BAR 35:06, Nov/Dec 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.