The Merneptah Stele—also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah—is an inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah (reign: 1213 to 1203 BC) discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes, and now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The text is largely an account of Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their allies, but the last 3 of the 28 lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt’s imperial possessions.
While alternative translations have been put forward, the majority of biblical archeologists translate a set of hieroglyphs on Line 27 as “Israel”, such that it represents the first documented instance of the name Israel in the historical record, and the only mention in Ancient Egypt. As a result, some consider the stele to be Flinders Petrie‘s most famous discovery, an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.
The following are the lines referencing Israel: (You can read the entire translation here)
The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!”
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued.
By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun,
Son of Re, Merenptah, Content with Maat,
Given life like Re every day.
From the website acadmia.edu, we find this paper, titled “Ethnicity in Ancient Israel“, with a section on the Stele which states the following:
The article goes on to state that, though some scholars attempted to deny it was speaking of the nation of Israel, Egyptian archeology did not agree:
Finally, NOVA did a show on ancient Israel, and though purely a secular viewpoint, had to say the following:
Tell us more about the Merneptah inscription. Why is it so famous?
It’s the earliest reference we have to the Israelites. The victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, mentions a list of peoples and city-states in Canaan, and among them are the Israelites. And it’s interesting that the other entities, the other ethnic groups, are described as nascent states, but the Israelites are described as “a people.” They have not yet reached a level of state organization.
So the Egyptians, a little before 1200 B.C.E., know of a group of people somewhere in the central highlands—a loosely affiliated tribal confederation, if you will—called “Israelites.” These are our Israelites. So this is a priceless inscription.
Does archeology back up the information in the Merneptah inscription? Is there evidence of the Israelites in the central highlands of Canaan at this time?
We know today, from archeological investigation, that there were more than 300 early villages of the 13th and 12th century in the area. I call these “proto-Israelite” villages.
Forty years ago it would have been impossible to identify the earliest Israelites archeologically. We just didn’t have the evidence. And then, in a series of regional surveys, Israeli archeologists in the 1970s began to find small hilltop villages in the central hill country north and south of Jerusalem and in lower Galilee. Now we have almost 300 of them.