Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just purchased Philip R. Davies’ Memories of Ancient Israel and got a bit of a shock when I read this about the Merneptah Stele:

After mentioning Canaan, and three Canaanite cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam, it runs, “Israel (?) is wasted, its seed is not.” Assuming we have Merneptah’s dates correctly as 1213-1203, and that the reading “Israel” is correct, the reference places an Israel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. The word read (probably correctly) as “Israel” also has a sign indicating a people and not a place. That makes the alternative reading “Jezreel” less likely — though Hebrew “s” and “z” could both be represented by the same Egyptian letter; also, since “Jezreel” is partly made up of the word for “seed,” the inscription could be a pun by a Semitic speaking scribe. It might also be considered that Merneptah would find it easier to fight in the plain of Jezreel than in the highlands. (pp. 90-91)

Why, after so many years of interest in the bible and archaeology, did I not know till now that there was an alternative possible reading to Israel in the Merneptah stele? Other questions have been raised commonly enough, but not that particular one — at least not widely in readily accessible public literature.

Here is one translation with, as per Davies, “Israel (?)” in context:

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.

So well known and “secure” is this monument’s reference to “Israel” that it is even widely known as, simply, the “Israel stele”. The wikipedia article will cast not a shred of doubt on this reading. A cited webpage from that article with a full text and translation is just as dogmatic in its assurance of this reading.

Merenptah Stele (Israel Stele): the photograph...
Image via Wikipedia

This possibility of an alternative reading, even if the majority of scholars and others take the translation “Israel” for granted, is significant and worth drawing to everyone’s attention given the other anomalies associated with the stele and that are well known:

  1. If the monument speaks the truth, that Israel is annihilated, then biblical Israel never got started as a nation. But, of course, exaggeration is common enough in political propaganda — in any age. Alternatively, another people may have taken the name Israel after the demise of those mentioned by Mernepteh.
  2. There is little indication in the stele to inform us about the nature of the reference “Israel”, or the location to which it refers. See my vridar.info notes on the Mernepteh Stele from Davies’ earlier book, In Search of Ancient Israel.
  3. There is no biblical reference to any event involving a clash between Israel and Pharaoh Mernepteh (or any Pharaoh of Egypt) in the thirteenth century. This is, presumably, the time of the biblical “Judges”, or even of the period of Joshua’s conquest.

I have seen so many references to this Mernepteh stele over the years and not once, till this week, did any of them give me the slightest indication that there was simply no room for debate about its reference to “Israel”.

I don’t think I would be the only one who is attracted to the possibility of the original reference being Jezreel, with a pun on the “without seed” beside it — and would be open to suggestions that such a personification in the pun could explain its reference to being a people, not a place.

But this is not the only stele with “issues”. Davies also surfaces many questions over the Shalmaneser (Kurkh) stele, the Sennacherib inscriptions, and even the Hezekiah “Siloam” tunnel supposed-inscription — and others. Will discuss one by one in future posts.

Is it valid to be reminded of religious scholars continuing a proud tradition, that can be traced back to the middle ages, of keeping the lay masses in ignorance?

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele””

  1. I have little knowledge of all that would be relevant to the question of Israel and the Merneptah Slele except that recently I found out it actually doesn’t say “Israel” at all.
    It says something which has been translated as “Israel”.
    Which is not the same thing.

    Look at the description of the finding of the stele courtesy of wiki

    “The stele was discovered in 1896 by Flinders Petrie who located it in the first court of Merneptah’s mortuary temple at Thebes. [2] It is now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, and a fragmentary copy of the stele was also found at Karnak.[3] Flinders Petrie called upon Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philologist 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–“I.si.ri.ar?”[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.”

    I am assuming the description of the discovery is valid [?].

    Note Petrie’s “quickly suggested”, and Spiegelberg’s ready acceptance that such ‘must’ be correct. Despite, before the timely suggestion, being ‘puzzled’.
    If Petrie was not a devout Christian, or if another philologist had been present to suggest, “Well it could be …. or maybe ….” would we today be assailed with the ‘given’ fact that it ‘must’ be Israel so convincingly?
    So readily accepted as a given?

    I believe the ‘word’ so commonly translated as “Israel’ is not known to exist anywhere else??

    Ever looked at an inkblob, or even a cloud, and seen nothing in particular?
    Until someone says “Doesn’t that look like a horse? See the head and the mane and the tail?”
    Hey presto, there’s Pharlap.

    I used to simply accept that Israel rated a mention in the stele.
    Now I’m not so sure.

  2. Jezreel was offered as an alternative in my history and criticism class at Asbury Theological back in ’97. Don’t recall the source but I remember that both Israel and Jezreel had translation issues.

    1. One of the things that motivated me to start this blog was to share with a wider audience the sorts of information that seems all too often “locked away” from the general public in scholarly journals, books and classrooms.

      Science institutions have publicists to inform the public of modern finds and their potential implications, history departments and social scientists also find a number of their specialists writing for the public — but with biblical studies we seem to find too much of such research being filtered through controversial religious interests or very rarely shared publicly at all.

  3. It is too early for the period when Israelites were living in Canaan. That was probably after 1200 BC (after the power struggle between Sethi II and Amenmesse).

    The word “Isrir” in the Mernepteh Stele is preceded by a symbol for a foreign people, whereas the other names (Ashqelon, Gezer, Yenoam) are preceded by the symbol for a city-state. This suggests either a nomadic people, or a foreign people living within their own midst. But destroying the seed (grain) of a nomadic people, or a people within their midst, makes no sense!

    Maybe “seed” has another meaning – as in the reproductive seed of the male. In other words, maybe this refers to the killing of the Israelite male babies. And “Isrir” could refer to Israelites living in Egypt – not slaves, but merely a disenfranchised and marginalized social underclass (the “Chicanoes” of the ancient world).

    1. Do you really think your explanation in your last paragraph fits the context? Cities in Canaan being conquered, and an account of the killing of the Israelite males babies in the middle of this? (Why would “seed” only refer to male children and not to all children, females included?)

  4. ”I.si.ri.ar?” Sounds like the Wikipedia description of the “Shas(h)u of S’rr” to my ear. Syria.

    I do not hear Israel at all. Not do I hear Jezreel, although that would make much more sense literally, as it was the town where the seed was stored.

    Wikipedia: “Shashu”: “Copied later by either Seti I or Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S’rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm’t, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw, and the Shasu of Pysps”.

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