Pharaoh Merenptah Meets Israel -- By: Bryant G. Wood

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 18:3 (Summer 2005)
Article: Pharaoh Merenptah Meets Israel
Author: Bryant G. Wood

Pharaoh Merenptah Meets Israel1

Bryant G. Wood

One of the most important discoveries in Biblical archaeology is that of the Merenptah,2 or “Israel,” Stela. It was discovered in 1896 by W. M. Flinders Petrie in the first court of the mortuary temple of Merenptah in western Thebes (Petrie 1897: 13). Now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the document contains a brief record of a campaign to Canaan by Merenptah in ca. 1210 BC, in which he claims to have defeated Israel. This is the only direct mention of Israel in Egyptian records, and the earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible.3 The next mention of Israel in an extra-Biblical document is that of Shalmaneser III, who recorded the participation of “Ahab the Israelite” in the battle of Qarqar, Syria, in 853 BC (Younger 2000: 263).4 Merenptah’s scribes wrote the text on the back of a black granite stela of Amenhotep III, which they appropriated from his nearby mortuary temple.

Aerial view of the mortuary temple of Merenptah, looking west. The temple was briefly excavated by W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1896 for the Egyptian Exploration Fund and then more extensively for 15 seasons by the Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research in Ancient Egypt between 1971 and 2000. It was recently opened to the public, complete with a small museum (Jaritz 2001), which can be seen in the lower right corner of the complex, behind the palm trees. The Merenptah Stela was found in the west corner of the First Courtyard between the First and Second Pylons.

Merenptah the Man

Merenptah, which means “beloved of Ptah,”5 was the 13th son of Rameses II, one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. His earliest known position was that of “king’s scribe.” Since Rameses lived to be 91 or so, he outlived many of his sons. When Merenptah’s older brother Khaemwaset died in about Rameses’ 55th year, Merenptah became heir apparent and commander-in-chief of the army. He basically took over the reign during his father’s final 12 years. Upon the death of Rameses II in 1212 BC, Merenptah became the fourth Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. He continued to live in Rameses, the capital his father had built at modern Qantir in the eastern delta, as well as at Memphis and possib...

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