The Merneptah Stele is an enticing inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah discovered in 1896 at Thebes by Flinders Petrie. The inscriptions are put down on a ten foot high piece of black granite. The text contained in these inscriptions is mainly an account of the king’s victories in battle during the last decade of the thirteenth century B. C. E. It is of important archeological significance due to the last few lines in the inscription which is the first known non-biblical reference to Israel.
Some scholars believe that it is significant in that it shows where Israel was and what type of people they were, whereas other believes it “reveals little other than that it locates Israel somewhere in the vicinity of Palestine” (Miller & Hayes 4). Due to the conventions of the time, specific hieroglyphic symbols placed next to the descriptive factors of Israel within this text identifies Israel as a people, not necessarily a place.
Whilst there is a lot of scholarly debate on the exact meaning of the inscription, it is believed that perhaps too much is being read into this inscription and it is really just an account of Pharaoh Merneptah’s victories and that the scribe mentioned to Israel people to add extra weight to these victories.
Despite these variations in opinion on the validity of the inscriptions historical significance, the Merneptah Stele does suggest some interesting details about early Israel. Part of the inscription reads “Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more” (Rainey 63).
It has been suggested that, according to other writings of the time, “seed” normally refers to grain (not descendants) which therefore suggests that these people had agricultural skills. It may also be possible that the Israel refers to in the stele are the twelve Israelite tribes referred to in the bible. Within four generations of the twelve sons fleeing the famine in Egypt they were 600,000 men of fighting age (Wylen 18-20) and could have presumably encountered Pharaoh Merneptah’s armies.
If it is believed that ‘Israel’ indicates a nation and not just a people, the above reference is very telling. It indicates that at the time of engraving, the nation of Israel held enough significance 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.
Much archaeological evidence indicates that the people of Israel appeared in the central hill country around Palestine in a complex process that began not before 1200 BC. The Merneptah Stele witnesses a significant population group that was well established by 1209 BC. This raises the question- where in the archaeological record are the Israelites that Merneptah fought? This is just one of the many questions raised in this ongoing debate. Another debate which has developed around the Merneptah stele is whether the Israel people where hill people or valley people.
Within the Karnak reliefs (Hieroglyphs found in the Karnak temple on the opposite side of the Nile from where the Merneptah stele was discovered) there are a people (presumed by some to be people from the Israeli nation) depicted riding chariots. This type of transport would not have been used by people who lived in hilly regions. Also the fact that they are skilled in agriculture would suggest that they would more likely be living in open plains within the lowlands, not the hills.
This contradicts some scholars who believed the Israeli people to have come from the hills and belong to the same nation as the Canaanites. Overall the Merneptah stele has prompted more questions than it has answered. Interesting ideas can come from interpreting the inscriptions, as long as the context in which they were inscribed are taken into account and the interpretations drawn out are dealt with in a way in which reflect the complexities which exist in trying to interpret such minimal information.