Merneptah Stele, Cairo Museum: Egyptologist & OT scholar James Hoffmeier; Proof of Israel in Canaan


Merneptah Stele, Cairo Museum: Egyptologist & OT scholar James Hoffmeier; Proof of Israel in Canaan

The Merneptah Stele (Cairo 34025) found in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt, is commented upon by leading Egyptologist, Biblical and Old Testament scholar, and evangelical Christian Dr. James Hoffmeier. Early Israel’s presence in the land of Canaan is validated by this stela. Pharaoh Merneptah (ruled c. 1224-1214 BC), boasting of victories over foreign nations to his north, claims to have badly defeated “Israel” in a series of comments about victories over groups in “Canaan.” The stele, dating to c. 1220 B. C., constitutes an official recognition of a people called Israel in extra-biblical documents. The word “Israel” is preceded by the Egyptian determinative for “people” or “ethnic group,” and Israel’s presence on the stele indicates that the Israelites were an important enough political force in Canaan at this early date for a Pharaoh in the 1200s B. C. to boast about a victory over them. Israel was well enough established by that time among the other peoples of Canaan to have been perceived by Egyptian intelligence as a possible challenge to Egyptian hegemony. Thus, Israel was definitely in Palestine by ca 1220 B. C.

Egyptologist William Dever notes: “The Merneptah Stele is … just what skeptics, mistrusting the Hebrew Bible (and archaeology), have always insisted upon as corroborative evidence: an extrabiblical text, securely dated, and free of biblical or pro-Israel bias. What more would it take to convince the naysayers?”

Pharaoh Merneptah (Mer-ne-Ptah) commissioned the victory hymn engraved on this granite stela to celebrate a military campaign in Syria-Palestine. Found in his funerary temple in western Thebes, among his list of fallen enemies Merneptah mentions the city-states of Ashkelon and Gezer, along with settled peoples such as the Hatti (Hittites). He also claims in line 27, “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” (Merneptah exaggerates here; the statement that the “seed,” i.e. offspring, of Israel had been wiped out is a conventional boast of power at this period.)

In the center of the symmetrical scene at the top of the stela, the god Amon-Re appears twice under the winged sun-disk. Merneptah stands to Amon’s right and left, saluting his divine patron. Horus, the falcon-headed god in his guise as the morning sun, stands at far right, the goddess Mut, wife of Amon, at far left.

The back side of the stela records information from Amenhotep III, grandfather of Tutankhamen / Tutankhaton.

The stela was discovered by 1896 by William Flinders Petrie. The relevant section reads:

Give him into the hand of Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, that he may make him disgorge what he has swallowed, like a crocodile. Now behold, the swift carries off the swift; the Lord, conscious of his strength, will ensnare him. It is Amon who binds him with his hand, so that he may be delivered to his ka in Hermonthis; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re: Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat.

Great joy has arisen in Egypt;
Jubilation has gone forth in the towns of Egypt.
They talk about the victories
Which Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat made in Tehenu:
“How amiable is he, the victorious ruler!
How exalted is the king among the gods!
How fortunate is he, the lord of command!
Ah, how pleasant it is to sit when there is gossip!”

One walks with unhindered stride on the way, for there is no fear at all in the heart of the people. The forts are left to themselves, the wells (lie) open, accessible to the messengers. The battlements of the wall are calm in the sun until their watchers may awake. The Madjoi are stretched out as they sleep; the Nau and Tekten are in the meadows as they wish. The cattle of the field are left as free to roam without herdsman, (even) crossing the flood of the stream. There is no breaking out of a cry in the night: “Halt! Behold, a comer comes with the speech of strangers!,” (but) one goes and comes with singing. There is no cry of people as when there is mourning. Towns are settled anew again. He who plows his harvest will eat it. Re has turned himself around (again) to Egypt. He was born as the one destined to be her protector, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re: Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat.

The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!
All lands together, they are pacified;

Everyone who was restless, he has been bound by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re: Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, given life like Re every day.

(See James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement. [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969], 376–378)