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When Did Ancient Israel Begin?
New hieroglyphic inscription may date Israel’s ethnogenesis 200 years earlier than you thought
By Hershel Shanks
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Longtime BAR readers are familiar with the Merneptah Stele, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is generally recognized as containing the oldest extrabiblical reference to Israel.a The hieroglyphic inscription can be dated quite precisely to somewhere between 1210 and 1205 B.C.E.
But is it the oldest?
Egyptologists are now twittering about whether there is another hieroglyphic inscription, centuries earlier than the Merneptah Stele, that mentions Israel.
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If so, this may have significant implications for the early history of Israel, they say, suggesting that the Bible is more reliable than some doubting scholars have been willing to admit.
The new candidate was spotted in the storerooms of the Egyptian Museum of Berlin by University of Munich Hebrew Bible scholar and Egyptologist Manfred Görg on a gray granite slab 18 inches high and 15.5 inches wide. The slab was acquired by the museum in 1913 from the famous founder of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, Ludwig Borchardt, who had acquired it from an antiquities dealer.
It was common for Egyptian pharaohs to adorn their tombs and temples with scenes and inscriptions boasting of their conquests. Merneptah, for example, boasts that “Israel is laid waste; its seed is not,” clearly a gross exaggeration. It was also common for pharaohs to put the names of places they conquered in rows of what scholars call name-rings. Each name-ring consists of a small image of a prisoner presenting a place conquered; below the neck of the prisoner an oval cartouche-like ring contains the name of the conquered place in hieroglyphic.
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The critical slab that Görg spotted in the Berlin Museum contains three name-rings. Unfortunately, some of the name-ring on the right has been chipped off. It is only a little more than half there. And of course it is the one that is said to contain the name “Israel.” This hacking may have happened in modern times when the piece was looted. The slab appears to have been part of the pedestal of a statue.
Sometimes the face or hat of the prisoner can help scholars identify a doubtful conquered place within a name-ring. For example, another slab made of the same gray granite that appears to have come from the pedestal of the same statue contains a name-ring of a prisoner who is clearly a Nubian—and the name in the name-ring, unsurprisingly, also appears to be Nubian. The three prisoners on the slab that may contain the name Israel are all clearly West Semites—recognizable by their typical shoulder-length hair, headbands and pointed beards—a significant clue to the identification of the name as Israel.
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Although the hieroglyphs in the ring on the right are only partially preserved, they can be reconstructed with some confidence. The problem arises because, if this is Israel, it is spelled slightly differently from the spelling of Israel in the Merneptah Stele. In Hebrew, the same letter represents the sound “s” and “sh.” In hieroglyphic the two sounds are represented by different signs. The Merneptah Stele uses a hieroglyphic “s” in the name Israel; the Berlin Museum slab uses a “sh” hieroglyph.1 On this basis and others, James Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, maintains that the name cannot reasonably be read as Israel. Israeli paleographer Shmuel Ahituv agrees with Hoffmeier.2 Disagreeing with them, however, are not only Görg, but also Peter van der Veen of the University of Mainz and Christoffer Theis of the University of Heidelberg. All three have jointly written a scholarly defense of the “Israel” reading.3 They point out that there is no known West Semitic toponym, other than Israel, that these hieroglyphs could be identified with. “What other name in the same general region would be so strikingly reminiscent as that of Biblical Israel?” they ask rhetorically. Moreover, many toponyms are spelled in more than one way in hieroglyphic inscriptions. Indeed, the spelling can be a key to dating the inscription, as we shall see.
The German scholars also have another string to their bow: the other two name-rings on this slab of granite. One of the other names is Ashkelon, in southern Israel. The third name appears to be Canaan, although there is some question as to whether it refers generally to the land of Canaan or more specifically to the city of Gaza. As the German scholars contend, “The geographical proximity of [the proposed name Israel] to Ashkelon and Canaan makes the identification with Israel likely.”
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Strengthening this argument is the text of the Merneptah Stele. In the verses adjacent to the reference to Israel are Canaan and Ashkelon! The proximity of the same names in the two inscriptions, in the words of the three German scholars cited above, “seems to suggest that both texts are related in some way,” thus buttressing the reading “Israel.”
The next question is how to date the hieroglyphs on the slab that may contain the name Israel. There is nothing in the slab itself that provides any hint. So the Egyptologists look to paleography and orthography, that is, the form of the hieroglyphic signs and the spelling of the names. The way the hieroglyphs are written and the spelling of the names changed over time, and that provides a key to the date of the inscription. A leading Israeli Egyptologist, Raphael Giveon, has dated the inscription to about 1400 B.C.E (during the reign of Amenhotep III), 200 years earlier than the Merneptah inscription. The three German scholars cited above suggest Ramesses II as another possibility, even though they prefer a date nearer 1400 B.C.E. This famous pharaoh, often associated with the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, reigned for much of the 13th century (1279–1213 B.C.E.).
Most scholars accept the ethnogenesis of Israelb in about 1200 B.C.E., the end of the Late Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age, archaeologically speaking. But reading the name Israel in this slab in the Berlin Museum raises the question of whether Biblical Israel had its ethnogenesis centuries earlier. The German scholars note that “in the German-speaking world [e.g., the great Albrecht Alt], the idea of multiple entries [into Canaan] by different tribes of Israel starting during the Eighteenth Dynasty [c. 1550–1300 B.C.E.] has a long tradition.”
The late great Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni and, more recently, the American archaeologist Aaron Burke have observed that the Bible describes the cities of Canaan as being strongly fortified.4 This was true at the end of the Middle Bronze Age (about 1550 B.C.E.), but it was not true at the end of the Late Bronze Age (1200 B.C.E.), when the prevailing view dates the ethnogenesis of Biblical Israel. The German scholars cite Israeli scholar Rivka Gonen as noting that at the end of the Late Bronze Age “the Canaanite towns were frequently unfortified and therefore did not fit the Biblical descriptions well.”
Some scholars are even considering whether there are echoes in the Biblical tradition of the Hyksos, an Asiatic (West Semitic) people who ruled Egypt for more than a century during the Second Intermediate Period before being expelled from Egypt in about 1550 B.C.E. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus equates the expulsion of the Hyksos with the Exodus described in the Bible. Modern scholarship has largely rejected this view. But now it might be getting a second look. Even Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, known largely for his minimalist views, has suggested, in the words of the German scholars, “that the Biblical tradition likely contains vague memories of the expulsion of the (West Semitic) Hyksos.”
The view that there was more than one Exodus has gained considerable traction since the publication of Abraham Malamat’s article in BAR titled “Let My People Go and Go and Go and Go.”c Barbara Sivertsen has denominated the plural as “Exodi” in a recent book.5 Perhaps there was one with the Hyksos, another at the time of Ramesses II and still another at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Perhaps different groups (or tribes) that included proto-Israelites left (or escaped) at different times.
Nothing conclusive here, but much food for thought.