The Merneptah Stele is a hieroglyphic inscription on stone that attests to Israel’s presence in Canaan in the late-1200’s BC, during the biblical period of the Judges. The inscription was made by Pharaoh Merneptah who reigned over Egypt from ca. 1213 – 1203 BC. Merneptah was son and heir of the famous Ramses II who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC.
The stele was contemporary with Merneptah’s reign and declares his military exploits against various enemies. (Ancient Egyptians referred to their enemies collectively as the “Nine Bows.”) Most of the inscription describes Merneptah’s defeat of the Libyans but the latter portion names vanquished enemies in Canaan. For Bible students, lines twenty-six to twenty-eight are the most interesting.
The princes are prostrate, saying “Peace!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified
Plundered is Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon;
Seized upon is Gezer;
Yenoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Kharu has become a widow because of Egypt!
All lands together are pacified.”
“Israel” is listed with Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam – all cities in Canaan. However, the name of Israel is the only one of these followed by the hieroglyphic symbol that denotes a people rather than a political unit. In other words, Egypt saw these enemies as political (governed) territories but recognized Israel separately as an ethnic or social group. This distinction shows that Egypt regarded Israel as a non-politicized, non-centralized people in or around Canaan in the late-thirteenth century BC.
Israel’s identification as a non-centralized people is consistent with the Bible’s description of this time period. The book of Judges contains accounts of Israel in Canaan from the early fourteenth century to the eleventh century. The text describes distinct Canaanite polities (city-states), headed by kings, existing among the various tribes of Israel. “Ephraim [the tribe] did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer [the city-state], so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.” (Judge. 1:29) This and other statements in Judges agree with Pharaoh Merneptah’s depiction of Israel as a non-politicized people in Canaan during the 13th century BC.
The Merneptah Stele may be the earliest inscriptionary evidence we have for Israel, though another inscription may now be vying for that. Either way, the Merneptah Stele supports the biblical accounts of pre-monarchical “Israel” in Canaan, able to be recognized by Egypt, in the late 1200’s BC.