In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a priest of Midian, heard about what God had done for the people of Israel. Midian is thought to be in the northwestern region of the Arabian peninsula, so in the Bible, Israel was starting to become a known entity beyond the confines of the Sinai Desert.
In archaeology, the first known mention of Israel is in a line on the Merneptah Stele, a black granite monument that was discovered in 1896 but dates to the end of the 13th century BCE.
Merneptah was the king of Egypt, of the 19th Dynasty, during the New Kingdom period in Egypt’s history. He succeeded his father, the long reigning pharaoh Ramesses II, and ruled for ten years, from 1213-1204 BCE.
The Merneptah Stele records Merneptah’s primary achievement, defeating the Libyans and their Sea Peoples allies to protect Egypt.
The stele begins by praising Merneptah. “Majesty of Horus: Mighty Bull, Rejoicing in Maat; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Banere-meramun; the Son of Re: Merneptah, Content with Maat, magnified by the power, exalted by the strength of Horus; strong bull who smites the Nine Bows, whose name is given to eternity forever…lord of strength who slays his foes, splendid on the field of valour when his attack is made…who steadied the hearts of hundred thousands.”
It continues with a record of his victory over the Libyans. “Their legs made no stand except to flee, their archers abandoned their bows…the vile chief, the Libyan foe, fled in the deep of night alone, no plume on his head, his feet unshod, his wives were carried off from his presence.”
But the most interesting lines from a biblical perspective are at the end, when Merneptah records suppressing a revolt in the area of Canaan. “The princes are prostrate saying Shalom!…Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.”
A strict Christian literal reading of the biblical texts places the Israelite exodus from Egypt in the 15th century BCE. A strict Orthodox Jewish accounting based on the book Seder Olam Rabbah puts the exodus in the 14th century BCE. Academic views about the exodus range widely, from earlier than the 15th century to no exodus at all.
For those subscribe to the idea that there was an exodus of Israelites from Egypt into Canaan, the Merneptah Stele can provide a floor for determining the date of the exodus. In the Merneptah Stele, a group called Israel is shown to be in the vicinity of cities in Canaan in the late 13th century BCE.
Further, the group appears to be in an early stage of settlement. Egyptian hieroglyphs can serve a variety of functions, representing consonants, syllables or complete words. They can also serve as determinatives, providing info about the associated words. Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam have a determinative that indicates they are cities. The determinatives of a seated man and woman and vertical lines below on the Merneptah Stele indicate that Israel is a group, not yet as established as the others.
The name Israel can be read from the image above, taken from the Merneptah Stele. The two reeds represent the letter Y. The line to the left of the Y is a door bolt and the letter is Z. Below that is a mouth, the letter R. The single reed is an I. The vulture is an A, and the mouth is an R. The man and woman sitting are determinatives, to show that Israel is a people, not a land area, and the three scratches below explain that this is a sizeable population, not just a small group.
Together the letters spell Y-Z-R-I-A-R.
At this point in time, Egyptian hieroglyphs did not have a letter for L, so the R at the end functions in its place. Just as the Japanese today do not have the letter L and use an R in its place, so too the Egyptians replaced the L with an R. Just as the American Godzilla is Gojira to the Japanese, Israel was Yzriar to Egyptians.
The letters can be viewed on the chart in the link below:
The Merneptah Stele is on display at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, also known as the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, Egypt. It is cataloged as JE (Journal d’Entrée) 31408.
The image above is of the excerpt from the Merneptah Stele and is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.