The (new) earliest attestation to Israel in the historical record?

The Merneptah Stele

When people ask for the earliest attestation to Israel in the historical record, the usual answer given is Pharaoh Merneptah’s stele (c. 1205 BC). In this inscription, the Egyptian Pharaoh boasts of having destroyed ‘Israel’ such that ‘his seed is not’. In other words, he claims to have wiped Israel out. Although there is some doubt about the reading ‘Israel’ in the inscription, the vast majority of scholars agree that the reference is to a people group named Israel located in the central highlands of Israel-Palestine.

However, now there may be an even earlier reference to Israel—and I stress the word may. In the Berlin Museum there is a Egyptian pedestal dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty (14th–13th century BC). The pedestal contains three cartouches (name rings), one of which is quite fragmentary. It’s this cartouche that some scholars are now claiming refers to Israel—a full century or two before Merneptah’s reference. Some scholars, such as James Hoffmeier, are denying the reference is to Israel on linguistic grounds. However, Manfred Görg and Bryant Wood are confident that it is an archaic form of the name ‘Israel’ in Egyptian. Since I’m not an Egyptologist, I’m relying on others to debate the issue and come to some consensus.

If this does, in fact, prove to be a reference to Israel, not only will it be the earliest attestation to it, but it will also spark discussion about Israel’s early development and interaction with other polities and ethnic groups in history. In particular, it will bring discussion of the Exodus and Settlement back into vogue.

Left: Inscribed pedestal with three cartouches. The fragmentary cartouche on the right is the one which may contain the earliest reference to Israel. Right: Another inscribed relief.

While this inscribed pedestal has been known to us for a long time, it’s only in recent years that scholars suggested ‘Israel’ as a possible reading of one of the cartouches. The following reference contains some of the discussion:

Veen, Peter van der, ‘Israel in Canaan (Long) before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687’, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 2.4 (Nov 2010), 15–25. (Click HERE for a pdf of the article).

Below is the abstract from this article:

In 2001, Manfed Görg published a new reading of a Fragmentary name ring on a topographical pedestal relief in the Berlin Museum (no. 21687). Although the inscription had previously been listed in topographical studies, the reading of the fragmentary third name ring had not received adequate attention. Görg suggested reading the broken name as an archaic form for “Israel” and argued that it could have been copied during the Nineteenth Dynasty from an earlier list. As his publication was in German, his proposal has so far been unavailable to a wider English- speaking readership. Two scholars, Bryant Wood and James Hoffmeier, have briefly discussed Görg’s proposal; while the former welcomed it, the latter rejected it on linguistic grounds. The present authors republish the relief fragment here in English and include new evidence that appears to support Görg’s original reading.

Let’s see what comes of this interesting development.

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3 thoughts on “The (new) earliest attestation to Israel in the historical record?

  1. Pingback: George Athas’s Blog | timothymichaellaw

  2. The reference to ‘1105’ and to the ‘fourteenth century’ make the implications of this reading seem more radical than they may really be.
    I’m much more used to seeing 1205, rather than 1105, as the date for Old King Mern, that merry soul, who is usually ascribed to D19.
    It wouldn’t be all that big a deal if there were a reference to Israel or to something whose name echoes ‘Israel’ in another inscription of the same dynasty, whose existence extended only for about 100 years (they say), starting only at the very end of C14. Mern is not said in anything I’ve read to treat ‘Israel’ as newcomers.
    I see that the authors of the Egyptian Connections article are playing, if that’s a fair word, with several more radical (though rather different) hypotheses, from multi-Exodi to Hyksosism.
    But surely we know that the post-Hyx Egyptian regime fairly quickly extended control, or at least significant influence, over much of Canaan, retreating but not collapsing after the setback against the Hittites around 1250. Fifty contemporary references to Israel wouldn’t change the fact that Egyptian control, even fairly loose control, is not compatible with conquest by a group of non-E invaders. So we have to say either that any conquest or domination by Israel occurred later or needs to be understood as a factional struggle within the Egyptian polity, or within an Egyptian-Canaanite cultural and political sphere which had existed both under the Hyx and under their successors. The multi-Exodi hypothesis is really a way of affirming that this sphere existed.

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