Maryl Levine

The birth of Israel? The Merneptah Stela, a 7.5-foot-high granite slab found in Thebes, Egypt, dates to c. 1207 B.C., the fifth year of the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah. The pharaoh commissioned the stela to celebrate his military victories in Canaan and Libya.

On the second line from the bottom of the Stela is the earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel (see detail): “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe … Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” An unpronounced sign, called a determinative, indicates that the word “Israel” denotes a people, not a place. Was Israel a clearly defined nation at the time the stela was made? No, says Finkelstein: “I don’t believe in a functioning, coherent ethnic entity named Israel as early as the 12th century [B.C.].” He suggests instead that “Israel” in the late 13th century B.C. may have referred to a group of people in the Canaanite highlands, who may have called themselves Israelites. Finkelstein thus differs markedly from the so-called Biblical maximalists, who take the Merneptah Stela as proof that Israel was a nation as early as the late 13th century B.C.