Now there are a couple of things I want to say about this mention of Israel.

This is not just a mention in a deed or a contract that may have reference to a small village or even less. This reference to Israel shows that the most powerful man in the world, the pharaoh of Egypt, was aware of Israel. Not only was he aware of Israel—he boasts that one of the most important achievements of his reign was to defeat Israel. Of course he exaggerates when he says that Israel’s seed is not. We know that even today, 3,200 years later, that seed is still growing and thriving. But that is beside the point. The fact is that in 1212 B.C.E. (the campaign was five years before the inscription), Israel must already have been a military force to be reckoned with. And this is right in that transition period between the Late Bronze Age and Iron I.

The next point I want to make about the Merneptah Stele, which is sometimes also called the Israel Stele, requires us to talk a little about hieroglyphics. In hieroglyphic writing there are some signs that are not pronounced; they indicate the kind of word to which they are attached. The unpronounced signs are called determinatives. So, in the quotation I read to you from the Merneptah Stele, where the pharaoh was victorious over four entities in Canaan, each entity, in addition to the signs indicating how the word is pronounced, also has attached to it a determinative that tells us what kind of word it is. Attached to three of the four entities—Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam—is a determinative that tells us that they are cities. The determinative attached to Canaan, which introduces the set of four, is the determinative for a foreign land. The determinative attached to Israel, however, is for a people. In other words, in 1207 B.C.E. Israel was a people in Canaan important enough not only to be known to pharaoh, but important enough for him to boast that he defeated them militarily.

The Merneptah Stele is obviously a very important piece of evidence in connection with the current debate about the rise of Israel.

If Israel was already such a force in Canaan in 1212 B.C.E., then Israel must have been established there for some time. Those who would like to push back the date for Israel’s entry into Canaan, stress this aspect of the Merneptah Stele.

On the other hand, those who say that Israel’s existence only begins with the monarchy have to deal with this troubling bit of evidence. I often wonder what would happen if we didn’t have this fortuitously preserved find. I’m almost certain that those scholars who insist that Israel didn’t exist before the monarchy and who tell us that there is no premonarchical history to be gleaned from the premonarchical accounts in the Bible would carry the day. The biblical tales we would convincingly be told are mere bobbe-mysehs, grandmothers’ tales. How do these scholars deal with the Merneptah Stele, since it indubitably does exist. They say that Israel refers to something else. What that something else is, is not clear. I certainly can understand that the numbers in the Bible are exaggerated. And there is evidence even in the Bible that there were not always 12 tribes in a league together. But the Merneptah Stele does date from the time when the nation and people that became Israel were aborning, were in the early stages of their development.

A final point about the Merneptah Stele and its significance. Very recently, some reliefs on a temple at Karnak have been identified as illustrations of this famous passage from the Merneptah Stele.i One panel of reliefs represents Ashkelon; other panels appear to represent the other Canaanite cities mentioned in the Merneptah Stele. Unfortunately, there is still a dispute as to which panel or panels pictures the Israelites. In one panel that is a contender, the Israelites have long togas or skirts, just like the other Canaanites. So it is argued that this supports the contention that Israel emerged out of Canaanite society. In another panel which supposedly represents the Israelites, they have short skirts, quite unlike the Canaanites, so this supports the argument that the Israelites entered Canaan from outside the land.j

If they did come from outside the land, then this raises the question of where they came from. In short, was there really an Exodus? For the Exodus, we don’t have a Merneptah Stele; we don’t have any evidence that the Israelites as such were in Egypt.

What we do have is evidence of Canaanite pottery in Egypt, and we also have evidence that Canaanite traders would come down to Egypt just like Jacob and his sons. A very famous picture from a tomb at Beni Hasan in Egypt pictures some merchants from Asia coming down to Egypt to do business. This tomb is beautifully preserved in cliffs overlooking the Nile about halfway between Cairo and Luxor.

Finally, there is evidence concerning a strange people known as the Hyksos. That’s the name by which we know them, but that’s not what they called themselves. The Hyksos were a people from Asia—Canaan—who came down to Egypt and ultimately became the rulers of Egypt for two Egyptian dynasties. Ultimately, they were expelled by the Egyptians, who chased them back into Canaan. Obviously, the rise of the Hyksos in Egypt seems to have echoes in the biblical story of Joseph. The expulsion of the Hyksos seems to be some kind of Exodus in reverse. Instead of fleeing, they were kicked out. Whether there is any connection between the Hyksos and the biblical accounts I will leave to my good friend Baruch Halpern. In the meantime, you can ask me a few questions, but not too many because what I have tried to do is simply give you a little background, some of the framework and parameters of the extraordinarily vigorous debates that are going on in the academy. From the other speakers, we are going to go out into the jungle. These are the people who are exploring beyond the point where I have taken you, developing the lines of thought that will dominate the discussion in the years to come.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why do the houses that were found throughout the settlement area have to be early? And why can’t they be people who lived away from the cities? And, how do you prove either statement?

Hershel Shanks: Well, these people certainly did live away from large urban centers. There’s no question about that. But where did they come from and who were they? They could have been, according to some theories, wandering pastoralists who decided to settle down. They could be Canaanites who were fleeing from the cities. It is possible to interpret much of the evidence in varying ways, and that is part of the problem. No mighty stream of evidence is developing and that’s why I think we’re still far from a consensus.

Q: The Merneptah Stele records an Egyptian campaign in Canaan. I don’t quite see the connection between that and the Israelite campaign to subject the Canaanites.

Shanks: I’m sorry to have confused you. The Merneptah Stele is simply evidence of the existence of Israel at this time. The Egyptian campaign in Canaan we really don’t know much about, but, in a sense, that is irrelevant to the issue of Israel’s emergence in Canaan. The importance of the Merneptah Stele is that Israel unquestionably existed in Canaan in 1212 B.C.E. Second, Israel’s presence in Canaan was of such importance that the pharoah knew about it. And third, one of the things in his reign that he was proudest of was that he claimed to have defeated Israel in this military campaign. I didn’t intend to use that Egyptian campaign to demonstrate the Israelite conquest—only to demonstrate the existence of an important entity named Israel as a people, unlike the Canaanite cities also identified in the Merneptah Stele.

Q: If the archaeological evidence does not support a conquest model, why would the Bible reflect a conquest model?

Shanks: The purpose of the biblical account is not what we regard as history. The purpose of the biblical account is to explain God’s acts in relation to man on this earth. It really isn’t concerned about detailed accuracy; that’s not its purpose. Now, there is a certain divide among people who, on the one hand regard the Bible as literally true and, on the other, those who look at it as a document like any other ancient document: It has to be analyzed and compared and looked at for its tendenz, for its biases. My friend Bill Dever, has called the Bible “a curated artifact.” There is a difference among people concerning how they approach the Bible. Those who accept the Bible as literally true are people who accept this on faith. I don’t think we can argue on that ground. Other people say that, unlike those who accept the Bible as literally true, they will argue with you on archaeological or historical grounds. And it is in this area that you can have a debate. Most modern biblical scholars do not accept the Bible as literally true. So what you have to do is to treat it almost like an archaeological tell, and excavate it, as it were, and analyze it to see whether what it says is historically true in the details, whether we would accept it as historically accurate by modern historians’ standards, by modern historiography. That is not to denigrate the richness of the biblical text. I think many people who do not accept the literal reading of the Bible find it a very enriching and inspiring and even Godly document, without the necessity of it being literally true in every detail. This whole discussion proceeds on the basis that we will examine the Bible in this way. What I have tried to do is to summarize some of the problems in the biblical text and to describe some of the ways scholars have dealt with them.