The Merneptah Stela, now in the Cairo Museum, is probably the most analyzed ancient textoutside of the Bible. Undoubtedly, the most important mention of Israel outside the Bible is that in the Merneptah, or "Israel," Stela. Discovered in 1896 in Merneptah's mortuary temple in Thebes by Flinders Petrie,the stela is a poetic eulogy to pharaoh Merneptah, who ruled Egypt after Rameses the Great, ca.1212-1202 BC.
Of significance to Biblical studies is a short section at the end of the poemdescribing a campaign to Canaan by Merneptah in the first few years of his reign, ca. 1210BC. One line mentions Israel: "Israel is laid waste, its seed is not."
Here we have theearliest mention of Israel outside the Bible and the only mention of Israel in Egyptianrecords.
Since the date of the reference to Israel in the Merneptah Stela is during the time of the judges, prior to the establishment of the monarchy, it is of crucial importance to understanding Israel'sformative period. For example, a popular theory among Biblical scholars today is that Israelemerged from peoples indigenous to Canaan in the mid 12th century BC. If this is true, thenBiblical history and chronology prior to ca. 1150 BC would have to be jettisoned.Proponents of the "12th century emergence theory" maintain that the Israelites did not come intoCanaan from outside to conquer the land around 1400 BC, as the Bible indicates. The emergencescenario would also reject the historicity of the Wilderness Wanderings, Exodus, EgyptianSojourn and the Patriarchal narratives. However, if Israel were an established entity in Canaanalready in 1210 BC, as the Merneptah Stela implies, then the 12th century emergence theorywould be refuted (Bimson 1991). If Israel was well established by the end of the 13th century, itcould not have come into being in the middle of the next century.As a result, the Merneptah Stela has been meticulously scrutinized and analyzed by scholars, perhaps more so than any text outside the Bible. They are out to determine what it "really" says,not that they would want to force any preconceived notions on the text! Michael G. Hasel, adoctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, has recently reviewed the various interpretationsconcerning the reference to Israel in the stela. Furthermore, he has done an in-depth linguisticstudy to determine as far as possible the intended meaning of text.The discussion of the significance of Israel in the Merneptah stela revolves around the meaningof two words: "Israel" and "seed." A number of possibilities have been suggested, as summarized by Hasel. Scholars have implied that the name Israel could be interpreted as Iezreel or Jezreal,the valley to the north of the country. Another idea is that the name has a descriptive meaning("the wearers of the side lock") and applies to the Libyans. Or, in the time of Merneptah, thename Israel was a geographic term referring to a territory corresponding to Canaan. Haseldiscusses the problems associated with each of these interpretations and concludes,Israel, identified by the determinative for people, is a socioethnic unity powerful enough to bementioned along with major city-states that were also neutralized (1994: 51).Turning to the meaning of the Egyptian word prt, "seed," there are only two possibilities, "grain"or "offspring." Based on the use of prt in other Egyptian texts, Hasel deduces that it refers tograin. Thus, the phrase "its seed is not" indicates that Israel's food supply was no longer inexistence. Hasel observes,We may perceive Israel within the context and information of the Merneptah stela to be a ruralsedentary group of agriculturalists without its own urban city-state support system (1994:54).