Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele (JE 31408) from the Cairo Museum.

The Merneptah Stele — also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah — is an inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah (reign:1213 to 1203 BC), which appears on the reverse side of a granite stele erected by the king Amenhotep III. It was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes.

The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel". It is the earliest known attestation of the demonym Israelite. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele".



Libyans (Tjeḥenu) are described by determinatives: foreign person + people + foreign country (=state/country of Libyan people)

The black granite stela primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others.[1]


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, Spiegelberg was puzzled by the mention of one symbol, that of a people or tribe whom Merenptah had victoriously smitten--""[4] Petrie quickly suggested that it read: "Israel!"[4] Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct. "Won't the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie.[4] 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."[4]

It was the first mention of the word "Israel" in an Ancient Egyptian text and the news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English papers.'[4]

The stela has a height of 3.18 m (10.4 ft) and a width of 1.63 m (5 ft 4 in).[5] Its text is mainly composed of a prose report with a poetic finish, mirroring other Egyptian New Kingdom stelae of the time. The stela is dated to Year 5, 3rd month of Shemu (summer), day 3 (c.1209/1208 BC), and begins with a laudatory recital of Merneptah's achievements in battle.

Mention of Israel

This title "Israel Stele" is somewhat misleading because the stele only makes a brief mention of Israel and Canaan. The next ascertained mention of "Israel" dates to the 9th century BC, found on the Mesha Stele.

The line mentioning Israel is grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in a single stanza, beside multiple stanzas regarding his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.[6]

The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is formulaic, and often used of defeated nations. It implies that the store of grain of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.

"Israel is laid waste; its seed is no more."
i i z
Z1s Z1s
i A r
T14 A1 B1

ysrỉꜣr[8] fk.t bn pr.t =f
Israel waste [negative] seed/grain his/its

The stela does make clear that "Israel" at this stage refers to a people or tribal confederation, the Ancient Israelites, and not a kingdom or city state, since the determinative used is that for "foreign people", not that for "country".[9]

Israel is wasted, its seed is no longer.

While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed besides Israel in this document such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam 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 or rural population at the time the stele was created.[3]

Alternative Translations

The translation as "Israel" remains the view of the majority of historians, however a number of alternative readings for the text "" have been suggested and debated. The most common alternative suggested is that of Jezreel (city) or the Jezreel Valley,[10][11] [12] which remains an area of academic debate despite having been considered as an alternative ever since the stele was discovered in 1896.[13][14] Other scholars believe the reference is to not a place but a reference to the Libyans within Egypt with the symbols translating directly to 'the wearers of a sidelock'.[15][16]

Historian Philip R. Davies noted in 2008:

"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."[17]

Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University, noted in 2008:

"The view that the term ysry·r/l is a possible territory within Canaan but not associated with biblical Israel was proposed by Othniel Margalith (1990). His conclusions are based on the suggestion by G. R. Driver (1948: 135) that the Egyptians could also represent Hebrew zayin. Accordingly, the name ysry·r/l could be translated as Iezreel “which might be an inexperienced way of rendering Yezreel, the valley to the north of the country” (Margalith 1990: 229). As others have pointed out elsewhere, Margalith’s attempts to identify the entity ysry·r/l with Isarel or Jezreel through Ugaritic vocalizations and a Sumerian title of a king are not convincing for an Egyptian inscription with a clear context for this entity in Canaan (Hasel 1994: 46; 1998a: 196–97; compare Kitchen 1966a: 91)." and "The suggestion of equating the ysry·r/l of the stela with Jezreel has now been taken up anew by I. Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson (2002: 14) without any reference to earlier discussions. The identification is rife with difficulties. First, the Egyptian signs for “bolt” (Gardiner 1957: 507, O34) and “folded cloth” (Gardiner 1957: 507, S29) in Old Egyptian represented the sound s. In the New Kingdom, Hebrew zayin is rendered q or t in Egyptian and not s (Kitchen 1966a: 91, 1966b 59; Helck 1971: 18, 554, 589). Second, ysry·r/l does not include the Egyptian equivalent of ayin needed for the reading yzrªl. Third, the reading “Jezreel” must assume that the determinative for people used with ysry·r/ l was a scribal error, because it does not fit the designation of a geographical location. The orthographic and philological reasons mitigate the reading of ysry·r/ l as Jezreel (see also Kitchen 2004)."[18]

Merneptah's campaign

There is disagreement over whether or not Merneptah did actually campaign in Canaan and did not merely recount what was there, similar to later Assyrian documents that never admitted that Assyria had lost in battle. This argument holds some weight, as a stela by Merneptah's predecessor Ramesses II about the Battle of Kadesh indicates firm control of the Levant, making it strange that Merneptah had to reconquer it – unless Merneptah had faced a revolt in this region that he felt compelled to crush in order to exert's Egypt's authority over Canaan. In this case, Merneptah's control over Canaan was precarious at best.

Link to the Shasu

Donald Redford states that "Israel" was a band of Bedouin-like wanderers known to Egyptians as "Shasu" citing a link at the Soleb temple of Amenhotep III to "Yhw- in the land of the Shasu", which has been considered[citation needed] an early form of tetragrammaton.

This proposed link between the Israelites and the Shasu is undermined, however, by the fact that in the Karnak battle reliefs the Israelites are not depicted as Shasu, but wear the same clothing and have the same hairstyles as the Canaanites, who are shown defending the fortified cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam.[19]

Significance of Israel's mention

Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University argues that Israel was already a well established political force in Canaan in the late 13th century BCE:

"Israel functioned as an agriculturally based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century BCE, one that is significant enough to be included in the military campaign against political powers in Canaan. While the Merneptah stela does not give any indication of the actual social structure of the people of Israel, it does indicate that Israel was a significant socioethnic entity that needed to be reckoned with."[20]

However, Prof. Ze'ev Herzog of the Archaeology Faculty at the University of Tel Aviv, asserts that there is no evidence in the archaeological record that Israel was a powerful force, whether at the time of the stele's creation or at any other time during that general period. In his article "Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho", appearing in Ha'aretz (29 October 1999), he calls the mention of Israel on the stele a reference to a "population group" writing:

"The term "Israel" was given to one of the population groups that resided in Canaan toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, apparently in the central hill region, in the area where the Kingdom of Israel would later be established..."[21]

There is a copy of the stele in the Harvard Semitic Museum.

See also


  1. ^ Carol A. Redmount, 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan, (Oxford University Press: 1999), p.97
  2. ^ Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, (1995), pp.183-184
  3. ^ a b Redmount, p.97
  4. ^ a b c d e Margaret Drower, Flinders Petrie (1985). A life in Archaeology. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. p. 221. 
  5. ^ Alessandro Bongioanni & Maria Croce (ed.), The Treasures of Ancient Egypt: From the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Universe Publishing, a division of Ruzzoli Publications Inc., 2003. p.186
  6. ^ The Victory Stela of Merneptah
  7. ^ In the original text, the bird (a swallow) is placed below the t sign (a semicircle) but for reasons of legibility, the bird is here placed next to the t sign.
  8. ^ According to Flinders Petrie.
  9. ^ The throw stick
    being the determinative for "foreign", and the sitting man and woman
    A1 B1
    the determinative for "people".
  10. ^ Encyclopaedia Biblica, Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religion History, the Archeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible. 1899. 
  11. ^ Bryant G. Wood (1995). "What has archaeology taught us about the origins of Israel?". Associates for Biblical Research. Retrieved 17 January 2011. 
  12. ^ Margalith, Othniel (1990). "On the Origin and Antiquity of the Name Israel". Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 102 (2): 225–237. doi:10.1515/zatw.1990.102.2.225. 
  13. ^ Strahan, A (1896). "The contemporary review". The Contemporary Review 69: 624–626. Retrieved 19 Jan 2011. 
  14. ^ Metcalfe, William Musham; Erskine, Ruaraidh (1897). "The Scottish review". The Scottish review 29: 125. Retrieved 19 Jan 2011. 
  15. ^ Nibbi, Alessandra (1989). Canaan and Canaanite in ancient Egypt. Discussions in Egyptology. p. 101. ISBN 0951070444. Retrieved 19 Jan 2011. 
  16. ^ Ralph W. Klein, Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor of Old Testament 1983-2008. "The Merneptah Stela". Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Retrieved 17 January 2011. 
  17. ^ Davies, Philip R (2008). Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History--Ancient and Modern. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-0664232887. Retrieved 19 Jan 2011. 
  18. ^ Michael G. Hasel, Southern Adventist University (2008). "Merenptah’s Reference to Israel: Critical Issues for the Origin of Israel". Critical Issues in Early Israelite History Edited by Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr.. Retrieved 17 January 2011. 
  19. ^ Stager, Lawrence E., "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel" in Michael Coogan ed. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford University Press, 2001. p.92
  20. ^ M. G. Hasel, "Israel in the Merneptah Stela," BASOR 296, 1994, pp.54 & 56, n.12.
  21. ^ - Deconstructing the walls of Jericho


  • Coogan, Michael D., 1999. The Oxford History of the Biblical Word, Oxford University Press
  • Görg, Manfred (2001). "Israel in Hieroglyphen". Biblische Notizen: Beiträge zur exegetischen Diskussion 106: 21–27. 
  • Hasel, Michael G. (1994). "Israel in the Merneptah Stela". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 296: 45–61. 
  • Hasel, Michael G. 1998. Domination and Resistance: Egyptian Military Activity in the Southern Levant, 1300–1185 BC. Probleme der Ägyptologie 11. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-10984-6
  • Hasel, Michael G. 2003. "Merenptah's Inscription and Reliefs and the Origin of Israel" in Beth Alpert Nakhai ed. The Near East in the Southwest: Essays in Honor of William G. Dever, pp. 19–44. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 58. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research. ISBN 0-89757-065-0
  • Hasel, Michael G. (2004). "The Structure of the Final Hymnic-Poetic Unit on the Merenptah Stela". Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116: 75–81. doi:10.1515/zatw.2004.005. 
  • Kitchen, Kenneth Anderson (1994). "The Physical Text of Merneptah's Victory Hymn (The 'Israel Stela')". Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 24: 71–76. 
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. Ramesside Inscriptions, Translated & Annotated Translations. Volume 4: Merenptah & the Late Nineteenth Dynasty. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003. ISBN 0-631-18429-5
  • Kuentz, Charles (1923). "Le double de la stèle d'Israël à Karnak". Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale 21: 113–117. 
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. 1976. Ancient Egyptian Literature, A Book of Readings. Volume 2: The New Kingdom. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Manassa, Colleen. 2003. The Great Karnak Inscription of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the Thirteenth Century BC. Yale Egyptological Studies 5. New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Yale University. ISBN 0-9740025-0-X
  • Redford, Donald Bruce. 1992. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Redmount, Carol A. 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed: Michael D. Coogan, (Oxford University Press: 1999),
  • Stager, Lawrence E. 1985. "Merenptah, Israel and Sea Peoples: New Light on an Old Relief." Eretz Israel: Archaeological, Historical and Geographic Studies 18:56*–64*.
  • Stager, Lawrence E. 2001. "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel" in Michael Coogan ed. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pp. 90–129. New York: Oxford University Press.

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