This article was first published in the Summer 2004 issue of Bible and Spade.
The only mention of Israel in Egyptian texts, and the earliest mention of Israel anywhere outside the Bible, is a seven-foot tall granite monument from the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Merenptah. A hieroglyphic inscription celebrating the Pharaoh’s recent victory over Libya, it ends by referring to an earlier campaign in Canaan. A portion of the record states:
Israel is wasted, its seed is not; And Hurru (Canaan) is become a widow because of Egypt.
Called the Merneptah Stela (stela is Greek for an inscribed monument) and today kept in the Egyptian museum, it was discovered at Thebes by Flinders Petrie in 1896. Pharaoh Merenptah reigned from 1212 to 1202 BC and his campaign to Canaan took place around 1210 BC. As of today, we have no Egyptian record of Israel living in Egypt. But the Biblical description of the Ten Plagues, Exodus and Reed Sea crossing might suggest why. Egyptian monuments were to impress their gods or their enemies; and the story of the Israelites would do neither. Using the Bible’s own chronology, Merenptah’s reference dates to the book of Judges when Israel was settling in Canaan. Putting Israel in the right place at the right time makes this an important historical reference. But don’t forget that Merenptah’s declaration of Israel’s destruction was inaccurate; Israel continued to live in and control Canaan for the next 600 years!
For Further Study
Bryant G. Wood, Pharaoh Merenptah Meets Israel, Bible and Spade 18.3 : 65-82.
Michael Hasel, Merneptah's Reference to Israel: Critical Issues for the Origin of Israel in: Critical Issues in Early Israelite History. Edited by Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008, 47-60.
Kenneth A. Kitchen, The Physical Text of Merenptah’s Victory Hymn [The “Israel Stela”], The Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 24 : 71–76.