Merneptah Stele—also known as the Israel Stele or the Victory
Stele of Merneptah—is an inscription by the ancient Egyptian king
Merneptah (reign: 1213 to 1203 BC) discovered by
Flinders Petrie in
1896 at Thebes, and now housed in the
Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The text is largely an account of Merneptah's victory over the Libyans
and their allies, but the last 3 of the 28 lines deal with a separate
campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt's imperial possessions. The
stele is sometimes referred to as the "Israel Stela" because a
majority of scholars translate a set of hieroglyphs in line 27 as
"Israel." Alternative translations have been advanced but are not
The stela represents the earliest textual reference to Israel and the
only reference from ancient Egypt. It is one of four known
inscriptions, from iron age, that date to the time of and mention
ancient Israel, under this name, the others being the Mesha Stele, the
Tel Dan Stele, and the Kurkh Monolith. As a result, some
consider the stele to be Flinders Petrie's most famous discovery,
an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.
1 Description and context
2 Lines 26–28
3 Line 27
3.3 Alternative translations
5 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
Description and context
Flinders Petrie's 1897 mirror image copy of the main part of the
inscription (all 28 lines)
The stele was discovered in 1896 by
Flinders Petrie in the ancient
Egyptian capital of Thebes, and first translated by Wilhelm
Spiegelberg. In his "Inscriptions" chapter of Petrie's 1897
publication "Six Temples at Thebes", Spiegelberg described the stele
as "engraved on the rough back of the stele of Amenhotep III, which
was removed from his temple, and placed back outward, against the
wall, in the forecourt of the temple of Merneptah. Owing to the rough
surface, and the poor cutting, the readings in many places require
careful examination... The scene at the top retains its original
colouring of yellow, red, and blue. Amen is shown giving a sword to
the king, who is backed by
Mut on one side and by
Khonsu on the
Now in the collection of the
Egyptian Museum at Cairo, the stele is a
black granite slab, over 3 meters (10 feet) high, and the inscription
says it was carved in the 5th year of
Merneptah of the 19th dynasty.
Most of the text glorifies Merneptah's victories over enemies from
Libya and their Sea People allies, but the final two lines mention a
campaign in Canaan, where
Merneptah says he defeated and destroyed
Ashkalon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel.
Egypt was the dominant power in the region during the long reign of
Merneptah's predecessor, Ramesses the Great, but
Merneptah and one of
his nearest successors, Ramesses III, faced major invasions. The
problems began in Merneptah's 5th year (1208), when a Libyan king
invaded Egypt from the west in alliance with various northern peoples.
Merneptah achieved a great victory in the summer of that year, and the
inscription is mainly about this. The final lines deal with an
apparently separate campaign in the East, where it seems that some of
the Canaanite cities had revolted. Traditionally the Egyptians had
concerned themselves only with cities, so the problem presented by
Israel must have been something new – possibly attacks on Egypt's
vassals in Canaan.
Ramesses III fought off their
enemies, but it was the beginning of the end of Egypt's control over
Canaan – the last evidence of an Egyptian presence in the area is
the name of
Ramesses VI (1141–33) inscribed on a statue base from
Libyans (Tjeḥenu) are described by determinatives: foreign person +
people + foreign country (=state/country of Libyan people)
The bulk of the inscription deals with Merneptah's victory over the
Libyans, but the last 3 of the 28 lines shift to Canaan:
The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.
The "nine bows" is a term the Egyptians used to refer to their
enemies; the actual enemies varied according to time and
circumstance. Hatti and Ḫurru are Syro-Palestine,
Israel are smaller units, and Ashkelon,
Gezer and Yanoam are cities
within the region; according to the stele, all these entities fell
under the rule of the Egyptian empire at that time.
Petrie called upon Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philologist in his
archaeological team, to translate the inscription. Spiegelberg was
puzzled by one symbol towards the end, that of a people or tribe whom
Merneptah (also written Merenptah) had victoriously
smitten—I.si.ri.ar? Petrie quickly suggested that it read "Israel!"
Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct. "Won't
the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie. 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." The
news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English
The line which refers to Israel is:
Gezer and Yanoam are given the determinative for a
city – a throw stick plus three mountains – the hieroglyphs that
refer to Israel instead employ the throw stick (the determinative for
"foreign") plus a sitting man and woman (the determinative for
"people") over three vertical lines (a plural marker):
The determinatives "people" has been the subject of significant
scholarly discussion. As early as 1955, John A. Wilson wrote of the
idea that this determinative means the "'ysrỉꜣr" were a people
that: "The argument is good, but not conclusive, because of the
notorious carelessness of Late- Egyptian scribes and several blunders
of writing in this stela". This sentiment was subsequently built
upon by other scholars.
According to The Oxford History of the biblical World, this "foreign
people" "sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic
groups or peoples, without a fixed city-state home, thus implying a
seminomadic or rural status for 'Israel' at that time."[b] The
phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is formulaic, and often used of defeated
nations – it implies that the grain-store 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.
A portion of line 27, translated as "Israel [foreign people]"
According to James Hoffmeier, "no Egyptologists would ever read the
signs of a foreign ethnic entity as indicating a foreign land, but a
In contrast to this apparent Israelite statelessness, the other
Canaanite groups fought by Egypt: Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yano'am, are
described in the stele as nascent states.
While alternatives to the reading "Israel" have been put forward since
the stele's discovery – the two primary candidates being
"Jezreel", a city and valley in northern Canaan, and a
continuation of the description of
Libya referring to "wearers of the
sidelock"[c] – most scholars accept that
Merneptah refers to
It is not clear, however, just who this Israel was or where they were
located.[e] The reference to Israel in the stele has spawned two
major schools of thought. The traditional schools of thought identify
the 'Israel' in the stele with the Biblical Israel. However, the
inquiries of the miminalist school of thought which doubts the
biblical narrative's antiquity have impacted on the interpretation of
the stele. For the "who", if those depicted on the battle reliefs
Karnak are the Israelites, then Merneptah's Israelites are
therefore Canaanites, because they are depicted in Canaanite costume;
if, on the other hand, the
Karnak reliefs do not show Merneptah's
campaigns, then the stele's Israelites may be "Shasu", a term used by
the Egyptians to refer to nomads and marauders.
Similarly, if Merneptah's claim to have destroyed Israel's "seed"
means that he destroyed its grain supply, then Israel can be taken to
be a settled, crop-growing people; if, however, it means he killed
Israel's progeny, then Israel can be taken to be pastoralists, i.e.,
Shasu. The normative Egyptian use of "wasted, bare of seed" was as
a repeated, formulaic phrase to declare victory over a defeated nation
or people group whom the Egyptian army conquered and had literally
destroyed their grain supply in the specific geographic region that
they inhabited. Michael G. Hasel, arguing that prt on the stele
meant grain, suggested that "Israel functioned as an agriculturally
based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century
BCE" and this in some degree of contrast to nomadic "Shasu"
pastoralists in the region. Others disagree that prt meant grain, and
Edward Lipinski wrote that "the "classical" opposition of nomadic
shepherds and settled farmers does not seem to suit the area
concerned". Hasel also says that this does not suggest that the
Israelites were an urban people at this time, nor does it provide
information about the actual social structure of the people group
identified as Israel. Biblical scholar
Thomas L. Thompson writes
that "this name in the
Merneptah inscription of the late
thirteenth-century might conceivably understand it as the name of a
region, in polarity with the clearly geographical name: Canaan." Also,
"The group "Israel" ... are rather a very specific group among the
population of Palestine which bears a name that occurs here for the
first time that at a much later stage in Palestine's history bears a
substantially different signification." For, "References to the
Merneptah stele are not really helpful. This text renders for us only
the earliest known usage of the name 'Israel.'" So, "to begin the
origins of biblical Israel with
Merneptah ... on the grounds that we
have extra-biblical rather than biblical attestation is willful. These
texts are, mirabile dictu, even less relevant than the biblical
As for its location, most scholars believe that Merneptah's Israel
must have been in the hill country of central Canaan, but some think
it was across the Jordan, others that it was a coalition of Canaanite
settlements in the lowlands of the Jezreel valley (the potential
Israelites on the walls of
Karnak are driving chariots, a weapon of
the lowlands rather than the highlands), and others that the
inscription gives very little useful information at all.
The stele was found in Merenptah's funerary chapel in Thebes, the
ancient Egyptian capital on the west bank of the Nile. On the opposite
bank is the Temple of Karnak, where the fragmentary copy was found. In
the 1970s Frank Yurco announced that some reliefs at
Karnak which had
been thought to depict events in the reign of Ramesses II, Merenptah's
father, in fact belonged to Merenptah. The four reliefs show the
capture of three cities, one of them labelled as Ashkelon; Yurco
suggested that the other two were
Gezer and Yanoam. The fourth shows a
battle in open hilly country against an enemy shown as Canaanite.
Yurco suggested that this scene was to be equated with the Israel of
the stele. While the idea that Merneptah's Israelites are to be seen
on the walls of the temple has had an influence on many theories
regarding the significance of the inscription, not all Egyptologists
accept Yurco's ascription of the reliefs to Merneptah.
List of artifacts significant to the Bible
New Chronology (Rohl)
Tel Dan Stele
^ In the original text, the bird (a sparrow) is placed below the t
sign (a semicircle) but for reasons of legibility, the bird is here
placed next to the t sign.
^ Whether the Egyptian scribes used these determinatives consistently
in general and in the
Merneptah Stele in particular, is in itself a
matter of some debate.
^ Nibbi suggests that the first character in "I.si.ri.ar" was misread
- rather than G1, Nibbi suggests G4, and that such an amendment would
allow the characters to be translated as "wearers of the sidelock",
which refers to Libyans in other sources such as the Book of Gates.
Nibbi supports this by noting that the male figure has an apparent
outgrowth of hair on the side of his head.
^ Hassel (2008): "The view that the term ysry·r/l is a possible
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 Egyptian letter 's' in
the word could also represent the 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 Israel 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)."
^ Davies (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."
^ a b c Drower 1985, p. 221.
^ Redmount 2001, pp. 71–72, 97.
^ Kenton L. Sparks (1998). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel:
Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in
the Hebrew Bible. Eisenbrauns. pp. 96–.
^ Hasel 1998, p. 194.
^ Lemche 1998, pp. 46, 62: “No other inscription from
Palestine, or from Transjordan in the Iron Age, has so far provided
any specific reference to Israel... The name of Israel was found in
only a very limited number of inscriptions, one from Egypt, another
separated by at least 250 years from the first, in Transjordan. A
third reference is found in the stele from Tel Dan - if it is genuine,
a question not yet settled. The Assyrian and Mesopotamian sources only
once mentioned a king of Israel, Ahab, in a spurious rendering of the
^ Maeir, Aren. "Maeir, A. M. 2013. Israel and Judah. Pp. 3523–27,
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. New York: Blackwell". The
earliest certain mention of the ethnonym Israel occurs in a victory
inscription of the Egyptian king MERENPTAH, his well-known “Israel
Stela” (ca. 1210 BCE); recently, a possible earlier reference has
been identified in a text from the reign of Rameses II (see RAMESES
I–XI). Thereafter, no reference to either Judah or Israel appears
until the ninth century. The pharaoh Sheshonq I (biblical Shishak; see
SHESHONQ I–VI) mentions neither entity by name in the inscription
recording his campaign in the southern Levant during the late tenth
century. In the ninth century, Israelite kings, and possibly a Judaean
king, are mentioned in several sources: the Aramaean stele from Tel
Dan, inscriptions of SHALMANESER III of Assyria, and the stela of
Mesha of Moab. From the early eighth century onward, the kingdoms of
Israel and Judah are both mentioned somewhat regularly in Assyrian and
subsequently Babylonian sources, and from this point on there is
relatively good agreement between the biblical accounts on the one
hand and the archaeological evidence and extra-biblical texts on the
^ FLEMING, DANIEL E. (1998-01-01). "MARI AND THE POSSIBILITIES OF
BIBLICAL MEMORY". Revue d'Assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale. 92
(1): 41–78. The Assyrian royal annals, along with the Mesha and Dan
inscriptions, show a thriving northern state called Israël in the
mid—9th century, and the continuity of settlement back to the early
Iron Age suggests that the establishment of a sedentary identity
should be associated with this population, whatever their origin. In
the mid—14th century, the Amarna letters mention no Israël, nor any
of the biblical tribes, while the
Merneptah stele places someone
called Israël in hill-country Palestine toward the end of the Late
Bronze Age. The language and material culture of emergent Israël show
strong local continuity, in contrast to the distinctly foreign
character of early Philistine material culture.
^ The Biblical Archaeologist, American Schools of Oriental Research,
1997, p. 35 .
^ Drower 1995, p. 221.
^ Petrie & Spiegelberg 1897, p. 26.
^ Drews 1995, pp. 18–20.
^ Sparks 1998, pp. 96–97.
^ FitzWilliam Museum, UK: Ancient Egypt .
^ a b Smith 2002, p. 26.
^ ANET, 378 n. 18
^ Michael G. Hasel (9 June 2011). "The Battle Of Kadesh: Identifying
New Kingdom Polities, Places, And Peoples In
Canaan And Syria". In S.
Bar; D. Kahn; J.J. Shirley. Egypt,
Canaan and Israel: History,
Imperialism, Ideology and Literature: Proceedings of a Conference at
the University of Haifa, 3-7 May 2009. BRILL. p. 67.
doi:10.1163/ej.9789004194939.i-370.27. ISBN 90-04-19493-2.
^ a b c Redmount 2001, p. 97.
^ J.K. Hoffmeier, ‘The Egyptian Origins of Israel: Recent
Developments in Historiography," in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider,
William H.C. Propp (eds.) Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary
Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience, Springer,
2015 pp.196-208 p.202.
^ Archeology of the Hebrew Bible
^ Eissfeldt 1965, p. 14: "Unfortunately, even the supposed
earliest mention of the name Israel in the triumphal hymn of Merenptah
composed about 1230 b.c. does not provide any unambiguous answer to
this question, for this name may also be explained as Jezreel."
^ Margalith 1990, p. 225.
^ Strahan 1896, p. 624.
^ Nibbi 1989, p. 101.
^ Hasel 2008, p. 47-60.
^ Dermot Anthony Nestor,Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity,
Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2010 p.191:'while the
Merneptah stele may
indeed prove beyond doubt that shortly before 1200 B.C.E. Egyptian
intelligence either encountered or was informed of an inimical
"Israel" residing in the highlands of Palestine, and that it was
considered significant enough to warrant inclusion in the only known
Merneptah in this region, any attempt by biblical scholars
to translate this practical category into the substantialist idiom of
an internally homogeneous, externally bounded group which serves to
demarcate the evolution of that singular, regulative and constituting
cultural tradition identified textually and archaeologically as
"Israel" simply cannot be sustained.'
^ Davies 2008, p. 90-91.
^ Kenton L. Sparks (1998). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel:
Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in
the Hebrew Bible. Eisenbrauns. pp. 95–.
^ Whitelam 1997, p. 26, fn. 16.
^ Killebrew 2005, p. 154.
^ a b Hasel, Michael G. (1994), "Israel in the
BASOR, 296 (12): 54, 56 .
^ Lipinski, Edward (2006). On the Skirts of
Canaan in the Iron Age:
Historical and Topographical Researches. Peeters. p. 60.
^ Early History of the Israelite People, Thomas L. Thompson, pp. 139,
311 and 404. Quote: "With the "Israel" stele we have only a name in an
historical context in which the shifting signification and dislocation
of regional and gentilic toponymy over centuries is a commonplace"
^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 115–16.
^ Killebrew 2005, p. 155.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Merenptah Stele.
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