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The Only Ancient Egyptian Document that Mentions Israel (1,209 BCE – 1,208 BCE)


The Merneptah Stele (View Larger)

In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele -- also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah -- in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes. It is inscribed on the reverse of a large granite stele originally erected by the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah who ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BC. The black granite stele primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others. It is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

"The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "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 somewhat misleading, however, because the stele was clearly not focused on Israel per se— in fact, it mentions Israel only in passing. There is only a single 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. Israel was simply grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in the stele. Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns but multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed
(Wikipedia article on the Merneptah Stele, accessed 11-29-2008).