After defeating a coalition of Libyan tribesmen and Sea Peoples, in about 1208 B.C.E., the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah commissioned a series of victory hymns to be carved on a 7.5-foot-high, black granite stela (right) at Thebes. The stela depicts Merneptah receiving a scimitar from Amun, the god of Thebes. The hieroglyphic text recounts the pharaoh’s earlier campaigns in Canaan, among other places: “The Canaan is plundered with every hardship. / Ashkelon is taken, Gezer captured, / [and] Yano‘am reduced to nothing. / Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more.” This is the earliest known reference to Israel; thus the stela is also known as the Israel Stela.

Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano‘am (this city has not been identified) are marked in the text with a determinative (an unpronounced sign indicating the category to which a word belongs) telling us that they are city-states; “Israel” is marked with a determinative indicating that it is a people.

Merneptah may also have had relief scenes of his invasion of Canaan carved on the western wall of the Cour de la Cachette, in the great temple of Karnak at Luxor. These scenes were formerly attributed to Merneptah’s predecessor, Ramesses II (1279–1212). Egyptologist Frank Yurco, however, concludes that they represent the progression of Merneptah’s triumphs in Canaan (see “3,200-Year-Old Picture of Israelites Found in Egypt,” BAR 16:05); among the evidence Yurco cites is a fragmentary copy of the Merneptah Stela carved on the Cour de la Cachette’s eastern wall.

The first scene (top photo) is identified as Ashkelon by an accompanying inscription; it shows the Egyptian army attacking a city—as do the reliefs Yurco identifies as Gezer and Yano‘am (neither is identified in the text on the reliefs). Of the two remaining scenes, Yurco believes that the one shown center, depicts Merneptah’s army conquering “Israel” in open country; the Canaanite garb of the fallen soldiers may suggest that the Israelites were a splinter group of Canaanites who coalesced in the central highlands. Near Eastern scholar Anson Rainey, however, believes the latter panel is a general scene depicting Merneptah’s plundering of Canaan; Rainey suggests that Israel is depicted in a fifth scene (bottom), identified in the text on the relief as the “Shasu whom His Majesty despoiled” (see “Rainey’s Challenge,” BAR 17:06). In this scene, the enemy soldiers wear the traditional garb in which Egyptian sculptors portrayed the Shasu, nomadic peoples of Canaan and Sinai. This would indicate that the early Israelites included nomadic, desert people.

The Merneptah Stela and the relief carvings strongly indicate that a people calling itself “Israel”—a people the pharaoh thought important enough to boast of conquering—had emerged in Canaan by the late 13th century B.C.E., which is consistent with the Biblical chronology. The debate dividing scholars today is: Did this people gradually transform itself into an organized monarchy over the next 200 years, as the Bible also records?