I’ll start by looking harder at Merneptah’s stele.
The first thing to know is that the word “Israel” on the stele has a determinant for a people, not an individual. Egyptian was a little bit like Chinese in having specific signs which showed how to consider a particular word. (So did Akkadian, matter of fact.) You have to use zhang when counting sheets of paper or tickets in Chinese, because they are thin flat things, usually longer in one dimension than in another.
Egyptian had a specific hieroglyphic showing that “Israel” was an ethnic group. So we’re not talking about the head of a family or a small group of slaves.
The next thing to know about Merneptah’s stele is that it was put up to commemorate an expedition to the Holy Land. Merneptah ruled in a time of comparative desiccation. Egypt was desperate for food. The Holy Land had grain and other foodstuffs, and Merneptah sent an army there to get some. (Which combats the idea of the Holy Land as hot sandy scrub desert at that time.)
The second thing to notice is that the stele lists Israel and K’naan in parallel. The K’naani had been known to the Egyptians for centuries. The Tell-el-Amarna tablets (written in what else – cuneiform) from Akhenaten’s time had notations on them in K’naani. In the centuries from 2350 BCE when the power vacuum west of Mesopotamia developed and deepened, and the 1340s BCE when Akhetaten was Egypt’s capital, the people in the Holy Land started developing languages other than Akkadian. One was K’naani and another was Hebrew; Ugaritic and Eblaitic may be independent languages or variants of K’naani. The K’naani adapted cuneiform to their language and notes in it show up in Egypt, in letters and other documents.
Those letters do not list Israel as a people of the Holy Land. They discuss the Hapiru who, you now know, were not the Hebrews; they discuss other residents of the Holy Land who were not Hapiru. In the centuries after Akhenaten, the Egyptians found out who the Israelites were, and realized that they existed in similar numbers and holding a similar extent of territory compared to the better-known K’naani, in the same region as the K’naani.
If this was not general knowledge in Egypt by Merneptah’s times, then he had to find it out at the time of the event that the stele commemorated. In other words, while stealing grain, the Egyptian troops conducted an ethnographic survey. “We’re taking this for Egypt. By the way, what do you call yourselves? Israel? Fine, we’ll put that down. Come to Egypt later and we’ll show you the stele we’re going to put up naming you.”
So the positive evidence of the stele suggests that Israel did exist as an ethnic group, and a sizeable one, holding plenty of territory in the Holy Land, in Merneptah’s time. What it doesn’t show is when Israel first appeared in the Holy Land or when they left Egypt.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved