Pharaoh Merenptah’s so-called ‘Israel’ Stele
Damien F. Mackey
Considers the controversies raging about the dating and meaning of the famous Victory Stele of pharaoh Merenptah - son of Ramses II ‘the Great’ - thought to include a mention of “Israel”.
I discussed this fascinating subject in some detail in my university thesis:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
(Volume One, Chapter 11, pp. 300-305: “Interpreting Merenptah’s Victory Stele”).
Whilst I am now inclined to reconsider much of what I then wrote, I shall reproduce below, with a few comments, the parts of my discussion that I would still consider to be of relevance.
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.
Comment: To be considered later is whether in fact “Israel” is even mentioned in the original version of this ancient Egyptian document.
I then proceeded to distinguish between the conventional interpretations of the Stele (i) and the vastly different revisionist assessments of it (ii), the latter of which even differing fairly significantly the one from the other:
But today, particularly with revisionist scholars adding their point of view about the import of this stele to the conventional one(s), there are now various datings – hence interpretations – amongst which to sort, in order to try to ascertain to which era, precisely, Merenptah and his famous stele actually belonged. For example:
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. …. [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. […. 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”.
[End of quotes]
What to make of all of this?
We can see from the above that estimates for the dating of pharaoh Merenptah’s Stele range from a conventional dating of c. 1200 BC to a revisionist one (Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky’s) of c. 560 BC – a difference of more than half a millennium!
What I can confidently assert, as a revisionist who has probed the Procrustean bed of the Sothic system upon which Egyptian history has been ‘racked, tortured’ and stretched – see e.g. my:
is that the conventional system’s dating of pharaoh Merenptah and his Stele is hopelessly inaccurate. Continuing with what I wrote in my thesis:
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.
[End of quote]
That leaves us free now to attempt an evaluation of the various revisionist views.
Continuing on with my thesis, I wrote:
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”.
…. Bimson would vigorously defend his view against Day [‘John Bimson replies on the “Israel Stele”.’] ….
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.
Comment: At the time of writing this I had favoured Sieff’s assessment over any of the others. Sieff, and I then, too, were following Martin Anstey’s chronology according to which the reign of Jeroboam II was followed by “a 22-year interregnum”, as said above.
That may need some reconsideration.
Continuing on with what Sieff (and I, in part) thought, I wrote:
…. 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 …. The stele’s celebrated phrase, “Israel[‘s] … seed is no more” … 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). …. 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 ….
[End of quotes]
But is this what pharaoh Merenptah actually had inscribed upon his Stele?
According to some interpreters, it is not “Israel”, but “Jezreel”, that was intended.
Whilst one scholar goes so far as to suggest that “Israel” here may be a forgery.
Whilst “Egypt” is frequently referred to in the Bible, according to Dr. Ashraf Ezzat, “Israel” is hardly at all referred to in the ancient Egyptian records (https://abdotounsi.com/2012/03/19/in-ancient-egypt-canaan-revisited-without-israel-bydr-ashraf-ezzat/):
In Ancient Egypt, Canaan revisited without Israel
Did you know that Egypt is mentioned in the Holy Bible approximately 700 times (Egypt: 595 times, Egyptian(s): 120 times).
Obviously, Egypt must have played a vital role in the history of the Hebrews otherwise it wouldn’t have been such a recurring theme in the Jewish holy book.
Egypt was, and still is, the magnificent overture to the Israelites’ story. Take Egypt out and the whole structure of the Israelites’ tale would instantly fall.
The land of the Nile has been the theater for the Israelites’ epic stories of alleged enslavement, divine retaliation, wandering in the wilderness and finally a breath-taking and logic-defying exit.
But on the other hand, do you know how many times Israel or the Israelites were mentioned in the ancient Egyptian records? … Well, and according to history and the ancient Egyptian meticulous records – get ready for the surprise– once or … maybe none at all.
Once mentioned but never again
The only time Israel was mentioned in the ancient Egyptian texts, the most meticulous and coherent of the world’s ancient civilizations and which covered the chronicles of nearly 3000 years, was in Merneptah Stele, a black granite slab engraved with a description of the victories of king Merneptah– son of the great Ramses II- in a military campaign against the Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines, line 26 & 27, refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in the Near East.
Comment: I, however, have argued that the biblical Solomon himself, for one, features most prominently in the Egyptian records, as Senenmut (18th dynasty):
Solomon and Sheba
Dr. Ezzat continues:
The stele which dates to about 1208 BC was discovered by renowned British archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Thebes in 1896.
The Inscription contains a hymn and a list of the Pharaoh’s military victories. A tribe, whom Merenptah had victoriously smitten”I.si.ri.ar?”Or as Petrie quickly suggested that it read: “Israel!” is on the list of conquests. The mention of Israel is very short; it simply says, “Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.”
…. However, a number of alternative readings for the text “I.si.ri.ar” have been suggested and debated. The most common alternative suggested is that of Jezreel (city) or the Jezreel Valley.
This was the first extra-biblical Egyptian source to mention the tribe of Israel and the last one for that matter.
Yes, maybe the tribe, not the kingdom, of Israel had been mentioned in King Merneptah Stele, but it was ascertained to be completely devastated and existed no more. Interestingly enough, the Israelites were depicted (with distinctive hieroglyphs) in the Egyptian stele as Bedouins/nomads who were always on the move and who never settled in one place/city- contrary to the Israelite story of invasion and settlement they have been raving about during long centuries of silent Egyptian records- the ancient Egyptian writing, Hieroglyphs, has been deciphered in 1822 by Jean Francois Champollion
Israel in hieroglyphs (in Merneptah Stele )
While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed besides Israel in Merneptah stele such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam (cities to be inhabited later by pelset/philistines) were given the determinative for a city-state—”a throw stick plus three mountains designating a foreign country”—the hieroglyphs that refer to Israel instead employ the determinative sign used for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic tribes without a fixed city-state, thus implying that ysrỉꜣr “Israel” was the demonym for a seminomadic population who were always on the move at the time the stele was created.
[End of quote]
Most interesting here is Dr. Ezzat’s comment: “Or as Petrie quickly suggested that it read: “Israel!”, especially in the light of professor Joseph Davidovits view, to follow, that the celebrated Flinders Petrie had actually forged “Israel” into the ancient document (https://www.davidovits.info/error-or-forgery-on-the-stele-of-merneptah-known-as-israel-stele/):
On 29 Juil 2010
The stele of Merneptah contains the oldest mention of Israel in an extra-biblical document. Flinders Petrie discovered it in 1896, at Thebes, Egypt, in Merneptah’s mortuary temple. Merneptah was the son of Ramses II. The stele describes the military campaign undertaken in 1207 B.C. against the Libyans, and, eventually a campaign to Canaan by which a group of people named Israel would have been destroyed. One reads in lines 26 to 28 of this stele, according to the official translation: The princes are prostrate, they say: let us be in peace! Nobody any more raises the head among the Nine Arcs. Tehenu is destroyed; Khati (Hittites) are in peace; Canaan is captive like its demons, Ashkelon is conquered; Gezer is captured; Yanoam became non-existent; Israel is devastated, it does not have more seed; Kharu became the widow of Egypt. All these countries are pacified. All those, which were in revolt were subdued by the king of Egypt of North and the South…
Since its discovery in 1896, the biblical historians of any obedience have tried to demonstrate the validity of the destruction of Israel by the armies of Pharaoh. However this interpretation is false and the polemical discussions around it have no grounds.
The hieroglyphic reading of the word translated by Israel is “ iisii-r-iar ” and, in my book, I largely extended on its meaning. I have demonstrated that « iisii-r-iar » is in fact an egyptian sentence meaning: those exiled because of their sin. Pharaohs Ramsès II and Merneptah used this sentence when talking about the exiled Akhenaton’s followers, forced to quit Egypt. The name of this people iisii-r-iar changed into Israël, through the alteration of the letter r into l.
I had however omitted a detail, discussed in this present article. It relates to the sentence Yanoam became non-existent, which directly precedes the mention “ iisii-r-iar ”. As I will show it here, this translation is entirely false, because it results from the falsification of one hieroglyphic sign.
To begin with, let us look at the transliteration of line 27 of the stele, published in 1909 (cf: P. Lacau, Steles of the new empire (general Catalogue of Egyptian antiquities of the Museum of Cairo, Cairo, 1909):
Line 27, reading from left to right, with the mention “sic”
We notice that in the sentence Yanoam became non-existent a group of hieroglyphs (the eye Re + the vulture aa) is not translated, but is marked sic. The transcription of the hieroglyph represented by the bird vulture is thus doubtful, just like the sentence Yanoam became non-existent. Consequently, the significance of the remainder of the line, in particular the part comprising “ iisii-r-iar”, Israel, is also doubtful.
The tracing with chalk
The engraving of the hieroglyphs on this stele is rather coarse. This explains why, since its discovery by Flinders Petrie in 1896, one over-traced them with a chalk stick, in order to highlight them and to facilitate their reading.
Chalk tracing on the hieroglyphs of the line containing sic, photograph of the original, reading from right to left. (click on the figure to enhance it)
The drawing with chalk of the vulture aa is precise, however it carries the mention: doubtful reading sic. When I began the study of this stele, at the end of the Nineties, I wondered why this vulture transcription posed problem, and was not translated. I did not find any answer in the literature, although there are nearly 200 articles published on the Israel Stele. During our last visit to the Cairo Museum, I had asked my son Ralph to photograph this particular part of the stele, under the best possible conditions, by accentuating any contrasts, in order to visualize the true engraving of this hieroglyph sic.
Error or forgery ?
In the photograph below one compares the letter aa (the vulture) in the upper line 26, marked A, with the same letter in line 27 (sic), marked B.
Tracing with chalk of the hieroglyph aa in the upper line 26 and the one in line 27 containing sic, photograph of the original, reading from right to left. (click on the figure to enhance it).
We notice that for the letter marked A, the white chalk drawing follows perfectly the engraving of the hieroglyph (the vulture). On the contrary, for the letter (sic) marked B, the chalk drawing of the neck and the head of the vulture continues outside of the carving. Thus, the engraving does not correspond to this letter aa. It is a forgery.
Now, let us look closer to the engraving of the letter marked B (sic) and highlight in red the contour of the engraving of this letter sic.
The red contour of the engraving of the hieroglyph suggests that of an owl, i.e. the letter m, and not the letter aa (click on the figure to enhance it).
We can now propose a reading of the missing word that was not translated until now. We read: rem-m and we translate into tears.
New reading and its consequences
The hieroglyphs group m tem wun may be separated in two parts due to the presence of the papyrus roller preceding the rabbit (wun). The sentence Yanoam became non-existent is changed into /iinaamm rem-m tem/wun iisii-r-iar (people)/, and the new translation suggests: Yanoam tears are finished; existing is iisi-r-iar, the people.
New translation of line 27 of the Merneptah Stele with highlighted punctuation (rectangles).
The falsification of the letter m (owl) into the letter aa (vulture) was probably the fact of the discoverer of the stele, Flinders Petrie, in 1896. From the beginning, he and his colleagues traced this hieroglyph with chalk in this way, because, in their mind, Pharaoh Merneptah must have attacked and destroyed Canaan nations, in his chase of the people of Exodus, Israel.
In the edited line 27, the people iisii-r-iar (Israel) are not devastated. On the contrary, they exist. This new translation is in agreement with the teaching of Egyptology. One knows that the armies of Merneptah neither attacked nor crushed the nations and people of Canaan, since their action was limited to Libya, in the North-West of Egypt. Merneptah quite simply makes the report of the general situation of Egypt and its neighbors, Canaan included. The mention, line 27, according to which Israel does not have any more seeds (cereals) thus resulted from the falsification of the text. It relates rather to the people mentioned in the next sentence, namely Kharu, i.e. the Hittites. This interpretation is proven by archaeology. It is known that Merneptah dispatched cereals from Egypt to the starving Hittites (Khati and Kharu), victim of a famine.
Nevertheless, this chalk trace was maintained on the Merneptah Stele, until today. To my knowledge, no Egyptologist, nor biblical historian, ever called into question the reading (rather the non-reading) of this forged hieroglyph.