Main home page   Amazon UK Store Amazon COM Store  
Translations Languages Language issues Writing Chronology Patriarchs Exodus Judges Google+1 Site access Mobile apps Resources Site map

The Merenptah stela

The Merenptah stela

The Merenptah stela has been held up as contradicting the New Chronology by virtue of a description found on it. Among other things, it is the earliest reference to Israel as an entity outside the Bible. The stela itself is a commemorative hymn celebrating his victory over Libyan invaders in his 5th year (conventionally 1208 BCE, but around 880 BCE in the New Chronology), and also listing other defeated adversaries. It is sometimes thought to record the prior achievements of his ancestors as well, so reflecting dynastic achievements rather than personal. This would mean that it should be viewed in conjunction with the relief wall at Ashkelon, which presents in visual form the same conquests as the stela records in written form.

The reason it is thought to contradict the New Chronology is that it refers to Israel with a linguistic determinative meaning a people or ethnic group, whereas the other nations mentioned on the stela are marked with the determinative for a people with associated territory. Conventionally the stela would be located in the Judges era of Biblical history, in which the impression of being unsettled would be accurate, whereas the New Chronology places Merenptah in the early divided kingdom when the people were living in fortified cities and the description appears less suitable.

For example, the following analysis may be found in the Fall, 1999 issue of the magazine 'Bible and Spade' (Vol 12, No. 4, pp. 97-99):

Rohl's discussion of the Merneptah Stela (1995b: 164-70 [Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown, van Haariem, W.M.] ) evades one important detail which undermines his reconstruction and his chronology. The Merneptah Stela records a campaign into Canaan within the first four years of Merneptah's reign, ca. 1210 BC according to standard Egyptian chronology and ca. 867 BC by Rohl's revised chronology. In this record is the first extra-Biblical reference to the nation of Israel: "Israel is wasted its seed is not" (Hoffmeier 1997: 28 [Israel in Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press]).

The name Israel is written with the determinative for people, distinctive from the other names in the inscription that are written with the determinative for territory. This indicates that the Israelites were not a settled people at this time, but were pastoralists living in tents (Hoffmeier 1997: 29-30).

Standard chronology would place the stela in the middle of the Judges period. According to the Bible, as we pointed out above, the Israelites were living in tents at this time. Rohl's chronology, on the other hand, would date the text to the divided kingdom period when the Israelites were highly urbanized, many of them living in fortified cities.

The New Chronology response to this tackles two areas: first the direct question of whether the criticisms are as damaging as appears at first sight, and secondly whether the more conventional explanation in fact contains anachronistic elements which are difficult to reconcile. Taking the first of these, there are several elements which the above extract overlooks.

The fact that the stela uses a national name at all suggests that Israel had already achieved recognition outside its borders. Egyptian scribes routinely used a number of designations of a derogatory nature for desert wanderers or sand-dwellers, so the use of a national name is in itself affirmation that Israel had already done enough to come to Egypt's attention. Most people-groups that Egypt recognised by name also lived in a geographical region of the same name. So Hatti meant both the people (Hittites) or the region in which they lived, and similarly for other people. The regional name used by the Egyptians for where Israel now lived (in New Chronology terms) was the equivalent of our word Canaan, and it was unusual for the Egyptians to have to refer to a people by a name other than that of their dwelling place. Hence, the absence of the determinative usually associated with a settled land may not have the significance placed on it in the above extract. There may be parallels for this conceptual difficulty in the Assyrian use of phrases such as 'House of Omri' or House of Jeshu' rather than a national name. Other authorities, without subscribing to New Chronology views, have also questioned the interpretation of this determinative, for example Yurco and Hasel have suggested the possibility of a settled people without a recognised capital city, and Edelman has claimed that it can mean a people with or without land.

Considering the second point - possible anachronisms within the conventional interpretation - it should be noted that there are several alternative choices for the Exodus pharaoh. Hoffmeier, quoted above, took Merenptah himself as presiding at the Exodus, resulting in the reference being during the desert wanderings. This makes it somewhat implausible that the Israelites would have been accorded national status at all. Other possibilities for Exodus pharaohs lessen this difficulty, but any scheme which places the stela before the establishment of the United Monarchy must face this difficulty in some form. If the connection with the Ashkelon Wall reliefs is genuine, then the additional difficulty of the Israelites being depicted with chariots must be faced. The earliest indication of chariots being used in Israel - and the earliest period in which their use is likely - is the reign of Solomon. Only the New Chronology provides a good temporal match for this.

To summarise, this stela does not in fact furnish a chronological problem for the New Chronology. In fact, the revised historical location for it has a sound basis, and there are difficulties with the conventional location which are commonly overlooked.

Information on this page has been collated from a variety of sources, including an article by John Bimson in the magazine JACF 2, and correspondence from John Wall, Jon Smyth, and Bob Porter posted to the New Chronology Yahoo (EGroups) list in January 2001. The Merenptah stela image appears in the JACF 2 article mentioned above.