Like so many other archaeological discoveries The Merneptah Stele has also divided Archaeologists, because of its mention of Israel. Well, not Israel to be exact, but rather Is-ri which could read Israel or just Isri, meaning some other ancient civilisation. Bearing in mind that there is no ‘l’ in the ancient Egyptian alphabet, it is quite feasible that Isri is in fact Israel.
However, this remains a hotly contested argument amongst scholars, and all we can do is let them argue amongst themselves and wait for a conclusion. I would like to point out though, that most Egyptologists (I have listed the source below), agree that Is-ri is in fact Ancient Israel.
The implications for Israel in this instance are huge, if Israel is found to be living in the land during Pharaoh Merneptah’s reign in the late thirteenth century, then that makes Israel’s claim to the land so much more valid. And not only, that they were in the land, but that they were a City-State and a famous Pharaoh mentioned them in his conquests.
The Merneptah Stele:
The Merneptah Stele was discovered in a temple mortuary in Thebes by William Flinders Petrie in 1896. The Stele is in honour of Pharaoh Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat Son of Re: The Bull lord of strength, slaying his foes, the king of upper and lower Egypt. The discovery of the Stele has led to much debate amongst Archaeologists and Historians. The Merneptah Stele is different to other Stele, in that it mentions and claims victory over a people called Israel. But there is a discrepancy about the word Israel, which has made the Stele of significant importance to Orthographers and Epigraphers.
The Merneptah Stele is a black granite monument that is a victory hymn of Pharaoh Merneptah in the fifth year of his reign. According to Finkelstein, Merneptah was the son of Ramesses ІІ, and he orchestrated his campaign of destruction in the late thirteenth century BC. Merneptah was not alone in proclaiming his victories on such a giant monument. It was common place for the Pharaohs to boast of their achievements on monuments of stone and stele, for all the world to see. After all it was the task of these god-kings to restore peace and order to their kingdom. Merneptah states he destroyed the nine bows (his enemies) amongst whom were Libya, Tehenu, Canaan, Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel ̶ they were bound from their restlessness. Never to rise again, or so the Pharaoh claimed.
So, can the Merneptah Stele be used as a reference source for the history of Ancient Israel? The Minimalist and Maximalist defer greatly on this issue. And much discussion is centred on the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and whether there is an early or late date for their journey. However, that discussion is beyond the scope of this short article. Merneptah claimed on the Stele that “Is-ri is laid waste, his seed is no more“. Provan, et al argue that an ethnic group (Israel) cannot be lumped together with City-States such as Ashkelon and Gezer. Therefore, the Is-ri that Merneptah is referring to cannot be the Israel of the Bible.
Miller and Hayes also seem to agree with this concept ─ that it is difficult to pinpoint the Is-ri of the Stele with the Israel of the Bible. But they acknowledge that it could be an early reference to Israel. Which then fits nicely into other discoveries relating to Biblical Israel such as the Mesha Inscription; Tel Dan fragments or the Siloam Inscription. My argument is this: Even if we accept one inscription such as the Mesha Inscription, then we have to accept that these people had a past and didn’t just appear out of thin air. They were nothing and then they suddenly had the Omri dynasty, which is what we would have to believe. Where’s the progression to City-State? I prefer rather to believe the Pentateuch, that a people called Israel left Egypt and progressed to becoming a City-State in the land of Canaan.
The majority of Egyptologists according to Hasel, believe that the Merneptah Inscription reads ‘Israel‘ as he states only 28 out of 3,300 hieroglyphs are questionable, of which only 7 or 8 affect the text in a significant way. Demsky, also claiming only 5% of scribes wrote for personal use. The majority of them wrote to bring fame to individuals like Merneptah. The scribes were professionals, trained and educated people. It wasn’t just any old person inscribing these Stele.
Finally, if the Stele is correct in mentioning Israel, it tells us that they were in that land as a people, whether a City-State or not, they were where their history claims they were. It also means they were important enough for Pharaoh Merneptah to feel a sense of achievement when he claimed victory over them. If the Minimalist are correct and Is-ri is not Ancient Israel, then it puts in question the authenticity of the Bible but also weakens modern Israel’s claim to the land.
At this stage there is no clear opinion regarding this inscription, just those who believe that it is a reference to Israel and those who don’t. Until more references to Israel are unearthed, this argument will continue. Either way it’s important to keep updated on this issue.
Demsky, A. “Reading Northwest Semetic Inscriptions Near East Archaeology.” 70:2 (2007): 68-73.
Hasel, Michael G. “Merneptah’s Reference to Israel in critical issues for the Origin of Israel.” (Eisenbrauns) 2008: 47-59.
Iian Provan; V.Philips Long & Tremper Longman. A Biblical History of Israel. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003:169.
Israel Finkelstein& Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. New York: The Free Press, 2001:57.
J.Maxwell Miller & John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah 2nd. London: SCM Press, 2006:244-245
Petrie, F. Six Temple at Thebes. http://www.archive.org/details/sixtempleattheb00petruoft (accessed 2014):23.
Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near East Texts Relating to the Old Testament 3rd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969:376-378
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Zondervon Bible Publishers, 1984.
 (Pritchard 1969)
 (Petrie n.d.)
 (Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman 2001)
 (Pritchard 1969)
 (Iian Provan; V.Philips Long & Tremper Longman 2003)
 (J.Maxwell Miller & John H. Hayes 2006)
 (The Holy Bible, New International Version 1984)
 (Hasel 2008)
 (Demsky 2007)