An old inscription receives a fresh look that may reveal evidence for the date of the Israelite Exodus.
The biblical text indicates the Israelite exodus from Egypt took place in the fifteenth century (mid-1400’s) B.C., but some scholars argue for a date almost two centuries later based on some archaeological evidence. Late-date scholars put the Exodus in the time of Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century. This is the view typically found in the movies. (Seen “Prince of Egypt” lately?) Supporters of the early, 15th century date have suggested various candidates for “The” Pharaoh. The Bible does not actually name the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
Extra-biblical evidence for an exodus is fragmentary. The Egyptians omitted things in their own records that reflected weakness or defeat, so it is no surprise the Pharaohs were silent on the matter. The earliest known extra-biblical evidence of Israel is in a late-13th century inscription known as the Merneptah Stele. Merneptah was Ramses II’s son who reigned ca. 1213 – 1203 B.C. The inscription describes the naturally-glorious success of his military campaign. His list of conquered peoples includes an Israel in Canaan. The hieroglyphs indicate this Israel was not a political state, but a people. This supports the biblical chronology that a pre-monarchical “Israel” was in Canaan, able to be recognized by Egypt in the late 13th century.
The Associates for Biblical Research has recently published an article on another Egyptian inscription, the Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief, that may indicate an even earlier mention of Israel. It dates to the 13th century – Ramses II’s time – but appears to have been copied from a 14th or 15th century inscription.
[The] source is an inscription housed in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin…
The inscription is comprised of three name rings superimposed on Western Asiatic prisoners, the rightmost of which is only partly preserved due to substantial damage… Above the heads of the prisoners is a partial band of hieroglyphs which reads “…one who is falling on his feet…” The inscription was first published in 2001 by Manfred Görg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Theology and Egyptology at the University of Munich…
The first two names are easily read—Ashkelon and Canaan. The name on the right, however, is less certain. Görg restored the right name as Israel and dated the inscription to the reign of Ramesses II… based on a similarity of names to those on the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1210 BC).1 Görg also concluded, based on the spellings of the names, that they were copied from an earlier inscription from around the time of Amenhotep II (ca. 1453–1419). Israeli Egyptologist Raphael Giveon previously dated the inscription to the reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1386–1349 BC). If these two scholars are right, this extra-Biblical Egyptian inscription would place Israel in Canaan at about the time of the Biblical date for the Conquest.
Görg and two other German scholars have re-analyzed the inscription and published their updated findings. They confirm the original conclusions.
The authors point out that the names Ashkelon and Canaan largely were written consonantally and thus are closer to Eighteenth Dynasty examples from the reigns of Tuthmosis III (ca. 1504–1450 BC) and Amenhotep II, than to those from the times of Ramesses II and Merenptah. In addition, ethnic renderings (“Canaanites”) in the inscriptions of Amenhotep II are similar to the name on the Berlin fragment, providing further evidence for an early date.
There is a question of spelling in this inscription, which amounts to “Ishrael” instead of the normal “Israel”. The article notes one scholar’s objection based on this difference but suggests possible explanations.
If this 13th century inscription reads “Israel” and was copied from an earlier text, we have evidence that Israel was established in Canaan according to the timeline in the Bible text, well before the 13th century B.C.
On a side note… this inscription was discovered in the late 1800’s, yet researchers are gleaning fresh information from it in the early 21st century. There are literally hundreds of thousands of ancient texts sitting in museums, waiting to be properly researched and published. Only a small number of people are qualified to do this, hence the slow pace. How much fresh information is sitting in a box or on a shelf, waiting for someone to finally get to it?
(I understand the backlog these scholars face. I’ve been sitting on this story for more than a week but have been too busy to get to it.)