Biblical Archaeology Review 35:6, November/December 2009

How Did Israel Become a People?

The genesis of Israelite identity

It used to be easy to identify the earliest Israelites. They are referred to in a well-known hieroglyphic stele known as the Merneptah Stele or, sometimes, the Israel Stele. The Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, proclaims in this stele dated to the end of the 13th century B.C.E. that “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.”

There is no question about the translation of the hieroglyphic signs: They say “Israel.” Attached to the word “Israel” is a non-phonetic (unpronounced) hieroglyphic sign that indicates this word is a people, not a city-state like the other places (Ashkelon, Gezer and Yenoam) mentioned in the same pericope as Israel. These other places bear a different nonphonetic hieroglyphic sign (called a determinative) indicating that they are, in contrast to Israel, city-states. In short, Israel is a people. The other names are city-states.

In about 1200 B.C.E., the Late Bronze Age came to an end and was followed by Iron Age I, which extended from about 1200 to 1000 B.C.E. According to traditional scholarship, this 200-year archaeological period can be identified with the Biblical period of the “settlement and judges,” prior to the formation of the Israelite monarchy in the tenth century B.C.E.

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