The Merneptah Stele is an ancient record by an Egyptian pharaoh, Merneptah, documenting his war with the Libyans and the successes and/or failures from it. Merneptah ruled from 1213 to 1203 BCE. The stele that he had commissioned was inscribed on the back of an existing stele, and this contributed to why it was not discovered until 1896 AD. The engraving of a stele or a relief was not an uncommon practice in ancient times, and defiantly not for the Egyptians; however, what sets this one apart from the others is that it contains a reference a little more than 100 lines in to some small territories in the land of Canaan, one of which is Isrir, or Israel. This is commonly regarded as the first instance of Israel in recorded history, excluding the biblical sources.
There has been and still is some debate over associating the reference to Israel in the Merneptah Stele with the biblical Israel. This debate ranges from where to place the designated people, whether or not they can be regarded as a separate people, or if the scribe making the stele used an incorrect term designating Israel as a people instead of a location, or misspelled Israel altogether.
Merneptah carried out several military campaigns during his reign, mostly concerned with the Libyans that were threatening Egypt from the west. The stele in question is the record of one of these campaigns conducted against the Libyans. The main relevant text of the stele is 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;
Yeno`am 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;
Everyone who was restless has been bound
By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt:
Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re:
Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, given life
like Re every day.
There have been many interpretations and much speculation both in and out of the academic community regarding just these few short lines of the Stele. There are those that have understood the placement of the name of Israel in the text to be significant to the actual physical location of the people. The essay by Gitten, Wright, and Dessel said “[i]n the stela, Israel is situated within the geographical confines of Canaan and Hurru, as are the city-states/kingdoms of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam. The word ‘Israel’ in the stela is defined as a rural or tribal entity by the determinative for ‘people’”. This can be compared and contrasted with what Sparks wrote regarding the wording, specifically the determinative used by the Egyptian scribe relative to the word that is translated as Israel. “The Egyptian text provides a determinative before the name of each toponym, and in every case but one the same determinative is used. The exception is Israel, which is proceeded by the determinative for people rather than land. The scribe was consistent throughout the Stela, so we should conclude that he intentionally distinguished the People of Israel from other peoples.” According to Sparks, the determinative is designating that the people of Israel are separate and distinct from the other people in the surrounding areas of Canaan, as opposed to the view espoused by Gitten et al that it referred to a specific rural location.
Another part of the Stele that should be looked at closely along with the translations of it is the specific line containing the word Israel. Two reputable sources, Hasel and Ahlstrom, both provide translations that are the same except for the use of one pronoun. In Hasel, the line is translated “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.”, and in Ahlstrom it is translated as “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”. This small difference could also account for a large misunderstanding of what Israel is referring to as well. Going with the translation that Hasel provides and using the pronoun ‘its’, this reflects back to a thing. This thing in this instance would be most likely be a physical location; a section or area of land. Due to the placement of the comma as punctuation, it can be interpreted as the land referred to as Israel is wasted and there is no more grain there, or, if the emphasis on the words changes slightly but still using the same punctuation, it can be interpreted as meaning that the land of Israel is wasted, but the grain is not wasted, it survived. While it is possible to translate either way with this line, it is more likely that it is the first instance in this case; being that the land and grain both were destroyed. Taking the second translation, however, and using the more commonly found pronoun of ‘his’, this brings to mind the connotation of a people or a nation. Using this translation, it is more appropriate that the Israel that is referred to is a nation with an independent identity. Indeed, this connotation of Israel lies more so in line with the traditional biblical account of Israel being a people that are all descended from Jacob, whose name was changed by God to Israel.
Interestingly, while Ahlstrom uses the translation with the pronoun ‘his’, he refers to the Stele as describing a both physical location and a national people. “In light of the ABCD ring structure [of the layout of the nations and city-states in the Stele] mentioned, two possible conclusions can be drawn about Israel’s location, depending upon one’s assessment of the author’s knowledge of ancient Palestine and his precision in using terminology. If Hatti is used in its usual sense to designate Asia Minor and Syria, then it is possible to conclude that the author intended them to be two complementary subregions which together comprised the larger region of Syria-Palestine. In the same way, Canaan and Israel could be used here to subdivide the narrower area of Cisjordanian Palestine into two complementary sections which together would represent the whole. It is possible that Israel then has been used to represent the hill country area. It could represent an accurate association of the people of Israel with the hill country population, suggesting that the Egyptian scribe did not know of a specific term for the Palestinian hill country, such as Ephriam, but did know that a group of people called Israel lived there.”
Regarding the actual name Israel used in the Merneptah Stele, Sparks has further comment. “Israel is not an Egyptian term and therefore cannot be viewed as an Egyptian exonym. It is clearly Western Semitic and must be either the name that Israel used for itself or that another Western Semetic culture applied to them. Israel is recognised as being made up of a combination of El and and combination of sara and srr, or ysr / sr which means to rule or be upright. Thus, it can be translated as Jacob struggles with El or El persists. Due to this, it is most likely that we are dealing with an endonym, or a name that Israel gave themselves.” This would also support the biblical idea that Israel is a nation in and of themselves, separate from the Canaanites and the surrounding nations, and that they also had their own region that they occupied.
There is another theory that has been proposed to the basis of the name Israel. It has been proposed that Israel is constructed from the names of Isis, Ra, and El; the gods of the regional area from that time. Isis was also known as Issa, (the wife of Ra), Ra was the Egyptian sun god, and El was the Israelite name for God. When combined, the names Issa + Ra + El would form the word Israel. While it is completely feasible that a cross pollination of deities occurred in this local region, and there is no reason that some of the religious beliefs could have been shared and adopted from culture to culture, the formation of the name Israel in this manner is reliant upon using the English translations of these names, and as such makes this point mute.
There are also those who refute that Israel as taken from the Merneptah Stele refers to the biblical Israel. When excluding the biblical sources and relying just on the extrabiblical sources, there is a gap of approximately four hundred years from when the Merneptah Stele was inscribed and the iteration of Israel in historic record. It is feasible that this few hundred year gap could be explained by a number of things such as an expanding national identity by Israel so that it had not yet reached a significant enough size to be documented, or that Israel was taken into slavery by Egypt or Babylon or another larger nation as is recorded as happening in the bible, and these nations did not record the name of the enslaved nations, to name a few. Another possibility, though, is raised by Hasel. He stated that the view that the term Israel on the Merneptah Stela is unrelated to the people Israel of the Hebrew Bible was a position taken by Margalith based on the 1948 suggestion of Driver that the Egyptian s could be the Hebrew z. This means that the name would be translated as Iezree,l which could be an inexperienced scribe’s rendering of Yezreal, the valley to the north of the country. Further, he states that this would fit the comment at the end that says that Israel has no seed and conform to the rest of the inscription which has location names.
There are still other experts that suggest that the last few lines of the stele’s inscription are the lyrics to a poem or victory anthem honouring the pharaoh’s military prowess. The mention of the defeated tribes could be intended to remind the people of the previous victories that Egypt had had. The fact that it contained the word Isrir, is substantially different and unique from what has been discovered in that time era. It is known that rules from that time, (and somewhat still today even) would exaggerate their accomplishments and victories. One such reason for the sceptical side of the Merneptah’s Stele in relation to Israel is that there are no other records from that time dictating military campaigns into the Canaanite region.
One possible reason that there are no other references to Israel by themselves could be that at this point in history they were similar in features to the Canaanites, and they may have just been included in the records under the name Canaan. The Merneptah reliefs depict both the Canaanites and the Israelites as having the same hairstyles and clothing. These similarities between the Canaanites and the Israelites could lend themselves easily to an understanding of the appropriation of the Israelite or Canaanite legacy by different groups when looking at history.
In conclusion, the Merneptah Stele holds the records of the pharaoh Merneptah’s military exploits into and around the area of Canaan. While there is a lot of information contained in the Stele itself, there is a large amount of conjecture and speculation that accompanies it. The nature of the leaders of the time to exaggerate their exploits causes some of the details to be questioned. Further, while the Stele does mention Israel, there is as of yet no definitive answer as to the relationship to the biblical Israel, or if this was reference to another people or place that was similar. Until there is more evidence of use of the name Israel during this time discovered, the speculation on what significance and insights the Stele can offer the modern world on the nature and existence of ancient Israel will continue to be debated.
Arcaeologica.org http://archaeologica.boardbot.com/viewtopic.php?t=1461 (Accessed 20 Oct 2011)
Ahlstrom, G., and Edelman, D. (1985). ‘Merneptah’s Israel’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 44.1. pp. 59-61.
Hasel, M. (1994). ‘Israel in the Merneptah Stela’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. No. 296. pp. 45-61.
Holy Bible, The. King James Version. 1989. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT.
Sparks, K. (1998). ‘Merneptah’s Stele and Deborah’s Song’, Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel. pp. 94-124.
wiseGEEK.com http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-merneptah-stele.htm (Accessed 20 Oct 2011)
The Bible and Interpretation. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/emeyers.shtml (Accessed 20 Oct 2011)
 Ahlstrom, Merneptah’s Israel, p. 60
 Sparks, Merneptah’s Stele and Deborah’s Song, p. 105
 Hasel, Israel in the Merneptah Stela, p. 45
 Ahlstrom, Merneptah’s Israel, p. 60
 Genesis 32:28
 Ahlstrom, Merneptah’s Israel, p. 60-61
 Sparks, Merneptah’s Stele and Deborah’s Song, p. 107
 Sparks, Merneptah’s Stele and Deborah’s Song, p. 96
 Hasel, Israel in the Merneptah Stela, p. 46