Israel’s first mention

Photo of Egyptian hieroglyphics by 2H Media on Unsplash
Photo of Egyptian hieroglyphics by 2H Media on Unsplash

There is, famously in archaeological circles, almost no physical confirmation of any early Bible story outside of the Hebrew Bible itself. Despite claims to the contrary, no one has ever located the remains of Noah’s ark or an incomplete tower of Babel.  Up to now, the earliest archaeological find mentioning any famous biblical name or story has been a tall plaque, or stele, memorializing the pharaoh Merneptah’s military victories in Canaan. Unearthed in the city of Thebes in 1896, the name of a people called “Israel” appears close to the bottom of the stele. Merneptah ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BCE. The next oldest mention dates to three hundred years later.

Now a closer look at a pair of inscribed granite fragments, probably from an Egyptian throne, may push back that mention to the 1550s BCE.

The fragments refer to conquests in Ashkelon, Canaan, and – possibly, although there is an unfortunate break in the stone right where the full name would be – Israel. It is unclear where the granite chunks came from; they were bought by a collector during the early 20th century, when provenance was not as meticulously documented and researched as it is today. If the third place-name is indeed Israel, as scholars seem to think is likely, this would predate the Merneptah Stele by centuries. It would mean that Israel was a known place during the reign of Rameses II, which would directly contradict the popular notion that he was the pharaoh of the Exodus.

Towards the end of the article, after an extremely detailed discussion of whether the fragment actually does spell out the word “Israel” (the biggest argument seems to be whether it’s possible that Egyptian scribes wrote a word that we would pronounce Ishrael indicating the same place we know today), the authors bring up a current theory that there was more than one Exodus of western Semites from Egypt. This is the theory I subscribe to in my novel, since it seems eminently reasonable to me. Semites who Egyptians called the Hyksos ruled in what archaeologists have identified as the Land of Goshen long before Rameses II – in fact, his grandfather kicked them out of Egypt and that might have been the original Exodus. But that doesn’t mean that other Semites from related tribes, including nomadic tribes originating in what we would now call Saudi Arabia (the “Land of Midian”) didn’t migrate to Egypt during times of economic hardship and then leave again a few generations later as a group. Egypt was enormous and cosmopolitan, and its influence on the Levant predominated for centuries. It’s less likely that there was only one Semitic Exodus than that there were several Exodi over the years, and that these stories cohered into a single narrative when told and retold.

Photo of a pharaoh statue by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

Anyway, as a native New Yorker, I love the idea of “writing what I know” in terms of an urban, polyglot, inequitable society even if it existed more than almost four thousand years ago. The fragments analyzed in this article also refer to Nubia in the same breath as Ashkelon and Canaan, which may have been separated by a civilizational border at that time. This says to me that, like Harlem, Chinatown and Washington Heights, different cultures probably stuck together in their own neighborhoods and mixed only in certain contexts, e.g., on the job (which at the time was probably working for subsistence on orders of Pharaoh, which we would understand as a form of slavery). This gives me a world to create that, even though it is based on peer-reviewed archaeological analysis, is not that different from the one I grew up in.

Hieroglyphics, by the way, were not the only form of writing in the ancient world. In fact, they weren’t even the only form of writing in ancient Egypt. There was also an alphabetic script, called “Demotic” by scholars. (The word is capitalized when referring to ancient Egyptian script, because there is also a Greek script called “demotic.”) But the very oldest form of writing ever discovered seems to have originated in the Sinai desert. It is called “cuneiform,” and here is a 1-minute video of a Ph.D. student demonstrating how a scribe would have formed a round clay tablet and then written on it. Since one of the main characters in my book is a scribe, I was curious about how cuneiform tablets were made, and I happened upon the video while looking for information about how scribes practiced their craft. But my protagonist probably wouldn’t have written this way, since he was educated in Egypt where cuneiform was not in common use.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Israel’s first mention”

  1. The question of where the Patriarch Joseph came from when he went down unto Egypt (the consensus seems to be present-day Harran, in Turkey) might have some bearing on whether Ramses II is the Pharoah mentioned in the Exodus. If Joseph came from a place with the name Israel, then it would have been possible for the name to have appeared before the reign of Ramses and his reign still to have been at the time of the Exodus. Perhaps the subject of another article.

    1. There are some (mostly religious Christians, from what I can tell) who believe that the Egyptian viceroy Imhotep actually WAS Joseph, or at least was the original figure behind the story of Joseph’s dreams saving Egypt from seven years of famine and then becoming a trusted and powerful vizier. Imhotep lived a thousand years or so before Ramses, so he almost definitely wouldn’t have come from a place called Israel.

      There’s also another difference between the Merneptah stele and the granite fragments that I didn’t mention above, because it’s not really addressed in the article I’m summarizing here: The stele refers to Israel as the name of a people, not a place (this has to do with how ancient Egyptian inflected certain nouns), whereas the throne fragments seem to be referring to a place-name. Again, I didn’t want to point this out in my main piece because I don’t speak or read ancient Egyptian (!) and I’m just deducing all of this from how the real scholars are discussing the subject amongst themselves, but it certainly does lead to fascinating possibilities.

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