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The Merneptah Stele

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 1:55 pm
by Minimalist
The Merneptah Stele is a record of a battle triumph by the successor to Rameses the Great. It is famous for carrying the first known reference to "Israel" in non-biblical literature. Like most people, I took this information at face value because it has been transcribed by numerous scholars who do not have a biblical agenda. However, after reading the full inscription and comparing it to known history, it seems to be less compelling than what is maintained. A discussion which started on another board led to the following post:
What do we know about Merneptah? We know he was already old when he came to the throne, perhaps 60. He reigned for 10 years and spent most of that time fighting the Libyans and their Sea People allies. Since Merneptah died c 1203 BC what this tells us is that the Sea Peoples were active in the region 50 years before Ramesses III finally defeated them and settled them, or allowed them to settle, on the southern coast of Canaan. Egyptian influence was maintained in Canaan from their base at Beth Shean until the middle of the 12th century...right around the time that the Philistines settled in Canaan. This can hardly be a coincidence.

As noted in Wikipedia:
Merneptah had to carry out several military campaigns during his reign, mainly fighting against the Libyans, who—with the assistance of the Sea Peoples—were threatening Egypt from the West. In the fifth year of his reign, Merneptah led a victorious six-hour battle in his fifth regnal year against a combined Libyan and Sea People force at the city of Perire, probably located on the western edge of the Delta. His account of this campaign against the Sea Peoples and Libu is described in prose on a wall beside the sixth pylon at Karnak and in poetic form in the Merneptah Stele, widely known as the Israel Stele, which makes reference to the supposed utter destruction of Israel during campaign in his 6th year in Canaan: "Israel has been wiped out...its seed is no more." This is the first recognised ancient Egyptian record of the existence of Israel--"not as a country or city, but as a tribe" or people.
We'll get to the stele next. Unfortunately, the whole thing has to be read to get the point and I rather doubt if most people bother because all they care about is the "Israel" reference.

Here is a translation of the stele:

Look it over. 138 lines of this translation deal with Merneptah's campaign against the Libyans and their allies.

Here are the final 10 lines which, as I've said, is all that anyone ever looks at.
The princes are prostrate saying: "Shalom!"
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued.
By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day
Tjehenu is the Egyptian word for Libya. Khatti are the Hittites. Canaan we know. Ashkelon is a Canaanite town as was Gezer. Yanoam was a Canaanite town in Galilee.
So the question rises as to why Merneptah, having already told us that Canaan is "captive with all woe" goes on to specifically deal with those three towns?
THEN we get the "Israel is wasted, bare of seed" line that causes Fundies such joy.
Khor (a region of Southern Syria) is a "widow" for Egypt?

Now, Merneptah has just spent 138 lines telling us how he overcame the Tjehenu (Libyans.) He did not campaign against the fact the Hittites were about to go down to the Sea Peoples themselves so the notion that they were "at peace" seems stunningly incorrect. Perhaps he means only that they were "at peace" with Egypt? This makes sense as the Egyptians were also fighting the Sea People and "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is not a new concept.

Also, and this is very important, note that Merneptah never says that he campaigned in Canaan. He was not shy about telling us about his exploits in battle against the Libyans? Why would he suddenly be reticent about bragging of his conquest of Canaan? In fact, he didn't have to conquer Canaan. Canaan had been under Egyptian hegemony since Ahmose the first in 1500ish BC. If he had suppressed rebellions why would he not say that he had put down rebellions?

I submit that in modern parlance, if you will, that the last 10 lines of the stele read like an "after-action" report. His country has just won a major war with Libya and Merneptah is recounting the victories and the losses.

Libya is defeated. (Yay...I won.) We are at peace with the Hittites. We still hold Canaan but Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam have been sacked and burned. Israel (a people not a place) is laid waste (but again, there is not a single word that says "I (Merneptah) did it." Khor is a 'widow' for Egypt? That last line throws me but it could be a loose translation or simply to imply that Egypt could no longer assert control of that part of Syria. I don't know. And then, the kicker..."all who roamed have been subdued." Well, who roamed? Answer: The Sea People who played such an important part in his war against the Libyans. So it does not seem impossible that while the Egyptians and Libyans battled it out in the Western desert that their Sea People allies were the ones who launched the attacks on Canaan, burning Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam in the process. Local Egyptian and whatever Canaanite forces they could have raised would have been hard pressed to stop them. Further, it also seems reasonable that once their senior Libyan partners had been defeated the Sea People, who were basically pirates, would have broken off the attack before the full weight of the Egyptians could have been brought against them. THAT seems like sound military strategy.

So, let's finally deal with "Israel."

First off, consider this comment from Hazelrigg, in the center of the page from Acharya's Christ Conspiracy.

Issa + Ra + El = Israel
Issa = Isis, wife of Osiris
Ra = Egyptian Chief God
El = Canaanite chief god.

As noted, Egypt had control of Canaan for centuries and they continued to control it for another 50 years. Is it so outrageous to think that some sort of syncretism hadn't occured in which the Egyptian gods of Isis and Ra were worshipped along with the local honcho, El? Four centuries is a hell of a long time for cultural cross-pollination to take place. So the reference to the people (remember there is no reference to a nation) of "Israel" could simply be a way of referring to the population of the whole area as the land of Is(sa) Ra and El, that would include Khor and Canaan. In much the same sort of shorthand way that we refer to the United States of America as simply "America."

The point of this whole dissertation is that Fundies jump to an awful lot of conclusions based on one word...or maybe it was 3 words run together. Archaeologist, Bill Dever, regards early iron age denizens of the region as proto-israelites and that is a century after Merneptah. Israel Finkelstein will not even go that far. Who is to say that when the Northern kingdom coalesced, in the 10th century, that they did not simply adopt the usage of the Egyptian period which must have seemed like a Golden Age to them by then. There is not a single other reference to Israel until the Mesha stele, which dates to around 850 BC by which time the name was clearly in use. It's a long time from 1210 to 850. Where the hell were they for that whole time period?

In any case...Merneptah does not claim to have conquered Israel. Moreover, he was apparently so distressed with the "victory" attained by other Egyptian units that he gives it scant coverage. Kind of like Bush glossing over the 4,000 GIs killed in his unsuccessful hunt for Bin Laden.


Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 2:36 pm
by Beagle

Wiki has some more info on the stele, Min, particularly the dating. I'm reading a little about it and can't offer a useful comment right now.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 2:59 pm
by Beagle
Without digging through the Bible to find what what supposedly happening in Israel in 1220 BC (the date of the stele), it seems that this is around 200 yrs. before the reign of King David. I don't believe Israel even had a king at that time.

The stele may well have been referring to a people and not a place. I'll do a little more looking.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 3:15 pm
by Beagle ... _and_Judah

After reading this timeline, in which even Dever is quoted, I would say that the Merneptah Stele is probably accurate. 8)

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 3:28 pm
by Minimalist
The article merely notes the use of the term "Israel." But Merneptah's scribes were not writing in Hebrew...which most likely did not exist as a dialect of Canaanite for several more centuries...they were writing in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

I've seen lots of assertions about what the name "Israel" means in Hebrew. But what does it mean in Egyptian?

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 3:43 pm
by Beagle
I've seen lots of assertions about what the name "Israel" means in Hebrew. But what does it mean in Egyptian?
I don't know of course, but it may be an Egyptian word originally. The only history, if you consider it such, of the word is that when Jacob took his tribe down to Egypt, he was then known as Israel. It doesn't say why iirc.

FM may have more to add. :wink:

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 4:34 pm
by Minimalist
There is no evidence for "Jacob", either. That gets into the whole Hyksos thing.

There is evidence of semitic peoples in Egypt. They weren't Hebrews and they weren't slaves. They were ruling the northern part of the country until about 1550 BC. Finkelstein feels that the whole Exodus myth is derived from them.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 5:04 pm
by Beagle
Nevertheless, the Hyksos theory correlates very well with an exodus of sorts. Only time will tell - although probably a long time as our friend Zahi doesn't permit any "Biblical" archaeology.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 5:09 pm
by Ishtar
But it does make it impossible to say whether it was a story to illustrate the moving of the Sun out of Taurus when we don't know the true date of the story and we don't know when the Hebrews knew about precession.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 5:46 pm
by Minimalist
Beagle wrote:Nevertheless, the Hyksos theory correlates very well with an exodus of sorts. Only time will tell - although probably a long time as our friend Zahi doesn't permit any "Biblical" archaeology.
Under this theory, the Egyptian rulers of 13th Dynasty were unable to stop these new migrants from travelling to Egypt from Asia because they were weak kings who were struggling to cope with various domestic problems including possibly famine.
Those rulers could also have sought assistance from mercenaries to deal with internal political problems and ended up getting bitten by them. In any case, I agree with Finkelstein concerning the timing of the writing of the narrative (7th century BC).

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 9:07 pm
by Beagle
Sorry Min, I had to watch a movie with the wife. :roll:

So far, I don't have an opinion there. We just don't have enough evidence for me to hazard a guess. As you know, I don't have a minimalist or maximalist philosophy on the Bible. I approach it as any other ancient text, and believe that there is real history in there somewhere, no matter how distorted or falsified it may be.

Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2008 9:51 pm
by Minimalist
It's certainly not a settled issue. This passage quotes Dever but from 1992. Among scholars, Dever's position seems to have undergone the most radical alteration. He admitted a year or so ago that after close studying of the Old Testament he had become an agnostic.
Merneptah's Israel and Biblical Israel

Yet even if we were to concede that a people known as Israel existed in the late thirteenth century B.C.E. perhaps located in the Canaanite highlands, this does not, in turn, mean that we have located the Biblical 'ancient Israel'. While there are those scholars who understand Merneptah's Israel as a socioethnic entity that connects, to a greater or lesser exent with the ancient Israel of the Bible (see, for example, R.B. Coote [1990], W.G. Dever [1992a and b], B. Halpern [1992]) there are those who make much less of the stela's reference. Thus, while I. Finkelstein (1991, 1995), N.P. Lemche (1988) T.L. Thompson (1992), N. Na'aman (1994) refer to the stela, they do not see that there is an inevitable and necessary connection with the ancient Israel of the Bible. And there are those (see, for example, Coote & Whitelam [1997], P.R. Davies [1992]), who robustly challenge the view that the stela's reference has anything to do with the ancient Israel of the Bible. Indeed to discuss the biblical Israel in the same terms as Merneptah's Israel is to connect too completely different phenomenon - a historical entity and a storyworld community.

Such reminders reinforce a comment made by Noth who had earlier stated 'It is...impossible to say with any certainty what the "Israel" referred to here actually was in the Palestine of c.1225 B.C.' (1950, E.T., 3).

Posted: Fri Jan 18, 2008 2:02 pm
by kbs2244
He shoots himself in the foot when he uses Acharya's Christ Conspiracy as a reference.


Posted: Sat Jan 19, 2008 11:53 am
by Cognito
There is evidence of semitic peoples in Egypt. They weren't Hebrews and they weren't slaves. They were ruling the northern part of the country until about 1550 BC. Finkelstein feels that the whole Exodus myth is derived from them.
The "Shepherd Kings" of the Hyksos occupation of Lower Egypt from at least 1784bce to circa 1560bce when Ahmose kicked them out. The Hyksos Empire stretched all the way up to Assyria and contained Amorites, Canaanites and other Semitic tribes -- despised by the Egyptians. Two hundred years' occupation by a foreign power.

Posted: Sat Jan 19, 2008 12:20 pm
by Minimalist
Who is "he," kb. I can't follow the reference.