Frank J. Yurco

“Israel is laid waste,” Merenptah boasted in his famous stele and also illustrated in scene 4 on the Karnak wall. Although more than half destroyed, this scene exhibits important differences from the other three battle reliefs of Merenptah’s Canaanite campaign. The rear legs of pharaoh’s chariot team, once again drawn on a larger scale, appear at right in a rearing stance. If the scene were complete, pharaoh’s horse would be seen looming over the confused jumble of Israelite soldiers, left, and the Israelite chariot, center, in a manner similar to a relief in the Beit el-Wali temple of Ramesses II. Unlike the other three battle reliefs on the Karnak wall, this scene contains no city; even if the relief were complete, there would be no room for a city. Instead, the battle takes place in the open in a somewhat hilly countryside, a setting that fits the non-urbanized Israelite tribes of the time.

Merenptah probably conducted his Canaanite campaign sometime between 1211 and 1209 B.C.E. If author Yurco’s analysis is right, scene 4 gives us the oldest known visual portrayal of Israelites, more than 600 years earlier than the oldest previously known depictions (showing the conquest of Lachish in reliefs on the wall of the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh), and only about 40 years after the time when the Israelites are thought to have emerged as a distinct group. The early date and the Israelites’ manner of dress combine to provide an important clue to Israelite origins. The Israelites in the scene clearly wear ankle-length clothes, best seen in the half-destroyed standing figures on the left side (see drawing). This style of dress resembles that of the Canaanites in the other battle scenes, but differs substantially from the dress of the Shasu in some of the nonbattle scenes. This suggests that the Israelites may have derived, at least in part, from Canaanite society.