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Merneptah stele

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Merenptah Stele (Israel Stele): mirror image of the main part of the inscription. Petrie 1897.

The Merneptah Stele—also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah—is an inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah (1213 BC-1203 BC), which appears on the reverse side of a granite stele erected by the king Amenhotep III. It was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes.

The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel." It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele."

The mention of Israel and Canaan, however, is brief, and a large part of the stele regards Merneptah's campaign against the Libyans.


The black granite stela primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their "Sea People" allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others.[1]


The stele was discovered in 1896 by Flinders Petrie who located it in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes. [2] and is now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo; a fragmentary copy of the stele was also found at Karnak.[3] Flinders Petrie called Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philogist in his archaeological team to translate the newly found massive granite stela. Towards the end of the text, Spegielberg was puzzled by the mention of one symbol, that of a people or tribe whom Merenptah had victoriously smitten—""[4] Petrie quickly suggested that it read: "Israel."[5] Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct. "Won't the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie.[6] 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."[7]

It was the first mention of the word "Israel" in an Ancient Egyptian text and the news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English papers.'[8]

The stela has a height of 318 centimeters (or roughly 10 feet) and a width of 163 centimetres.[9] Its text is mainly composed of a prose report with a poetic finish, mirroring other Egyptian New Kingdom stelae of the time. The stela is dated to Year 5, 3rd month of Shemu (summer), day 3 (c.1209/1208 BC), and begins with a laudatory recital of Merneptah's achievements in battle.

Title Confusion

This title "Israel Stele" is somewhat misleading because the stele only makes a brief mention of Israel and Canaan, though such an early mention of Israel from a coexisting nation is undoubtedly important to Israel's history.

The line mentioning Israel is grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon):
"Israel is wasted, bare of seed" or "Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists."

Merneptah also inserted only one stanza about his Canaanite campaigns, but includes multiple stanzas regarding his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

"Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed."[10]

Historical Debate

Merneptah's Campaign

There is disagreement over whether or not Merneptah did actually campaign in Canaan and did not merely recount what was there, similar to later Assyrian documents which never contained the admission that Assyria had lost in battle. This argument holds some weight, as a stela by Merneptah's predecessor Ramesses II about the Battle of Kadesh indicates firm control of the Levant, making it strange that Merneptah had to reconquer it—unless Merneptah had faced a revolt in this region that he felt compelled to crush in order to exert's Egypt's authority over Canaan. In this case, Merneptah's control over Canaan was precarious at best.

Mention of Israel as a People rather than a State

the name Israel written in hieroglyphs as it appears on the Merneptah stele.

Since the stela includes just one line mentioning Israel, it is difficult for scholars to deduce a substantial amount of information about what "Israel" meant in this stela. The stela does make clear, however, that Israel at this stage, refers to a people since the hieroglyphic determinative for "country" is absent for Israel.

While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed besides Israel in this document such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam were given the determinative for a city-state—"a throw stick plus three mountains designating a foreign country"—the hieroglyphs which refer to Israel instead employ the determinative sign used for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic groups or peoples without a fixed city-state, thus implying a seminomadic or rural status for Israel in Merneptah's Year 5.[11] Apart from this, there is little else that can be concluded about Israel at this time.

Link to the Shasu

Donald Redford states that "Israel" was a band of Bedouin-like wanderers known to Egyptians as "Shasu" citing a link at the Soleb temple of Amenhotep III to "Yhw- in the land of the Shasu", which has been considered an early form of tetragrammaton.

This proposed link between the Israelites and the Shasu is undermined, however, by the fact that in the Merneptah stela the Israelites are not depicted as Shasu, but wear the same clothing and have the same hairstyles as the Canaanites, who are shown defending the fortified cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam.[12]

Significance of Israel's Mention

Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University argues that Israel was already a well established political force in Canaan in the late 13th Century BC:

"Israel functioned as an agriculturally based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century BC, one that is significant enough to be included in the military campaign against political powers in Canaan. While the Merneptah stela does not give any indication of the actual social structure of the people of Israel, it does indicate that Israel was a significant socioethnic entity that needed to be reckoned with."[13]

See Also


  1. Carol A. Redmount, 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan, (Oxford University Press: 1999), p.97
  2. Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, (1995), pp.183-184
  3. Redmount, p.97
  4. Margaret Drower, Flinders Petrie: A life in Archaeology, London: Victor Gollancz, 1985. p.221
  5. Drower, Flinders Petrie, p.221
  6. Drower, Flinders Petrie, p.221
  7. Drower, Flinders Petrie, p.221
  8. Drower, Flinders Petrie, p.221
  9. Alessandro Bongioanni & Maria Croce (ed.), The Treasures of Ancient Egypt: From the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Universe Publishing, a division of Ruzzoli Publications Inc., 2003. p.186
  10. The Victory Stela of Merneptah
  11. Redmount, p.97
  12. Stager, Lawrence E., "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel" in Michael Coogan ed. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford University Press, 2001. p.92
  13. M. G. Hasel, "Israel in the Merneptah Stela," BASOR 296, 1994, pp.54 & 56, n.12.

External links