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:
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.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.
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.
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.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
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 Hittites...in 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.