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The Merneptah Stele (also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah) is the reverse of a stele originally erected by the Ancient EgyptiankingAmenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah in the thirteenth century BCE. The stela was made to commemorate a victory in a campaign against the Labu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but a short portion of the text is devoted to a campaign in the Levant. It was discovered at Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes and is now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo; a copy of the stela was also found at Karnak. It stands some ten feet tall, and its text is mainly 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, and begins with a laudatory recital of Merneptah's achievements in battle.
The stela has gained much notoriety and fame for being the only Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Israel". It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele". This title is perhaps somewhat erroneous as the stela is clearly not about Israel—it mentions it only in passing. There is only one line about Israel—"Israel is wasted, bare of seed" or "Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists"—and very little about the region of Canaan as a whole, as Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns and multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans.
There is disagreement over whether or not Merneptah actually did campaign in Canaan and didn't just merely recount what was there, mirroring later Assyrian documents that could never admit that Assyria could lose. 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 in fact lost it. On the flip side, if taken literally, Merneptah may have faced a revolt in this region that he crushed, meaning that Merneptah's control over Caanan was most likely precarious at best.
Mention of Israel
As the stela mentions just one line about Israel, it is difficult for scholars to draw a substantial amount of information about what "Israel" means in this stela. The stela does point out that Israel, at this stage, refers to a people since a hieroglyphic determinative for "country" is absent regarding Israel (whereas the other areas had the determinative for "country" applied to them). However, after that there is not much else that can be concluded about Israel at this time.
A theory by Donald Redford states that "Israel" was a band of Bedouin-like wanderers known to Egyptians as "Shasu". Redford notes that among the Shasu in a 15th century BCE list is one labelled "Yhw- in the land of the Shasu", thus providing a possible explanation for the origin of Israel. As far as what "Israel" became after that, there is little that can be drawn. The next extra-Biblical source about Israel, detailing a campaign against Moab by Omri, appears some 300 years later in the Mesha Stele, and Biblically-speaking, the 200 years between the stele and the foundation of the Kingdom of Israel by Saul in c.1000 BCE are treated in a rather cursory manner, leaving much in the air over how Israel became a kingdom. Regardless, the stele becomes an important source for Israelite history simply because it is the first official record in history of an "Israel", even if this record does not explain much.
Görg, Manfred. 2001. "Israel in Hieroglyphen." Biblische Notizen: Beiträge zur exegetischen Diskussion 106:21–27.
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.
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*.