The name of Merneptah (or Merenptah) doesn’t appear in the Bible. But he created an important bit of evidence relating to the Bible’s history. And, lately, he’s been in the news yet again.
The fourth pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s nineteenth dynasty, Merneptah was probably closer to seventy years old than to sixty when he assumed the throne sometime at the end of July or early in August of 1213 BC. He was the thirteenth son of the famous Ramses II (“the Great”), who lived be at least ninety years old, and he had to wait until all of his older brothers and half-brothers had died before he became the crown prince.
It seems probable that Egyptian military preparedness had declined during the last years of the rule of Ramses II, and that neighbors and outlying provinces had seen an opportunity in Egypt’s relative weakness. Thus, despite Merneptah’s relatively advanced age, he led several significant military campaigns during his tenure as pharaoh, including the suppression of a revolt in Nubia, today’s Sudan, during his last years. His reign lasted for almost a decade, continuing until his death on 2 May 1203 BC.
Most serious of Merneptah’s military operations, perhaps, was a battle against the Libyans during or just prior to the fifth year of his rule—putting it at around BC 1208. Allied with the so-called “Sea Peoples,” the Libyans were menacing Egypt from the west. Specifically, they seem to have been targeting Memphis, a venerable administrative that had been the capital of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, and Heliopolis, an enormously important religious and temple center.
The name “Merneptah” means “beloved of Ptah,” and the god Ptah was the patron and protector of Memphis, so it’s appropriate that, according to ancient sources, Merneptah was encouraged by Ptah in a dream to go out and challenge the Libyans and their allies. His forces defeated the invaders decisively in a six-hour battle somewhere along the western edge of the Nile Delta.
The pharaoh was plainly very proud of his achievement, and he wanted it memorialized. Accordingly, the battle is described on the sixth pylon of the great temple at Karnak in upper Egypt, as well as on the Athribis Stele that, for many years, has stood in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Where it stands right now, with the Egyptian Museum soon to be replaced by an immense new structure out in the desert beyond the pyramids, I cannot say.)
An account of the same campaign against the Libyans and their allies also occurs on the much more famous Merneptah Stele, which was discovered in 1896 by Sir Flinders Petrie at Thebes (modern day Luxor) and which has long been one of the most sought-out objects in the Egyptian Museum. (A stele is an upright stone slab or column that is decorated with figures or inscriptions.) Petrie, who indisputably ranks among the great pioneers of Egyptian field archaeology, correctly predicted that later generations would consider the Merneptah Stele his most famous archaeological find.
The Merneptah Stele (which is sometimes called the “Victory Stele of Merneptah”) can be dated to the period shortly after the pharaoh’s triumph over the Libyan invasion, in the Late Bronze Age. It is also commonly termed the “Israel Stela”—and for a very good reason: It describes not only the campaign against the Sea Peoples and the Libyans to the west of the Nile Valley but, in three of its twenty-eight lines, alludes to an apparently successful military incursion into the land of Canaan to the north northeast. (During the period known as ancient Egypt’s “New Kingdom,” which was Merneptah’s own period, Canaan seems to have been a portion of the Egyptian empire.) Merneptah boasts that he not only defeated but destroyed Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel.
The location of “Yanoam” is still debated, “Ashkelon” is the modern name of a sizeable town on the southern Mediterranean coast of Israel, and I’ll have more to say about Gezer below. It’s the fourth of those names that has captured the most interest since Flinders Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele more than 125 years ago. Why? Because, thus far, this is the oldest known mention of “Israel” not only in any ancient Egyptian record but in any inscription or text anywhere.
The Merneptah Stela speaks of revolts in Canaan. And this seems to be supported by recent excavations indicating that the estate of the Egyptian governor at Aphek was destroyed at about this time, as well as the administrative center in the port city of Jaffa. It also claims to have utterly destroyed “Israel” “Israel has been wiped out,” it declares. “Its seed is no more.”
We can confidently describe this claim, that “Israel has been wiped out,” as exaggerated government propaganda. After all, Israel had a rather influential subsequent history. Part of this influential history, of course, is represented in its enormous contributions to world civilization and world religion; not only Judaism but Christianity and even Islam have their historical roots in Israel. And, for that matter, it’s probably worth noting that a Hebrew-speaking state of Israel exists even today in the Middle East,
Three other early inscriptions also refer to Israel, but they all come from the Iron Age, more than three and a half centuries after the Merneptah Stele. So, clearly, Israel hadn’t been completely wiped out. One of these is the Mesha Stele or “Moabite Stone,” which was discovered in Jordan and which dates to approximately 840 BC. It mentions “Omri, king of Israel.” The two others are rough contemporaries of the Moabite Stone: The Tel Dan Stela from northern Israel mentions two kings, one of Israel and the other of the “House of David” (presumably referring to the divided northern and southern kingdoms), and the stele of Shalmaneser III, one of the two so-called “Kurkh Monoliths” from southeastern Turkey, which refers to “Ahab, the Israelite,” who was the son and successor of Omri. (See 1 Kings 16:29-33.) Notably, each of these three later monuments refers to kings. By the time they were created, there were royal houses in Israel.
By contrast, as certain marks peculiar to the ancient Egyptian writing system make clear, the word “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele refers not to a nation-state or a city, but to a people or a tribe.
Such a depiction seems broadly congruent with the Bible’s depiction of the Israelites at this early stage of their history. The establishment of the first rather simple and rudimentary monarchy over a united Israelite kingdom, that of Saul, didn’t occur until the beginning of the eleventh century before Christ—more than a century after the close of Merneptah’s reign. And David, in some ways the first real king in Israel’s history, didn’t take Jerusalem from the Jebusites and make it his capital for roughly a half decade after the anointing of Saul. When Merneptah’s campaign reached Canaan, the Israelites were probably still in the quasi-anarchic tribal period described in the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Strikingly, though, from a modern perspective, the biggest prize in Merneptah’s military strike into Canaan doesn’t appear to have been Israel but, rather, the Canaanite city-state of Gezer, which was located in the Judaean foothills about twenty miles to the west of Jerusalem. In fact, in an inscription about the campaign that was carved into the walls of the Temple of Amada in Upper Nubia—roughly at modern Egypt’s border with Sudan—the pharaoh boasts of being the “subduer of Gezer” but doesn’t mention Israel at all.
Why would Gezer be so important to a pharaoh? The city was a frequent target of Egyptian attention from at least the fifteenth century before Christ, because it overlooks the Mediterranean coastal plain. Running along that plain was the “Via Maris,” the “way of the sea,” which was the major north-south route between the two great political and economic powers of the day, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Gezer seems to have dominated many of the coastal towns and cities, including the port of Jaffa, and also guarded one of the principal routes from the Mediterranean to the central hill country of what we now call Israel or Palestine. Egyptian economic interests advised them to try to control Gezer. Moreover, their natural desire to fight defensive battles against possible Mesopotamian attacks on the soil of others rather than on their own soil made such control an important military objective.
Recently, the Tel Gezer Excavation Project, directed by Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, has found specific and rather dramatic evidence of Merneptah’s devastating conquest of Gezer—including the bodies of three individuals who seem to have been killed during the attack. The evidence of violent action is unmistakable. In some places, the debris of collapsed stone walls, fallen and burned mud brick, charred timbers, and crushed pottery is as much as three feet thick. The remains of the three people that were discovered—two adults and a child—indicate that they died while the building in which they were found burned and collapsed around them.
In other words, Merneptah’s boast of having conquered Gezer seems to be supported by recent archaeology, which implicitly lends support to his parallel boast of having defeated “Israel.” He may have been exaggerating, but exaggerations, by definition, always depend upon a core of actual truth.
In a 1948 essay entitled “God in the Dock” (reflecting a British idiom referring a defendant on trial), the great C. S. Lewis reflects on his experience lecturing to a group of Royal Air Force mechanics—intelligent men, as he saw them, though lacking sophisticated higher education—about religious, historical, and literary issues. One of his observations goes as follows:
“The next thing I learned from the R.A.F. was that the English Proletariat is sceptical about History to a degree which academically educated persons can hardly imagine. This, indeed, seems to me to be far the widest cleavage between the learned and the unlearned. The educated man habitually, almost without noticing it, sees the present as something that grows out of a long perspective of centuries. In the minds of my R.A.F. hearers this perspective simply did not exist. It seemed to me that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic Man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about Pre-Historic Man: doubtless because Pre-Historic Man is labelled “Science” (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as “History” (which is not). Thus a pseudo-scientific picture of the “Caveman” and a picture of “the Present” filled almost the whole of their imaginations; between these, there lay only a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stage-coaches, pirates, knights in armour, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist. I had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the Battle of Actium as of the Resurrection—and for the same reason.”
Now, I’ve never been altogether convinced by Lewis’s notion about R.A.F. mechanics and people like them. But one thing is absolutely true: Ancient and medieval people were every bit as objectively real and as tangible as we are. And, increasingly, historical research and archaeological discovery are, as it were, fleshing out their existence for us. Which, in the case of Merneptah and of many others, helps to make the peoples and events of biblical history more substantial for us, as well.
For a brief and approachable summary of recent discoveries at Tel Gezer and a clear image of the famous “Israel Stele,” see Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, “Pharaoh’s Fury: Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer,” “Biblical Archaeology Review” (Summer 2022): 48-54.