Exodus 25 details the requirements for building the tabernacle that was to accompany Israel in the desert after their escape from Egypt. “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering.”
The first known and confirmed mention of an entity called Israel is on the late 13th century BCE Merneptah Stele in Egypt. The mid-14th century Amarna Letters mention the Habiru in Canaan, but it is not certain that there is any connection between the Habiru of the Amarna Letters and the Hebrews of the Bible. There is another earlier artifact, referred to as the Berlin Pedestal, that may mention Israel and place it within the boundaries of Canaan.
The Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief no. 21687 is a granite block that is believed to have been the base for a statue. It was acquired on the antiquities market, which is not always considered to be as reliable as items found during authorized archaeological digs.
On the Berlin Pedestal are the images of three kneeling prisoners, arms bound behind their backs, a common depiction of captives in Egypt. The captives appear to be Asiatic based on their hairstyle and beards. Each image of a captive is overlaid with a cartouche, an oval shape containing hieroglyphs that identify each prisoner.
The names on the left and center cartouches are recognizable as Ashkelon and Canaan. The cartouche on the right is cut off on the edge of the right side, making its identification problematic.
On the Merneptah Stele, Israel is spelled roughly as YZRIR, as the Egyptians did not have a unique letter for ‘L’ at that time. On the Berlin Pedestal, an attempted reconstruction of the rightmost hieroglyph letters could be construed as reading a word similar to ‘Israel.’
There is an archaeological debate around the pronunciation of the reconstructed word. One school of thought argues that the presence of the ‘SH’ sound invalidates it as a possibility of it reading Israel. Another argues that the blend of the letters fits, and further, that there is no other known location that the name could refer to other than Israel.
If Israel is the correct reading, the next question is about dating the Berlin Pedestal. The spelling of Ashkelon and the proximity of the names Ashkelon, Canaan and Israel are reminiscent of the 13th century Merneptah Stele. However, the rendering of the name Canaan is more similar to its spelling in the early 14th century BCE.
The Berlin Pedestal highlights the challenge of using archaeology to shed light on the Bible. Limited, incomplete records, subject to interpretation, have significant implications for understanding the history.
The statue of a bound prisoner in the image above is on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Berlin Pedestal, with the images of bound prisoners, is housed at the Egyptian Museum at the Neues Museum in Berlin. An image of the relevant figures and a possible reconstruction of the letters can be seen via the following link.