.