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An Ignored Contradiction between the Merneptah Stele and Archaeological Data

According to archaeological research, the origin of the people of Israel is associated with the appearance of hundreds of agricultural villages that began to appear in the central hill country only in the 1100s. The Merneptah Stele, however, documents the existence of Israel in 1209 BC. The presence of this people group before they left any known archaeological remains is a significant and ignored fact in studies today.

By Todd Bolen
August 2010

This brief essay is intended to highlight a contradiction between two well-established facts related to the origin of the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. These conclusions have held scholarly consensus for decades, but the obvious conflict between them is ignored or the facts are “adjusted” in order to make the discrepancy less obvious. The disparity between the textual and archaeological sources has significant implications for the consensus view on the origin of Israel.

Archaeological surveys and excavations over the last fifty years have revealed a population explosion in the hill country of Canaan beginning in the 12th century BC. In his standard archaeological survey, Mazar states that “the process began in the early twelfth century B.C.E. in the central hill country and to some extent in Transjordan and the northern Negev.”1 Stager comments on the “extraordinary increase in population in Iron I” with the assessment that “there must have been a major influx of people into the highlands in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE.”2 Rainey and Notley write that “the language and religion of the early Israelites evidently originated in Transjordan and were brought to Cisjordan by the pastoralists migrating in the twelfth century BCE.”3 The settlement process is described by Callaway and Miller: “During the first two centuries of the Iron Age (beginning in about 1200 B.C.E.), some two or three hundred small settlements were planted in the more or less empty hill country of central Palestine.”4 Finkelstein has carefully considered the dating for this new movement, stating that “the data for assigning the beginning of Israelite Settlement to the 13th century are therefore few and inconclusive.”5 Thus he can conclude that “there is almost no archaeological support for dating the beginning of Israelite Settlement earlier than the 12th century BCE.”6 Scholars are in general agreement that beginning in the 12th century, hundreds of small agricultural settlements were founded and these should be associated with the people later known as the Israelites.

The Merneptah Stele, discovered long before archaeological work in the central hill country had ever commenced, names the people of Israel as one of Egypt’s enemies during the reign of Merneptah (1213-1203). While we could wish that more information about Israel was recorded in this, several points are clear.7 First, Israel is listed among the defeated enemies of Egypt. Second, Israel is recorded not as a city but as a people group. Thus, in approximately 1209 BC, a group of people existed who were known to Egypt as “Israel.” They must have been considerable in size and somewhat formidable or they would not have warranted mention by Merneptah.8 His claim concerning Israel that “his seed is not” is an obvious exaggeration, but such a boast is more impressive if he is describing a larger enemy.

Photo of Mereneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele

To summarize thus far, archaeological evidence indicates that the people of Israel appeared in the central hill country in a complex process that began not before 1200 BC. The Merneptah Stele witnesses a significant population group that was well established by 1209. The obvious question is, where in the archaeological record are the Israelites that Merneptah fought?

Some, like Dever, are aware of this disparity, but they do not address the issue. Instead, the preferred approach is to act as if there is no discrepancy by stating, without supporting evidence, that Israel must have started to settle down in the late 13th century. Thus Dever can write in an article published recently at The Bible and Interpretation, “What few biblical scholars seem to realize is that it is archaeology that bridges the gap. We have a complete and continuous archaeological record from the late thirteenth through the early sixth century, with not even a generation missing.”9 Dever even contrasts in one place “Canaanite” Late Bronze 13th century with “Israelite” 11th century.10 Is it legitimate for Dever to speak of “the 13th-12th century B.C. [Israelite] villages recently brought to light by archaeology”?11 He gives no evidence for 13th century villages, only stating that whereas Finkelstein dates the initial settlement to the late 12th and 11th centuries, “I believe that it began in the 13th century B.C.”12 Dever’s faith is apparently based on the Merneptah Stele, despite the lack of evidence from archaeology.

Even if we permit Dever and others to arbitrarily slide the initial date of the agricultural villages backward from the beginning of Iron I to the end of the Late Bronze II, the problem is not resolved. The hundreds of agricultural villages did not pop up overnight, but were the result of a lengthy and complex process that took place at different times and rates throughout the land of Canaan.13 The similarity of material culture between the Canaanite cities and the (assumed) Israelite agricultural villages is indisputable and probably “resulted from living in proximity with each other and from patterns of marriages and mutual support over time.”14 Halpern writes that it was during this period of close contact that Israel gradually assumed its identity. “Over the course of the 13th and 12th centuries, an ethnic consciousness and solidarity dawned on this Israel.”15

The fact is the Merneptah Stele is an inconvenient truth, coming before the process that scholars assume led to Israelite consciousness and solidarity. A people known as Israel was established, recognized, and sufficiently organized to be opposed by Egypt before archaeologists say they began to appear.16 Although there is a mere ten years between the Merneptah Stele and the beginning of the 12th century, the important point is that Israel is an established people group in the Merneptah Stele, whereas the highland settlement movement only commenced in the beginning of the 12th century.

Mazar admits this point in his statement that “archaeologists have not succeeded in uncovering remains of this initial stage” of Israelite settlement.17 Since current archaeological studies are unaware of Israel’s documented presence even in 1209, they are not a reliable source for informing us about Israel’s existence before this time.


1 Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C.E. (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 337.

2 Lawrence E. Stager, “Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 134.

3 Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 112.

4 Joseph A. Callaway and J. Maxwell Miller, “The Settlement in Canaan: The Period of the Judges,” in Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999), 73.

5 Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988), 321.

6 Ibid., 353. He says “almost” because of two scarabs from Mount Ebal which “constitute the single, direct, definite piece of archaeological evidence for the existence of an Israelite Settlement site as early as the late 13th century BCE” (321).

7 Michael G. Hasel, “Israel in the Merenptah Stela,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 296 (1994): 45–61; Michael G. Hasel, “The Structure of the Final Hymnic-Poetic Unit on the Merenptah Stela,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116 (2004): 75–81.

8 William G. Dever makes this point in “Merenptah’s ‘Israel,’ the Bible’s, and Ours,” in Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager, ed. J. David Schloen (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 92; cf. Callaway and Miller, “Divided Monarchy,” 79.

9 Dever, “Merenptah’s ‘Israel,’ the Bible’s, and Ours,” 93.

10 William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 98.

11 Ibid., 206.

12 Ibid., 154.

13 Callaway and Miller, “Divided Monarchy,” 73, 76; Ze'ev Herzog, “The Beer-Sheba Valley: From Nomadism to Monarchy,” in From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel, ed. Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na'aman (Jerusalem and Washington DC: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), 149; Amihai Mazar, “Jerusalem and Its Vicinity in Iron Age I,” in From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel, ed. Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na'aman (Jerusalem and Washington DC: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), 91.

14 Callaway and Miller, “Divided Monarchy,” 82; cf. Dever, Early Israelites, 125.

15 Baruch Halpern, The Emergence of Israel in Canaan, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, vol. 29 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983), 91.

16 I find it ironic that Dever (Early Israelites, 204) can ask, “Does Finkelstein’s progressive downplaying of the Merneptah data have anything to do with its being inconvenient for his theory of anonymous hill country settlers?” But the data is no more convenient for Dever, though he does not acknowledge it.

17 Amihai Mazar, “The Iron Age I,” in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, ed. Amnon Ben-Tor, trans. R. Greenberg (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 296.

Comments (18)

You fail to remember that the ISRAEL mentioned in that stele is not the Israel of the Bible. It refers to Canaanite people who were still worshipping 'El, Ba'al, Asherah and other Levantine gods. Yahweh had not been invented yet.
#1 - Antonio Lombatti - 08/17/2010 - 05:24

Amen, Todd. Not sure I thank God EVERY day, but often enough for this great treasure. I teach the information the same way you interpret it.
#2 - David - 08/17/2010 - 09:48

Mr. Lombatti states that the Israel mentioned in the stele is a Canaanite people still worshiping idols, in contrast to the Biblical Israel who later worshipped Yahweh. But, if there is a pre-Biblical idol-worshipping people named "Israel," aren't they somehow, by their very name, distinct from other Canaanites? Mr. Lombatti's point begs the very question that Todd Bolen addresses in the essay.
#3 - Harold - 08/17/2010 - 11:30

The inscriptional evidence of the Merneptah stele matches the literary evidence of the book of Judges, which describes Israel with just such a state of syncretized [even outright pagan] worship among the tribes. Now, if only the archeological evidence could catch up...
#4 - Yehonatan - 08/17/2010 - 12:05

@Antonio Lombatti... You write, "Yahweh had not been invented yet." What then do you make of the Bronze Age Egyptian inscriptions referring to the Shasu of Y.H.W.? The theophoric is also prevalent in Aramean names from an early period.

Additionally, at least one strand of the biblical text would not disagree that the Israel of the Bible did not know the name Yahweh until relatively late in its history, and that its earliest ancestors were henotheists worshiping El.
#5 - Ken - 08/17/2010 - 12:17

I meant, the Yahweh of Bible as the only god of Israel. That one is a much later construction. Israelites - if we can name them like that - were still a polytheitisc Canaanite etnic group. In Dt 32:8, Yahweh is inadvertently presented as the son of 'El (but some clever scribe tried to edit the text but didn't succeed in hiding the truth). As for the YHW quotation, Ebla scholar found that name already in 2500 BC.
#6 - Antonio Lombatti - 08/17/2010 - 13:37

Great article! I wish you would also address the Soleb Hieroglyph ("Shasu of Yhw"). There is a brief note on it in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible (p. 94), but it is seldom mentioned elsewhere.
#7 - David Padfield - 08/17/2010 - 18:12

There seems to me to be serious tension between a) the idea of cultural similarity based on living in proximity, providing mutual help and establishing patterns of marriage and b) the idea of a consciousness and solidarity which is fundamentally ethnic. How can you, if you help the next village, where your aunt lives, get in the harvest and repel marauding pharaohs, begin to develop any idea that corresponds to the modern idea of ethnic difference and separation?
The Merneptah who now appears is not your father's Merneptah, whose inscription was an illustration of the Bible. The Israelites are on the same side as the other Canaanites, not bitter enemies who visit utter destruction on Canaanite cities and rulers, not even people of clearly distinct ethnicity.
Still, there was something in Merneptah's mind that distinguished what he called 'Israel' from other people. I can't see how we can, since we know so little, rule out a religious distinction of some or other kind - were they devotees of a certain shrine? Or does he think that 'Israel' is an abusive term, used for people within Canaan who 'struggle with God' and whose behaviour is so disreputable that their extirpation (which, talking through his double hat, he suggests that he has achieved)would be a good idea?
#8 - Martin Hughes - 08/17/2010 - 18:20

@Antonio... It's disingenuous to use biblical evidence to allege that the Bible does not accurately portray the state of the religion of the people when it does. You are pulling out one construction of Israel's god, Yahweh, that the biblical text itself recognizes to be a minority position in the pre-exilic period. The Bible claims that the people and its kings worshiped idols alongside Yahweh. Even in the exilic period, the people in Jeremiah are quoted as blaming the exile on attempts to bring in monotheism and neglect the worship of the Queen of Heaven. This is definitely the Israel of the Bible if by that you mean an Israel that worshiped idols.
#9 - Ken - 08/17/2010 - 23:47

The lack of archaeological evidence of the Israelites during the period preceding Merneptah is due to the fact that they co-existed with the inhabitants of the land (Judges 3:5,6). It would be impossible for the archaeologists to separate Israelite houses and pottery from the houses and pottery of those that they were dwelling among. The Israelites served foreign gods and lived in foreign houses, taking foreign wives and using their dishes!
#10 - Arthur Chrysler - 08/18/2010 - 22:18

There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy. The first is that the Israel referred to in the Merneptah Stela was, at this time, located in Jordan. Na'aman and Rainey have made this case and there is much archaeological evidence in Jordan dating to the 13th century BCE (see Umayri, Jalul, Jawa, Hisban, Baqah Valley sites, Safut, etc). Now the question is whether these settlements belonged to a group we (or Merneptah) would call Israel.
The second possibility is that Israel wasn't settled anywhere at this time and was still a nomadic (semi-nomadic) pastoral tribe (or group of tribes, similar to the shasu). Thus the reason for the people determinative. Then any number of theories are in play including those of Dever, Finkelstein, Mazar, or Younker & LaBianca to name a few.
#11 - Owen - 08/19/2010 - 00:04

One of the difficulties of finding traces of the earliest years of occupation of Israelites would be that as recorded in Dt 6:11 they were occupying buildings they did not build full of things they did not buy or make, harvesting crops they had not planted, etc. Israelites would not necessarily be introducing a distinctive material culture.
#12 - Merilyn Copland - 08/19/2010 - 16:37

Surely the main fact, for our purposes, about the Stela is that it a) associates the Israelites with the Canaanites in general way of life - this is conveyed by clothes and hairstyles b) distinguishes them in some unspecified way. (It's very, very brief!)
The general idea is that the Canaanites and Israelites had been defending the same general area against the Egyptians. Which really refutes the idea that the Israelites were then living in Transjordan.
But Merneptah claims that he was able to target 'Israel' in some specific way - there was some 'seed' (chidren? granaries?) that were theirs and that he was able to destroy.
The Stela does not confirm the Dt.6 account of Israelites occupying Canaanite cities, since one of the most manifest features is that the Israelites, unlike the others, are not presented either as having any particular city to call their own or as having eliminated the Canaanite city dwellers (on the contrary; the one who does a bit of city elimination is Mern himself).
Thus they are presented as either country dwellers or as a group present in various places, maybe including some cities. It seems extraordinarily strange to have different peoples or political organisations in city and country, which are inherently interdependent organisations.
It doesn't seem so impossible to me that the Israelites were present in many cities and had a religious, shrine-related identity: this is after all the basic witness of the Bible, even though we don't have to accept the much later interpretation of those differences based on 'Yahweh only' and extreme hostility. We shouldn't assume that societies whose fundamental characteristic is polytheism contain no significantly different religious identities.
The extreme hostility, expressed in destruction, slavery and massacre, posited by Joshua and (at least often) by Judges between Canaanites and Israelites is totally unconfirmed by the Stela or by anything known to us. Nor is any idea of ethnic separation or even strict endogamy. And the picture in those books in which there is no Egyptian presence or intervention in Canaan of that epoch is (though maybe true) unconfirmed by any evidence of any kind that is in our hands.
An important chapter in the history of religion, still having its effect on us, was probably being written but archaeology isn't deciphering it for us.
#13 - Martin Hughes - 08/21/2010 - 16:38

Thank you for presenting your interpretation of stele: the facts speak for themselves. Thank you.
#14 - Carl Adams - 09/15/2010 - 14:15

Todd Bolen seems to be unaware of my article of almost 20 years ago, 'Merenptah's Israel and Recent Theories of Israelite Origins', JSOT 49, Feb 1991, pp. 3-29, in which I highlighted this same discrepancy. But I am grateful to him for showing that things haven't moved on much in the meantime.
#15 - John J. Bimson - 09/24/2010 - 07:41

Given the imprecision of much archaeological dating, a 10-20 year discrepancy in dates ca. 1200 BCE seems like a cavil. If we envision the vanguard of the cis-Jordan Israelite settlers as semi-nomadic, possibly living in tents or mud-huts, with a proclivity to raid the fields and flocks (though not the pig pens) of their Canaanite "neighbors," we probably would not be too far off the mark. Any Egyptian military expedition to Canaan to re-establish Canaanite submission and tribute would thus logically require driving off the pesky interlopers. The arrival of the Philistines a few decades later would, paradoxically, have prevented a repeat of such "ethnic cleansing" though the Israelites would now have to put down roots and plant their own grain. That would require permanent houses.
#16 - John P. Shea - 10/03/2010 - 02:46

I looked at the article. Where does it say archelogists say 1100's? The things I have seen on the subject, like award winning Israel Finkelstein's "The Bible Unearthed" says the Israelites are Canaanite run offs that first appear in the hilltop region in the 13th century BCE. This date matches all the evidence he has found searching in the region. He seems to be the foremost archeologist on the subject.
#17 - Chad - 02/13/2013 - 03:04

There is no mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele. The hieroglyphs spell out YYSRYR followed by determinatives for an enemy and a people. The latter are conveniently ignored and not even attempt a translation. The main enemy of Egypt at that time was Assyria ruled by Tukulti-Ninurta I who became known as 'Nimrod'.
#18 - Malcolm - 04/02/2015 - 16:20

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