The Merneptah Stele is one the most precious pieces of Israel’s early history; however, taken at a face value, this artifact cannot provide a breakthrough to the enigma of the emergence of the Israelite nation. The available written evidence should be confronted with the battle reliefs from the Great Hypostyle Hall in Amon temple at Karnak to shed light on the pharaoh’s campaign to Canaan and the role of Israel in the rebellion against the Egyptian rule. In addition, the results of the archaeological survey of the central hill country have to be reassessed to put the story into the right perspective.
Our narrative stays away from the Hebrew Bible, which never mentions the following episode, since this religious and philosophical epic was composed late enough to be trusted as a contemporary source, and its approach to the early history is biased by ideological binoculars. The lenses of these binoculars blur the historical image and distort the picture to such extent that it should be restored somewhere else, in a different milieu.
1. Merneptah Stele: many questions, few answers
‘The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!”
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued’.
This citation is taken from the final verse of the Egyptian poem recorded on the Victory Stele in Pharaoh Merneptah’s mortuary temple in Thebes. It is also copied on a stele in the Karnak temple in Thebes where it comes along a series of reliefs illustrating an Egyptian campaign to Canaan. These reliefs flank the peace treaty between Ramesses II of Egypt and King Mutawallis of Hatti and were conventionally attributed to the end of the hostilities between the two overlords, approximately in the year 1275 BCE. However, a modern research readdresses them to Ramesses’ royal successor King Merneptah.
These battle scenes were usurped by Mernepta’s sons who wanted to glorify themselves on behalf of their father by engraving their initials to cover the truth. However, behind their cartouches (ceremonial names) scientists discovered the original signature of their royal predecessor. Though these scenes accompany the peace treaty, they have nothing in common with the military exploits of their grandfather, Ramesses II. Four battle scenes correspond to four Canaanite enemies mentioned in the last stanza of Mernepta Stela: Ashkelon, Gezer, Yenoam and Israel.
The stele is a 2 m high slab of black granite inscribed in the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign. The main body of the inscription praises the pharaoh for removing the Libyan threat from Egypt. In the last verse the royal scribe lists measures undertaken to restore the Egyptian order in Asia like the retention of peace with Hatti and an earlier campaign to Canaan. This campaign was his sole military interference into Asiatic matters.
Merneptah responded to a Canaanite uprising which spread over three vassal states: Ashkelon, Gezer, Yenoam (their names are preceded by a special sign for foreign entities) and a population group of Israel (its name is accompanied with a sign for people free from the bonds of the state). The rebels were subdued having suffered a great loss in casualties and property; those who had survived were transferred to Egypt as slaves.
The final extract has launched a sensation by mentioning Israel-for the first and only time in ancient Egyptian literature. The text implies that by the end of the 13th century BCE some part of the Land of Canaan was settled by people who called themselves Israel. Though not ripe for a territorial state, this community challenged the Egyptian interests and was punished by wiping out its human and economic base.
The ‘Victory Stele’ poses too many questions. Its meager content keeps us in the dark. Nevertheless, it remains the prime historical source setting the lowest deadline for Israel’s sojourn in Canaan.
2. The Land of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age
The place-name Canaan is probably derived from a Hurrian word kinahhu (‘red purple’), a fancy Tyrian dye extracted from sea snails gathered along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. This hue was used to dye high-quality textiles that were widespread around the Near East and stood high on the scale of elite consumption.
During the New Kingdom, this land was internationally recognized as an Egyptian province which comprised all or most of its imperial holdings in Asia. This is confirmed by the following extracts from the Amarna letters (an archive of diplomatic correspondence between the rulers of Egypt, their Canaan vassals, and the leaders of foreign powers). The king of Alasiya (probably on Cyprus) refers to Pharaonic possessions in Asia as the ‘province of Canaan’. The Babylonian emperor complains to the Pharaoh about the crimes of his Canaanite subjects: ‘Canaan is your country and its kings are your servants’. The overlord of Mitanni appeals to ‘the kings of the land of Canaan, the servants of my [Egyptian] brother’.
Local kings had a number of obligations before the pharaoh. They were responsible for the maintenance of Egyptian interests: supplying imperial troops and officials, ensuring a safe passage of foreign caravans through their territory, paying the tribute.
Canaanite rulers were involved in international trade which led to the prosperity of the elite. Their palaces and temples as well as their graves are the silent witnesses of this affluence. In internal matters, they were given a free hand, and internecine strife and mutual snitching are among the most common features breathing from the Amarna Letters. In most cases the pharaoh seemed indifferent to the outcome of the feud unless he would come to the conclusion that these petty intrigues had an unwelcome impact on the strategic balance.
The Egyptian authorities couldn’t rely anymore on local elites and had to establish the direct control over vital parts of Canaan namely the coastal plain and the central valleys. They erected additional strongholds that housed governor’s residence, state offices, and troops. They expropriated plots of land to create estates. They made their local vassals send laborers to engage in construction sites, enterprises (granaries, winepresses) and working their lands. However, the empire could not use all its power being busy tackling other geopolitical troubles. The state’s impotence left some territories unattended and plunged certain areas of the country into a political void.
Egyptian intellectuals acquired a hostile and contemptuous attitude towards the population of Canaan notwithstanding their ethnic and social status. No matter whether Canaanites belonged to settled or movable people, were newcomers or old-timers, commoners or representatives of the elite, law-abiding citizens or outlaws. All of them were rudely nick-named ‘wretched Asiatics’.
3. The proud Pharaoh
Merneptah was the lucky son of his redoubtable, long-lived father. The 13th male offspring of Ramesses II, he was not destined to be declared a living god. During his youth days, he was leading a serene joyful life of an Egyptian prince while his elder brothers were passing away one at a time. Stars were unfavorable to the descendants of the renowned Egyptian monarch.
As Merneptah was growing up, he would step into his deceased brothers’ shoes occupying some of their vacant offices. He also pursued a military career having become an army general. In the last years of his father’s reign, he was appointed the crown prince and assisted the elderly king in carrying the reins of government.
In the middle of his ten-year-old reign, the pharaoh made up his mind to account for his deeds before the divine authorities. He ordered to erect a victory stele destined to decorate his mortuary temple and to fashion the facade of one of the walls at the Karnak temple with reliefs associated with his military campaigns.
A model of Mernepta’s magnificent palace (constructed by Mary L. Baker) is presented in the University of Pennsylvania Museum at Philadelphia. The throne room is divided by two rows of columns with a ramp near the interior wall leading to the place where the pharaoh was seated. The slits in the wall above the door look like blinds; while restricting the amount of sunlight, they allow the room to be fanned.
4. The Campaign to Canaan
The change of power in Egypt triggered several Canaanite vassals to put up a rash rebellion. Even some of Egyptian strongholds were violently destroyed. The Pharaoh’s response was swift and fierce. He probably moved his army along the Way of Horus and after an intensive march reached the city of Gaza. Soon he conquered Ashkelon, the nearest of the insurgent cities and a large seaport which owed its location to a gap in dunes covering a large part of the southern Levant shoreline.
The Karnak friezes assign the Pharaoh an active role in the campaign both in battles and in the aftermath. He is leading his troops towards a bloody collision giving commands from the height of his chariot; he is executing a rebel leader keeping a firm grip on his hair and inflicting a lightning blow with his sword; he is driving bound POWs into captivity and presenting them to triumphant Egyptian gods.
The king is accompanied by his two sons who are proudly riding in chariots on their way back home.
One of the rebel cities is identified as Ashkelon: The relief is accompanied by an inscription: ”The wretched town which his majesty seized when it was rebellious’. The two other unnamed cities should be Gezer and Yenoam.
5. Israel Who?
The last military scene portrays a pitch battle in a hilly countryside against enemies wearing Canaanite ankle-length clothes. By the analogy with the Victory Stele, these foes have to be recognized as Israelites.
Israel is a West Semitic theophoric name praising the supreme Canaanite god El. These people became known to Egyptians either through direct contact with captured POWs or via Canaanite mediation. This population group chose to settle down in the highlands as a sign of voluntary isolation and was raising field crops as part of their subsistence strategy. So it possessed considerable amount of grain. Having identified their weak point, the pharaoh commissioned his troops to burn their grain stock. He was sure that he had managed to wipe off these village folks who dared to join the ranks of his enemies.
6. Rural settlers in the highlands
Throughout the major part of the Late Bronze Age, the highlands of Canaan between the Jezreel and Beersheba valleys were an inhospitable place nearly devoid of population. Egyptian authorities took little interest in this middle of nowhere, and it shared the fate of the frontier zone: to be plunged into a political vacuum.
The new settlers spoke a number of Canaanite dialects out of which Hebrew of the Bible sprang up in due time. Most of them were illiterate; however occasionally we encounter a rare bird who wished to incise a jar handle with his name or give his kids a potsherd to practice writing their ABCs. This alphabet used the Proto-Canaanite script to record only consonant letters which could follow in either direction (left-right or reverse) and lacked a strict legitimate order. The configuration of writing signs was taken from rural background (“aleph” reminds an ox’s head) or body language (“kaf” represents a hand). Charcoal absorbed in animal fat served as ink.
An average village measured 0.5-1.5 ha and comprised up to 20 individual houses with a population spread between 50-150 residents. When kids grew up, some of them would abandon their families and move to new settlements nearby so that in less than two centuries, several hundred rural residences would spring up blanketing the environment from Upper Galilee to northern Negev.
These village folks expressed their religion both publicly and privately.
For public ceremonies they erected open-air shrines which were ‘high places’ approachable by ramps; these ‘high places’ were installed with an altar and encircled by a sacred wall. Large nearly square altars were made of hewn or undressed stones or a blend of stones and bricks. Some of them had four horns at their corners oriented to cardinal points. Used either for blood sacrifices or burnt offerings, they were located on uninhabited hilltops or halfway down the slopes within the walking distance of a cluster of settlements.
The Hebrew Bible is a complex composition; it is based on a variety of literary and oral sources (completely lost for us) being copied, rewritten and edited by a wide circle of anonymous scribes and intellectuals for many generations. This ‘editorial staff’ was inspired by a few cornerstone principles such as the monotheistic faith, the belief in the glorious national revival, the recognition of the Jerusalem Temple as the only place of the Divine Presence and Israel as the firstborn nation as well as the acknowledgement of a special mission retained with the kings from the House of David.
The “Merneptah Stele” sets the clock for the Israelite presence in Canaan. It assumes that by 1210 BCE the population group called Israel had been established long enough to be recognized as an ambiguous entity, more than a chiefdom but less than a state. It was an outcast social group of Canaanite farmers who fled to highlands in hope to survive turbulent times in frontier settlements.
They were in search of good arable land and suitable meadow land for feeding their flocks. Oak, pine and terebinth woodlands that covered the hilltops were ideal for herding. The climate favored the settlers: there was more rain and less political pressure than in the lowlands. Their economy was a successful blend of field crops, fruit orchards and farm animals.
The pharaoh was adamant in belief that these squatters had to be taught an unforgettable lesson.
Israel is an enigma. Its direct link with the biblical Bene Israel cannot be proved without a reasonable doubt but neither can be discarded as wishful thinking.