Pharaoh Merenptah’s Victory Stele Revised
Damien F. Mackey
Here, an historical context much later than the conventional one is suggested for the famous Victory Stele of 19th Dynasty pharaoh, Merenptah, son of Ramses II ‘the Great’.
I discussed this subject in some detail in my postgraduate university thesis:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
(Volume One, Chapter 11, pp. 300-305, here slightly modified):
Interpreting Merenptah’s Victory Stele
Sieff’s is thus the only revised version that allows for an Egyptian
victory over Israel that was actually achieved by Merenptah.
Relevant Strophe of Stele [As quoted in D. Rohl’s A Test of Time, p. 168]: ….
“The princes are prostrate, saying ‘Peace!’. Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows. Desolation is for Tjehenu; Hatti is pacified; plundered is Pa-Canaan with every evil; carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer, Yanoam is made non-existent; Israel is laid waste – its seed is no more; Kharru has become a widow because of Egypt. All lands together are pacified. Everyone who was restless has been bound”.
Obviously this, “the first time that Israel is mentioned in Egyptian annals” according to
- Hunt [‘Excursus: Israel and Her Neighbours’, JBC, 11:21] … makes of this stele a document of primary importance for biblical historians.
In (i) conventional history, with Merenptah, son of Ramses II (both 19th dynasty pharaohs), dated to the C13th BC – an era to which the Exodus of Israel and the early Conquest of Canaan are now perhaps thought to belong [P. Newby, 1980, Warrior Pharaohs. The Rise and Fall of the Egyptian Empire, 1980, pp. 175, 182] – the reference to ‘Israel’ in the stele can be interpreted as being either an attack on Israel in the Sinai by the pursuing Egyptian army, or an attack on Israel newly settled in Canaan. Though A. Gardiner, even in his day, could say that [Egypt of the Pharaohs, p. 273]: “The explanations [of the stele] now given are very various”. And this same statement of Gardiner’s can currently be applied, too, to (ii) the revisionist schemes. For example:
– According to Courville, as we have seen, the stele’s inscription pertains to the Assyrian deportation of Samaria in c. 722/721 BC.
– Velikovsky would later look to connect it with the deportation of the Jews to Babylon after the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchednezzar II [Ramses II and His Time, pp. 189-196]. Though Bimson has estimated Velikovsky’s date for the 5th Year of Merenptah at “no earlier than 564 BC … 23 years after the fall of Jerusalem” [‘An Eighth Century Date for Merenptah’, p. 57].
– Bimson thought (at least as late as 1980) that Merenptah’s Stele had pre-dated the fall of Samaria by about a decade, to c. 734-733 BC; it being a reference rather to the earlier Assyrian deportations of Israel by Tiglath-pileser III.861 [Ibid. See also ‘John Bimson replies on the “Israel Stele”,’ pp. 59-61].
– Rohl has in turn dated the conquests described in the stele to those effected by Seti I and Ramses II, his candidate for the biblical ‘Shishak’, himself regarding the stele as being Merenptah’s merely basking in the glory of what these, his great predecessors, had achieved before him. [862 A Test of Time, ch. 7, pp. 164-171].
– And Sieff, as we read, related Merenptah’s victory to what he called the “time of
troubles in the northern kingdom of Israel after the death of Jeroboam II”.
So which of the above, if any, is right?
The weakness of any conventional interpretation of Merenptah’s Stele lies in the fact that such would be, according to what I have written at length about the Sothic dating system (esp. Chapter 1), anachronistic (by about 500 years) to the document itself. We also found that the early wars of Ramses II coincided with chariot-riding Israelites; clearly an anachronism in a conventional context.
For their part the revisionist versions listed here, bar Rohl’s and Sieff’s, suffer from their pertaining to non-Egyptian (namely, Mesopotamian) victories over Israel/Judah. Rohl, whilst he has indeed considered the stele to be a record of Egyptian victories, in line with the conventional view, does not generally attribute these to pharaoh Merenptah himself, but to his more illustrious predecessors. Sieff’s is thus the only revised version that allows for an Egyptian victory over Israel that was actually achieved by Merenptah.
Conventional scholar Day has attempted to bring a note of cold realism to the discussion
by revisionists when he, in a critique of Bimson’s interpretation of the stele as referring
to conquests in Palestine in the 730’s, by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, argued: [‘An Eighth-Century Date for Merenptah? A Colloquium on John Bimson’s Proposals’, p. 58]:
Bimson’s views on the date of Merenptah and the so-called “Israel stele” are no more sound than those of Velikovsky …. First of all I would note that everything supports the view that the oft-quoted lines from the stele refer to an Egyptian victory in Palestine. This is supported by the following: –
(i) The whole stele clearly relates to Merenptah’s victories: cf. the references to his defeat of the “Nine Bows”, the Libyans, Tehenu, etc. earlier in the stele, paralleling the references to the “Nine Bows” and Tehenu in the section in question. It is most natural to suppose that the Palestinian references also therefore relate to Merenptah’s victory.
(ii) This is further supported by the fact that we read that “Hurru [Greater Palestine] is become a widow for Egypt”.
(iii) Immediately following the famous lines cited by Bimson, we read: “Everyone who was restless, he has been bound by the King of Upper Egypt: Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re: Mer-en-ptah hotep-hir-Maat, given life like Re every day”.
The reference here to Merenptah’s binding all who were restless immediately after the famous passage referring to Israel, etc., only makes sense if we are to understand Israel, etc., as having been bound by Merenptah.
(iv) Very interestingly, Merenptah is elsewhere, in an inscription from Amada in Nubia, described as “Binder of Gezer”. This is independent corroboration of Merenptah’s invasion of Palestine, specifically Gezer, as in the “Israel stele”, and on any natural understanding they must refer to the same event.
This is further supported by the fact – unmentioned by Bimson – that the reference to Merenptah as “Binder of Gezer” on the Amada inscription is parallel to a reference to Merenptah as “Seizer of Libya”, the latter certainly referring to his victory over the Libyans in his 5th year, the same event recounted at length in the “Israel stele”….
The reference to the seizing of Gezer on the “Israel stele” in conjunction with the victory over Libya must refer to the same event – Merenptah’s capture of Gezer, not an Assyrian one as Bimson argues. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that if, as Bimson supposes, the invaders are the Assyrians, Merenptah would certainly have no cause to rejoice over it! In the 8th century BC Egypt and Assyria
were deadly rivals, and any Assyrian invasion of Palestine, reaching as far as the very doorstep of Egypt (Ashkelon, Gezer) would represent a threat to Egypt itself, not a thing to rejoice over as in the “Israel stele”.
Though Bimson would vigorously defend his view against Day [‘John Bimson replies on the “Israel Stele”.’] his location of the document to the era of Tiglath-pileser III, in the 730’s BC, is, I believe, somewhat too late. And I would very much doubt if Bimson would stand by his reconstruction today. That leaves us with Sieff and his thesis that the stele pertains to Merenptah’s own victory over Israel, during a time of trouble after the cessation of the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel, when there prevailed in that land a 22-year interregnum. I would accept that Merenptah’s Victory Stele belongs to this approximate time. It is dated to his 5th year [Cf. Gardiner, op. cit, p. 270; B. Trigger et al., Ancient Egypt: A Social History, p. 272] and thus to the era of c. 771 BC according to what I calculated back on p. 288. This would place the Stele right at the end of Israel’s interregnum and close to the very brief rule of the last of the Jehu-ides, Zechariah, for six months in 772 BC.
[End of thesis quotes]
Whilst these dates may yet need some fine tuning, I would accept this as at least very close to the true era for that of the Merenptah Stele, it being more than half a millennium later than the conventional location for it.
Continuing again with my thesis:
My own preferred interpretation of the ‘Israel Stele’ – which accords quite well, at least
chronologically, with Sieff’s view – is that it represents the scene that greeted Merenptah’s army upon Egypt’s return to Israel after more than two decades of hiatus, and shortly after the death of Ramses II. The stele’s celebrated phrase, “Israel[‘s] … seed is no more”, could well be then, as Sieff had noted, a reference to Israel’s then state of kinglessness; a disaster that seems to have been foretold by the prophet Hosea, when he proclaimed: “For the Israelites shall remain many days without a king or prince …” (3:4; cf. 10:3). For some reason, Jeroboam II … had ceased to be present in Israel …. Hosea seems to be referring in part to an Egyptian ‘captivity’ of Israel, when he exclaims: “… their officials shall fall by the sword because of the rage of their tongue. So much for their babbling in the land of Egypt” (7:16); but more especially: “They shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt …” (9:3). “For even if they escape destruction, Egypt shall gather them, Moph [Memphis] shall bury them” (v. 6). Merenptah had in fact “increased the importance of Memphis”, according to Grimal [A History of Ancient Egypt, p. 268.]. Also, as Sieff has written [‘The Libyans in Egypt’, p. 31]: “Hoshea [Hosea], who started to prophesy in Jeroboam II’s reign … predicted a time when “all would be carried into Egypt” as tribute [his ref. is to Hosea 12:1] …”.
The impression that one gets from reading Hosea is that Israel will go once again into captivity in Egypt, as it had of old. Merenptah, it seems, could truly write, upon his campaign arrival in Palestine:
Israel is laid waste – its seed is no more ….