Also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah, it is the reverse of a large granite stele originally erected by the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah who ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BC. The black granite stela primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others. The stele was discovered in the first court of Merneptah’s mortuary temple at Thebes by Flinders Petrie in 1896. Petrie remarked “This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found” and is now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo; a fragmentary copy of the stele was also found at Karnak. It stands some ten feet tall, and its text is mainly a prose report with a poetic finish, mirroring other Egyptian New Kingdom stelae of the time. The stela is dated to Year 5, 3rd month of Shemu (summer), day 3 (c.1209/1208 BC), and begins with a laudatory recital of Merneptah’s achievements in battle.
The stele has gained much notoriety and fame for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning “Isrir” or “Israel”. It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the “Israel stele”. This title is somewhat misleading because the stele is clearly not concerned about Israel— in fact, it mentions Israel only in passing. There is only one line about Israel: “Israel is wasted, bare of seed” or “Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists” and very little about the region of Canaan. Israel is simply grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in the stele. Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns but multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah’s Canaanite campaign reads: Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.
Merneptah’s campaign: There is disagreement among anti-Bible thinkrs over whether or not Merneptah did actually campaign in Canaan and did not merely recount what was there, similar to later Assyrian documents which never contained the admission that Assyria had lost in battle. The argue that, as a stela by Merneptah’s predecessor Ramesses II about the Battle of Kadesh indicates firm control of the Levant, making it strange that Merneptah had to reconquer it -– unless Merneptah had faced a revolt in this region that he felt compelled to crush in order to exert’s Egypt’s authority over Canaan. In this case, Merneptah’s control over Canaan was precarious at best. However, disclaiming historical documents that support the Bible has become fashionable among radical scholars, and their biased opinions should not be taken seriously.
Mention of Israel: The stela does make clear that Israel, at this stage, refers to a people since a hieroglyphic determinative for “country” is absent regarding Israel. The next non-Biblical source about Israel, detailing a campaign against Moab by Omri, appears some 300 years later in the Mesha Stele. Regardless, the stele is an important source for Israelite history simply because it is the first official record in history of an “Israel”, even if this record does not explain much.
An explanation offered by Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University, is that Israel was already a well established political force in Canaan in the late 13th century BCE:
“Israel functioned as an agriculturally based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century BCE one that is significant enough to be included in the military campaign against political powers in Canaan. While the Merneptah stela does not give any indication of the actual social structure of the people of Israel, it does indicate that Israel was a significant socioethnic entity that needed to be reckoned with.”