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The Bible and Archaeology: The First Mention of Israel

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The Bible and Archaeology

The First Mention of Israel

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During most of the last century, many liberal critics believed the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament was little more than the fabrication of later Jews from around the sixth century B.C. For instance, they believed there was no solid evidence of Israel being a nation at the time of the events described in the biblical book of Judges.

Yet, in 1896, British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie found evidence of Israel's existence as far back as 1200 B.C., precisely the time of the events in Judges. In the ruins of an Egyptian temple, he discovered a monument that narrated the military victories of Merneptah, an Egyptian pharaoh. In this beautifully carved pillar, dated around 1207 B.C., the monarch mentions the nation of Israel.

For this reason the monument, technically termed a stele, is called "the Israel Stele." It can be seen in the Cairo Museum. On it Merneptah recorded his victories in Canaan and mentioned Israel as one of his vanquished enemies. This would place the battle during the time of the judges of Israel, when Israel was continually being attacked and invaded by nearby peoples and then liberated by the judges God chose and used to deliver His people.

In the last two lines of the text, the stele mentions four of Merneptah's defeated foes in Canaan: "Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yanoam was made non-existent. Israel is laid waste, [and] his seed is not."

The reign of Merneptah is dated around 1212-1202 B.C. By recording his victory over Israel, Merneptah shows that during this time the Israelites were already in possession of the central portion of the land.

Of the other places mentioned on the monument, Ashkelon was one of the coastal cities of the recently arrived Philistines. Gezer and Yanoam were in the lowlands, still under the possession of the Canaanites. As recorded in the Bible, Gezer was not conquered by the Israelites under Joshua. "Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer among them" (Judges 1:29). Thus Merneptah's statement corroborates that this city was not in Israelite territory.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia sums up the findings: "Among Merneptah's conquests in Syria-Palestine is Ysr'r (Egyptian for Y´sr'l), clearly recognizable as 'Israel' . . . Thus the Israel Stele provides a terminus ad quem [limit from which to date] for the presence of the Israelites in Palestine . . ." (Eerdman's, Grand Rapids, 1986, Vol. 3, p. 324). GN


  • DerekYoung
    This soundly refutes William G. Dever's hypothesis (plagued by many additional problems) of an emergence of Israelite culture out of the Canaanites starting in the 12th century, whereas already in the late 13th these are clearly distinct people. We don't have enough information about the Israelites such a long time ago, and much of it is barely coming to light, so only time can tell what new discoveries await.
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